How Far Do We Take the Idea of Childlike Faith?

Childlike faith is a concept that is tossed around in Christianity and comes from Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:3-5. In that passage Jesus says this, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Now often I’ve heard the idea of childlike faith explained as having a dependance upon God like children are dependent upon their parents. This explanation could be a little too simple, but I think it is a fairly good starting point. I mean now that I’m a father, I’ve had a taste of the dependance that my kids have. We have to provide so much for them, and in our faith the same is true of God.

This also fits with the context of what Jesus is talking about. Jesus was asked by his disciples who the greatest in the kingdom of heaven was. Jesus answered with children, which would have been a surprising answer. It wasn’t a person of importance, talent, or wisdom, children were the greatest. The ones who couldn’t escape their dependence and maybe even took joy in their dependence on their parents.

There are other aspects that people mention when talking about childlike faith. It is about having an awe for the world we live in. It is about naturally having trust and things of that nature. I’m not so sure I buy it, because kids are a lot more complicated than we like to imagine.

They can live in awe of what is around them, but they can also ignore things around them because they’re busy throwing a fit. They can naturally trust and say hello to complete strangers, or they can cower, run away, and scream any time they run into someone new. They can listen and follow instructions well, but they can also completely ignore you and look you in the eye while defying what you just said. They can prove to be a source of wisdom with their limited knowledge, but they can also try to authoritatively talk about things they have little knowledge about.

My point with all that is that kids are complicated and it is all too easy to derive too much out of this passage and what it means for us. We can take insights from it and I think the idea of dependance is a pretty solid concept to build off of, but it is hard to build concrete ideas out of the concept of childlike faith. Perhaps part of it is just realizing that the list above isn’t just a description of kids, it is a pretty accurate description of what I’m able to do as well.

I remember getting into a bit of a debate about what kind of media we should consume as Christians, and the person I was debating basically came to the conclusion that we shouldn’t do anything that we wouldn’t want kids doing. Now I assume given the context that his focus was we shouldn’t watch/listen/play/read what we wouldn’t want our kids to watch/listen/play/read, but I think that this concept is taking the idea of childlike faith too far.

This understanding of our faith in relationship to the faith of a child seems a bit too far. Parts of the Bible aren’t very family friendly and have parts that I wouldn’t necessarily want my kids to focus in on, would that mean that as an adult I still shouldn’t read those parts of the Bible? There are history books that involve the rather heinous acts that we as humans have done to each other that I wouldn’t want to expose my four year old to yet, but does that mean that I wouldn’t be able to read it? That it would be immoral?

Now I understand my arguments have been geared towards books that would be viewed as educational or enriching. What about media that is more for entertainment. Even this is a difficult place to draw firm lines. There is quite a significant amount of movies, books, and even video games that are presenting themes and stories that can be edifying, but placed within a messy world. A world that may or may not be every moral. Are these things I would want my kids involved with now? No, but later? Quite possibly.

This really breaks down if you exit the arena of what kind of media we consume. As adults we work, drive cars, have sex, and do many other things that we wouldn’t want our kids to be doing. If the belief is we can’t do anything that we wouldn’t want our kids doing is valid, then these would all be improper no matter the circumstances. This just doesn’t seem to be a tenable way of going about life.

So while presenting the idea of childlike faith as involving dependance upon God as a father, and other potential aspects that go along with being a child, we can easily take it a bit too far. If we turn childlike faith into something to achieve or some kind of list to adhere to then I think we have fundamentally missed what Jesus is getting at here.

It is not a call for another list of what we’re to embrace or avoid. It is a call to see ourselves as children. To place ourselves in dependence to God, and maybe in the process realizing that while we’re capable of childlike obedience and wonder, we’re just as capable of throwing tantrums and open defiance.

Obedience to God is Not the Greatest Good

It is so easy to sort through the Christian faith and only find morality isn’t it? We focus on things like the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and other parts of the Bible and make lists and lists of rules. Some of which are directly connected to the Bible and others that are of a more supplemental nature.

I remember being a young Christian trying to sort through all of the rules. I had run into many rules that some Christians called being obedient to God, that I didn’t understand the foundation of. Where did God forbid dancing, alcohol, gambling, and Harry Potter? While I understood some of the reasons behind such ideas, it was one thing to give a reasoned account of why something could be dangerous and another to say that God absolutely forbids it and would be angry with us for doing it. In this kind of framework obedience to God is the most important thing.

I’ve been thinking about the idea that obedience to God is the greatest hallmark of our faith, and I’m not sure I believe it. This thought process started mainly because of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. A lot of people praise Abraham for obeying God, even for such a difficult request. At times though this looks to others like blind obedience that isn’t nearly as appealing. In fact, some people who praise Abraham are also looking for blind obedience to the words they speak, because they claim they are also directly from God.

While I would not want to jettison obedience from the Christian faith, I wonder if the emphasis should be placed somewhere else. Did Abraham obey out of blind submission to God or was there something more going on here? I would say that ultimately Abraham’s ability to obey was more connected to his knowledge of God and a trust, faith, respect, and even love for God. It is this trust, respect, and love for God that is our ultimate calling in my opinion.

Obedience to someone doesn’t mean that we trust them, respect them, or love them. We can obey bosses that we don’t respect, because we want to keep our job. Sometimes we obeyed our parents not out of love or respect, but because we wanted them to leave us alone. For those who now have kids I’m sure that we can see times when our own kids do the same.

It is not hard to obey God out of that same motivation. We can easily come to view God as the one servant in the parable of the talents did in Matthew 25:14-30. God becomes “a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,” and causes us to “become afraid” and we do little so we don’t get him angry.

Being obedient can also be used to get our way on things. This reminded me of Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God where he talks about obedience as a way to have God owe us. “You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have ‘rights.’ God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own Savior. ”

Again here we have an obedience that isn’t out of a trust, respect, or love for God. In this case it isn’t out of a fear of God, but rather trying to earn good things through our obedience. We obey out of a desire to get a reward and think that more obedience will equal more rewards.

It is this train of thought that leads me to conclude that obedience is not the end we are seeking to achieve as Christians. Obedience will be part of the Christian life, but if it becomes the end it can be done to avoid punishment or get reward. This kind of obedience can be disconnected from trust, respect, or love. As Jesus says in Matthew 22:37-40, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus views love of God as the great and first commandment, not obedience. Again, I do think that the love of God will lead us to concrete ways of expressing that love. This will probably even look a lot like obedience. However, obedience is not the final destination. The destination is love of God. It is being able to love, trust, and respect God. This is greater than both our obedience and our sins.

Life, Death, and Humans Killing Each Other

Have you ever had times where you’ve been mulling over a passage of Scripture. Thinking about it and wondering how it fits into everything else, and then you run into things that fall into line with it? Maybe it’s reading a book, being involved with a conversation, reading a blog, or some other avenue.Things just unintentionally start going towards a certain topic and you find yourself dwelling on related topics.

This has happened with me this week. I’ve been thinking about what I was going to focus on next in the book of Genesis.Through the past week I’ve been dwelling onĀ  Genesis 9:1-7. This passage drew me in with the contrast between life and death that goes on in this short little passage.

We see life being talked about on both ends of this section. This is found in the ideas of Noah and his sons reproducing and filling the earth and is found in both verse 1 and 7. The idea is pretty straight forward, have children and grow the human race again.

In between these verses the focus takes a darker turn. It focuses on death. First, it focuses on how God is now giving animals as food to man. This seems a bit of an odd allowance here at this point. However, one thing is out of bounds, that the lifeblood of the animal is not eaten.

It is this talk of lifeblood that seems to serve as a transition to a more difficult section to wrestle with. That is the idea that taking the lifeblood, in other words the killing, of a person requires an accounting from any man or animal who has done the killing. It ends with this rather haunting little verse, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”

Now going solely by this passage, it would seem that we are to repay murder and the intentional killing of a person with death. This is centered around the idea that mankind is made in God’s image and to kill someone made in God’s imagine is to be taken seriously. Enter a related blog that I’ve read recently. It was a guest post over at Internet Monk by Marci Alborgehetti called Sanctity of Life and the Death Penalty. While I’ll admit I didn’t really enjoy the tone of it overall, it gave me more to think about regarding this passage, but this article comes to a very different conclusion than what is in Genesis 9.

Now there are many Christians who do not support the death penalty, and to be honest I think that the death penalty has issues. The problem is that we can turn this question and our answer of it into a mark of true Christianity. I don’t really see how this helps, and it often makes the arguments for an against seem very shallow in my opinion.

Often the argument against the death penalty, and the above article makes this appeal, is that Jesus has rejected the death penalty due to the words recorded in Matthew 5:38-39 with a dash of verse 44. These verses say “You have heard that it is said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Verse 44 concludes with “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” See the part where Jesus rejects the death penalty here? To be honest the most definitive answer I can come up with is a maybe.

I mean we don’t have murder or killing really at the focus of Jesus’ words. You can get that out of the passage, but I don’t think you have to. There are three references to the idea of “eye for an eye and tooth for tooth” in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24, 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21) and all of them include the idea of “life for life” nearby as well. The omission of those words here can be interpreted as not including that facet or as Jesus subtly indicating that “life for life” is included as well. Thus this passage like so many aspects of the Bible is in how you interpret it.

Not to mention that we’re assuming that Jesus is focusing on both personal and civil government’s responses to an issue like murder. This aspect further muddies the waters and leaves us with thinking that maybe Jesus was against the death penalty, or that maybe he wasn’t even really thinking about that when he said these words. Ultimately, I’d be wary of anyone using this to definitively mark this issue as concluded and turning on other Christians to wonder why they weren’t unified on this issue.

So if we’re looking for the total victory verse for this battle either way, I’m afraid I don’t see Matthew 5:38-39 as it. Now does this mean I think you have to support the death penalty? No, I think you can approach an issue like this in a couple ways without the Matthew 5 support.

We can talk about the grace and mercy that God extends and how we may want to extend that to those who have taken the life of another. This works, but I’ve also seen and heard people talk about life imprisonment as more of a punishment than execution… so I’m not sure grace and altruism is always at the heart of the matter here. However, I do think that extending grace to those who commit these crimes is a possibility, but I also view that grace as something to be extended by the family of victims, not the culture at large. It doesn’t cost us much grace to keep a murder incarcerated where it may cost much more for the family of victims.

There are also others who claim that the death penalty is often used unjustly and that is a cause for concern. I think this holds a decent amount of weight, but does a lack of justice mean dissolution is necessary or that steps to ensure proper use are needed? I ask this not to support the death penalty, but more in acknowledgement that our whole justice system could be viewed as unjust in economic and racial ways. Do we do away with the whole system or try to take steps to eliminate unjust practices?

So I wonder what do we end with? Is the call for death to anyone who ends the life of another human something that has expired with the coming of Jesus? I honestly don’t know. I do think that life is sacred because we are made in the image of God. The rub, for me, comes when I ask if considering life sacred is only about extending life and not taking lives, even of those who have displayed no regard for the sacredness of life themselves. I want to say that it is more than that, but struggle to say exactly why.

I don’t know if I have problems with a death penalty that is enacted in a just manner, even understanding that our ability to be perfectly just is impossible. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I have this burning passion to endorse and require a death penalty either. So I find myself unsure. I can’t really muster up the passion to call the death penalty inhumane or a necessity. All I know is that human life is sacred, so I’ll try my best to live like it is. Maybe that will just have to be enough for now.

Not Quite a Pacifist

Pacifism became a bit of a hot topic a few weeks ago when Mark Driscoll equated pacifists to pansies. Of course, when anyone, particularly someone relatively famous, resorts to such overblown and derogatory language the internet becomes abuzz with anger and responses. It led to some interesting blog posts on pacifism soon after, both from pacifists and those who aren’t.

It’s not that I can’t appreciate the pacifist position. I’ve never been big on violent resistance, unless you considered fights with my brothers. I didn’t get into fights growing up. I rarely even argued with people too much. I wasn’t considered too aggressive and I was probably considered weak. For that matter I considered myself weak. I’ve gone through most of my life with very little, if any, violent opposition to the world around me.

Going larger than just my own actions, I enjoy peace. I believe that the world would be better if we all experienced peace. I don’t think that violence and war is really part of how this world was supposed to be. However, while I say that, I also realize that there are those who are very happy to break peace, to fight and conquer for their ideals or for a position of power. There is a real tension here that we can’t deny and one that I don’t think most pacifists or non-pacifists would deny. However, it is also the existence of this tension that causes me to wonder if pacifism is the position we must have in following God.

Before I start to explain why these tensions do not lead me to pacifism, I want to make clear that I’m just being honest to where I’m wrestling with. As I said I do have an appreciation for the pacifist position and realize that pacifism was largely the position of the early church after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

You may disagree or have good points to make regarding the areas I struggle with. Feel free to leave them in the comments, I’d love to hear from you and get a wider viewpoint. Anyhow, here are the areas and issues that I wrestle with in regards to pacifism. Some of the issues may not be directly related to pacifism for some people, but I tend to think they’re all related.

War

Let’s get the big one out of the way first, war. Now, war is a complicated matter. Do I like war? No. Am I some warhawk that is always wanting to bomb another country off the face of the earth? No. I don’t like war and I don’t believe in starting wars for the expansion of empire and just because we don’t like a particular country or ruler. However, what happens when another country does just that?

Let’s take a look at an overused war to make this point, and that war would be World War II. Germany decides to invade Poland in 1939. This started one of the largest wars in the history of the world. Would it have been better to hold to pacifism in this case, and let Nazi Germany conquer whatever they want no matter how many people they decided to kill anyways? There was little indication that Germany would have just stopped if everyone around them made peace. After all they invaded countries that remained neutral, Germany even broke a non-aggression treaty with the USSR during the war to invade their country. What do we do in cases like this?

I guess I wonder that because war affects so many more people than just those who are fighting in the military. To those who have had their countries invaded by hostile forces for little to no reason just because you weren’t in the military doesn’t guarantee safety. World War II was an example of this too, it gave us the Holocaust, Japanese led deaths of Chinese which resulted in the death of 3-10 million civilians, and even the American led nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I guess I’m not always so certain that peaceful resistance in a setting like that would be enough. It such situations fighting for peace may be the best path, despite the potential paradox of that idea.

Now how this all plays out today, I wish I knew. I don’t always think that we get into some conflicts for the right reasons, but I’m not always even sure I know all the reasons in the first place. I don’t think war is ideal and don’t think that we always have to go in guns blazing for every circumstance. However, I’m also reluctant to say that war is never the answer either. I guess you could say that I think peace is the best state of the world, but what we should do becomes unclear to me when others start war, are unwilling to negotiate, and cause innocents either their own people or an occupied people harm.

Police

I’ve come to view police officers as soldiers in the war of law and order. Maybe that’s a bit of an odd way of putting it, but in some parts of the country they are literally walking into a war zone every day. When I think of pacifism and police officers I think this thought, “If I accept pacifism am I then forced to say I must reject any and all forms of violence by these men and women when they seek to uphold the law and protect the innocent?” That to me is something I find very hard to do.

I know we can point to all kinds of incidents where police use force in situations that they shouldn’t have. Those are horrible incidents. The ones that happen because of accidents and/or a lack of communication are tragic. The ones that happen because of potential prejudice and racism are sickening. Does that mean that police shouldn’t protect themselves or those who may be victims of crime? That when criminals who may very well use deadly force on the police, am I then to say there is no room for them to use force? How then can we expect them to effectively keep the law upheld if they are unable to use violent resistance at all?

I have trouble thinking that one can effectively stop crime without some violence. Especially those who are committing violent crime. It seems to me that while again peaceful resolution may be best, there may be times to use force, even deadly force to reduce the danger in some cases.

Self-Defense

The last area where I struggle is in the area of self-defense, or to better frame it defense of others. If I saw someone, my family or another person being attacked would I try to defend them using force? The truth of the matter is I have no clue. I certainly would like to think I would help someone in need in a situation like that, but one never really knows unless you’re in that kind of situation. However, I don’t think that it is inherently wrong to use violence to protect others and even ourselves in some cases.

If someone uses violence to protect themselves, their family, or someone being attacked, is that really wrong? Of course as with all of the instances I’ve talked about it would be nice if it never had to happen, but I can’t say with confidence that it’s a good thing to let someone be attacked or even killed because I’m opposed to the use of force.

At this point in the conversation, some Christians may be asking well what about Jesus? He was put to death and actively waved off those who would jump to his defense. Well my simple answer is this, Jesus was doing something special here. I’d even put it that his death was for a purpose. He was accomplishing something with his death that was more important than him just staying alive. So I’m not sure we can too easily use Jesus’ death on the cross to argue against self-defense.

What about the martyrs? Now this one is a trickier question, but I think a bit more relevant. My current thoughts are this. Dying the death of a martyr is a lot different in my mind than dying because someone broke into my house and attacked me and my family and I did nothing to prevent it (assuming I could). If I’m being persecuted and am set to die because I’m not renouncing my faith that’s one thing. It’s another thing that I chose pacifism when my family or another person may be in danger for uncertain reasons. I just can’t quite buy into the idea that it would be always wrong to defend yourself or those around you.

Tying it All Together

I’m hoping that you’ve maybe noticed a theme woven in and out of my issues here. It is the issue of what happens to the innocent and the defenseless when people do not fight back. What happens when an enemy country invades and kills civilians and nobody stands to fight against it? What happens when those who break the law are able to do so with no force willing to use violence against them? What happens when others are in danger of being attacked or killed and nobody is willing to step in to help defend them?

All three of the areas I’ve hit on can be misused. Wars can be used for expanding the empire and holding up their ideals at the expense of human lives. Police can use violence in unacceptable ways that hurt the very people they are supposed to be protecting. The idea of self-defense can become so extreme that we believe we should meet any stranger on our property with a loaded gun. However, to me it would be a grave disservice to view them all as fully negative and throw them away.

There is a quote out there that comes to mind when I think of my tension with pacifism. That quote is, “Evil will prevail when good men do nothing.” My worry in taking a thoroughly pacifist approach to life is that it could allow evil to prevail and innocents to suffer. Are there no causes worth fighting for? Is force never a worthy option?

With all this said I still believe that Christians are called to be peacemakers. After all Matthew 5:9 says “Blessed are the peacemakers” and Matthew 5:38-48 also talks about not always retaliating for personal grievances and about loving and praying for our enemies. Now to me this reads more like when people attack you and openly antagonize or persecute you don’t just simply hate them and do the same thing to them, you love them. Now this becomes more complicated for me when others are being attacked and threatened. What do you do? Is it more loving to not resist the attacker and let them attack the victim or to stand up and fight even violently for the victim? This is where I really struggle on a personal, legal (as in use of police force), and national level.

So there are my wavering thoughts about pacifism. Maybe in all that I’ve totally missed what pacifism is (that is certainly possible). However, I’m just giving my thoughts from where I am currently in both what pacifism is in my mind and where I have troubles with it. I’m interested to know what you think though. Are you committed to pacifism or not? Do you struggle with any of the things I’ve brought up or think I’m totally off base? I’d love to hear your thoughts and own struggles with pacifism and violence.

The Battle Against Death, Part 3 – The True Winner

Here we are at the third part of my reflections on our battle against death. The first part focused on how death is something we can’t avoid. This is a view that we can come to with no reliance on a source like the Bible. However, it is also something that the Bible reiterates and reinforces. In the second part of this reflection, the focus was on how the Bible views death not just as a biological thing, but as something that goes deeper than that. Death is also in reference to how we focus our lives. This focus is centered around believing and following God, which includes being able to show love to the people we interact with as well. If you want to read them fully, then here is the first part and second part.

If you read the second part it would seem that I ended it with the idea that in order to have this second kind of “spiritual” life we would have to believe and follow God perfectly. Not only obeying what He has instructed, but also showing grace, forgiveness, and love to those around us. There is no way that we can achieve this life on our own. We have trouble enough living up to our own expectations of ourselves. Then if we throw how we treat other people and how we view God into the pot, well the end result is simply not within reach.

This setup leads us to the last observation, at least that I noticed, about death from the Bible. That observation is that God is the only one to have complete victory over death. Now I know that this seems like one of those cop out answers. The answer is God and let’s just move on. We can use God as the answer to everything, but when we do that it can seem like it’s an answer without a lot of thought behind it. I think this usage results in a problem that is tackled in a post on the blog Mere Orthodoxy that talked about how we often try to use Jesus and God, as the answer for so many different problems, but that at its core Jesus came to solve the problem of death. It was an interesting read for me and fit into this theme of death that I’ve been wrestling with for the past few weeks.

If Jesus and God are the answer to death, that should then be a consistent theme of Scripture for both types of death that I have presented, right? I do happen to believe that this is the case, but I also believe that it can still be a difficult sell to some people on both types of death. I’ll explain what I mean by that for each type of death.

So let us start with the idea of physical death. I think it is pretty easy to see that we can’t beat physical death. As I’ve said we have medical technology and we can do pretty amazing things with it. Even with all that though, we have yet to prolong life a little beyond the age of 100. Maybe with more time we’ll extend it beyond that, but even then it is only an extension of time until finally dying.

So if God is to be the solution for physical death than there should be some evidence of this in the Bible right? Well I think we have a number of examples where this is the case. If we are to look at the Psalms, it is interesting to note that there are a number of Psalms that call for God to deliver them from death. It is not something that the author is seeking to achieve, or even presented as being able to achieve. They are calling on God to be able to do it. This isn’t the most solid of evidence, but it isn’t alone.

Another example can be found in Isaiah 25. It is talking about what God will accomplish, and in verse 8 it talks about how “He will swallow up death forever.” This sentiment is also found in Revelation 21:4 where it says that, “There will be no more death…” Similar sentiments are found in 2 Timothy 1:9-11 and Revelation 20:14. However, again we see that these are mostly conceptual in nature. Are there other more active examples of God fighting against death.

How about the seven times that individual people are recorded as being raised from the dead. There are three examples of this in the Old Testament. Most of these are centered around the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah raises a widow’s son in 1 Kings 17:19-24, Elisha raises a Shunammite’s son in 2 Kings 4:23-25, and strangely enough Elisha’s bones resurrect a man who is accidentally buried in his tomb in 2 Kings 13:21.

Then there are four accounts of people raising from the dead in the New Testament. Two of these are by Jesus, the ruler’s daughter in Matthew 9:23-26 and Lazarus in John 11:43-44. The other two are by Peter in Acts 9:36-43 and Paul in Acts 20:9-10. Of course this isn’t including the resurrection of Jesus Christ which is in a different league, since it isn’t someone raising Jesus, but Jesus in essence raising Himself. Which is another powerful example of God’s power over death.

These examples are also only dealing with actual death, but there are a number of examples of Jesus healing the sick, blind, and crippled which would also be well within the range of battling physical death. So all in all it seems like there is a fair amount to base the idea that God is in a battle against physical death. However, I mentioned that this wouldn’t be an easy sell for everyone. What did I mean? Well simply put I think there are at least two hurdles to get over with this answer.

The first seems obvious to me. This is the fact that death is still a present reality. I think it is very easy for us to say that if God is really battling against death, if He really has victory over death through Jesus, then why are we still experiencing death? I understand that theologically there are explanations for this, but in the times where we have lost a loved one, are in the process of losing a loved one, or simply have to see a loved one ill or wounded, these theological reasons often can feel empty. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it is. I think this is the reason why people don’t talk about God’s victory over death in these terms too often, but rather focus on the ideas of eternal life after death which are the results of God’s victory over death, but doesn’t entirely account for the lingering presence of death.

The second hard sell is the fact that God is often looked at as a cause of death in some places in the Bible. The place scrutinized most for this tends to be the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. These are wars fought by Israel at God’s command. Even worse it calls for the elimination of certain groups of people, including women and children. I’m not wanting to give easy answers on this topic, because I don’t think they really exist. However, I think a lot of our rub comes from the cultural ideas of Freedom of Religion that to be honest are not really present in the Bible. If my observations are true within these posts and physical death and “spiritual” death are both ultimately parts of a larger meaning of death then that could be part the reasoning behind these events. I could go on about this, but I don’t feel that here is the best place to go further.

Since I brought up the idea of “spiritual” death in the last paragraph, I think it is time we turn to examples of how the Bible deals with battling against this type of death. Honestly, this is pretty easy. The instruction found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are essentially the foundations on how to battle “spiritual” death. I know we get bogged down in all the ceremonial requirements and rituals, but they are Israel’s way to make God be the center of their lives. However, there is also a lot of instruction on how to treat other people in very practical ways as well in these books. These books really set the stage for the entire Old Testament, but is also foundational to Jesus’ own teaching. This is seen in the fact that the two greatest commandments that Jesus gives are quotes from the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Jesus mainly highlighted a fact that had been there probably the whole time, but people either missed it in their own self-righteousness or in the jettisoning of God’s instruction in the first place. That we aren’t able to have “spiritual” life by our own effort. This is the reason there was the invovled sacrificial system in the Old Testament, and the reason for Jesus’ sacrifice in the New. We can’t live up to the necessarily requirements for “spiritual” life in the first place. This is why you get statements like that in Romans 6:23 “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our sin, our failure to achieve “spiritual” life and vitality on our own, is death. We can only have life in Jesus.

So why could this be a hard sell? Again I have two thoughts. The first is that the instruction of the Bible doesn’t always line up with our own ideas of “spiritual” life. Whether it be the Biblical ideas of forgiveness, loving ones enemies, or simply views on sexuality we can take the instruction of God as being harmful. We fail to see how following God’s way is really the way towards “spiritual” life and therefore reject the idea of needing God’s forgiveness.When we don’t agree with what is healthy and harmful to our lives then it makes it difficult to really accept the need for Christ as the solution to this kind of death.

The other thought is simply this, have you ever met a perfect person? Have you met someone who puts God and others so highly that it shines in everything they do? If you have I’d love to meet them. I know there are good people who follow God that I respect and admire, but the truth is not one of them are perfect. I think I’ve met a few who give off the aura of thinking they’re perfect, but they’re often much less perfect than the ones who admit they aren’t.

What’s the problem with this you might ask? Well again we have a rub. We’re saying that Jesus has victory over sin and can give spiritual life, but we still all struggle with sin. I do, you do, your pastor does, everyone. So like with physical death, we have this tension. Death both physical and spiritual is supposed to be defeated by Jesus, yet we still have to deal with heart attacks and heart break, disease and deception. It is a lot tougher than just saying Jesus is the answer and moving along our merry way.

Am I saying that Jesus isn’t the answer to the problem of death, the problem that is both biological and spiritual? No, but what I’m saying is that as Christians who know that He is the answer we can also understand that sometimes we don’t always get a lot of solace when people give us empty words, no matter how true they are.

I believe that Jesus, that God, is the answer to death. What is interesting though, is when Jesus came down to earth, he didn’t say that all too often. He did at times, mostly to his disciples, but he often times showed that he was the answer to death. He healed people, he accepted people who were marginalized, he forgave and he called people to repentance be they religious or non-religious.

It is because of who Jesus is and what he did that I want to be able to do these things too. I don’t just want to hand out pat answers like they were candy. I want them to have substance. I may not have performed any physical healings, but I want my actions to be healing to people. I may not be perfect in word or deed, but I do believe that as I follow God I can become part of the battle against death. Not just in the ability to prolong biological life, but also in the ability to point people to the source of life that is not as easy to see on the surface of things. On the surface it seems that we will always lose, we will all die we will never be perfect. No matter how dreary this is, how hopeless it all seems, I believe that there is a true winner who will defeat death. That true winner is God.

Direct Communication

How do you keep score in your church? What do you look at when you determine if you are successful? These were questions that we were asking ourselves as leaders of the church a few weeks ago. The common answers are often the number of people in a service, amount of money coming in, and/or the number of programs that are operating. We were trying to move away from such answers, because we all knew that those things do not always mean you have a healthy church. One of the values we wanted to have be a measure of our success was direct communication.

What do I mean by direct communication? It is quite simple in theory. It involves two basic things, directness and communication, quite profound eh? Let’s break it down a little more. First, it means being direct. It means going to the person you have problems with. In Matthew 18:15 Jesus calls us to go and talk to the brother who has sinned against us. Just us and the person who sinned against us, nobody else at first. That means no telling ten other people to gain support for your side or even harboring some sort of grudge without ever actually dealing with the issues.

Of course the need for this directness is beyond just when things go wrong. Are you able be direct and earnest in talking about your life, likes, and dislikes with people or are you constantly hiding and on the defensive around people. Not to say we have to be so open that people around us know everything there is to know about us. However, we do need to ask if we are hiding behind a facade or are we being who we are?

Let’s move to the communication part. Communication requires two things; talking and listening. It also requires at least two people. This is where things get really difficult, because you can only control the way you act and approach communication. You may be willing to talk and listen to those around you in a direct fashion, but that does not always mean that the person you’re communicating with will.

Why is this so important? Whether it is because we live in an age of mass media or just because of our massive egos, it seems that our definition of communication is only to talk. Even worse it is usually only talk to those who agree with us and call those who don’t names and/or never directly address what valid points they may bring up. We have, all too often, turned communication into a one way street. All this does is create tension and resentment. It divides when we are called to be united.

Sadly, we don’t have to look too far to see evidence of this. People complain about things that someone did, without going to them and communicating with them about it. We fail to listen and think that the role of communication is to get the person we disagree with to do what we want or to agree with our view. We call people names and make caricatures of them when they disagree with our views instead of talking with them and getting to know them and their views.

Obviously, direct communication is not easy and goes against the flow of where we are today. However, I see a lack of communications in too many corners. I see it in our churches, our country, and even in my own relationships with people. It takes a lot of work to do, and it is not always work that is appreciated. However, it is work that we need to do, even though I know it is hard and I have a lot of work to do. Honestly, as Christians, we should be the champions of this, but I don’t see that we are. I know I want to be known for this, care to join me and help the cause?

NRLW – Part 5 – Is Jesus Just a Doctrine?

How do we know God? That may seem like a simple question, but is it? You can do a Google search of that question and find answers. However, a lot of these answers are simply done by presenting principles or steps that we need to affirm and then we now know God. While I agree with the content of these principles, I wonder if this really helps us know God that much? Or perhaps more to the point does this implant into us that God is a God who doesn’t want us to know Him personally, but wants us only to know principles about Him?

Do we turn God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit into dead doctrine? A mental checklist of beliefs we can affirm, and then try to get others to affirm. Do we always act as if God is a living God who interacts with this world or are we practical atheists (or at least deists)? So when I ask how do we know God, I’m talking about something more than just doctrinal affirmation. I’m more asking do we believe that God is more than just a doctrine? Do we believe that He is active and on the loose? Do we believe that He can act beyond our understanding?

Perhaps now you’re sitting there wondering, how does this relate to Love Wins? Well in many ways this is what seems to be a big part of the second half of Rob Bell’s book. How do we know who knows God and who doesn’t know God? Or in other words, who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? You see when we turn God into a doctrine and put belief in Him on a list of doctrine necessary to pass the “You know God” test, we use the results to see who is following God and who isn’t. Now while this may not be an entirely bad thing, I mean people following God should believe certain things, but it is also a very flawed system.

Does knowing doctrine equal knowing God? No, if we look at Jesus’ day it was typically those who knew the law/doctrine of the day most who missed out on what God was doing through Jesus. I mean in all honesty we aren’t told the religious education of the disciples, but my guess is that one or two pharisees probably knew more about the law/doctrine than all twelve put together. You also have Matthew 16 where Peter was able to accurately declare Jesus the Messiah, but then still didn’t get what Jesus was there to do. Not to mention James 2:19 where James says that even demons have accurate belief in God.

This can paint our views on certain issues that Bell brings up. Like what we think about those who haven’t been told the Gospel, what is their final fate? If knowing God is simply knowing a list of principles or assertions, then they’re probably out of luck completely. However, if God is alive and active in this world why couldn’t He be moving in a place that doesn’t have missionaries or Bibles or Christians? Does that mean we simply leave it to God and don’t reach out to those around us at home or overseas? No, but we also can’t reduce God’s power simply to where there is a Christian presence. Romans 10:14-15 presents the need for people to be sent out and to preach so that people can hear. So He does choose to use us, but I would be reluctant to say that God is limited to only using us. We can easily forget that God’s way was counter the religious minds when Jesus was on earth. God may work in ways that leave our religious/theological posturing sorely wanting.

Another problem that results from this, that Bell interacts with, is that dead doctrine has little meaning. Bell’s focus was on the cross. With the idea that the cross is perhaps both overused and in some ways underused. On one end we have people who know that the cross is the symbol of Christianity and so we have become so accustomed to it that we really don’t know what it means or at least know the full significance of it. For example what does it mean when we see someone wearing a cross necklace or having a tattoo in the shape of a cross? Or perhaps it is on the other end, we limit our definition of the cross too much saying that it means or references only one particular accomplishment and that’s all. Then when someone doesn’t hold that view or hold that view as the only view then that person is viewed as incorrect or heretical. Bell only interacts with the cross in that particular chapter, but this can be true of anything we believe.

So how do we know God? As usual I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that we have to treat Him like He’s a God who is active in this world and in our lives. If knowing Him is simply knowing a list of doctrines, or turning Him into a doctrine we’re going down the wrong path. Even prayer and reading our Bibles can return mixed results. Are these interactions with a living God or just routine activities for our own peace of mind? This isn’t always easy and like any relationship I think there are ebbs and flows, but we should strive to treat Jesus as more than just a doctrine both in our lives and as we share our faith to those around us. May it be a faith of life and interaction with a living God who is a bit of a mystery rather than a faith of dead doctrine that can be easily dissected.

NRLW: Part 4 – Hand baskets sold separately

Hell. That’s not a place or subject we really like to talk about. To be honest it is not a subject I really want to talk about either. But when you’re discussing issues out of a book that deals with heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived, well some things are inevitable. I admitted that thinking about heaven gives me a headache, but hell gives me a mental migraine. I mean heaven at least has positive connotations, hell on the other hand does not. However, my approach is going to be similar to how I handled heaven. Putting out some questions that have arisen from Bell’s book and some of my wrestling with it.

Where do we get our picture of Hell from?

Here is perhaps the most significant question I got from Bell’s book. At the beginning of his chapter on hell he talks about how much the Bible focuses on hell or even has a word that we could really translate into hell. The result is not many. The Old Testament doesn’t have a word that can be translated well into hell. We get words like Sheol (a somewhat mysterious shadowy place); death, grave, the pit, realm of the dead type of stuff. Not too much we would liken to our view of hell. Bell goes on to wrap-up the Hebrew view of “hell,” like so: “But, simply put, the Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined… For whatever reasons, the precise details of who goes where, when, how, with what, and for how long simply aren’t things the Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with.”

Even in the New Testament there is all of a whopping 13-15 words translated “hell” depending on your translation, with the exception of the KJV version that has 23 occurrences of hell. That’s 13-15 in the whole New Testament. Does that surprise you? I know it somewhat surprised me. Even further is that only three of these usages directly connect hell with fire. Now admittedly there are places where not following God is illustrated as being placed in a fiery furnace or burned up in fire. Like Matthew 13:42, 50 and Revelation’s lake of fire, but it is not the only way to depict hell.

All this is to say, where do we get our pictures of hell from? Is there enough mentions of what hell is really like in the Bible to piece together a cohesive view of what hell is like? Honestly I don’t think that there is. It’s there and we can’t deny it, but we can’t elaborate all that much either. We can’t take the works of Dante or Milton or the view of a fiery place ran by the little red devil with a pitchfork as being the Biblical portrait of hell. We love to speculate and there is a certain need to do that, to speculate and imagine is okay. What we do have to be careful of is when that speculation becomes hard fact in our mind. That is where we get into trouble and start moving down a road that is neither healthy nor Biblical.

What is our attitude about hell?

Now this question cuts about every way you can imagine. One of the biggest complaints I had with how Bell’s book was received was how many people seemed to thoughtlessly smash Bell and present their doctrine of hell and the need to ascribe to it. Is hell just a doctrine? If we believe it is a real place, are we to be happy about it? It certainly seemed that some leaders in the church were acting that way. I don’t know about them, but it makes me very sad that a place like hell would exist. Can we say like Paul in Romans 9:3 that we would rather be cut off from Christ and cursed if that would save those around us? Often times that isn’t the picture portrayed. We sometimes defend hell a little too strongly and a little too heartlessly.
Now the reverse can be said too, and is perhaps the side that Bell leans towards a little more and truthfully the side I have to fight against as well. We can sometimes say this doesn’t seem fair and interpret things in such a way that makes us more comfortable or makes the people of the day more comfortable. While the popular view of hell may not be the Biblical view of hell, hell is there regardless. I believe we have to have humility and be honest about that. We can’t risk trying to re-imagine it too much into something just as equally wrong but palatable for today.

I think these two questions are really part of what is at the heart of Bell’s book. Bell doesn’t deny that there is a hell. He may be pointing out that we may not know as much about it as we think we do, but he says that its there. Also like he did with heaven, he says that hell is sometimes brought into this world and isn’t simply some place that we go. This is not to say that Bell may not have wrong or incomplete ideas himself. However, if we potentially have wrong ideas of what hell is like and Bell does too, do we have much of a right to criticize? I don’t think so, but we should enter the discussion.

Perhaps more important than laying out the existence of heaven and hell are Bell’s chapters on how people come to God and what hell entails for the people who go there. Honestly I think this is where most of the rub comes between Bell and his detractors, however it is some interesting stuff to think about… and what I’ll be attempting to think about next.

NRLW – Part 3 – Heaven is a Place on Earth

Well now we get into some more difficult topics. So far the two blogs I’ve done about Love Wins have been fairly general and not too troublesome. However, from here we get into the ideas of heaven and hell and how do we get from here to there (whichever there it is). So let us start with heaven.

Heaven has always been such a hard thing for me to grasp. It is common to hear people long for it and mention it in church and Christian circles, but honestly its something that doesn’t cross my mind too often. When it does it often just makes my head hurt trying to figure it all out and sorting through all the popular speculation of what heaven will be like. So upon reading Bell’s treatment of heaven it led me to a number of thought/questions some new, some not.

Where is Heaven anyway?

Bell picks up a teaching that I first had exposure to in college. This teaching is that our end location is not heaven, but a recreated earth. This is where Revelation leaves us. We are left with God recreating and presenting a new heaven and new earth and the descent of a city the New Jerusalem. This is what is presented as the final dwelling place of God’s people. This is a much different picture of heaven than the popular belief of the pearly gates, white robes, halos, and flowing hair.

Now while paradise being set on a renewed and restored Earth may answer some questions and maybe even make a bit more sense, it still seems bigger than what I can wrap my head around. What do we do there? Is the fact that it will still be earth mean that there will be many of the same things that we have today? How will it be different from our earth today? What about the time between when we die and the final judgment and recreation? All these questions remain for me, but I do think that having this view should change some of our views on the world.

Perhaps the most significant is that only the “spiritual” matters. This can be conveyed in a number of ways. To looking at various things in the world as not having any value like art, movies, literature and work. It can make us reject the idea of doing justice and the idea of charity because the physical needs of people aren’t nearly as important as the “spiritual” needs. In reality it is a combination of both of these realities; the physical and the spiritual and how they are inseparable. If at the end there is a physical earth and city around us, then it is pretty clear that the physical has some value to God.

Who gets into Heaven (New Creation/You get the point)?

Bell presented an interesting insight which was one that I had applied to myself but had never really thought about broadly. This was the idea that is found in Matthew 7. This idea is where we think we are going doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot. It talks about how people came to Jesus saying that they had done all these religious and spiritual actions, but that Jesus’ response was that he never knew them. These people thought they had it all figured out and that they were a shoo-in to God’s presence, but they were wrong.

What strikes me about this is that we often realize the need for caution in judging a final destination when we think it may be negative, but when it comes to heaven we often judge with more certainty. I understand why this is the case, but perhaps when we are called to not judge others it means in both a positive and negative way, at least in terms of where their final destination is going to be. Now that may be tough for some, but perhaps there is a another question that needs to be tackled to see if this should be hard or not in the first place.

Is Heaven our motivation for belief?

Perhaps under it all though is this question. Is heaven our motivation for belief? If it is well then figuring out who makes the cut and who doesn’t might become much more important. This is really a question I’ve struggled with for some time. Are we simply to present heaven or escape from hell as the reason to have faith in God? Doesn’t that put all the emphasis on the wrong place?

If heaven becomes too much of a focus does it replace God as the object of our faith and hope? Shouldn’t we be willing to follow God even without the promise of heaven or paradise? Personally I think the answer is yes. We are being called into a relationship and interaction with the God who created the universe and who loves us. That should be our motivation for our faith and our motivation for evangelism. Instead of focusing on a place that we have more questions than answers about, perhaps we need to focus on God interacting with us here and now.

In all that I’ve heard about heaven, I don’t remember hearing or thinking of myself the idea of bringing heaven to earth today. Perhaps because we’re too realistic and know that we can’t bring perfection to earth or that we don’t want to be labeled something we aren’t by phrasing it that way. However, Bell explores this idea. He references the Lord’s prayer and the idea that we’re to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. That this should be a way of connected the idea of our present reality to heaven/paradise/new creation.

That’s one thing that most of the talk about heaven has always frustrated me. It seemed so disconnected from our faith now. However, if we’re called to bring aspects of heaven into our lives and the lives of the people around us who are suffering and in need there is much more cohesive connection between this age and the age to come. Sure we can’t latch onto the view that we can do it all ourselves, but our view of heaven should include today and not just sometime in the future or after we die. If our focus is on God and not simply heaven then this should affect how we live today.

So yeah just some thoughts that were spawned from Bell’s chapter on heaven. The whole thing is still a lot bigger than I can nail down, but these were some thoughts from it.

The Charity Mask

If you’ve been shopping anytime recently you’ll notice that the Salvation Army bell ringers are back in action. While no doubt the charity does fine work, it is the time of year where one can’t help but feel a little guilty going into any store and perhaps giving a little to the organization to help assuage that guilt. We give to feel better about ourselves. It is enough to make us feel better about walking by them the next few times, because you know those few dollars you gave made you feel a little better about yourself. I know I already had felt this way a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. Does it make me charitable or a better person? Probably not, after all I did it to feel better about myself first, and with the side effect of helping those in need.

This is a danger of charity. When we give money to a charity whether it be a few bucks at the entrance to the grocery store or a larger donation to the organization of our choice it can make us feel like good people. We could treat the people around us like dirt, write off the donation in our taxes in a way that is beneficial to us, or only want to make people think we’re nice so we can get more popular. It seems so much easier to write a check to some charity or organization than doing good work than treating those around us with worth.

The main thing that got me thinking about this is actually corporate America’s way of doing charity. You have big retailers like Target and Wal-Mart who state how they give so much money to this charity or this organization, but yet they treat their employees poorly. They either don’t give them enough hours and/or enough of a wage to pay their bills and support their families. However, by saying they give to charity it is instant positive PR. They can give thousands of dollars to a charity, but yet do not want to use those thousands to the people who are working for them.

I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t give to charities. What I am trying to say is that we should be working towards a consistency in how we treat people. After all Jesus’ response to the question of what is the greatest commandment was first to love God will all that we are, but second was to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40). It is not just love the people who are cared for by this charity or organization, but to also care for those we are in proximity to everyday. This is much more challenging and often requires a lot more effort and cost than sending a check or giving a few dollars at the entrance to the store. The truth is it goes a lot deeper than our action. We can wear the mask of concern and well-being through a charitable action, but our attitude could only be focused on ourselves or filled with disdain or apathy for the very people we’re helping.