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New Podcast: Super fast survey of the Old Testament

My latest podcast is up.

Today is the day after the 2018 mid-terms. For the next few days we’re going to hear a lot of narratives, or stories, about what happened and about what is happening in our country, maybe even more broadly. In fact, we tell stories about our world to help us make sense out of our lives and give them meaning.

In the Bible, God is telling us a (true) story, and it’s the story of God’s rescue. This episode looks at how the Old Testament fits into that broad story.

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How did we get here?

Jeremiah the prophet wrote during a time of national, political, and religious catastrophe. His nation was in ruins. His people had abandoned God and God, at least for a time, had abandoned his people. During this course of events the people would have asked, “how did we get here?” The author of Kings wants us to know the answer and this Sunday I explored that question further.

For this post, though, I want to dive into one of the main themes, that compromise with evil, leads to an embrace of evil, which leads to judgment and death:

After Joash’s reforms, Israel’s southern kingdom, Judah, had a series of compromised kings, followed by a series of evil kings, followed by a series of kings that were captured, enslaved, and killed. There were a couple of good kings in that mix but, while they were able to defer God’s judgment, they couldn’t stop the inevitable. In the end, Judah persisted in her sin and was sent into exile in Babylon.

I see this same pattern in James 1:13-15:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Notice the progression of sin: Desire – the juicy worm on the end of the hook – is conceived. Sin is born. It grows up. It gives birth to death. This is the nature of sin. If we let it linger, it becomes stronger and stronger until it kills us. Israel’s kings who compromised by letting the high places remain, who accepted a small amount of false worship, were setting up later generations for failure. When we compromise with the “little sins” we swallow the worm with the hook.

A misdiagnosed illness

Jeremiah condemned Israel’s false prophets who misdiagnosed Judah’s problems: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious” (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11). This is in contrast to God’s description of Judah’s condition: “Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing” (Jeremiah 30:12).

We’re tempted to view our own sins as nothing serious, as a cold or a small cut. But the principle of Israel’s exile should tell us something different. Sin is more like a cancer or an infected wound. It needs drastic treatment. The tumor must be cut out.

The progression

Paul tells us in Ephesians, in the context of anger, “do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph 4:27). What’s his point? If we keep anger around it grows into bitterness and hatred. Hatred, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.

Or consider King David’s lust for Bathsheba. It led to adultery, deception, and murder.

I heard the story of a young woman who struggled with self-harm. At times she would swear off that behavior and throw away all her razor blades… except for one. I don’t know where she is now, but it’s hard to imagine that she has made much progress in this area.

Sin is like an addiction, it traps and enslaves.

Not your experience

But maybe this isn’t your experience. After all, there are plenty of people with their pet sins whose lives aren’t in ruins. They are happy and successful. Their little sins aren’t out of control. They haven’t given birth to death. Maybe that’s even you.

The prophets struggled with this, too. Why, they thought, did Israel suffer for her sins but the nations around them, just as wicked, walk about in peace? God’s answer was always pretty simple: It’s coming. In the end, it’s coming. Sin is, in the final analysis, self-harm. God is, in the end, just. Almost all the compromised kings fell because of pride. Their outward success led to a belief that they were beyond the consequences of sin and that pride was their downfall.

Paul, in Galatians, puts it like this: “A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction” (Galatians 6:7-8).

An incurable disease

The story of the kings would leave us hopeless if it weren’t for the rest of Scripture. Jeremiah hears from God that Israel’s wound is, indeed, incurable. The progression from compromise, to outright rebellion, to judgment and exile, is a force that will overrun Jerusalem and its people. But there is another force at work, the grace of God. “I will restore your health and heal your wounds” (Jeremiah 30:17), says the Lord through Jeremiah. Why? Because of God’s faithfulness, his grace, his mercy.

Alongside the spiral of sin James sets the progression of God’s grace expressed in his word: “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:18). What, then, are we to do? “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (James 1:21).

The spiral of sin and judgment can be transformed into a virtuous cycle – but only through the grace of God expressed in Jesus.

New Podcast: What does it mean to be a Christian?

Just a quick announcement:WhatDoesItMeanToBeAChristian

I decided to get into the podcasting game. I’m starting with some content I already developed in my book What Does It Mean to Be a Christian? I won’t be reading the book, but using the structure and content as a guide for the podcast. I am developing it using Anchor and it is available on the following platforms:

Apple Podcasts

Google Podcasts

Spotify

Breaker

RadioPublic

Overcast

Stitcher

Does personal virtue matter for those who hold public political office?

Does personal virtue matter for those who hold public political office?

I ask this question specifically to evangelical Christians, in part because I am one, and in part because there is evidence that between 2011 and 2016 we have taken a U-turn on our answer. Note this quote from the linked article:

In 2011, 30 percent of white evangelicals said that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Now, 72 percent say so — a far bigger swing than other religious groups the poll studied.

Is that U-turn justified (were we wrong in 2011) or have we lost some sense of our moral bearing and stand in need of correction?

I will answer that question in 3 parts. First, what is the connection between personal virtue and public justice in the general citizenry? Second, does that principle also apply to leaders and those who hold public office? Third, does this hold up from what we know from Scripture?

What is the connection between personal virtue and public justice?

J. Brian Benestad[1], in his chapter in Five Views on Church and Politics, argues that personal virtue is critical for political justice. His argument is focused on the relationship between the church and the political world and so he is primarily concerned with the personal virtue of believers who are engaging the political process.

Benestad’s argument also applies to the general citizenry of a nation. He bases his argument on Augustine, who taught that “the attainment of justice in a political community depends on the presence of justice in the souls of individuals” (186).

Just laws, of course, are critical to justice, but even just laws cannot restrain evil people from doing wrong. Or, to put it as Benestad does: “People with disorder in their souls will not be inclined to give others their due” (186). Disordered souls lead to disordered society. Benestad goes on to explain the interrelationship between personal vice and public injustice by quoting Aquinas:

“But the principle of morals are so interrelated to one another that the failure of one would entail the failure in others. For example, if one were weak on the principle that concupiscence [lust] is not to be followed, which pertains to desire, then sometimes in pursuing concupiscence, he would do injury and violate justice.”

By contrast, a society where virtue is practiced (a “rightly ordered soul”) will still have just laws but would also not have much need of their enforcement so those who practice virtue will naturally practice public justice.

In evangelical circles, this argument is simply taken for granted. It is used by many to argue against more stringent gun laws. The problem, it is said, is in people’s hearts and laws cannot change hearts. Therefore, gun laws will be ineffective. If guns cannot be used, another weapon can be found. There’s a merit to this argument, even though it oversimplifies the problem and downplays the interplay between public justice and personal virtue. Indeed, Benestad also expounds on the way in which just laws both restrain evil and contribute to the virtue of the citizenry. The relationship between laws and virtue is not merely one-directional. A just society should have both just people and, given that we live in a fallen world, just laws, which can restrain evil even when personal virtue is absent.

My main point here is merely to say that there is a close connection between personal virtue and public justice.

Do these principles also apply to elected officials?

Yes.

First, in a Democracy, political leaders are also citizens, also under the rule of law, and therefore also under the principles described by Augustine and Aquinas above.

Second, political leaders are the ones primarily responsible with creating and applying laws. They will have a disproportionate influence on whether those laws are just or unjust and whether those laws will be applied fairly or not.

Third, political leaders are an example – for better or worse – to the general citizenry. Leaders who demonstrate pride, falsehood, petulance, greed, etc. will see those same characteristics mimicked by those they lead.

Does this hold up with what we see in Scripture?

Yes.

First, we see this in the patterns of the kings of Israel. Weak or wicked kings led to weakness and wickedness in Israel and Judah. Good kings were able to lead the people in reform – even if short-lived.

Second, the oft cited example of David as the exception to this is not quite as strong as it may seem. David’s personal transgressions with Bathsheba and Uriah led to disasters for Judah, not just in his lifetime, but for generations to come. When David was at his best he exemplified contrition, justice, and communion with God, but at his worst I don’t think he’s a terribly good example of who we should elect to public office.

Third, this seems to fit with the rest of Scripture including warnings in Proverbs against foolish kings, the example of John the Baptist’s experience with Herod, and the descriptions of rulers and authorities in Revelation who come against the people of God.

Finally, is this a veiled attack on Donald Trump?

I don’t want this to be a sort of passive aggressive attack on our President, implying things, but not just coming out and saying what I think. For clarity and fairness I will be explicit in what I am and am not saying here.

First, most importantly I want us to see the principle, and then apply it fairly, including to those who are “on our team” politically. It applies to President Trump, and to other political leaders, liberal and conservative.

Second, there are maybe three categories of ways in which people respond to President Trump. Based on my Facebook and Twitter feeds some see him as a genuinely virtuous person, a righteous warrior of sorts. They believe that he is unfairly maligned by the media and liberals. While I think that there have been many instances where his political enemies have been unfair to him, in my estimation, he is clearly his own worst enemy. His Twitter feed – that he himself writes­ – is enough to show serious issues of character and “disorder in the soul.” I would challenge those who want to paint Trump as virtuous to spend time listening to what he says and writes: Out of the mouth (or the Twitter feed) we can know what is in someone’s heart.

There are also those who are appalled at what Trump says and does but feel they are painted into a corner because there is a greater threat on the other side. This post isn’t about those who feel this way. There’s another discussion to be had about that, but it’s not this post.

Finally, though, I am concerned about the sizeable group of evangelicals who in 2011 saw a close connection between personal virtue and public justice and then changed their mind in 2016. Based on the poll cited above, this is not a small number. I am concerned that in an effort to “win” politically, we have “lost” some sense of our moral bearing. Indeed, I have seen many evangelicals downplay sin and its effects, and even take up the same brash and vulgar language of President Trump, mimicking both his attitude and speech patterns. Frankly, this causes me to grieve for the state of the American evangelical church. I even feel a certain sense of abandonment and loneliness in this regard, a sense of being left behind, of desertion.

I continue to have hope for the evangelical church in America because I believe that where God’s people are gathered in Jesus’s name, the Spirit is present. That Spirit will continue to sanctify us. We should, of course, be most concerned about our own personal virtue. As God’s people, may we set the example of sanctification and love, of holiness and justice to our neighbors.

The Wilderness and the “Crisis of decision”

“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1:4

The gospel’s inclusion of the setting of the Baptist’s ministry in the wilderness is not merely a historical nugget but carries deep meaning in its connection to Israel’s prophetic history. No doubt John the Baptist performed his ministry in the wilderness, at least in part, to remind the Israelites of their past and bring them to a crisis of decision in the present.

The wilderness was a place of God’s provision

After God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt he led them into the wilderness. The wilderness served not only as an obstacle that Israel needed to traverse to get to the Promised Land, but as a place where Israel could learn about God’s special provision in a dangerous and unhospitable land. In the wilderness he provided food and water. He ensured that their garments would not wear out. He gave them physical security through military victories over Egypt and the Amalekites.

After Israel had rebelled against God and were facing Babylonian exile God recalls their wilderness experience: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). Then he accuses them of forgetting God’s provision: “They did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD’ who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of ravines, a land of deserts and ravines, a land of drought and utter darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives” (Jeremiah 2:6).

In the wilderness Israel was like a young child, just birthed through God’s act of deliverance from slavery from Egypt, an event which culminated in the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea. In the wilderness the Israelites found themselves in a place of childlike dependence upon God’s miraculous provision.

The wilderness was a place of God’s renewal

Yet Israel did not remain in the wilderness. God brought them out of a land of scarcity and into a land of abundance. Moses predicted that there they would grow complacent and prideful and that they would turn away from God. His prediction proved true and God brought judgement on their rebellion in the form of the destruction of their land (so that their once fertile land became an inhospitable and dangerous place like the wilderness) and the ultimate expulsion from the land in exile.

The prophets called on God’s people to remember and return. And, in doing so, they would find that God would be faithful to his promise and restore his people. Here again we see the wilderness come into effect. Isaiah vividly describes how God will bring hope to even the most hopeless situations:

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
    it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
    the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
    the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands,
    steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
    “Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
    he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
    he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
    and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
    and streams in the desert. 
(Isaiah 35:1-6)

Later, the voice of one who declares the good news of God’s restoration is a voice in the wilderness. The gospel writers apply this directly to John the Baptist:

A voice of one calling:

“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)

Out of the natural danger of the wilderness God brings both creation and recreation. In the first case, God uses the wilderness to form his people. In the second, he transforms the wilderness itself.

The wilderness brings about a crisis of decision

Yet the wilderness is not a place of guaranteed restoration. It is not a pleasant place, and its unpleasantness can either bring reliance or rebellion. Israel rebelled in the wilderness as often as it trusted. They complained that there was no food and water. They built a golden calf when Moses was on Mount Sinai. They rebelled when God instructed them to go into the Promised Land. The wilderness brought Israel to a crisis of decision. They could either trust God, or they could turn away.

The wilderness in John the Baptist’s ministry

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness he called people to repent, to turn away from their sin and return to God. His call for a turning of the heart was mirrored by a call to return to the wilderness, the place where God’s relationship with his people began and could begin again.

John called the people to reenact Israel’s birth as a nation. In baptism they reenacted the Red Sea experience. In the wilderness, they reenacted a radical trust in the God who provides. In confession and repentance they forsook their old ways in Egypt.

In doing so John called the people to a crisis of decision. They could either rebel like their ancestors or trust God and find renewal. But John didn’t simply call them to work harder. He pointed them to Jesus. The way that they would express their trust in God would be to trust in the One who He sent, the one more powerful than John.

The wilderness and the start of Jesus’s ministry

Finally, it’s worth it to show how the gospel writers use the wilderness motif in Jesus’s ministry. Jesus himself is baptized, identifying himself with Israel specifically, and with humanity in general. He, too, has a Red Sea experience in which God the Father publicly calls him out as chosen for a purpose. Immediately afterwards he is led into the wilderness where he experiences intense temptation from Satan himself. Here he must face his own crisis of decision. Does he trust God or does he go the way of Israel and humanity and rebel?

His answers are given in Matthew: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4), “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:7), and “Worship the Lord God, and serve him only” (4:10). At the precises place where Israel and humanity was faithless, Jesus proved faithful.

Our wilderness experience?

John the Baptist called people to a crisis of decision and, in reading the gospel story, the evangelists draw us to that same decision. We encounter in Jesus the chance to repent, find renewal, and restart our lives afresh. This isn’t just a call to “try harder”, or “do better.” It’s a call to receive a transformed heart. John baptized with water, an outward sign of new birth. But, Jesus promised a baptism by the Holy Spirit. That transformative power is enough to bring streams in the desert, to make the deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame walk, and to turn the rocky soil of our hearts into a field where life can flourish.

Why is it a sin if it doesn’t hurt anyone?

Why is it a sin if it doesn’t hurt anyone?

I just came across this question on a blog ranting against Christians. But, if I’m honest, I’ve asked this question many times myself, sometimes honestly, sometimes as an attempt to justify myself. The “it” in question could be any number of things which the Bible teaches against, from our perspective, don’t seem to harm anyone. Why does God still call these things “sin”?

First, a quick observation: Even from a secular perspective, the notion that we tend to judge our actions or thoughts as right or wrong based solely on whether they cause harm to someone else is a notion peculiar to our culture. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, shows that the human brain has several different “moral taste buds”, or moral intuitions. One of those has to do with causing harm to others (compassion), but in other cases it’s less obvious (the remainder are fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty). These moral taste buds span cultures, but different cultures have different “preferences” between them. We in the 21st century West place the biggest emphasis on harm to the exclusion of the others. Now, our culture could be right in doing so, but in deciding that we are, we should at least note that our perspective is largely driven by our own cultural bias.

Second, the Christian perspective: Christians view sin, first and foremost, as being against God. This is why David can confess “against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” (Psalm 51:4) David’s sin, in fact, harmed Bathsheba and Uriah and David’s entire family, but he recognized that sin at its core is rebellion against God. When we sin against others, we always sin against God. But it seems possible to sin against God, without necessarily sinning against others.

Third, our question sometimes comes from a lack of understanding. Sin is fundamentally destructive to God’s creation, even if we can’t see it. Something may not be harmful from our perspective, but here we simply suffer from our limited perception of reality. Here are a few observations on what we might call “private” or “harmless” sins:

(1)    Sin is self-degrading: Even if a sin caused no measurable harm to someone else it still causes harm to the one who sins. In turning away from God, we turn away from the one who can heal our souls. Since we as humans made in God’s image are the most precious thing in God’s creation, it is a sin to do damage to our souls.

(2)    The private self is intrinsically tied with the social self. We inevitably act and speak out of our nature. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:17) The social consequences of a sin aren’t always obvious, but if given the chance, they always come.

(3)    Sin grows: James describes it well when he says, “after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:15) We sometimes think that we have the power over the small sins, that we have control. This is a deception. Sin, unchecked, gains power over the one who indulges it.

Fourth, thank goodness for grace. God has the power to reverse sins’ trajectory, to heal what is broken and to restore whatever was taken away. God gave us the law to limit the negative impact of sin, but it is ultimately the Spirit of God that brings life, and it is the Spirit of God, through Jesus, that we all need the most.