Tag Archives: love

Exile and Political Engagement: Voting

This post is part of a series (Post 1: Introduction and OutlinePost 2: Four Key Principles for Christian Political EngagementPost 3: Submission and TaxesPost 4: Government Service, Post 5: Justice and Advocacy)

Voting

We now come to the question of voting for politicians. Since this practice was not known during biblical times it was not addressed in Scripture. The idea that private, ordinary, citizens would have a voice in who would rule the nation, or what the laws would be, was unknown to the Jews or the early Christians. But today we are afforded the opportunity to have a say in the nature of our government and the individuals who lead it.

I believe that Christians should vote, just as Christians should we willing to engage in the kinds of advocacy listed above. The reason, as has already been stated, is because of a love for neighbor. That is, we vote not to gain power, but because we realize that a civil government, when functioning properly, can be a force for good in the world and because we realize that a civil government, when corrupt and unjust, can also be a force for great evil. And so, out of love for neighbor, we seek a government which will function within those God-given parameters.

How a Christian should vote is another question. I am simply arguing that a Christian should vote and that the motivation for that vote should be a love of neighbor.

Two objections may be raised. The first is that it is often difficult to tell how to vote. The world is exceedingly complex and citizens are often asked to make judgments about things for which they have very little or very biased information such as foreign affairs or economic principles. Indeed, it can become overwhelming or discouraging to watch the news or follow the debates during the political season. How can we possibly make responsible voting choices in such an environment? Besides, aren’t there much more important things that we can do in order to love our neighbors with the precious little time that we have? I am sympathetic to this argument, but I would argue that we should vote on what knowledge we do have and then continue to work towards a greater level of knowledge.

The second argument points back to the sovereignty of God. If God controls the outcome of the election, which he does, then why vote at all? But this argument could be used for anything. If God is in control why pray? If God provides for my needs then why work? If God takes care of the church, then why serve in the church? The answer is that God invites us to participate with him as he carries out his will. God will carry out his sovereign will, but we are commanded to walk in line with his moral will. We obey God because obedience is what leads to life and glorifies God, not necessarily because we think it will change the world. World-changing is part of God’s job description. Obedience and responsible love for neighbor is part of ours, and voting is one way we can do that.

Additional note: It was observed during the Sunday night discussion that the Christian duties mentioned – work, prayer, and service in the church – are all commands given in Scripture but that voting is not. This is a good observation. I come to the conclusion that Christians should vote via the command to love neighbor, with this being one way to carry out that command. You could get to the same conclusion by following that logic that voting is a means of carrying out the command to honor our civil authorities. Both are, admittedly, points of application on a theme and are therefore not at the same level as the Christian duties mentioned above.

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The Pharisee aims at outward obedience but Jesus points us to agape love and natural conformity to God’s law

Recently I have been reflecting on the fact that from my youth I have slowly shifted from thinking of religion in terms of outward obedience to terms of inward transformation and from ideology to responsibility. This is perhaps why I am now ready to hear Dallas Willard’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Willard argues convincingly that Jesus is not setting out a new set of laws to be followed woodenly, but is describing and illustrating the motives and actions of a disciple whose life has been transformed by Jesus and the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Here, for instance, is Willard on Matthew 5:39-42. For Willard, when we understand the kingdom and are transformed into the likeness of Jesus, we replace the presumption of the world with the presumption of the kingdom.

Within the human order, the presumption is that you return harm for harm (“resist evil”), that you do only what legal force requires you to, and that you give only those who have some prior claim on you (those who are “family” or have done you a favor, etc.).

The presumption is precisely reverse once we stand within the kingdom. There the presumption is that I will return god for evil and “resist” only for compelling reasons, that I will do more than I strictly must in order to help others, and that I give to people merely because they have asked me for something they need.

Here is Willard applying this concept to Matthew 5:41. Note that he rejects legalism on both sides. He rejects only doing what is required, but he also rejects an unthinking obedience to Jesus’ illustration. Remember, it is important to remember that for Willard Jesus is giving illustrations of the kingdom heart, not universal commands.

If a government official compels me to carry a burden for one mile to aid him in his word – as any Roman soldier cold require of a Jew in Jesus’ day – I will, again “as appropriate,” assist him further in his need. Perhaps he has a mile yet to go, and I am free to assist him. If so, I will not say, “This is all you can make me do,” and drop the burden on his foot. I will also not carry it another mile whether he wants me to or not, and say, “Because Jesus said to.”

This means that the disciple of Jesus must take responsibility for their actions in each concrete situation. In some cases, it is not appropriate to go the second mile. In fact, in some cases, you must not go the second mile.

Of course in each case I must determine of the gift of my vulnerability, goods, time, and strength, is precisely, appropriate. That is my responsibility before God…

If, for example, I am a heart surgeon on the way to do a transplant, I must not go a second mile with someone. I must say no and lave at the end of the first mile with best wishes and a hasty farewell. I have other things to do and must make a decision. I cannot cite a law and thus evade my responsibility of judging.

Likewise, sometimes it is not “appropriate” or “responsible” to turn the other cheek. You must consider the larger context.

If turning the other cheek means I will then be dead, or that others will suffer great harm, I have to consider this larger context. Much more than my personal pain or humiliation is involved. Does that mean I will “shoot first”? Not necessarily, but it means I can’t just invoke a presumed “law of required vulnerability.” I must decide before God what to do, and there may be grounds for some measure of resistance.

But Willard is careful to say that our actions and attitudes do have strict limits, though those limits have more to do with the condition of our heart before Jesus than with acts of outward obedience. Whatever action we take, our motive cannot be retaliation or personal retribution.

Of course the grounds will never be personal retaliation. And there will never, as I live in the kingdom, be room for “getting even.” We do not “render evil for evil,” as the early Christians clearly understood and practiced (Rom. 12:17; 1 Pet. 3:9). That is out of the question as far as our life in the kingdom living. That is the point Jesus is making here.

Here we get at the heart of Willard’s understanding of the Sermon.

In every concrete situation we have to ask ourselves, not “Did I do the specific things in Jesus’ illustrations?” but “Am I being the kind of person Jesus’ illustrations are illustrations of?”

Again, this only works if our hearts are transformed and compelled by the love of Christ. This is no doctrine of personal expediency in order to get around the “commands” of Jesus.

We will decide, as best we know how, on the basis of love for all involved and with a readiness to sacrifice what we simply want. And in every situation we have the larger view. We are not passive, but we act always with clear-eyed and resolute love.

After all, it’s ultimately OK if we experience harm and loss for the sake of Christ. We see the world from the point of view of eternity – and that changes everything.

We know what is really happening, seeing it from the point of view of eternity. And we know that we will be taken care of no matter what. We can be vulnerable because we are, in the end, simply invulnerable. And once we have broken the power of anger and desire over our lives, we know that the way of Christ in response to personal injury and imposition is always the easier way. It is the only way that allows us to move serenely in the midst of harm and beyond it.

Again, this is not to deny that there are universal commands in Scripture. There are non-negotiable. This isn’t relativism. Still, I think Willard has put his finger on what I am calling “responsible love” (a term “I got either from Bonhoeffer or Willard, I cannot recall which.) I am learning that in life there is Black and White, but there is also a lot of situational Gray. How do we navigate those gray areas? As a teenager I would have tried to navigate them by removing them entirely but as I have grown I have come to realize that life is complex and there isn’t a “rule” for every possible situation. I think we can navigate the complexity and sometimes ambiguity of life, however, if our hearts are first transformed by Jesus and the values of the kingdom.

I’ll conclude this post with one final quote from Willard:

The Pharisee takes as his aim keeping the law rather than becoming the kind of person whose deeds naturally conform to the law. Jesus knew the human heart… [thus] he concludes his exposition of the kingdom kind of goodness by contrasting the ordinary way of human love, loving those who love them, with God’s agape love. This is a love that reaches everyone we deal with. It is not in their power to change that. It is the very core of what we are or can become in his fellowship, not something we do. Then the deeds of love, including loving our enemies, are what that agape love does in us and what we do as the new persons we have become.

All quotes from The Divine Conspiracy, Chapter 5.

What if he repents!? When God’s mercy is more offensive than his judgment

Most people I talk to that are skeptical of God’s character are skeptical of his judgment. They want God to be merciful to everybody, or at least the vast majority of people. They like God so long as he’s “loving” and “gentle” but turn away from descriptions of his wrath. When they say, “God’s not fair”, they mean “he’s not fair in his judgment.”

This past week, though, I spoke to someone who was more offended by his mercy than his judgment. This young woman told me boldly, “I hate a lot of people. I don’t think it’s wrong to hate.” I know this young woman, and I also know that she has been seriously wronged in her life. I could go into details but I won’t. Suffice it to say, from a human perspective, she has every reason to hate at least a couple of the people she hates. From the outside, it’s clear that her hatred is eating her alive, destroying her from the inside, but from her perspective she feels justified.

I attempted to encourage her from Romans 12:17-19. Here we are encouraged to forswear revenge and to seek peace because we can “leave room for God’s wrath.” In other words, wrath isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not ours to wield. We trust God to be the judge because he’s the only possible perfect Judge.

The young woman understood the passage but it didn’t make her feel better. She responded angrily – “but what if he repents?” She understood the mercy of God, but it offended her. She knows that if her enemy repents before God his sins will be forgiven and at the core of her soul she does not want that to happen.

I was immediately reminded of the story of Jonah. He was called by God to preach to Nineveh. Nineveh! Nineveh, at one point in its history, was the capital of the Assyrian empire, an empire that became the bitter enemies of the Israelites. Jonah was told by God to “preach against [the city], because its wickedness has come before me” (Jonah 1:1).

Jonah went in the exact opposite direction. He did not want to preach to Nineveh and it wasn’t just because he feared for his own personal safety. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew something about God. He knew God was merciful. What if they repent? Is God really going to let them off the hook?

God had other plans and brought Jonah to Nineveh against his will. Finally Jonah relented and preached to Nineveh the message God gave him – “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And, almost shockingly, the very next words of Scripture say, “The Ninevites believed God.” They repented. They fasted. They cried out to God. And when God saw them repent he did exactly what a merciful God would do – he relented. He showed compassion on the city. He forgave.

Jonah was angry. This is exactly what he feared would happen.

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)

This is exactly what this young woman doesn’t want to happen. The possibility of her enemy’s repentance and God’s mercy offends her. I even understand why.

God’s response to Jonah was essentially this: I made this city grow and flourish and I love its inhabitants. I love its people, even in their sin. My wrath was ready to be unleashed but I gave them a chance to repent and they did. Why are you angry with my love?

Maybe God’s mercy offends you. Maybe you’ve been wronged deeply. Jesus gives a tough command – to love our enemies. Part of loving our enemies means being open, and even eager, for God’s merciful response to their repentance. And we can only be open to God’s mercy when we ourselves are captured by his love, his love for the whole world.

Was Dr. King an “Extremist”? And, is too much religion a bad thing?

Was Dr. King an Extremist?

One fascinating part of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmangham Jail” is his defense against being labeled an “extremist.”  Against this charge he argues:

“I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need to emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is a more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”

Dr. King rejected the “extremism” of what he describes as the “black nationlist” but he also rejected the complacency of many in the white church. He wanted to affect change to bring about justice, but he wanted to do it through non-violent protest. And so, he argues, he was not an extremist, at least not with the connotations often ascribed to extremists – hatred and violence.

Later in the letter, though, he captures the term for his own purposes, embracing on his own terms:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Is too much religion a bad thing?

In Soul Searching (review), Smith and Denton observed that, among Christian teenagers, there was a fear of being “too religious.” Tim Keller, in The Reason for God, makes the same observation:

“Perhaps the biggest deterrent to Christianity for the average person today is… the shadow of fanaticism. Many nonbelievers have friends or relatives who have become “born again” and seem to have gone off the deep end. They soon begin to express loudly their disapproval of various groups and sectors of our society… When arguing for the truth of their faith they often appear intolerance and self-righteous.”[1]

People tend to view Christians along a spectrum, with “nominal Christians” on one end and “fanatics” on the other. “Fanatics” are those who are seen as prone to “over-believe” and “over-practice” their Christianity. In this view, the best kind of Christian is the one that falls somewhere in the middle. This Christian practices his faith, but not “too much.” Keller points out that “the problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Christian faith is basically form of moral improvement.” If that were true, then this kind of “over-practiced” moralism really would be something objectionable. In fact, these “high powered” moralists had a name in Jesus’ day: Pharisees.

But mere “moral improvement” is not the essence of Christianity. “[T]he essence of Christianity is salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us.” The people who are considered “fanatics” (those who view Christianity primarily as a form of moral improvement) are not fanatics “because they are too committed to the gospel but because they are not committed enough.” Those who fully committed to the gospel and understand the nature of grace will not be marked by self-righteousness and pride, but by humility and grace.

Moralistic “fanaticism” is a constant problem within the Church but the solution is not to “tone down” your faith but to gain a better grasp of the nature of the gospel.

This brings us, and Keller, back around to Dr. King.

Keller notes that there have been times in history when Christianity has had to self-correct. The ostensibly “Christian” continents of Europe and North America bear much responsibility for the slave trade and the subsequent segregation and injustice of the South. But, it was also strong Christians who led the charge in the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements.

Keller observes of Martin Luther King Jr. regarding “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “[H]e did not call on Southern churches to become more secular… He invoked God’s moral law and Scripture. He called white Christians to be more true to their own beliefs and to realize what the Bible really teaches.” He didn’t call for moral relativism or secular ideals. He called down the words of the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24). The answer to racism wasn’t “toned down” Christianity, but a better understanding of the gospel.

“Extremism,” as it is used in today’s vernacular, as something that leads to violence and hatred, is a terrible thing and religious extremism is the worst. But we should confuse “extremism” with what it means to be fully committed to the gospel and the Word of God. Jesus was intense. He was marked by zeal and absolute obedience to God and to Scripture. But, his zeal did not lead him to hatred, but to an unparalleled act of love. It led him to the cross to sacrifice his own body for the sins of an undeserving world. And it is this “extreme” love that we are called to both receive through faith and emulate ourselves.

[1] All remaining quotes are from The Reason for God by Tim Keller, Kindle version, chapter 4.

 

Book Review: Reclaiming Love by Ajith Fernando

Reclaiming Love: Radical Relationships in a Complex World is essentially an exposition of 1 Corinthians 13. The book is a call to Christians to follow the way of decisive, dynamic, and self-giving love. It is a good corrective to those who understand love solely in terms of an emotional response.

Solidness: PlusPlus++

The book contains solid biblical and systematic theology on the topic of love. It is evident that Fernando did his homework putting together the book. It’s not exactly a commentary, but if I ever preach through 1 Corinthians 13 I will probably re-read at least portions of this book.

Freshness: Neutral

While Fernando’s work is not terribly original, the message is one that bears repeating. Of all the various aspects of spiritual formation and discipleship, the concept and command to love God and love neighbor is the most central, but it is often overlooked. It’s something “we already know,” or at least, we think we do, and so we skim past it. There is no “moving past” a decisive, enduring, and dynamic love. I originally wrote this review a few weeks ago but didn’t publish right away. I’m glad I didn’t, since within those few weeks I learned again and again (read: I failed again and again) the necessity of really being obedient in this area of life.

Recommendation

I would recommend this book in two instances. First, it’s a good read if you are preparing to teach on 1 Corinthians 13. Second, the first several chapters are an excellent primer on the Biblical understanding of love. If you are giving a general teaching on love, or are in general just interested in the topic, these first few chapters might be worth the price.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

A Wedding Sermon

I had the joy of officiating a wedding this past weekend. Other than a couple errors, one slip the tongue, and a slight flip in the order of the service, I think it went pretty well. Here is the wedding sermon, excluding the personal notes:

To fully understand love we need to move beyond ourselves and our own experience and listen to Creator of love, our Creator, and to His Word. 1 John says, “love comes from God“, “God is love“, and that “we love because God first loved us.” And that is the first thing we must understand about love, that God is the source of love. Love is not just an ideal or an abstract concept. It is a person. It is personal. And, if we are to grow in love we must grow in God. In addressing the issue of marriage Jesus said, “What God as joined together, let no one separate.” Note that he said “What God has joined together…” I charge you to view love as a spiritual reality. Your marriage is not just a commitment before one another and before these witnesses, which it is, but a union blessed by your heavenly Father. As you seek to love one another, seek to love God. As you grow closer to one another, grow closer to God. As you plan out your days, your months, your years together, make that spiritual aspect of your marriage a priority.

The second thing we must learn about love is this: Love is self-giving. Again, 1 John says “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” This is applied directly to the marriage, specifically to the husband actually, in Ephesians when it says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Think about that. You are to love each other the same way that Christ loved us – He gave Himself fully for our good. Though we, in our rebellion, turned away from God. God, in His love, pursued us. God, in the Person of the Son, came to earth and willingly, out of love, took the penalty of our rebellion by dying in our place in order that we, in through faith, might be brought back to God, without shame, and have eternal life with God. That is the simple and enduring message of the gospel and it is a wonderful story of love, not a shallow kind of love, but a potent, pursuing, passionate, give-anything-for-the-other-person’s-good kind of love. And that, God says, is what love is. And that, He says, is what love is supposed to look like in a marriage relationship. Husband, this is a charge particularly to you. Love your wife in a self-giving way, looking out for her good even when it hurts you. Yes, whenever you can, find something that works for both of you. But, on certain occasions you are going to be called to lay down you life for Natalie, I hope not literally, but nevertheless in a real a sacrificial, whatever-it-takes, whatever-the-cost kind of way.

Finally, my charge to you is to remember that love is demonstrated in our actions. Again, in 1 John it says, “Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” When you say, “I love you,” be sure to back it up with actions.

Love is a gracious gift from God. It is passionate, patient, endearing, intimate, and considerate. And with God’s blessing it will be a source of joy in your life for the rest of your lives.

Baptisms, Business Meetings, and Busted Knees

“You’re just not that well put together,” the doctor said as he examined my ankle. That was five years ago, a few days after I sprained my ankle. I had been playing volleyball on the grass, came down from an epic spike (that’s how I remember it anyway) and landed on some soft ground. My ankle swelled up, which earned me a trip to the E.R. and got me some new crutches. A few days later, in Petoskey, I went to a specialist who described my joints as “loose” and “sloshy” and expressed surprise that I wasn’t injured more often. Apparently, I’m just not put together well.

I’ve been injury free since… until last Thursday. I was playing Capture the Flag with a bunch of teenagers from my church, planted my foot hard as I attempted a spectacular Madden-worthy juke, at which point my knee just buckled out from under me. For a couple days I couldn’t put weight on it but, now, thankfully, I am on the road to recovery. No permanent damage, I hope.

This past Sunday was quite exciting at our church. During the worship service we had three baptisms, all adult women who wanted to express their faith in a public way before the church. After the worship service, when we normally have a time for discussion, we had our congregation wide business meeting. As per our tradition, every head of every ministry gave a report on his or her ministry. We’re not a big church but we have a lot of involvement from a lot of people so the annual business meeting is always looong, but in the best possible way. Everything we heard was pure gold.

Before the business meeting Pastor John read the following passage from Ephesians 4:

“11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

On Thursday and Friday I wasn’t able to put any weight on my knee because my supporting ligaments weren’t working. I am prone to injury because my joints are sloshy – because I’m just not that well put together.

But what I saw in our church on Sunday was strength and unity. As each person does his or her work the whole body becomes effective, strong, and mature. On occasions where there has been injury (and we are not immune from injury) it hurts the whole body. But, when we work together with unity of purpose and diversity of function, when we are united by those things we need to be united by (“one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father”) the whole body rejoices. And, even at 12:30, when we are all late for our lunches and our kids were cranky, we were still rejoicing at the goodness and wisdom of God.