Christianity 201

August 21, 2021

Malformed Views of God

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? – John 14:9 NIV

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. – Jeremiah 29:13 NIV
 

Almost exactly ten years ago, while looking for something else, a copy of Your God Is Too Small by J. B. Phillips fell into my hands.  He is the same person who did the Phillips translation of The New Testament.

This 124-page pocket book is usually remembered for its first 59 pages which focus on a number of “wrong pictures” we have of God, and while I know that C201 readers would never fall into one of these errant views, I believe that we often partially fall into looking at God in one of these stereotyped forms.

Furthermore, it could be argued that many of our doctrinal distinctives resulting in various sects and denominations of Christianity have their origin in the different aspects and attributes of God’s character that were emphasized by different groups. For example, I would argue that the differences between Calvinist theology and Arminian theology have less to do with the individual doctrines, and more to do with the picture of God which gave birth to those doctrines.

(On a personal level, I would say my understanding of deconstructing faith is better expressed in terms of remodeling.)

Getting back to more basic distinctives in our God-view, here’s a quick paraphrase of the types Phillips lists:

  • Policeman — an image usually formed out of a ‘guilt-based’ response to God
  • Parental hangover — the Father image of God evokes images of an earthly father which is often more negative than positive, particularly when there was abuse or addiction in the picture
  • Grand Old Man — the head of the seniors group perhaps, or president of the service club; but the danger is the ‘old’ part if it implies irrelevance
  • Meek and Mild — an example, Phillips would argue, of a Sunday School chorus influencing theology which we might want to keep in mind when choosing modern worship pieces for weekend services
  • Absolute Perfection — which leads to us trying to be absolutely perfect even though we don’t often grasp what it means; or thinking God isn’t interested in us when we’re not perfect
  • Heavenly Bosom — a variation perhaps on burying our head in the sand; we bury ourselves in God as a kind of escapism
  • God in a Box — what I think Phillips is intending describes people whose image of God has been shaped by subjective experience in local churches or denominations; or conversely, is defined by the beliefs of his or her denomination
  • Managing Director — with an emphasis on God as “controller,” this image evokes another metaphor: puppet string God
  • Second-Hand God — a longer section; it might be summarized as variations on the God-picture we would get from having seen a single movie or read a single book about God and built everything else up from there; a situation common today where people know “just enough” about God to think they know about God
  • Perennial Grievance — whatever the God-view the person holds, this one is ever mindful of the time that God let them down them; disappointed them; etc.
  • Pale Galilean — an image Phillips uses to describe people whose faith is lacking vitality and courage; or whose loyalty is fragile
  • Projected Image — which we would describe today as “creating God in our image.”

Do you ever find yourself falling into any of these mistaken views of God?

While the terminology might not be readily used today; the book is fairly thorough about describing the full range of false views about God that can exist.  I felt led to share this here, but then needed to come up with some resolve to this.  Phillips views the first half of his book as deconstructive and follows it with a constructive second half.

With the phrase, “deconstructing my faith” being so commonly used in 2021, I think we need to recognize that what is so often happening is better described when we lessen the emphasis on the first word, “deconstructing” and place that emphasis on the second word, “my.” It’s often my version of God that needs to be deconstructed.

What I want to do here instead, is end with a quotation I’ve used before, but which I believe everyone should commit to memory. Say this out loud, placing the stress on the words in italics:

When we say we begin with God, we begin with our idea of God, and our idea of God is not God.   Instead, we ought to begin with God’s idea of God, and God’s idea of God is Christ.

~E. Stanley Jones

Further reading:  If you can get your hands on this out-of-print book, look for Jarrett Stevens’ The Deity Formerly Known as God (Zondervan) which is an updated version of Phillips’ classic.

If you can’t find it, get the original by Phillips, which after all these years is still in print!

 

February 18, 2016

Objection! What About All the Evil in the World?

NLT Eccl. 8:14 And this is not all that is meaningless in our world. In this life, good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. This is so meaningless!

When devotional writers are featured here, we’re not just borrowing some articles, but there’s a very real sense that these writers are recommended resources. Sometimes I feel so positive about a website or blog that it’s hard to select just one piece from among many choices.

Occasionally I will reintroduce a topic that’s been covered here not because regular readers need to see it, but because there’s a message that needs to be continually repeated, and search engines bring us readers from all corners of the world.

Today we introduce you to the site simply called Abide, which is written by Blaize. We first selected a shorter version of this topic which appears on the site’s Apologetics Resources. Then, after formatting everything, we found this version in the 2011 archives. Click the title to read at source and look around.

The Problem of Evil

Read: Ecclesiastes 8:1-15

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes 8 addresses what has become known to in modern philosophy as the “problem of evil”.  The Preacher asks a number of questions concerning the nature of bad things happening to good people and the flip side of that, good things happening to bad people. He begins by speaking of the certainty of one thing that is the common fate of all people, and that is death. He says that no one can know the future. Death as he sees it comes to all and there is nothing that saves one from it and even more so to the ones who practice wickedness, because it will not save them either. The certainty of death then prompts the preacher to look at other matters concerning wicked: First he sees the wicked being praised in the cities in which they did much wickedness and they are being buried with honor. Second, he sees the wicked doing much wrong to the point they are not afraid to do it anymore. Third, he sees good people being treated as if they were wicked, and wicked people being treated as if they were good. All these things he says are meaningless.

The problem of evil has perplexed thinkers for ages as it did the Preacher. The reason why is because of a discrepancy in many the states of affairs that people are in and a purported inaction by God to resolve the state of affairs for good rather than evil. The argument may look something like this:

  1. If God exists, God is all loving and all powerful
  2. An all loving and all powerful God should remove evil.
  3. Evil exists.
  4. Therefore either:
    1. God does not  exist.
    2. God exists and is all loving but cannot remove evil.
    3. God exists and is all powerful but not all loving therefore does not want to remove evil.
    4. God exists but is neither all loving nor all powerful.

In any case, the conclusion purports a contradictory state of affairs in spite of what many believe about God. The problem with this is that the argument in most all forms obligates God to something that God is not necessarily obligated too. In the example above, premise 2 supposes that God “should” do something about evil by virtue of his that he is all loving and able. The only way the contradiction exists is if one supplies the extra premise that God “should” or “ought to” do something about evil. If premise two does not exist, then the contradiction does not exist.

On the other hand, one can supply another premise that says so long as there is a possible reason for evil to exist, there is no reason to doubt God’s existence, his goodness, or his ability to remove evil. A reason that attempts to explain evil is called a theodicy. There are many possible theodicies that are found in the Bible.

  • The Freewill Defense: The Bible is replete with verses that talk about the sinfulness of man, and how it pervades everyone who exists (Romans 3:23, Romans 5:12, Proverbs 20:9, Ecclesiastes 7:20). This freewill defense says evil is a result of man choosing sin.
  • The Greater-Good Theodicy – This reason says that sometimes evil occurs to bring about a net gain of good for the many. This is most clearly seen in Genesis when Joseph was sold into slavery and he endured much evil as a result. But in the end, Joseph says that what his brother intended for evil, God meant for good (Genesis 50:20).
  • The Soul-Making or Soul-Building Theodicy: This theodicy suggests that people endure evil to help build their character and faith. The motif of God disciplining children can be found in Hebrews 12:4-13. Hardship can produce a strong, more mature believer.
  • The Eschatological Theodicy: This one is uniquely Christian; in that all is made right in the cross by Jesus’ sacrifice and that there will come a time when evil is removed. There will be a new heaven and new earth with no crying, pain, or death (Revelation 21:1-4).

What one needs to realize though is these are only possible reasons for what God does. Usually when one is enduring evil, it is difficult if not impossible to know why bad things are happening. Even after sufferings have passed, sometimes the reason is not apparent. This was the case with Job. The readers of Job get to see the full picture of the matter, but Job never ascertains why he endured so much suffering. At the end of the book, he basically concedes that God’s reasons are too wonderful to know (Job 42:1-6). In all of his pondering on the problem of evil, the Preacher never questions the goodness of God, rather sees it better that one should do good in their lives because this is right in the sight of God and he sees the blessings that come from work as a gift from God. The Preacher was correct in noting that death is inescapable, but for Christians, there is the prospect of eternal life in a place where there is no evil. For the reasons the Preacher mentioned and the escape from evil when God creates a new heaven and new earth, it is most certainly more wise to side with God. Furthermore, there is no reason to doubt his goodness and power so long as God has a good reason for allowing evil to persist – even if the reason cannot be ascertained.

Lord, you are good! Help me to trust you even when I cannot understand why bad things are happening!

September 20, 2015

Did God Need Our Love, or Have Extra Love to Spend?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
 -Revelation 4:11 NIV

Today’s devotional is going to be uncharacteristically short, but I hope the question it poses will stay with you. In some ways it continues where we left off yesterday.

I was skimming a back issue (May/Jun 2011) of Every Day With Jesus by Selwyn Hughes and I ran into a question that I’ve heard asked in different ways, but never this succinctly:

“Theologians often debate the question: Did God create us that we might love Him or that He might love us?”

In other words, you could ask if God’s creation of mankind came out of a need or out of an overflow; because of a dirth or because of a glut.

Hughes answer was,

“The proper answer to that question is, I think, that primarily God made us to be loved by Him. We were made to be the subject of His benevolence, and His great desire for us is that we might become the sons and daughters in whom He is well pleased.”

He then quoted the KJV version of Revelation 4:11 (above) “thou has created all things and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”

“To some that might sound as if God is interested only His pleasure, but it is in pleasing Him that we reach our highest potential. His pleasure is our pleasure.”

I believe that for Hughes, this isn’t a conclusion drawn from a single verse or proof text, but through a lifetime of study out of which has emerged an understanding of the character and ways of God.

I also believe that a fuller understanding of what we call the Godhead, a more overt way of expressing the idea of God as a self-contained community of Creator, Word, Spirit (or Father, Son, Spirit) reveals to us that there is already love of the Father for the Son and the Spirit, and the Son for the Father and Spirit; the Spirit’s work being pleasing to both Father and Son.

In other words, God’s creation of us reflects a surplus of love, not a shortage.

All other implications of God’s love for us stem from such an understanding. Rather than starting a list here, let me leave it open: What areas of the Christian life are affected by knowing this principle?


Enjoy listening to this Maranatha! Music version of The Love of God (4-min. audio only; the play button should appear in the center of the image; otherwise double-click):

February 13, 2015

God: From A to Z

Scripture verse in greenAt first, I thought this was a rather contrived premise for an article, but then, the more I thought about it, it’s all scripture so it’s all good. We put scripture verses in green here as a reminder that God’s word is life. Today, the entire article is in green.  (I know, I should have saved it for St. Patrick’s Day.) This is from the blog Abundant Life Now by Robert Lloyd Russell, click the title below to read at source and look around the rest of the site.  Oh… and slow down as you read each verse; think of the theme and what this reveals of God’s nature and His character.

God Alphabet

~ God’s Interactions with His People ~

Almighty God (to bless us) ~ “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless’” (Genesis 17:1).

Blessed God (to cheer us) ~ “According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust” (1 Timothy 1:11).

Compassionate God (to bear with us) ~ “For the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob is the place of His inheritance. He found him in a desert land and in the wasteland, a howling wilderness; He encircled him, He instructed him, He kept him as the apple of His eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, hovers over its young, spreading out its wings, taking them up, carrying them on its wings, so the Lord alone led him, and there was no foreign god with him. He made him ride in the heights of the earth, that he might eat the produce of the fields; He made him draw honey from the rock, and oil from the flinty rock” (Deuteronomy 32:9-13).

Defending God (to protect us) ~ “The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation; He is my God, and I will praise Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him. The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is His name” (Exodus 15:2-3).

Eternal God (to secure us) ~ “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms; He will thrust out the enemy from before you, and will say, ‘Destroy!’” (Deuteronomy 33:27).

Faithful God (to assure us) ~ “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11).

Gracious God (to bless us) ~ “So he prayed to the Lord, and said, ‘Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm’” (Jonah 4:2).

Holy God (to sanctify us) ~ “I will not execute the fierceness of My anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim. For I am God, and not man, the Holy One in your midst; and I will not come with terror” (Hosea 11:9).

Indwelling God (to establish/guide us) – “God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God shall help her, just at the break of dawn” (Psalm 46:5). “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).

Just God (to clear us) ~ “Tell and bring forth your case; yes, let them take counsel together. Who has declared this from ancient time? Who has told it from that time? Have not I, the Lord? And there is no other God besides Me, a just God and a Savior; there is none besides Me” (Isaiah 45:21).

Kind God (to supply us) ~ “Who redeems your life from destruction, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies” (Psalm 103:4).

Loving God (to cherish us) ~ “The Lord has appeared of old to me, saying: ‘Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you’” (Jeremiah 31:3).

Mighty God (to deliver us) ~ “And because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them; and He brought you out of Egypt with His Presence, with His mighty power” (Deuteronomy 4:37). “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

Near God (to sustain/comfort us) ~ “He is near who justifies Me; who will contend with Me? Let us stand together. Who is My adversary?” (Isaiah 50:8). “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6).

Omniscient God (to watch over us) ~ “Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; He shall preserve your soul” (Psalm 121:4-7).

Powerful God (to strengthen us) ~ “But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. Also I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion” (2 Timothy 4:17).

Quickening God (to change us) ~ “Even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:5).

Righteous God (to justify us) ~ “Oh, let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end, but establish the just; for the righteous God tests the hearts and minds” (Psalm 7:9). “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:9).

Saving God (to free us) ~ “And it will be said in that day: ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, and He will save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation’” (Isaiah 25:9).

Truth-keeping God (to encourage us) ~ “Who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; Who keeps truth forever” (Psalm 146:6).

Unchanging God (to secure us) ~ “For I am the Lord, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob” (Malachi 3:6).

Victorious God (to overcome for us) ~ “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Wise God (to enlighten us) ~ “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).

Xcellent God (to be our example) ~ “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth, who have set Your glory above the heavens!” (Psalm 8:1).

Yearning God (to look after us) ~ “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; Your walls are continually before Me” (Isaiah 49:15-16).

Zealous God (to keep us) ~ “As His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3).

~ Robert Lloyd Russell

January 28, 2015

You Don’t Need to Have a Position on Every Issue

Filed under: Uncategorized — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:37 pm
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Regular midweek contributor Clarke Dixon will return next week.

Opinion - Theological Issues

Perhaps you’ve been in churches where candidates for the position of pastor are being interviewed by the leaders or the congregation to see where they stand on particular issues. If a church has gone through a period of turmoil over specific areas of its ministries, it’s important to know which side a person takes. If there is a particular aspect of Bible teaching the church desires, it’s necessary to know the pastor’s skills on those areas. If the church members have a strong feelings toward certain doctrinal patterns, the candidate needs to be able to define their position.

This morning I was speaking briefly with a woman who I would consider as having a deep spiritual life, and in the course of discussing of something else, I asked her what her belief is concerning women in ministry.  (It made sense in context…)

She never did answer the question.

Instead, she quoted the middle sentence of three that occurs in Jeremiah 31:33:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.

Having an opinion, or a position, on such an issue seemed almost irrelevant to her.  Although she didn’t say all this, obviously it wasn’t necessary…

  • to work it out in advance, since she was trusting God would show her His desire, His direction at whatever time it was needed; it’s not that she didn’t understand the question, but more like she didn’t understand my need to ask
  • to amass knowledge on the topic; this is something that came out in a few commentaries as I studied this passage; we put such a huge weight on diagrams, logical constructs, backing verses, etc. but none of this education ensures that we truly know the mind or the ways of God
  • to establish a position categorically; part of the holiness of God is that He is can’t be tamed, can’t be put in a box; it’s possible that the situation or context of any given issue could override the need to have a rule or policy written in stone, such as when David’s men ate the consecrated bread in the temple
  • to determine consensus; the point of the verse, and verse 34 which follows it, is that each individual will independent access to God…and will know Him. [Eerdman’s Bible Commentary, p645] hence there is no need for a collective opinion, a poll, a referendum on God’s desires
  • to practice anything less than grace; the whole point of the verse is God’s announcement of a New Covenant, something not mentioned in Jeremiah until this point

So…should the congregation ask the prospective pastor their questions as to doctrine and practices? Absolutely, but they shouldn’t expect to put God or the pastor in a box. And the individual being asked should not be evasive or mysterious, but should consider the type of answer I was given when I asked.

Or maybe there is a whole set of other questions that matter more, but we don’t know to ask them of each other.

We are simply too caught up in trying to cross ever ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ and tying our theology together with a nice bow. Some categorical, hypothetical questions can’t be answered until you’re in the middle of the situation, and that’s where you often find that God surprises you.

 

December 8, 2014

How We Think About God

Peter Enns is a renown theologian and Biblical scholar who has experienced both accolades and controversy. In this simple article he published last week — click the title below to read at his blog — he presents ten scripture passages that he feels have informed his picture of God. What verses would you add to the list?

10 New Testament passages that shape how I think about God

1. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in his death… (Phil 3:10). Both suffering and resurrection—times of great difficulty and times of triumph—are expected and normal parts of the Christian life.

2. …unless you change and become like children… (Matt 18:3). As children trust their parents with no thought of an alternative, Christians are called to trust God—which is both comforting and challenging.

3. …do not worry about your life…look at the birds…consider the lilies… (Matt 7:25-34). Worry should be as impossible for followers of Christ as it is for birds and plants, which by definition are incapable of worry.

4. …the truth will make you free… (John 8:32). The truth—knowing Christ—will make you free, namely free from yourself to be free toward God.

5. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us… (1 John 4:12). The difficult and often counter-intuitive act of loving one another is the closest we get to seeing God.

6. But while he was still far off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran… (Luke 15:20). The parable of the lost (or, mistakenly, “prodigal”) son. The father has no thought of judgment toward the son, only welcome…and he can’t wait to get started.

7. …your life is hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3). Intimacy (union) with God is the present reality and hoped for goal of the Christian life.

8. …there is no longer Jew or Gentile…slave or free…male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). What humans use to divide between each other for power and control—ethnicity, economy, gender—mean nothing to God.

9. Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? (John 8:10). Whereas our tendency is to punish and exact holy retribution, Jesus shows us that God’s default mode is to forgive and encourage us to move on and begin anew.

10. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… on either side of the river is the tree of life… Rev 21:1; 22:2). The entire biblical story is summed up. The Bible ends where it begins; creation is restored. Everything else in between, God’s story as a whole from Abraham to Christ, is about how God makes that happen.

August 30, 2013

Christianity Isn’t Afraid of Questions

Filed under: Uncategorized — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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NIV Ecc.  12:9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.

Today’s reading comes from The Catch, the blog of author and musician John Fischer, where it appeared originally under the title The improbable Truth.  John ends with a quote from The Message Bible where “the teacher” is translated as “the quester.”  Christianity isn’t afraid of questions.

question-markHas it ever made anyone curious why the Bible questions its own answers? Take the book of Ecclesiastes, for instance — twelve chapters dedicated to the propagation of the meaninglessness of life. And this is not just the author having a bad hair day. This is an investment of a wise king’s entire life seeking the meaning of his existence. Every attempt to answer the big question is meticulously pursued, and with all the resources to make it legitimate. If Solomon wanted to pursue wealth, he had wealth to exceed the richest kings at the time. If he wanted to pursue pleasure, he had thousands of concubines at his bidding. And in his pursuit of wisdom, his wisdom was unparalleled in human history.

King Solomon was no armchair philosopher. He had the opportunity to try out each one of his solutions, and every time he came up with the same conclusion: “Meaningless, meaningless… Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). And even when he does concede, in the end, that the only reasonable thing to do is to fear God and keep His commandments, it’s not like he’s ready to celebrate this final discovery (Ecclesiastes 12:13). In fact, it reads like a resignation. You finish this book and you want to go, “When’s the next Tony Robbins seminar? I need some cheering up!”

Actually, the fact that Ecclesiastes is in the Bible does two things for me. First, it gives me confidence that the rest of the Bible is true. If Christianity were a construct of the human mind, you wouldn’t find this stuff in its portfolio, that’s for sure. What propaganda features differing views? Who includes the opposing arguments in their literature, and even makes them look good? And yet the Bible declares life meaningless, it shows bad people having a good time and good people having a miserable time. The hero of the whole book dies a brutal death in the end, for heaven’s sake, and then He calls His followers to come and die with Him! Well, whoopee! Where do I sign up? I’m sorry, but to all those who say someone made up Christianity, I have to say, based on what? Certainly nothing I know of in human nature.

Secondly, it makes me look more deeply into things. Maybe the reason following Christ doesn’t magically make this life a party is because there is something more than this life to consider. And maybe Solomon was so old and spent by the time he finally got to it that he couldn’t really enjoy what was enjoyable about what he found. And maybe, just maybe, the reason God put his story there was for us to benefit from his life’s search, take his word for it, and start living where he left off.
_______________________

Besides being wise himself, the Quester also taught others knowledge. He weighed, examined, and arranged many proverbs. The Quester did his best to find the right words and write the plain truth.

The words of the wise prod us to live well. They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together. They are given by God, the one Shepherd.

But regarding anything beyond this, dear friend, go easy. There’s no end to the publishing of books, and constant study wears you out so you’re no good for anything else. The last and final word is this:

Fear God.
Do what he tells you.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-13 (The Message)

June 14, 2013

The Ways of the Lord

Several years ago we visited a church expecting to hear the pastor preach, only to discover it was Teen Challenge Sunday, and the team would be taking the entire service. At first I was disappointed, but as one of the young men shared his testimony, he said something I will never forget:

I knew about the Bible, but I didn’t understand the ways of the Lord.

That one sentence was a takeaway from that day which was worth all the other minutes at that service. I used it to examine my own relationship with God. Was my standing based on just Bible knowledge? Just on acts of Christian service? Just on coasting on a commitment made many years ago?

If you’re in relationship with someone, you’re going to know how they would act, what they would think, words they might say; all in response to a variety of situations. You know if you do something whether or not they would be pleased or grieved. You can almost hear them audibly speaking.

The phrase “the ways of the Lord” occurs in the NIV seven times. The first six are positive, the last is negative, when Paul tells Elymas,  “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” in Acts 13: 10

Two passages are identical, II Sam. 22:22 and Ps. 18:21

For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God.

— not surprising since David is the author of both; the inclusion in Psalms is very much a ‘copy and paste’ with the next verses in both being:

All his laws are before me;
I have not turned away from his decrees.
 I have been blameless before him
and have kept myself from sin.

Psalm 25: 10 continues

All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful toward those who keep the demands of his covenant.

and in Psalm 138:5

May they sing of the ways of the Lord, for the glory of the Lord is great.

In II Chron. 17: 5b and 6 we read:

…all Judah brought gifts to Jehoshaphat, so that he had great wealth and honor. His heart was devoted to the ways of the Lord; furthermore, he removed the high places and the Asherah poles from Judah.

Hosea 14:9 states:

Who is wise? Let them realize these things. Who is discerning? Let them understand. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them.

Of this last verse, Matthew Henry writes:

The ways of the Lord are right; and therefore it is our wisdom and duty to know and understand them. The way of God’s precepts, in which he requires us to walk, is right, agreeing with the rules of eternal reason and equity and having a direct tendency to our eternal felicity. The ways of God’s providence, in which he walks toward us, are all right; no fault is to be found with any thing that God does, for it is all well done. His judgments upon the impenitent, his favours to the penitent, are all right; however they may be perverted and misinterpreted, God will at last be justified and glorified in them all.

I think the key here is that knowing could easily be inferred to be knowing about. We all know the danger of knowing about God, but not truly knowing Him. But the verse doesn’t give us that option, it speaks of walking in His ways.

The first part of Micah 4:2 says,

Many nations will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”

R. G. LeTourneau is quoted as saying,

If you know the Lord
You will love the Lord
If you love the Lord
You will serve the Lord
If you’re not serving the Lord
You don’t love the Lord
If you don’t love the Lord
You don’t know the Lord

Today, I offer a paraphrase based on today’s study:

If you know the Lord
You will know the ways of the Lord
If you know the ways of the Lord
You will walk in the ways of the Lord
If you’re not walking in the ways of the Lord
You don’t know the ways of the Lord
If you don’t know the ways of the Lord
You don’t know the Lord.

April 18, 2012

When the Bible Bites!

Sometimes it seems like the Bible has teeth!

Should a caution sticker or warning be put on each copy of the Bible?  “Warning may cause change in lifestyle and worldview…”  Some people may wish that.

In today’s post, Wayne Stiles — whose boss is Chuck Swindoll — notes that some people want a Bible that doesn’t say the things it says…  This appeared at his blog under the title Undesirable Side Effects of the Bible.

The Bible has many undesirable side effects. So what do we do with them?

As we drove to church one week, Cathy read an article to me from an issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. The magazine doesn’t claim biblical orthodoxy by any means—it simply claims to publish issues in historical archaeology. But occasionally it tosses a live grenade at its readers by inserting something unrelated to archaeology—to dig up controversy as well as artifacts.

In a section called “Milestones” (a euphemism for “Obituaries”), BAR noted the death of one scholar who had been a champion for ecumenicism and a voice for women and minorities. The article ended with a quote from this scholar that dropped my jaw. Read his words carefully:

The Christian Bible includes sayings that have caused much pain, both to Jews and to women. Thus I have felt called to seek forms of interpretation which can counteract such undesirable side effects of the Holy Scriptures.

What grieves me about such a remark is not the desire to comfort or to give a voice to those who have been hurt, abused, or mistreated. I applaud that. My concern is with a mindset that elevates self above Scripture—or really, above God. My concern is with the idea that somehow God’s Word stands in contradiction to God’s love.
The Jefferson Bible in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C.

One of my daughters said this statement reminded her of the Jefferson Bible we had seen in the Smithsonian Institute. I have heard that Thomas Jefferson read the gospels with a pair of scissors in hand, cutting and keeping only those parts of the life of Christ that seemed authentic to Jefferson.

I shared the BAR article at a staff meeting at Insight for Living and one of our writers, Derrick, noticed the similarity between this scholar’s quote and another quote, more familiar: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’? . . . You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman (Gen. 3:1, 4, emphasis added).

No doubt, the Bible has MANY undesirable side effects. But they seem undesirable only because we prefer to choose our own standards rather than to submit to those God has revealed. God’s Word, by its own admission, purposes to shape us through grace into a holy people. It isn’t there so that we can conform it to be like us.

Can’t we comfort those who have been mistreated and abused without apologizing for God? And if the Word of God is the offender, shouldn’t we first consider why it offends us rather than redefine its meaning?

If I stand before a judge with the line of reasoning that I don’t interpret the law the way he does, it will make no difference to his verdict. Meaning lies with the author or originator of a text—not with the reader.

Rather than seek to change the meaning of the text (which, in effect, makes it meaningless) would not it seem more honest to change ourselves?

~Wayne Stiles

February 7, 2012

Jeff Mikels Fields Some Questions – Part Two

I love it when pastors do a Q&A (question and answer) session after their sermons.  Yesterday we met Jeff Mikels, pastor of Lafayette Community Church in Indiana, who has blogged some of the questions he wasn’t able to answer in previous messages. Today we conclude with three more questions.

Some of the questions may apply to your interests.  Each question is a link to the full article.  You are encouraged to read each question at its source and leave specific comments on the applicable article.  When you click through, you can also use the articles you read to link to the rest of his blog.  I promise there won’t be Part Three tomorrow, but I equally promise that I believe we’ll return to Jeff’s blog in the future. 

I’ve also added some comments at the very end that apply to both parts of this short series.

The Bible: Do NT verses on Scripture apply to both Testaments?

Can we generalize New Testament verses on the authority of Scripture (eg. 2 Tim 3:15-17) to the NT since in the original context they were referring only to the Old Testament?

I didn’t get to answer this one on Sunday, but it’s a good question and deserves a little time. Basically, the question raises the issue that the New Testament authors use the word Scripture to refer to their Scripture which would have been the Jewish Scriptures or the Old Testament. Therefore, one could argue, the New Testament passages on Scriptural authority apply only to the Old Testament. As a result, how do we get our idea that the New Testament is also authoritative?

This is a very rational line of thought, but it misses on one small point. When the New Testament writers used the word “Scripture” they were not talking only about the Old Testament. In fact, there’s a fascinating passage in 2 Peter 3:15-16:

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. — 2 Peter 3:15-16

What’s fascinating in this passage is that Peter considered Paul’s writings to be Scripture. The word “other” near the end of v. 16 demonstrates that. Another fascinating thing about this passage is that Paul was still alive when it was written. So follow the logic: Peter knows about Paul’s writings. Peter calls them Scripture. Paul most likely is aware of Peter’s writings. He surely would have been told what Peter thought about his letters. Paul doesn’t deny it, ever. The most likely conclusion is that Paul and Peter both knew that what was being written in their day was to be considered Scripture.

Therefore, the answer is “Yes.” New Testament passages on Scripture refer also to the other New Testament writings.

The Bible: What about the apocrypha?

On Sunday, I was asked about the apocrypha, but I later found out that the answer I gave was partially wrong.

What I said was that back in the days before Jesus, there were a number of books that were circulated among Jewish people. However, back then, no one considered them to be on the same level as Scripture. In fact, after the prophet Malachi wrote his prophecy it was widely understood that there were no more prophets, and that was 400 years before Jesus. Nevertheless, history still happened during those 400 years and Jewish teachers still speculated on spiritual realities. That’s where the extra books came from. Nevertheless, as I said, the Jews of the time did not consider them to be authoritative or on the same level as the other Scriptures.

When the Hebrews Scriptures were translated into Greek, the translators decided to also translate some of the other documents into Greek as well. Eventually, the collected Greek translations came to be called the Septuagint after the supposed 70 scholars employed to do the work of translation.

By the time of Jesus, the majority of the Septuagint had been translated, and both Jesus and the Apostles used the Septuagint version as the version they quoted from. Nevertheless, no New Testament writer quotes from or refers to any of the books in the “apocrypha.” (see this article) Further, when the Rabbis finally and fully agreed on which books were the authoritative Hebrew Scriptures, they included only the books we now have in our Old Testament. Therefore, the reason these other books are not in Protestant Bibles today is that the Jews of Jesus day, though they used the Septuagint translation for their knowledge of Scripture, seemed to know a distinction between the books that later became the “Hebrew Scriptures” and those that later became the “Apocrypha.”

That’s basically what I said on Sunday, but I also made a claim that I have since learned was incorrect. I said that the Catholics followed the tradition of the Septuagint and included three sections in their Bibles with the Apocrypha in between the Old and New Testaments. However, that was wrong. Having been raised Catholic, my wife Jen has a Catholic Bible and showed me after the service that in their Bible, the “apocryphal” books are interspersed throughout the Old Testament. Furthermore, she told me that Catholics are actually quite offended by the term “apocrypha.”

So I was wrong about the Catholic Bibles. After a little more research tonight, I found that it was Martin Luther who first put the Apocrypha into a separate section between the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, I’ll just say that the best way of understanding the difference between Catholic Bibles and Protestant Bibles is that Protestants follow the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures for the Old Testament while the Catholics follow the tradition of the Septuagint.

I personally follow the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures endorsed by Jesus and the Apostles.

For additional information, these Wikipedia articles are quite interesting:

Understanding the Father

On Sunday, we addressed the third statement from [our church’s] Statement of Faith, but before we can look at it, we need to consider the relationship between human language and the reality of God.

The Limits of Our Language

What thoughts come to mind when you think of God? What images come to you? Is he some old man sitting on a throne? Do you imagine him in the ways of Greek mythology, like Zeus holding a lightning bolt and standing on a mountain? Do you imagine him as a highly exalted human being?

The problem is that none of those images are valid. None of those images work. None of those images are allowed. They are all idols. In the burning bush, God used no mental images to describe himself. The fire was a portal for his voice, but his self description was simply “I AM.” In the march from Egypt to Israel, God confirmed his presence before the people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. In the days of wandering, God confirmed his presence by the golden box called the Ark filled with the ten commandments. And near the top of the list at number two was the command against having any idols, any objects of worship that were visible and tangible.

Our mental images are just as idolatrous because they put representations of God in our mind that are not actually God as he is. The most important thing to know about God is that he cannot be contained, he cannot be imagined, he cannot be imaged by humans. Our concepts are too small, our brains are too childish, our language is too limited, our knowledge is too elementary.

Even as we talk about God, we must keep in mind that God is bigger than the words we use. When we say God is love, we mean that he has revealed himself to us with the word “love,” but that his love is more loving than our love.

By way of disclaimer, then, I just want to say that God is the standard for the attributes we describe. It is not the other way around. We can’t use our words, define our words, put our own concepts into our words, and then apply those labels to God. We can’t say, “Well, to me, love means… and therefore, since God is love, he should act like…” You can’t come to know God by learning more about the attribute. You can’t study fathers to learn about your Heavenly Father. You can’t study lovers to learn of God’s love. You can’t study morals to learn about God’s goodness

Instead, we need to let God and his reality fill out the definition for the words we use. If God is love, we must let God’s character and actions define for us what love really is.

Now, we can turn to the statement.

The Father

[Our] Statement of Faith reads thus:

God the Father is an infinite personal spirit, perfect in holiness, wisdom, power, and love. He concerns Himself mercifully in the affairs of each person, He hears and answers prayer, and He saves from sin and death all who come to Him through Jesus Christ (Deuteronomy 32:4-6, Psalm 139, Matthew 6:6-8, John 3:16-17, John 4:24, Romans 6:23, 1 Corinthians 8:6).

Implications

What I find to be most fascinating about all of this is that the statement starts with a God who is an infinite personal spirit, perfect in holiness, and it ends with a God who pays attention to the prayers of individual people.

In talking about this with our congregation, I walked through the statement point by point, showing supporting verses and providing brief explanation where helpful. Then, at the end I addressed some live questions from the congregation. Those questions were fascinating because they all seemed to revolve around the one big issue of God’s will versus human freedom.

Answering those questions adequately requires us to fully grasp the meaning of the first sentence of our statement above. Here are a couple bullet points to flesh out the statement:

  • As the only infinite personal spirit, God is boundless with regard to time and space, without physical properties, but able to mentally relate to other intelligent beings.
  • Perfect holiness means that God is completely distinct—other than—everything in Creation. He is above and beyond his creatures. His essence, attributes, and behaviors cannot be fully comprehended by any created being.
  • Perfect wisdom means that God always fully understands all possible courses of action. He perfectly understands the past. He can perfectly predict the future. Therefore, he can perfectly select the best course of action in any circumstance.
  • Perfect power means that God is always able to accomplish what he intends to do. It doesn’t mean that he is able to create logically impossible realities like a circle with four right angles. It does mean that he always gets what he wants. His power extends so great that he is even able to create a world where the independent actions of free beings bring about the end result he desires.
  • Perfect love means that God is first of all in a perfect love relationship with the other members of the Trinity. His very nature allows for and demands a loving mutuality of deference, equality, respect, and affirmation. Love is intrinsic to the nature of God. Therefore, because the Trinity is at work cooperatively to bring about God’s desired plans, the Father deeply loves his plans and the execution of those plans by the Son. Finally, the Father loves the individuals of the world because they are his prime agents working out his plan on planet Earth.

In the posts to follow, we will be addressing questions regarding the will of God, but to conclude this post, I want to affirm the most personally compelling reality of the nature of God.

God, the one who is unbounded by time and space, who knows the best thing to do at all times, who is fully capable to bring about his will regardless of circumstances, made you to be who you are at this moment in history. God, who always knows what’s best and always gets his way, made you.

Take pride that God has chosen you to be part of his plan. Take warning that God expects you to play by his rules. Take comfort that God has done everything possible to empower you to do just that.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. — John 3:16-17


Now that we’ve freely “borrowed” some of Jeff’s writing; I’d like some of you to return the favor by bookmarking or subscribing to Jeff’s blog.

But before we leave, I want us to “borrow” one more thing.  Look at the questions that appeared yesterday and today and while the substance of each answer is important, notice the carefully reasoned approach by which each is answered.  That’s the style your “always be ready to give an account” answers should have to your friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers.  You go from “A” to “B” to “C” to conclusion.

Consider the concept that you want to make progress with each new paragraph or thought, and the idea that one paragraph builds upon another which is based on a foundation or hypothesis.

But then, having said that, you have to content or substance.  Like the Bereans, you need to “search the scriptures” in order give people quality answers to the questions they might ask.  Christianity 201 is all about digging a little deeper.

August 26, 2011

Adopting Wrong Views of God

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

 

This morning while looking for something else, a copy of Your God Is Too Small by J. B. Phillips fell into my hands.  This 124-page pocket book is usually remembered for its first 59 pages which focus on a number of “wrong pictures” we have of God, and while I know that C201 readers would never fall into one of these errant views, I believe that we often partially fall into looking at God in one of these stereotyped forms.  Here’s a quick paraphrase of the types Phillips lists:

  • Policeman — an image usually formed out of a ‘guilt-based’ response to God
  • Parental hangover — the Father image of God evokes images of an earthly father which is more negative than positive
  • Grand Old Man — the head of the seniors group perhaps, or president of the service club; but the danger is the ‘old’ part if it implies irrelevance
  • Meek and Mild — an example, Phillips would argue, of a Sunday School chorus influencing theology which we might want to keep in mind when choosing modern worship pieces for weekend services
  • Absolute Perfection — which leads to us trying to be absolutely perfect even though we don’t often grasp what it means; or thinking God isn’t interested in us when we’re not perfect
  • Heavenly Bosom — a variation perhaps on burying our head in the sand; we bury ourselves in God as a kind of escapism
  • God in a Box — what I think Phillips is using describe people whose image of God has been shaped by subjective experience in local churches or denominations; or conversely, is defined by the beliefs of his or her denomination
  • Managing Director — with an emphasis on God as “controller,” this image evokes another metaphor: puppet string God
  • Second-Hand God — a longer section; it might be summarized as variations on the God-picture we would get from having seen a single movie or read a single book about God and built everything else up from there
  • Perennial Grievance — whatever the God-view the person holds, this one is ever mindful of the time that God let them down them; disappointed them; etc.
  • Pale Galilean — an image Phillips uses to describe people whose faith is lacking vitality and courage; or whose loyalty is fragile
  • Projected Image — which we would describe today as “creating God in our image.” 

Do you ever find yourself falling into any of these mistaken views of God?

While the terminology might not be readily used today; the book is fairly thorough about describing the full range of false views about God that can exist.  I felt led to share this here, but then needed to come up with some resolve to this.  Phillips views the first half of his book as deconstructive and follows it with a constructive second half.  What I want to do here instead, is end with a quotation I’ve used before, but which I believe everyone should commit to memory:

When we say we begin with God, we begin with our idea of God, and our idea of God is not God.   Instead, we ought to begin with God’s idea of God, and God’s idea of God is Christ.

~E. Stanley Jones

Further reading:  If you can get your hands on this out-of-print book, look for Jarrett Stevens’ The Deity Formerly Known as God (Zondervan) which is an updated version of Phillips’ classic. 

If you can’t find it, get the original by Phillips, which after all these years is still in print!

May 6, 2011

Proof Texting the Celebration of a Terrorist’s Death

Stuart James at Credo House (Reclaiming the Mind blog) posted this, as apparently Facebook and Twitter were counting the Bible verses people were using to either justify or condemn the celebration following Osama Bin Laden’s death.  His was a top ten list

Top ten most quoted bible verses on social media following the death of Osama bin Laden:
1. Proverbs 24:17 “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.”

2. Psalm 138:8 “The LORD will make PERFECT the things that concern me”(KJV). (NIV: “The LORD will vindicate me; your love, LORD, endures forever—do not abandon the works of your hands.”)

3. Proverbs 21:15 “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” (Rick Warren started this one):

4. Ezekiel 33:11 “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?”

5. Ezekiel 18:23 “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

6. Isaiah 1:18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”

7. Proverbs 11:10 “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.”

8. Proverbs 24:18 ” … or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them.” (The popularity of this verse is due to it finishing the sentence begun by the #1 most popular verse.)

9. Proverbs 24:1 “Do not envy the wicked, do not desire their company;” (probably an effort to quote Proverbs 24:17)

10. Proverbs 28:5 “Evildoers do not understand what is right, but those who seek the LORD understand it fully.”

…but the list continues at this Christianity Today post with 14 more verses, though you’re fine just to stay with the ones listed here.   Personally, I think this was a good time not to weigh in on the discussion either way, but to practice the silence that Proverbs teaches is the hallmark of wisdom.

…I know some of you are thinking that this is more the kind of thing I would post at Thinking out Loud, but I believe that those of us who desire spiritual maturity — and to reflect spiritual maturity — should be very careful when it comes to polarized debate or polarizing reactions to current events.

Knowing God, and knowing the character of God means that there is no conflict between verse #1 and verse #7 or between verse #3 and verse #5.  It means living in the complexity of the tension that exists between two conditions, not a simple either/or type of response.