Thursday, September 29, 2005

Proper Use of Proverbs

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.

Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Proverbs 26:4-5

There it is right there: clearly, a contradiction in the Bible. One sentence says we must not answer a fool; the very next sentence says we should answer a fool. What's up with that?

Most people who believe the Bible will tell you these verses prove that there's no winning with a fool. Answer him or don't answer him. He's a fool.

That's a very convenient way of looking at things. It allows me to say, "Thank you, God, that I am not like any of those fools out there."

One of the frustrating things that we don't like about the Book of Proverbs is that sometimes it seems to contradict itself. But we have proverbs in the English language that do the same thing. For instance, we'll say, "Look before you leap", and then we'll say, "He who hesitates is lost." Which is it?

Opposites attract, but birds birds of a feather flock together. Huh?

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight, out of mind.

If you're going to benefit from proverbs, they require some measure of self-awareness. The Book of Proverbs was written to help us avoid folly, and we tend to fall into folly in opposite extremes.

For example, some of us tend to leap too quickly. We spring into action without thinking everything through, and it gets us into trouble. We need to look before we leap. But there are others reading this (and you know who you are) who wait too long and the window of opportunity closes before we get going. We need to remember that he who hesitates is lost.

Which is it? It depends on your personality.

So, back to our original example. There are those of us who are too quick to speak, too quick to answer a fool and end up looking like fools ourselves. Then, there are those of us who are too slow to speak, we don't want to rock the boat and allow a fool to go uncorrected.

Like a thorn bush in a drunkard's hand is a proverb in the mouth of a fool (Proverbs 26:9).

A proverb can do incredible good in the life of those who will learn the lesson. But a proverb in the mouth of a fool can do incredible damage. Proper use of proverbs requires self-awareness and discernment. As a general rule, I find that people who read a proverb and think, "This applies so well to someone else -- in fact, I think I'll share the wisdom of this proverb with them right now" -- that tends to be a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

The best way to read the Proverbs -- heck, the best way to read the whole Bible -- is probably the one where you say, "God, I'm not concerned right now with what you want to say to anyone but me."

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Problem With Proverbs

For the longest time I didn't like the Book of Proverbs. I wouldn't read it, wouldn't refer to it, didn't even like to talk about it. I felt like the book had let me down somehow.

I now know it's because I didn't know how to read Proverbs.

There are three different types of literature that must be differentiated: Laws; Promises; Proverbs.

For example, Deuteronomy 6:5 says, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." That's a command. It's something we are to do all the time, and there are no exceptions.

Romans 8:38-39 says, "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." That's a promise. There's nothing in there that we're supposed to do. It's God's promise to us, and -- again -- there are no exceptions.

But Proverbs 10:4 says, "Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth." Not really a command. Not really a promise. There are exceptions to this rule. Lazy people sometimes win the lottery. Hardworking people sometimes mismanage their money.

Here's another one that's sometimes hard to grasp: "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Proverbs 22:6). That sounds like a promise, but it's not. Even in the Old Testament there are examples of really good parents who have really lousy kids. If you read this verse like it's a promise (which is how I used to read the Proverbs), you may be setting yourself up for frustration, confusion and anger if your children decide to depart from the path they were raised to walk.

Proverbs are generally just the way things work. But there are exceptions. I used to read the Proverbs as if they were iron-clad promises from God that this is how things will be. Work hard, and you'll get rich. Pursue God's wisdom, and people will love you. Put the quarter in, and the candy bar comes out.

I didn't have to live very long before I realized that life doesn't work that way. With my lack of wisdom at the time I assumed the problem must be with the book of Proverbs. I now realize that the problem was with the way I was reading it.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Extreme Wisdom

I'm teaching on the Proverbs this week. Anyone out there have a favorite Hebrew Proverb?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Extreme Sex (part 2)

The church claims to have the Total Truth -- that is, truth that impacts every single area of life. And yet our society knows better than to ask Christians about sex. They know we'll most likely say, "No! Stop! Don't do it! Turn back! Pretend it doesn't exist! It's dirty!"

How did we get that reputation?

Well, I've been reading Philip Yancey's book Rumors of Another World. In one chapter called "Designer Sex", he traces some of the development of our anti-sex attitude.

Before Christianity came on the scene, sex was considered something of a sacrament -- a means of grace -- a holy thing. In fact, Jewish people would often pray and recite psalms as they were consumating their marriage. Pagan religions like the Greeks and the Romans actually went so far as to include sexual intercourse in their liturgies. A temple prostitute, for example, would pray for a certain god or goddess to inhabit her body. Then men would have sex with her as a means of communing with that god or goddess.

That's the religious atmosphere into which Christianity was introduced. It didn't take long for Christians to push the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. In fact, Augustine suggested that sexual intercourse was how original sin was transmitted and believed that sex for any purpose other than procreation was sinful.

St. Jerome went even further and said that marital sex was only one step above fornication. According to Jerome, virginity was the ideal and should be maintained as strictly as possible. He is quoted as saying, "Anyone who is too passionate a love with his own wife is himself an adulterer."

Before long the church decided that since Jesus died on a Friday, there should be no sex on Fridays. Then someone mentioned that Jesus was arrested on Thursday, so maybe we shouldn't have sex then either. Of course, Saturday is the day he was dead, so having sex on Saturday seems wrong. We should take that day to think of Jesus' poor, grieving mother -- who was a virgin! Oh, and what about Lent? Maybe we should give up sex for Lent. And Advent. And Pentecost.

Eventually, once you took out all the days of fasting and feasting and mandatory celibacy, you were left with only 44 days of the year that were cleared for sex. And even then you were only doing it in order to get pregnant. Do not enjoy it!

Michelangelo's Sistene Chapel is an amazing thing to see. The problem is all the people are nude. So, one pope commissioned a painter named "Daniel the Trouserer" to paint clothes on them.

It was around that time that some pope decided that all priests should be celibate. And then they banned women from singing out loud. A woman singing out loud in public? That could inspire lustful thoughts in a man.

Eventually, Victorian clergy advocated covering the legs of your furniture.

What kind of man lusts after the legs of the furniture? Don't answer that.

Here's what gets lost in all of our puritanical prudery: God actually created sex. And sex is brilliant! It's amazing. Just think of the body parts used. The soft parts and the millions of nerve endings. The economy and irony of the organs. The internal and external. The combination of visual appeal and mechanical design.

Sex is not meant to just be functional. It's meant to be enjoyable as well. That's part of God's design. And the Song of Solomon is in the Bible as a testimony to this.

Oh, and one other thing: Growing up I heard that the book wasn't really about sex. It was, we were told, about Christ and his relationship to his bride, the church.

People who say that usually haven't really read the book. There is nothing in there to justify that idea. And the people who read it initially knew. This book is a celebration of sex and romance. No two ways about that.

Question: Why would we want this book to be about anything other than sex?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Extreme Sex (part 1)

Just curious: Have any of you ever heard a sermon from Song of Solomon?

I grew up going to church. My father is a preacher. I've probably heard 2,000 sermons in my life. I can't remember anyone ever using Solomon's Song of Songs as their text.

In a world so schizophrenic about sex, why has the church mostly just said, "When it comes to sex, we have one word, and that one word is: NO!"?

Evolutionary biologists and psychologists say the sex drive is all about procreation.

The entertainment and advertising industries say the sex drive is all about recreation.

People will go to ridiculous places for advice: Dr. Ruth. Loveline w/ Dr. Drew. The weird Canadian lady -- she's creepy. There's even a new reality show in HBO that follows two sex therapists in London.

And yet the one place people will not go to with their questions about sex is the church. That can't be right.

I'm asking you: have you ever considered asking someone at church a sex question?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Epilogue: Just Because

The Lord blessed the latter part of Job's life more than the first. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. And he also had seven sons and three daughters. The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Karen-Happuch. Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job's daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers.

Job 42:12-15

Q: What are the names of Job's sons?

A: We don't know.

Job has seven sons, and we don't know the name of one of them. But we know the name of each of his three daughters. Curious.

And the daughters were given a portion of the inheritance along with the sons. This also is curious.

See, in the ancient world sons were what it was all about. Sons could work in the field, and sons could take over the family farm. Sons would carry on the family name. Sons could provide for you when you got old. Sons were useful. Providing an inheritance for your sons was a strategic thing to do.

Daughters were liable to get married, take on someone else's name and move away. They might end up working someone else's farm and providing for someone else's parents. You'd never give them a portion of the inheritance. But Job does. Why? Just because.

What am I getting at?

Job now delights in (look at what his daughters' names mean) and gives to the least strategic, least useful offspring. Job gives to those who may never give him anything in return. Job has become more like God. He learned a lesson, and the lesson wasn't, "Stop crying, or I'll give you something to really cry about!" The lesson was that God doesn't give good things to people as a reward for doing right; God gives good things to people just because.

Job learns that lesson, and -- even though he questions God -- he clings to God all the way through this ordeal. In the end, he comes out looking a lot more like the God he's been holding onto than ever before.

Satan was wrong about the human race and about God. And this book was written and preserved for us -- to show us our true potential. Can a human being still hang onto God with love and service and obedience even if it doesn't seem to pay off?

One could. One did. Job didn't know when he was sitting on the ash heap broke, confused, sad and miserable how God was using him to vindicate his whole crazy adventure -- that a community could be created where God was both the center and the circumference.

Job's story inspires all of us who live in Uz. Don't quit. Don't give up. It inspires us because we know what Job did not: one day this God would descend the Upper Stage to the Lower Stage and become one of us and offer to exchange all our suffering for his righteousness so that we could ascend from the Lower Stage to the Upper Stage.

And he doesn't do it to gain anything. He does it just because.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Kind of Person God Is

Job's asks for an audience with God. He wants to face God and demand some answers. In chapter 38, Job gets his request. God shows up, but he doesn't answer any of Job's questions. Instead, God has some questions of his own:

Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
Or who laid its cornerstone --
While the morning stars sang together
And all the angels shouted for joy?

Job 38:4-7

Why does God do that? Why ask Job questions he can't possibly answer?

Is it to show that he's smarter than Job? Is it because he's just tired to Job's whining? Is God warning Job: "If you don't stop all this crying, I'll give you something to really cry about"?

I don't think that fits with what we've learned about God's character and nature thus far in the Bible. God doesn't seem that interested in flexing his muscles and intimidating humans. That would be like me demanding that my kids be impressed with how strong I am. They're kids! Only an immature person does stuff like that. "Look how strong Daddy is. Aren't you impressed? You better be!"

God is pointing out Job's limitations -- especially Job's finite mind and limited perspective. But -- as OT scholar Ellen F. Davis points out: "God's questions indicate something important about the kind of person he is -- the kind of person who creates in such a way that the morning stars sing together and anges shout for joy."

God asks:

Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain,
And a path for the thunderstorm,
To water a land where no man lives,
A desert with no one in it,
To satisfy a desolate wasteland
And make it sprout with grass?

Job 38:25-27

In Israel, life depends on water. No one would waste water because it was such a valuable commodity.

Q: Why would God water a land where no one lives?

A: God is generous for no reason at all. God is good for no reason. God does stuff like this without gaining anything in return. He gives for no reason other than it's his nature. God's long speech shows us a person who absolutely delights in creatures that are of no use to him whatsoever. God gains nothing from doing this. He does it because it is who he is.

God created donkeys that will never never be tamed and oxen that will never plow, ostriches that will never fly, hippos and crocodiles (behemoth and leviathan) that will never really be useful. This whole section is not really about nature or animals as much as it is about the God who made nature and animals. These creatures are pretty much useless, but God created and cares for them.

Why? Why would God create a world and fill it with useless things? Because that's who he is. He doesn't need anything, so he doesn't take this utilitarian view of creation like we do. Maybe this is what God means when he says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways" (Isaiah 55:8).

God's motives are not our motives. We're always concerned with how something is going to benefit us; God doesn't need anything -- isn't lacking anything -- so he's not concerned with how a thing is going to benefit him. The God of the Upper Stage is gratuitously good and irrationally loving and ridiculously generous.

And I mean ever one of those words -- especially ridiculously. In fact, it was his generosity that brought the most horrible ridicule upon his Son Jesus when he was here on earth.

Job never finds out what happened on the Upper Stage. Instead, he finds out something better. He finds out the kind of person God is, and that's enough for Job.

Friday, September 16, 2005

God Shows Up with Some Questions of His Own

Job has questions. He doesn't say that he's never sinned. He says that his spiritual life doesn't correspond with his change of circumstances. In other words, he lived a very righteous life and enjoyed tremendous blessings. Then his blessings went away and were replaced by tremendous suffering, but (and this is really his argument) his spiritual life didn't change in such a way as to merit such a drastic change in his circumstances.

His friends ask, "So, why has all this happened?"

Job says, "I don't know."

If his friends had been wise, they would have said, "We don't know either."

But that's not what they say. They argue with Job, and here's a wise principle: never argue with someone who is in mourning. Logic doesn't often go hand-in-hand with grief.

Eventually, Job says, "I wish I could sue God. If only God would show up and we could talk about this man-to-man."

In chapter 38, Job gets his request. In fact, it's kind of funny and ironic. Elihu (another one of Job's friends) is in the middle of telling Job why God doesn't have to show up when God actually shows up.

If we misunderstand this next part of the story we'll end up with lots of bad theology.

God never answers Job's questions. God could have explained the first couple of chapters to Job. He could have told Job about the Upper Stage and the conversation he'd had with Satan. But he doesn't. He just asks Job a few questions of his own -- questions that Job cannot possibly answer.


Thursday, September 15, 2005

More Thoughts on the Dangerous Doctrine of Divine Retribution

The doctrine of divine retribution is so neat and tidy. No muss, no fuss. If you suffer, it's because you deserve to. If you succeed, it's because you earned it. I think that's part of its appeal: it makes so much sense to us. It is how we would run the universe if we were in charge.

Another part of its appeal is how close to the truth it is. God loves to bless obedience. And God does discipline his children. And we often bring bad things on ourselves. If you smoke two packs a day, overeat and refuse to exercise -- don't go blaming anyone but yourself for the health troubles you have later in life.

But God rejects a simplistic one-to-one correlation like divine retribution because it inevitably turns God into some kind of vending machine and righteousness becomes a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself.

Let me reiterate that last thought: righteousness is NOT something we use to gain something; righteousness is what is gained.

But if God is dealing in tit-for-tat tactics we will eventually stop pursuing God and start using God to gain what it is we really want.

If that's our theology, then good circumstances don't breed gratitude; they breed pride. And bad circumstances don't build character; they build despair.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Job's Friends (part 2)

Job ends the silence. They've been sitting together on an ash heap for seven days in silence. And if Job would just repeat what he said and did in chapter 1:20-22, I think the story would be over. But he doesn't. Instead, he pours out a level of bitterness, confusion, sorrow and anger that is difficult to read. In fact, it's so difficult to listen to that his friends -- who up until now have maintained their silence -- can remain silent no longer. They feel like they have to respond and defend God's honor.

Eliphas begins and basically says, "Job, innocent people don't suffer. You are suffering. You must not be innocent."

Job pushes back.

Bildad wades in and adds something so hurtful, so insensitive and callous -- I just want to smack him. He tells Job that his children -- the 10 children who have just died -- deserved it. Somehow or other, they brought this upon themselves.

Those of us who are aware of what's gone on in the Upper Stage know this isn't true. But what must that have sounded like to Job?

It probably sounded like some of the people who are blaming the people of New Orleans and Biloxi for Hurricane Katrina.

Job goes ballistic, and Zophar pushes one step further saying, "Job, your sin caused all this."

All three friends are saying the same thing. It's called the Doctrine of Divine Retribution, and it goes like this:

If you are good, then you will receive blessing and prosperity.

If you are bad, then you will receive misery and poverty.

In other words, God treats people the way they deserve. If you're suffering, you have no one to blame but yourself. If you will just repent, then you will suffer no more. After all, God doesn't allow good people to suffer, does he?

The really scandalous thing is that this is still being taught in Christian churches all over the place. It is blasphemous because it makes a mockery of human suffering -- the same human suffering that God himself entered into on the cross.

Talk to someone who has suffered, and they'll tell you that the people who inflict more harm than good are usually Christians. Christians who say things like: "If you just had more faith" or "God is refining you" or "You could think of this as a wake-up call".

We heard it after 9/11. We heard it after the tsunami in Sri Lanka. We hear it now in the wake of Katrina. Eliphaz even claims that this is a divine insight -- a Word from the Lord (4:12). Ever hear that?

We have to be careful about this kind of thing. Eliphaz is sincere, but he is wrong. And that kind of theology breeds a kind of death -- the death of hope, the death of gratitude, the death of joy, the death of grace. Life becomes just one endless cycle of reaping and sowing.

That's many things, but it is not what I would call "Good News".

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Job's Friends (part 1)

Job's friends get dumped on a lot. And rightfully so. They take a bad situation and manage to make it worse by accusing Job of bringing this suffering on himself.

But before they do that, they get one thing right. When they show up they just sit in silence for seven days (Job 2:11-13). Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes the best thing is silence.

This is such a profound thing that it became a part of the Jewish culture that continues today. It's called "sitting shiva" -- literally "sitting sevens".

This is precisely what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he said "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15). We do pretty well at rejoicing with each other. We don't do so well at mourning with each other. It's as if we think Paul wrote, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; fix those who are mourning." Or, "Give good advice to those who are mourning and get them back on the right track."

After seven days Job's friends speak, and they reveal how foolish, naive, shallow and bad their theology is. They probably should have just sat there in silence and then gone home, but they didn't. And we'll talk about them some more in the next couple of days. But let's give credit where credit is due. Their words are terrible. But their silence is brilliant.

Do you have friends like that? If not, you better find some because they are extremely rare in the land of Uz.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Questions from The Book of Job

God's question: Have you considered my servant Job?

Satan's question: Does Job serve God for nothing?

Satan is basically accusing God of being naive. Satan is also accusing Job of being depraved in an exhaustive way. He says that Job only serves God out of selfish motives -- because Job knows that God is a good source of blessings. Turn off the blessings, and Job will stop serving God. Mankind, according to Satan, is unable to choose selflessness -- incapable of nobility.

God is saying that this man Job isn't like that. He's not just nerve endings and body parts. Francis Crick and the evolutionary psychologists of the world are wrong. Humans do not merely act out of self-interest. Mankind is created in God's Image and can choose self-sacrificial love. People were created to know, experience and share that kind of love, and it is a more powerful force than either pleasure or pain.

My question: Is God trying to convince Satan or us?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A Rare Saturday Post (Must Be Something Important)

I've you've read this blog much at all you know that I rarely post on the weekends. I'm usually busy speaking on Saturdays, and when I'm home I want to spend time with my family.

But I've got some questions on my mind that I can't quite sort through. If you've read this blog much at all you also know that I tend to think while I write. I use this space as a way to think through what I'm going to teach in my Wednesday night class or the way I'm going to approach the material going in the book.

Today, these questions are very personal.

God comes to Abraham and says, "That's it. I've had it with that city. I'm going to destroy it." Abraham barters God down but doesn't succeed in delivering the city. Still, God appears reasonable. Something we don't always think of when we think of deity.

God comes to Moses and says, "That's it. I've had it with those people. I'm going to destroy them." Moses manages to actually talk God out of it this time. Once again, God listens to reason and reconsiders -- changes his mind according to the text.

God comes to David and says, "That's it. I've had it with you. Your son is going to die." David begs and pleads but God does not change his mind this time.

A woman comes to Jesus and asks for help. He says, "I didn't come to help people like you." She begs and pleads and actually makes Jesus laugh. Jesus changes his mind and commends her for her faith.

Jesus tells a story about a woman who pleads her case before a judge. The judge rules against her, but she doesn't give up. Eventually, she wears the judge out, and he reverses his decision.

I'm trying to figure some things out. What if Moses had said, "Well, if God wants to destroy these people, I'm not in a position to talk him out of it"? What if the woman had said, "Well, if the judge says 'no', then it must be God's will"? What if God had said, "I've made up my mind, and it's no use trying to pursuade me otherwise"?

The Bible is filled with stories. Some of them are about people who didn't want to do what God asked them to do. Moses. Gideon. Jonah. Jesus even asked his Father for an alternative to crucifixion. God used various means of convincing them.

Some of the stories in the Bible are about people who didn't want God to do what he said he was going to do. They used various means of trying to convince him -- and sometimes they actually worked!

Here are the questions I'm wrestling with:

What is it about God's nature and character that we're supposed to model in the situations I've mentioned here?

How do you know if God is trying to get you to reconsider something?

Why are we so quick to assume something is God's will -- when it may or may not be?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

God Is Not A Cow; Neither Is He The Ice Cream Man

There are several important observations we should make before wading into the story of Job.

First, it might help to think of there being two different locations in the first couple of chapters of Job. There's what we could call an Upper Stage and a Lower Stage. The Upper Stage is heaven; the Lower Stage is earth.

Second, there's tremendous irony used in the telling of this story. For example, what we usually think of as the plot of the story -- isn't really the plot. And the person we usually think is on trial -- isn't really the person on trial.

See, what we usually think of as the plot -- a good man who suffers terribly -- that's only the plot on the Lower Stage. There's a whole other plot that explains all that. It just plays out on the Upper Stage, and we forget about it.

And the person we usually think is on trial -- a good God who allows suffering -- that's only true if we forget about what we've learned on that Upper Stage.

The actual plot (according to what we learn from chapters 1 and 2) goes something like this: A man who loves God suffers terribly. Will he continue to love God even if it doesn't pay off?

God's not on trial; Job is.

Now, for those of you who have thought of yourselves as being in Job's shoes -- think that through a little. Job thinks this play is a whodunit. But we already know all that. What we want to know is how Job is going to respond to his suffering. Is Job just interested in God the way a farmer is interested in his cow? Is it just about the milk and the cheese?

That's what Satan says to God. He says, "Job loves you like kids love the Ice Cream Man."

Is that true? Do we just love God for the stuff he provides? If so, what happens if the stuff stops coming? What happens when the cow goes dry and the Ice Cream Man's truck breaks down?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Living in the Land of Uz

"In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil."

So begins the famous Book of Job -- a story that, according to William Safire, "delights the irreverent, satisfies the blasphemous, and offers at least some comfort to the heretical."

Uz was far away -- east of Israel -- and Job lived long ago -- a contemporary of Abram as near as we can tell. The story might as well begin: "A long, long time ago in a land far, far away...."

I think it begins this way to keep the original readers from going to seek out Job or any of his descendants. That would miss the point entirely. The point is, Job's story is our story. The land of Uz is Job's land. It's our land. It's this land.

The story begins with life as we would expect it. A good man with a good life. The two go hand-in-hand, right? The goodness of a person's life is directly proportional to the goodness of their life. That's the way things ought to be, right?

But that's not how things are in the land of Uz. Uz is a place where very bad things happen -- even to very good people. In Uz, bad things sometimes come without warning and without explanation. Uz is often a place of confusion and despair.

Uz is where we live, and this is our story.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Look Out, Suburbs

The sentiment seems to be everywhere these days -- even coming from the most unlikely of sources. Ridiculous fringe groups who claim to be Christians are suggesting that Hurricane Katrina is an act of judgment from God -- judgment on sexual deviancy or gambling or something equally unsavory. Islamic fundamentalists believe this is Allah's vengeance on the Great Satan that is American decadence. European liberals are saying this is somehow the result of global warming or a way of demonstrating God's disapproval of America's foreign policy.

It's hard not to wonder about this. New Orleans is certainly known more for its vice than for its virtue. Political corruption is a way of life. Poverty and lack of education are certainly evils in our society that few seem overly concerned to eradicate.

And yet....

In the midst of all this I find myself wondering if we really want to start playing this game.

We should exercise caution as we sit comfortably in our easy chairs in our air-conditioned, suburban castles. If God is ready to start handing out punishments, he might start with the obvious places: New Orleans, Las Vegas, Hollywood.

But how long until he really gets rolling and tears through the suburbs with a holy fire unlike any other? How long until he decides to take on the real evils: pride, arrogance, complacency, apathy? If this is judgment, maybe he's just getting warmed up. Maybe this is just a preview of what is to come.

Personally, I do not believe that's what is going on. But if you're going to start with the blaming and the passing of judgment, you better be consistent. And you better look out, suburbs!

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Highest Virtue (Redux)

I'm continuing a series of posts from January. These were thoughts related to the aftermath of the tsunami that struck Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia. I think they are appropriate for us to think through in light of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

As we consider how to respond to the tragedy, let's remember that Christianity is less about what and why -- and more about who. Christianity is an invitation to a relationship, and relationships are personal in nature -- not merely propositional. Thus, Christianity is not about what you know -- it's about who you know, who you're becoming and who you love.

Also, please think and pray about how you can give generously to an organization like Samaritan's Purse. Better yet, explore options to get involved personally. Gifts of money are great and will help the victims. Gifts of time and personal involvement will help the victims and change you forever as well.


The Highest Virtue

The more I think about it, the more I realize that most of our false assumptions about God's character and nature arise out of our imagining what we would be like if we were God and had access to his resources. It's no wonder that we're scared and confused by him; we've been so heavily influenced by the Greek philosophers that their assumptions have become ours.

Case in point: Most people today -- if they believe in God at all -- believe that his highest attribute is power. He is nothing if not all-powerful. And he uses that power to dominate others. It's really Nietzsche's Will to Power with a thin veneer of theology.

Love was a lower virtue than power, the Greeks thought, because love implies some sort of need. Power, on the other hand, could be absolute -- not lacking anything. This kind of power made the one holding it perfect and invulnerable.

Thus the Greeks imagined Zeus as the ultimate god of power. He had to break the rules every now and then -- he had to be capricious -- had to break his word -- had to smite someone periodically just because he could. Otherwise, if he submitted to some kind of code, he would be thought to be lower than that code.

Plato came along (stick with me here) and refused to believe that the gods would be arbitrarily violent. But he still maintained this idea that they were invulnerable. They could do anything they wanted to anyone they wanted and no one was allowed to take offense at that. No one could affect them or cause them pain.

Obviously, this painted Plato in an interesting corner. To get out of his dilemma, Plato argued that the gods must be emotionless beings. In fact, if they were tied emotionally in any sense to anyone or anything that would unravel all their power.

Aristotle further developed this idea and gave it a name: Divine Impassibility. This is the belief that the gods cannot be affected by any outside source. The gods are unaware of the joy and sadness experienced by mere mortals. The gods not only do they not know about how we feel, they don't care. They have their agenda, and that's all they're focused on.

Is this an accurate reflection of the God we find in the Bible? If so, what do we do with passages like 1 John 4:8? If not, why do we wonder whether or not God might actually hear us when we talk to him and do something in response?

As a systematic theologian (almost anathema in these postmodern days), I know it's somewhat futile to consider a taxonomy of God's attributes. None of them is more important than another. Still, what is the highest virtue? Does God possess that virtue?

Friday, September 02, 2005

The God Who Suffers (Redux)

I'm continuing to post several things I wrote back in January in the aftermath of the tsunami that struck Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. As we all read these, I encourage you to think deeply about what you know about God's character and nature. I also challenge you to sit down with friends and family and think about what you can do to reflect that character in your own lives.

This is a time of crisis. It is also a time of opportunity. Now more than ever we must take seriously the question that is so familiar to us that we know it by its initials: WWJD?

Seriously, what would Jesus do?

I also encourage you to contribute financially to an organization like Samaritan's Purse.


The God Who Suffers

I'm reading the controversial book The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann. As far as I can tell, the first 50 pages or so are just a restating of the central argument of Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy. Steve tells a story, though, that really resonates with me, and it's really making me think through some things.

Like many of us who grew up going to Sunday school, he had an array of teachers who tried to make the hard parts of the Bible easy to understand for kids. One difficult portion is the story found in Exodus 33 where Moses is allowed to see God's backside -- seeing something of his glory. But Moses isn't allowed to see God's face because, as the text says, "Anyone who sees [God's] face will die" (v. 20).

What's up with that?

Well, Steve's Sunday school teacher did what a lot of our Sunday school teachers did. He took a kleenex and lit a candle. Moving that tissue slowly closer to the candle's flame, it ignited before the two even touched. God is like that! God is an all-consuming fire, and we are thin and sinful -- like tissue paper. No one can get close to him without being burned up. That's why no one can see God's face and live.

Well, that's scary. That's the premise behind Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. But is it accurate? I suppose in one sense it may be. And yet....

I have a friend whose mother is gradually losing her battle with Alzheimer's while his father is going blind. I see how hard this is on my friend. He looks miserable sometimes and feels helpless. I have another friend who suffers chronic pain -- everything he does hurts. There is no comfortable position for him to sit or stand. I am afraid the pain will drive him mad. I know a couple who cannot have children biologically. Sometimes I catch them watching me with my kids, and I see the confusion and sadness.

These are not the most horrific sights. Certainly, none of my friends would compare their situation with those who are suffering in Sri Lanka or Rwanda or even the ghettos of Brazil -- where it's a miracle if you live to be my age. My friends live in relative comfort compared with those whose lives are wracked with the torture of AIDS and abject poverty. And yet the pain of my friends is most accutely felt because...well...because they're my friends. I'm emotionally attached to them. The people in other parts of the world are easier for me to ignore. All I have to do is turn off the TV.

I sometimes look at the suffering of my friends, and it reminds me of just how deep the reservoir of pain is in this world. In those moments, when I stare deep into the well of human suffering, I just want to die. I don't want to live with the pain of what I've seen. Going on with the knowledge that such suffering exists in the world is difficult.

Now, imagine how God feels.

If he is who the Bible would have us believe he is, he has witnessed every act of suffering, every time innocence has ever been lost, every example of depravity. He has heard every cry, every agonized silent scream.

Perhaps it is this, rather than our sinfulness, that explains why we cannot look at God's face and live. If God is love -- it says that in the Bible, you know -- then it makes sense for the one who loves most to also be the one who suffers most. I imagine all that suffering etched on his face. I also imagine that no one could bear to see a face marked with that much pain and live.

A Startling Absence of Mystery (Redux)

I am reposting some things from January -- things I was thinking about just after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia. Together we are working towards understanding what has happened, how it happened and how we are to live in light of such tragic events.

Clearly, there must be a distinction between God's causative will and God's permissive will. Not everything that happens was caused by God, though it was clearly allowed by God. This is a knotty problem, and people smarter than I have spent years trying to untangle it. Still, our faith seeks understanding -- so, we grope around for answers. These brief articles are my best attempt to think through this myself and help you do the same.

If you'd like to contribute financially to the recovery efforts, my suggestion is to do so through an organization like Samaritans Purse.


A Startling Absence of Mystery

I guess my biggest problem with Enlightenment-era theology is the notion that everything has a rational explanation. I used to believe that, but I'm less certain now. The Bible itself affirms that for now we only know in part -- we can only see things dimly, like in a fogged-up mirror. None of us knows completely.

In fact, to use the words of Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, "Religion begins with wonder and mystery." I fear that the modern church's attempt to dispel all the mystery from Christianity has robbed us of a way of dealing with evil. Whether it is "natural evil" like a tsunami or "personal evil" like genocide in the Sudan -- saying, "Well, it must be God's will" just doesn't cut it. That is an insufficient answer for a suffering world.

The world (and the events of the world) is a mystery, a question, not an answer. Perhaps even a rhetorical question at that. Any attempt to answer a rhetorical question is really an exercise in both redundance and futility. The mystery of a Creative Genius rather than the aloof concept of power -- the God of mystery rather than the Master Mind who stands apart -- in other words, the God of the Incarnation, the God who became the Suffering Servant, the God in relation to Whom the here-and-now world derives meaning -- this is the only idea adequate.

Our admission that we do not completely understand this mystery is more honest and compelling than outlining the abstract concept of a Grand Designer. Our willingness to emulate this God by entering into the suffering of others with a firm commitment and resolve to roll up our sleeves and respond to evil with goodness (with holiness, even) -- this is the righteous response. May it be ours.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Whom Shall We Blame? (Redux)

In light of the current topic, I'm bringing back some posts from January. This post was originally from January 3, and it was written in the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

BTW, if you want to help the relief efforts, you still might want to consider Samaritan's Purse. They usually focus on international work, but they are on the ground in Alabama right now helping people, and they have my full support.


Whom Shall We Blame?

It's almost impossible to get my mind around the death and destruction left in the wake of the tsunami. More than 150,000 are confirmed dead -- a number that will continue to rise over the coming weeks and months. If you'd like to make a contribution to the relief efforts, you might want to consider Samaritan's Purse (

In light of disasters like this, it is our natural inclination to look around for someone to blame. In a society that still has traces of a biblical heritage, the most natural response is to blame God. This happened in the aftermath of 9/11, so it's not surprising that people are now asking if God had something to do with this.

Oddly, it seems some Christians are more than eager to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of God. Defending his sovereignty (what is known as a theodicy) has become all the rage among our Calvinist brethren. But I don't buy it. I do not believe that God was "up there" and said, "Well, this is going to kill a bunch of people -- probably consigning most of them to hell -- but they weren't elect anyway, so here goes."

That doesn't sound like the God I read about in the Bible. I know the passages in Job. I know what the psalmist said. I even believe those ideas are divinely inspired. But I can't square the idea of a God who arbitrarily kills hundreds of thousands (many of whom are innocent children -- original sin notwithstanding) with the biblical portrait of a compassionate, merciful God who is determined to set things right-side up.

What about you? Do you think God's to blame? If not, then who? Whom shall we blame? Is that even an appropriate question?

Change of Subject: First Things First

I had intended to spend the next few days here discussing David's troubled relationship with his son Absalom. It's a fascinating and complex story -- and one that will have to wait for another time.

I've been thinking a lot about the devastation and chaos so many are experiencing now. I have personal friends who have lost everything they own in this storm. I heard an editorial on NPR yesterday that went something like this: "As the debate over Intelligent Design continues, Katrina makes me think, If there is a Designer he's got a lot to answer for." And then I received the following email this morning from a good friend:

Hey John -- I'd like to hear more of your thoughts about God's sovereignty.... I'm struggling to understand how to keep the world functioning if God is completely in control but chooses not to exercise that control in all situation. It seems incongruent to say that God is gracious and then observe all the devastation in Louisiana and Mississippi. It seems incongruent to say that God is our Protector, when I got a phone call yesterday that an acquaintance from our early married years was struck and killed by a train yesteerday, leaving a wife and 14, 12, and 10 year old daughters.

Why does it seem so strange to me that someone in either of these situations could have the response of Job, "Though He slay me, yet will I praise Him"? Is it strange because I value this life too much? Is it strange because it seems weird to love and surrender your life to Someone who could take that love and give you something like death in response?

In all my growing up years and in all my adult years, no one has offered a real discussion about what the Bible says about all this, and I don't know where to look for answers. Based on how I was raised, the answer to the dilemma is to just swallow down what I don't know and accept it (some questions just don't have answers in this life); not accepting this truism about God's character could create a fissure in my faith that might result in me having major doubts, and doubts lead to falling away, and that's really, really bad.

You opened Pandora's Box with your blog a few weeks ago, friend, and I could use some help in trying to put knowledge to my belief. God is good, all the time; all the time, God is good. I believe that, but it's very challenging to know why in the face of these situations. Call it blind faith or emotional belief-ism, but I want to have some rationale for the truth that seems untrue right now.

Okay, where do we start?