Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ignorance is Not Bliss

Dead men tell great tales. They really do. When a literary work stays in circulation for hundreds—or thousands—of years, you know it has captured something timeless about the human experience. One such timeless masterpiece is John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In recent past, we’ve spent some time exploring the poem, and while we won’t be systematically going through the rest of the book, I will, from time to time, post another entry into the blog series. (Eventually, we’ll get through the whole thing.) This week, let’s look at Books 5 and 6.

Book 5:
God sends the archangel Raphael down to earth to warn Adam and Eve about Satan. Raphael explains to them who Satan is, as well as how he used his authority to lead a third of the angels in revolt against God. Of all the legions under Satan’s command, only the seraph Abdiel remained unmoved by the seduction of his lies and refused to partake in the rebellion.

Book 6:
Raphael describes the war in Heaven to Adam and Eve: God sends His angels to do battle with Satan and his minions. Abdiel meets Satan head-on, striking him so hard that Satan falls back ten paces, shocking all who see. Then the battle rages, and on the third day, the fight still unending, God sends His Son into the fray, who chases down His enemies. Finally and fully overpowered, the rebellious horde is driven back to the wall of Heaven, which opens up. In terror, the demons dive into the hole, falling down into the place of punishment prepared for them.

It has been said that ignorance is bliss. But for many, it can be a form of denial. If we hide ourselves from disturbing truths, we may be able to enjoy their absence, but such a ruse will only work for so long. Whether in this life or the next, the truth will eventually come to light.

Delusional happiness, just like misery, loves company. In order to enjoy the promised “bliss” of ignorance, Satan in Paradise Lost must lie to himself—and attempt to convince others of these lies. Satan’s debate with Abdiel in Book 5 reveals a desire to twist the truth so that he can enjoy the confines of his own fake reality.

In response to Abdiel’s claim that God created everything (line 835ff), Satan asks, in essence, “Really? Can you remember when you were created? We have always been here—we are self-created, self-wrought” (line 853ff).

C. S. Lewis comments on this argument:

[I]f a creature is silly enough to try to prove that it was not created, what is more natural than for it to say, “Well, I wasn’t there to see it being done”? Yet what is more futile, since in thus admitting ignorance of its own beginnings it proves that those beginnings lay outside itself? Satan falls instantly into this trap (850 et seq.)—as indeed he cannot help doing—and produces as proof of his self-existence what is really its disproof. But even this is not Nonsense enough. Uneasily shifting on the bed of Nonsense which he has made for himself, he then throws out the happy idea that “fatal course” really produced himself, and finally, with a triumphant air, the theory that he sprouted from the soil like a vegetable. Thus, in twenty lines, the being too proud to admit derivation from God, has come to rejoice in believing that he “just grew” like Topsy or a turnip. (A Preface to Paradise Lost, 97-98)

This ignorance displayed by Satan is nothing like innocent unawareness. Rather, it is a willful denial of what every sentient being knows deep inside: that there is a God to whom we are accountable. No matter how hard one tries to suppress the truth, there is no getting around that God is “clearly seen” and “understood” through His creation, so that we are all “without excuse” before our Maker (see Rom. 1:20).

Some deny God with their lips. Others (even some professing Christians) deny Him by their actions. All of us will eventually face the Judge of the universe in the courtroom of eternity. At that time, denial will no longer be an option, and the willful ignorance of humanity—and Satan—will tragically lead to the very opposite of bliss.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Loving Someone Who is Trying to Kill You

There’s a story about a missionary in western Asia. While visiting a city called Al-Quds, he was accosted by a mob. The angry throng attacked and attempted to kill him. Providentially, officials from the local government heard the commotion and intervened, rescuing the man from the violence of the mob.

Here’s where the story gets really interesting—for me, at least. As this Christian was being carried away to safety, he made an unexpected request: to be put down so he could address the group that had just tried to take his life. With permission from the government officials, this battered individual turned to the mob and began to share his testimony. What amazes me most is how he started his address: “Brethren and fathers, hear my defense before you now.”

“Brethren and fathers.” Not exactly the words you would be tempted to use when talking to people who just tried to maul you, but that’s what this man did.

You’re probably familiar with the missionary: the Apostle Paul. This particular story can be found in Acts 22. I’ve read about this incident before, but not until recently did the beginning of Paul’s speech stand out so strongly. As commentator John Gill says, Paul’s language “shows how ready…[he] was to put up with affronts, and to forgive injuries done him.” How could he do such a thing?

We’re not given an explicit answer, but I believe part of the reason was Paul’s awareness of his own depravity. This mob’s violence may have reminded him of his previous persecution of the church. In fact, his speech to them seems to indicate as much (see vv. 3-5). Such an awareness would have helped him to look on the Jewish mob, not with anger and superiority, but with empathy.

Do we have that awareness? If we don’t love others as we should, maybe part of our problem is that we haven’t owned up to the fact that we once hated God ourselves.

I didn’t always see myself that way. For much of my Christian life, I thought I was a decent person before my conversion. In my mind, God didn’t have to do much to make me a citizen of Heaven; I was camped out near its gates to begin with. I didn’t realize that we are all “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). Before being born again, we were wallowing in the deadness of our sinful lives, enemies of God and His glory.

We may say we’re aware of how bad we were before our conversion. We may give assent to our sinful and helpless state apart from Christ’s intervention in our lives. But if we don’t love others well, it shows that our awareness isn’t strong enough. In contrast, Paul’s awareness was strong—and it kept him from considering himself superior to people of other faiths. [In a similar situation, Stephen referred to the Jews who eventually stoned him to death as “brethren and fathers” (Acts 7:2) long before he rebuked them for their stiff necks (v. 51).]

There currently isn’t much life-threatening persecution in the West. Such a time may come. And if push comes to shove, would we be able to demonstrate that same kind of shameless, undaunted love? Humanly speaking, the prospects don’t look too likely—not when we can’t even engage political or religious differences with cordial disagreement.

I don’t have the ultimate playlist for how we can cultivate a love that seems almost indifferent to hatred. What I do know is that it must ultimately come back to this: we can only love those who hate us because the One we most hated loved us first (1 Jn. 4:10). We can love our enemies because God turned a gracious hand toward His enemies—us (Col. 1:2). We can demonstrate unconditional love because He demonstrated that kind of love toward us. We do love, and we can grow in love, because He first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19).

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Judging What the Bible Should Have Said

My wife and I didn’t kiss each other until the week of our wedding. It wasn’t that we were scared of physical intimacy (far from it!). It was based on a desire to avoid temptation and pursue purity (2 Tim. 2:22).

We know not every Christian couple has followed the same practice. That’s because God hasn’t laid out all the specifics regarding how we are to pursue romance and marriage. Where Scripture is unclear or silent, we need to exercise wisdom and discernment in our choices. In such cases, if our desire is to glorify God—and not to get as close to the line of compromise without actually crossing it—God will, I think, be honored in our differing practices.

Some proponents of purity seem to disagree. I recently read an article about an upcoming documentary on virginity. The film’s protagonists appear to elevate certain extra-biblical practices to the status of universal Christian principles. These practices include no kissing between a man and woman until their wedding day and no college degrees for women who desire to be wives (since the money spent would be a waste).

Now, I’m all for waiting until engagement or marriage before kissing. I’m all for stay-at-home moms. Depending on the circumstances, these pursuits can be wise and honorable.

What’s troubling is the idea that these things are required. When we think that way, we’ve added something to Scripture that wasn’t originally there. Suddenly, kissing outside marriage is equated with sex outside marriage. College degrees for would-be moms equal a waste of time and money. With these pronouncements, we presume to put our words in God’s very mouth.

I’m reminded of the sober warning in Revelation 22:18-19:

If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

The reference is to the book of Revelation itself, but I think there is a principle here that applies to all of Scripture. That principle is summed up well in the words of Bible commentator Albert Barnes: “it is obvious that no one has a right to change any part of a revelation which God makes to man; to presume to add to it, or to take from it, or in any way to modify it.” (God says as much in Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32.)

As with the documentary example above, I’ve noticed a particular tendency in some conservative circles—to turn certain practices into mandatory principles. In order to ensure God’s Word is followed closely, we fill in the gaps where Scripture is inconveniently silent. The practice is tantamount to Phariseeism. It creates a burden no one was meant to bear. It leads easily to legalism and self-righteousness.

Similarly, I’ve noticed a tendency in some liberal circles to take away from Scripture, particularly in the areas of sexuality and gender. Ironically enough, this is also tantamount to Phariseeism—of a different kind. The Pharisees may (rightly) have a reputation for adding to the Word of God, but they also ignored aspects of God’s law they found inconvenient (Mark 7:9-13). They treated part of God’s revelation as burdensome and unnecessary.

Both of these errors are serious. Both should give us cause to check our own hearts. In the words of Bible commentator Justin Edwards, “To attempt to require of men what God does not require, or to absolve them from what he does require, is a great sin.” It is sinful to add to the Word of God, as if His revelation was insufficient. It is equally sinful to take away from the Word of God and to shirk principles and practices He has addressed.

I’m aware that I’ve made some generalizations in the above paragraphs. To be clear, I realize that embellishing Scripture is not unique to conservative Christians, and liberal Christians don’t hold a monopoly on gutting Scripture. The tendencies I have noticed may not be universal. Conservatives and liberals can’t be so neatly fitted in a box.

I understand something else as well: God Himself cannot be placed in a box of our own personal leanings. If His ways and thoughts are far beyond ours (Isa. 55:9), and if He alone knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10), and if His gospel is for all cultures of the world (thus addressing the fallacies that exist in all cultures of the world) (Rev. 5:9)—if all these things are true, then it stands to reason that His Word would have omissions that some of us find uncomfortable and inclusions that some of us find distasteful.

The God who called us out of darkness and into His glorious light is not a product of any one culture or time period. If we had a Bible that fit perfectly within one particular culture or subculture, we would have a God of mankind’s making. Such a God is not the glorious God we serve. Let us not make the mistake of thinking He is just like us (Ps. 50:21). He is far better and far greater.

MAN OF STEEL (2013) – Film Review

It’s been several weeks since the release of Man of Steel, but I’ve only now gotten to see the movie. I do have some thoughts, but I won’t develop a full-length blog post. Consider this a capsule film review.

CONTENT (C): 4 out of 10
Man of Steel is surprisingly and refreshingly clean. Except for a couple vulgarities and a few other words, there is little profanity to speak of. Sex and nudity are eschewed. Not as surprisingly, there are several Christological references throughout the movie. Clark Kent even seeks counsel from a priest at one point in the film (although I found the resulting conversation lackluster). The reason I’m giving a 4 out of 10 here is because of a handful of thematic choices made by the filmmakers that depart from Superman’s intrinsic character strengths. If you want a more detailed description of these elements, see Steven D. Greydanus’ review over at Decent Films.

ARTISTRY (A): 7 out of 10
This is a well-made film with a wonderful cast. The special effects are excellent. Except for a few somewhat questionable scriptwriting choices (see above), the only real sore thumb is the mediocre score by Hans Zimmer. It seems to me that the one consistently glaring deficit in films associated with Christopher Nolan is a poorly conceived musical score.

In the interests of full disclosure, I like a lot of Zimmer’s music. He has produced some real zingers. This film’s score, however, is a zonker. (Yes, I made that word up. It means, “unacceptable; the opposite of ‘zinger.’”) Granted, whoever scored the film was going to be compared to John Williams, and no one was going to live up the standard he set in the original Superman films. But by golly, a dozen other composers could have gotten at least a little closer. When it comes to modern superhero music, Hans Zimmer is anything but super.

PREFERENCE (P): 9 out of 10
After reading all of the above, you might be surprised to discover that I really liked this movie. Even as I encountered some of the content issues hinted at earlier, I still enjoyed the proceedings—except for maybe the final third (or even fourth). As the mayhem of the last act reached to ludicrously high levels, I found myself slightly bothered. And yet, even then I was much more engaged than I was during the final act of The Avengers. The questionable thematic choices the filmmakers made still didn’t derail the experience for me. I’m intrigued to see where the story will go from here.

CAP score: 67%

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

I Love Jesus, but I Hate the Church

“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you judge and despise one another.”

Sadly, many in the church (including me) often think and live as if that is actually what Jesus said. Facebook rhetoric abounds in our interactions. You know, where we commit “drive by criticisms,” post snarky memes, and plaster derogatory labels on others—and all for the sake of good (at least, in our minds). This attitude can even pop up in otherwise well meaning statements, like the title of this blog post: “I love Jesus, but I hate the church.” Our Christianity can be characterized by judgmentalism and despising.

But that’s not in line with Jesus’ words in John 13:35. He said the world would know us as His disciples “if [we] have love for one another.” This love Jesus refers to is a love for the church—not buildings with steeples, but the body of believers that He purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28).

Yes, the visible church is filled with hypocrites, and no one likes a hypocrite. There are plenty of people playing church. Until Jesus comes back, this will always be the case. The tares will grow up among the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30).

But Jesus isn’t talking about condoning those who pretend to be something they’re not. He also isn’t referring to a benevolent disposition for the general population. No, this trait that will send shockwaves through the world is a fond affection for the church—precisely because it is filled with Christians. Not that we love no one else but believers; on the contrary! Rather, our love starts with our spiritual family members and works its way out from there. In short, the world will know we belong to the family of God if we act like the family of God.

How should we act as the family of God? One way to discern how our love should look is to see how it shouldn’t look. Toward that end, Paul says in Romans 14:3, “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him.”

The two responses prohibited here are despising and judging. We must neither despise nor judge our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Despising includes thinking little of and disdaining others. It involves the attitude Jesus addresses in Luke 18:9—feeling superior because of your good works and therefore looking down on others. Similarly, judging, while not always bad, is dangerous when it is synonymous with condemning (Rom. 2:1). There are plenty of condemnable things in this world, but a forgiven child of God is not one of them.

In contrast with despising and judging, Romans 14:3 hints at how we should treat our fellow brothers and sisters. God has received them as His own, Paul says. It should be clear, then, that we should also receive them. Even when they aren’t living up to our—or, what really matters, God’s—standards. Even when they are a burden. Even when they slip and fall, or demonstrate immaturity in their words, actions, or beliefs.

God has received us in all our brokenness and sin. This overwhelming love should be demonstrated in how we open up our arms, our homes, and our hearts to other members of the church. “Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received you, to the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).

We see an example of this love played out by the church in Galatia. Paul writes to them, “You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first. And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus . . . . For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me” (Gal. 4:13-15).

We don’t know all the details of the situation, but either Paul’s infirmity (possibly poor eyesight) directly led him to stay at Galatia, or Paul’s preaching in Galatia was accompanied by the hindrance of his infirmity. Whatever the case, Paul commends the Galatians for not despising or rejecting him—using almost identical language to Romans 14:3.

The Galatians could have viewed Paul’s coming as a burden. His trial, his physical infirmity, put a strain on their resources. And yet they refused to despise or reject him—indeed, they welcomed him as if he were an angel of God, or even Jesus Christ Himself! And if it had been possible, they would have given Paul their own eyes to alleviate his distress. That is the kind of love we are to show one another.

Yes, the church is a messed up place. It is literally teeming with sinners. Functionally speaking, there isn’t an untarnished individual in the entire bunch. But positionally speaking, every genuine believer is in right standing with God, accepted and welcomed by Him because of Christ. Christians are referred to as saints, whether they fully behave like saints or not. And because Christ does not judge or despise them, neither should we. We should receive them just as God in Christ has welcomed and received us.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

How One Hebrew Word Changed My Heart

I have a confession to make: I’m not a loving person. Actually, that’s probably putting it a bit too nicely. Sure, I can be agreeable and diplomatic. I’m not quick to butt heads or pick a fight. But the truth is, when it comes to displaying compassion, I am naturally as soft and snuggly as a slab of granite.

To a certain degree, I think men in general can struggle with a tendency toward being harsh and unloving. Colossians 3:19 seems to indicate so: “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (ESV). Personal experience has taught me that this temptation toward harshness is particularly strong when faced with…uh, shall we say, wildly fluctuating female hormones. When those closest to us demonstrate an emotional stability on par with a wave pool, our annoyance can go into overdrive fairly easily.

Several months ago, on one particularly emotional evening, I isolated myself in the bedroom with my Bible, desperate for God’s help. I was angry and I knew I needed to demonstrate more tenderness and love to Shannon. (Sound familiar?)

God showed up and rocked my world, displaying His tender love for me by drawing my attention to a short, three-letter Hebrew word: leb. It appears in several places in Scripture, each of which is packed with meaning.

God revealed Himself to me through the Levite in Judges 19, who sought his wayward wife with gentle words: “But his concubine played the harlot against him, and went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there four whole months. Then her husband arose and went after her, to speak kindly [leb] to her and bring her back” (Judges 19:2, 3a).

God revealed Himself to me through Joseph, who showed mercy to his brothers, who, through hatred and jealousy, had sinned grievously against him: “‘Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ And he comforted them and spoke kindly [leb] to them” (Genesis 50:21).

God revealed Himself to me through Boaz, who treated Ruth—a foreigner and a stranger to the people of God—with kindness: “Then she [Ruth, after working in Boaz’s field] said, ‘Let me find favor in your sight, my lord; for you have comforted me, and have spoken kindly [leb] to your maidservant, though I am not like one of your maidservants” (Ruth 2:13).

God revealed Himself to me through Hezekiah, who encouraged those in Israel with repentant hearts: “Then Hezekiah spoke encouragingly [leb] to all the Levites who showed good insight in the things of the LORD. So they ate for the appointed seven days, sacrificing peace offerings and giving thanks to the LORD God of their fathers” (2 Chronicles 30:22, NASB).

How do I know God is like this? Because He Himself has spoken kindly to wayward Israel with a gospel promise that is for all who find mercy in His sight: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her [Israel], and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly [leb] to her” (Hosea 2:14, ESV). “Speak tenderly [leb] to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Isaiah 40:2a, ESV).

Through these examples, God graciously plowed me over with His amazing love. Even though I have been unfaithful to Him countless times, He has tenderly wooed me back to Himself. When faced with my anger toward Him, God has responded with mercy, not treating me as my sins deserve (Psalm 103:10), dousing the flames of my anger and bringing me to sweet repentance (Romans 2:4). Though I was once alienated from God, He has shown me favor by drawing me near through the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:12-13). Though I have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), He has made an astounding proclamation on my behalf: my iniquity is forgiven (Psalm 32:5).

In that moment, God helped me see how the Bible isn’t to be used primarily to give us examples of how we should be longsuffering and merciful and gracious. The stories of Joseph and Boaz and Hezekiah are designed to point us to God, not a moralistic code of conduct. If we see any virtue in the Old Testament saints (or in the New Testament saints), it is because of the divine virtue bestowed upon them by the grace of God.

Alone in my bedroom, I was affected by the nature and character of God, enabling and equipping and motivating me to treat my wife as this longsuffering, merciful, and gracious God had treated me. Instead of trying to emulate the virtue of past saints in my own strength, outside the power of the gospel, I was floored by the goodness of God’s love for me in the gospel.

I can still struggle with anger. I’m not what you would consider a bleeding heart. But that experience of God’s condescending love has radically affected how I treat others when I find myself annoyed and angered. In other words, I am learning how to more effectively love others because of the love He has first shown me (1 John 4:19).