Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Killing of George Floyd

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on Monday was unjustifiable. It was extremely disturbing. It was heartbreaking to watch. It really looks like murder.

It defies any explanation I can think of to believe that it was in any way necessary for the police officer to drive his knee with the full weight of his body behind it into the neck of a man lying face down on the pavement with his hands cuffed behind his back, much less for as long a he did. The police officer who chocked the life out of Mr. Floyd should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The other officers who stood by and knowingly allowed it to go on for so long should be prosecuted as well. It is incredible that they were not immediately arrested when the video evidence came out.georgefloyd

What happened to Mr. Floyd was wrong. By all appearances it was a cold and callous crime on the part of the officers involved, especially the one directly involved. Racism is also wrong. It is evil. But that the murder of George Floyd was racially motivated should not be assumed. It may have been; but that conclusion should be the result of a thorough investigation. And this particular case is not in itself proof that the entire Minneapolis police force is hopelessly racist, much less every police force across the country or the country as a whole itself. But with cases like this some have predetermined conclusions that racism is the main cause regardless of the facts or the lack thereof.

Our country has a horrible history of racism. And although we have made great strides to correct some of the systemic racial injustices of the past, racism still lurks in the hearts and minds of some people today to one degree or another. But the sins of generations past should not be used to predetermine the motives for crimes of whites against blacks in the present regardless of facts and evidence. I just cannot lend support to these kinds of predetermined narratives.

What I can do is condemn racism in general because it is contrary to the gospel of God who created all of us in his image and likeness and who redeemed all of us in Christ to be a part of his multi ethnic, multi-colored family. It is a sin against our common humanity and dignity as human beings. I can also condemn racism when facts reveal that to be a motive for crimes in particular cases. I will not assume racism, however, every time a white person commits a crime against a black person any more than I will assume racism when a black person commits a crime against a white person. The fight against racism would be better served by conclusions that are proven through investigation rather than just being assumed prior to any investigation.

Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, it is not clear that white police officers are more likely to use deadly force against black suspects than black police officers. This was a finding that surprised researcher Roland Fryer Jr. in a study he reported in 2016 (see link below). Blacks are disproportionately more likely to be killed by police officers in general, but it is not clear that racism is the primary reason why. Fryer found that police officers are more likely to use non-lethal force against black suspects, but also found there was no difference when considering lethal force. He also discovered that black police officers were more likely to shoot unarmed white suspects than white police officers. The difference was statistically significant, but is not easily explained simply with reference to racial prejudice. Neither are the actions of white police officers against black suspects easily and simply explained by racism. This is not to say that racial bias plays no role, but it is not as self-evident as some want to assume.

Researchers in another recent study also found that white police officers are not more likely to use lethal force against blacks than black police officers. As reported by NPR, one of the researchers suggested that bias against black suspects may still be an issue, even for black police officers. The question is why? Is it simply because of skin color or are there other factors that play a role? The racism theory is not as self-evident as some politicians and media pundits tend to portray it. Of course, no study is the be-all-end-all. As reported in the NPR article linked above, criminologist and bias trainer, Lorie Fridell, says the case is far from settled because “we don’t have any definitive studies on this.”

It is irresponsible to assume racism as a predetermined conclusion regardless of the facts of a situation. Conclusions should be the result of investigation. It is even more irresponsible—sinister really—to use a predetermined narrative to stoke the fires of racial tension and use it to encourage and excuse violent rioting, the destruction of public and private property, random looting of businesses, and violence against innocent people. This only further damages minority communities.

The killing of George Floyd is unjustifiable, but it does not justify spreading an unsubstantiated narrative and encouraging violent riots in the streets. And the rioting in no way mitigates the killing of George Floyd. It seems that the country is unified in its condemnation of the deadly force used to choke the life out of George Floyd. It could be an opportunity to have an honest conversation. Are there enough people honestly willing to have it?

 

 

 

Decreeing & Declaring or Begging & Pleading? Praying with Faith and Wisdom

It has been difficult for churches to navigate through this time of pandemic. Early on especially, there were many who were wrestling with what it means to have faith in the midst of panic and fear. We must never allow our faith to surrender to the fear that demands we bow down to the idols of the world. But faith does not demand that we dispense with caution. Caution is inherent to wisdom. Jesus not only desires to increase our faith, he also wants to increase our wisdom. It’s God’s word that makes us wise enough to discern the will of God in the midst of many dangers, toils, and snares. And it is the wisdom of God that should inform and guide our faith.

Unfortunately many Christians operate with a definition of faith that is not really biblical. Some people’s idea of faith is based on the preaching and teaching of “prosperity preachers” who teach a “name it and claim it” brand of prayer. The idea is that faith is a force that gives us the power to decree and declare our own desired reality into existence. Faith may also be viewed as providing an impenetrable “hedge of protection” against the ills of life in the world. Fear, it is said, weakens the hedge and allows the enemy a way through. There is not only a misunderstanding of faith, there is also a misunderstanding of fear based on a misreading of Job 3:25. It’s a misreading that misses the whole point of Job and ends up giving fear, ironically, far more power over people (I may explore the misunderstanding of fear in another article).

As a result, there have been some who have wrongly believed that taking precaution to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was an unacceptable capitulation to fear (this is not to say that some of the precautions taken were not in themselves foolish). They wrongly believed that faith would guarantee a shield of protection and given them a license not to take necessary precautions. I have seen stories in the past few weeks where some have apparently died as a result. These ideas have crept into the minds of many Christians in a variety of different settings to one degree or another. The primary source of these ideas are popular “word of faith” preachers who have had huge platforms in television ministry and popular books for decades now.

One prominent “faith teacher,” Kenneth Copeland, recently took up the task of decreeing and declaring that COVID-19 go away. He literally tried to lead his staff and followers to huff and puff, and blow it away. After evoking the power of God, Copeland clearly believes he has the power himself to command the wind and control the atmosphere to blow the virus away (Watch the video clip HERE – Go to 27:58 minute mark to see the decreeing and declaring to blow COVID-19 away). This is why he made the controversial and blasphemous statement in the past that when he sees in the Bible where Jesus says “I am,” Copeland said he just smiles and says, “I am, too.”

This idea of prayer as decreeing and declaring is often justified by reference to Romans 4:17—actually just the last phrase of that verse. The phrase is about the one who “calls things into existence the things that did not exist” (ESV). That power is wrongly attributed to Abraham’s faith. In context, it is clearly God who has the power to do that and it is God and God’s power that was the object of Abraham’s faith. Abraham trusted in God to bring to pass what God himself had promised. “Faith” teachers like Copeland would have us believe that we posses that kind of power ourselves and that we can decree and declare things into existence ourselves. Typically they do acknowledge that we can only decree and declare what is revealed in the Bible to be God’s will, but they interpret the promises of the Bible in such a way that gives people license to decree and declare just about whatever it is they want in terms of prosperity and personal comfort and security. In other words, the decreeing and declaring usually revolves around all the things that Jesus insisted should not be the primary focus of our lives, personal security and wealth (Matthew 6; Luke 12).

Christians are not called to trust in their own power to call things into existence; Christians are called, like Abraham, to trust in “God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). God’s word does not promise us that we have the power to decree and declare and demand at any time perfect personal security and prosperity. We are promised a world of perfect peace, but that’s a world of God’s own making in his perfect timing when Christ comes again. In the meantime, Jesus promised that in this fallen world we would have tribulation (John 16:33). Nevertheless even in this world we can have a measure of the peace of the world to come in hope. Hope, however, requires patience to wait for God’s timing rather than trying to force it in our own power (Rom 8:25).

Faith does not demand that we throw all caution to the wind. Biblically that would be what Proverbs calls foolishness. Why did the Christian look both ways before crossing the road? Well, of course, it was to get to the other side, and it’s not really a joke.

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.  Proverbs 22:3 NLT

The wise are cautious and avoid danger; fools plunge ahead with reckless confidence. Proverbs 14:16 NLT

In this fallen world there are many dangers, toils, and snares. Believers are not to trust in their own ability to blow them all away, but to trust in God to give them the wisdom to avoid them. But believers are not guaranteed protection from all possible danger. The book of Revelation shows how believers by trusting in God and refusing to compromise their faith out of fear of the devil and evil men will avoid the danger of God’s coming wrath. They are not, however, guaranteed that they will be able to avoid the wrath of the dragon that is carried out through the beast (Rev 12:7-17; 13:5-10). There are some dangers that God will guide us around; there are others that God will guide us and save us through as we endure.Pharisee and Publican

Christian prayer is not decreeing and declaring our own will according to our own timing; Christian prayer is humbly asking—even persistently and patiently begging and pleading (see Luke 11:1-13; 18:1-14 REALLY!! READ THESE PASSAGES!)—and trusting in God’s will and timing. Prayer is not arrogantly commanding and demanding as if we are God; prayer is humbling asking and trusting in God’s power and God’s timing. And faith is trusting in God to give us wisdom to avoid the dangers of this fallen world, especially the danger of forever being prisoners of our own arrogance and foolishness. Wisdom is still crying in the street, but there will come a time when it is too late to answer her call.

Wisdom cries aloud in the street,
    in the markets she raises her voice;
at the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
    at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
    and fools hate knowledge?
If you turn at my reproof,
behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;
    I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused to listen,
    have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,
because you have ignored all my counsel
    and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
    I will mock when terror strikes you,
when terror strikes you like a storm
    and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
    when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
    they will seek me diligently but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
    and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel
    and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way,
    and have their fill of their own devices.
For the simple are killed by their turning away,
    and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but whoever listens to me will dwell secure
    and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Proverbs 1:20-33 ESV

 

 

Our Wonderful, Less than Ideal Life Together

Today Christi and I celebrate 22 years of marriage. We’ve been married almost half my life, as she pointed out to me this morning. Someone said we make marriage look easy. What may look easy is the end result of a lot of love, forgiveness, patience, and endurance. Love is only easy in fairy tales. Our life together has been no fairy tale. 99382149_3596680343680601_1588761888018137088_n

We got married in a historic train depot and had the reception on its deck. The day of the wedding terrible thunder storms moved through spawning deadly tornadoes. One almost blew Christi’s grandparents’ car off the road as they made their way to the wedding. It knocked the power out. We ended up getting married by candle light and using a battery powered boom box for music in the sweltering heat and muggy humidity of eastern, NC. That day we made the best of a less than ideal situation. It sort of set the pattern for the rest of our lives together.

Two years later we were both poor college students and working in retail. We had our first child, Grace, in the second semester of a Master’s program I was in at East Carolina, which I completed the following year. A couple of weeks later we learned that my father had cancer and our Grace had hip displaysia. Both would require major surgeries within a few weeks of each other. We had to move back to my home area beforehand to be there for my parents.

We moved in next to my parents shortly after my father had a laryngectomy and was still recovering only to discover there was no running water at our house or theirs. This was just a couple of weeks before our 17 month old daughter was scheduled to have hip surgery. Thanks to some good neighbors we were able to figure out a temporary solution to the water problem that got us by for a while. Like a lot of other things, it was less than ideal.

The next year, June 2003, Christi gave birth to our second child, our son, Ian. It was after this that postpartum depression and incredibly difficult circumstances took its toll on Christi. It was far from ideal. She would battle clinical depression for years to come. Regretfully, I often didn’t handle it very well. At times I was selfish rather than self-sacrificial, resentful rather than forgiving, callous rather than compassionate. At times we both treated each other badly.

Over the nest decade we would have many, many joyous moments, miraculous moments even, but not without hardship. In December of 2005 Anna was born but stillborn until being revived about 10 minutes after delivery by emergency C-section. She not only survived but has thrived by far exceeding the early prognoses of doctors. In 2008 I took a salary of less than half of what I had been making in the business world to pastor a small country church. I also became a full-time divinity school student at Duke. It was wonderful in many ways, but all less than ideal, especially after my mother, for whom I am an only child, developed concerning health issues.

In 2012 I completed my MDiv studies. Just a few weeks before finals Christi had to be hospitalized for a couple of weeks. After graduation we had to prepare for another move. In 2012 we moved to another church that was going through a major financial crisis. And I not only had to move my family, I had also had to find an affordable apartment for my mother and move her too. It was all far less than ideal.

By 2013 it looked like Christi had been finally delivered from depression. In September that year Silas was born. In June of 2015, Catherine was born. In 2016 we moved to another church, and also had to move my mother into another apartment near by. In June of 2018 Benjamin was born. It was all so wonderful, but still less than ideal. By February of 2019 it became evident that my mother would no longer be able to live on her own. I had to stay with her for several weeks before getting her moved into an assisted living facility because of dementia while in the middle of the busiest semester of my DMin program . Today we celebrate our anniversary and await the arrival of our seventh child (another one in June!) in the midst of the uncertainty  due to a pandemic and the economic calamity that has ensued. It’s all far less than ideal, but it’s still wonderful.

It’s wonderful because I get to share this less than ideal life with the wonderful, even if less than ideal, woman with which God has blessed me. She is still my wonder woman! We have learned through the years that less than ideal in this world is all we can expect, including from each other. Yet we enjoy the good things in life and each other because of a love that has endured, because we committed to endure together. The hope of God’s ideal world gives us the strength to make the best of what we have now, knowing that “for those who love God all all things work together for good, . . . ” (Rom 8:28 ESV).

Sometimes people miss out on the really good things, the God things, in life because they’re not willing to patiently endure through that which is less than ideal. The marriage that lasts is built on love that endures through a life that is far from easy.

I am far from the ideal husband; Christi is less than the ideal wife. But our life together is still wonderful, even if it has been less than ideal.

Mother’s Day Dimly Through the Window

One of the most difficult things about the pandemic is not being able to see our most beloved loved ones face to face. My mother, who has dementia, is in an assisted living facility. We visit her at least weekly, but only from the other side of a window. She has a clear view of us; we only have a dim view of her. Every time we visit, she forgets why we can’t just come in. She can’t really hear us, and we can barely hear her.Mom through the Window

Most of the time we write her notes in large print to tell her we love her, at least. One time we talked with her on the phone of one of the nurses (they say they can’t open the window even a little bit). It’s all quite frustrating, especially for her.  This has been the case since the beginning of March; it will be the case on Mother’s Day tomorrow and for the foreseeable future. I know countless others are going through it with us. It’s hard when we can only see each other through the glass dimly.

One day, in the near future, it’s quite likely that Mother will pass through the veil before I do; and we won’t be able to see her even through a window. On Mother’s Day many will remember their mothers and honor them, but won’t be able share their love face to face at all. Death seems to close the window altogether. But I’m reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:12 which says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (KJV).

Faith provides us a window in God’s word through which we get a glimpse of the Lord and the new world, that which is perfect, yet to come (1 Cor 10). Through this dark window we get a dim view of the ultimate bright side of life of which those on the other side have a perfect view. Faith grows in the ground of this hope so that we can know that love and our love relationships with the Lord and each other in the Lord never ends, that nothing can “separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39)

This Mother’s Day may be hard because we still only see through a glass dimly. But one day we will see face to face in the light of God’s everlasting glory. Oh, What a day! What a day it will be!

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Cor 13:8-13 ESV

Truth and Lies About Immortality: Milton and Dostoevsky

Lately I’ve been reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Both contain two intriguing views on the nature of evil to say the least. What has intrigued me particularly in reading the two together is the different ways that distorted concepts of immortality contribute to rebellion against God and to evil actions.

GustaveDoreParadiseLostSatanProfile
Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the central character of John Milton’s Paradise Lost c. 1866

Paradise Lost is an epic poem, first published in 1667, in which Milton describes the fall of the archangel Lucifer, who became known as Satan and the devil, and his temptation of Adam and Eve in Eden. Satan’s fall is in part contributed to his own denial of being a creature created by God. Satan claimed an absolute immortality and self-sufficiency apart from any dependence on God (Book IV). He rails against God as a tyrant and uses sophistry and clever rhetoric to lead other angels and Adam and Eve (Gen 3:5) to claim the same independence for themselves to disastrous results. The blurring of the line between creator and creature is used as self-justification for self-will.

In The Brothers Karamazov, written in 1879, it is not the claim to absolute immortality that fuels evil; rather it is the denial of immortality altogether. “There is no virtue if there is no immortality” (Book 2, Chapters 6 & 7). In this case the denial of immortality is the denial of continuing existence for humans beyond death and the ultimate judgment of God that paves the way for evil in this world. Dostoevsky, the Christian Russian novelist, proved to be prophetic.

Dostoevsky set out to warn of the dangers of atheistic socialism, although he identified Christian socialists to be the most dangerous of all (Book 2, Chapter 5). My guess is the Christian socialists of which he warned thought in much the same way as the Sadducees we read about in the Gospels. That is, as practical atheists with little to no concern for thoughts about the afterlife, the supernatural, and the judgment to come. The infamous cult leader, Jim Jones, was a Christian socialist who started out as an openly atheist minister who saw the Soviet Union in Russia as the promised land. Jones who initially denied the existence of God eventually, like Lucifer, came to see himself as god, also with horrifying and disastrous results.

Both the claim to absolute immortality apart from dependence on God and the absolute denial of even an immortality that is dependent on God are dangerous temptations that can lead to self-will and rebellion against God with disastrous results for those who succumb to such temptations and for the world. We must remember we are creatures completely dependent on and accountable to the Creator. This is something that the rebels in Paradise Lost and The Brothers Karamazov were intent on forgetting.

When rational creatures live as if self-sufficient and accountable to no one they begin to use reason in clever but sophistic ways to justify their desires. The way Thomas Aquinas described it sin disrupts the inclination to virtue and misdirects the use of reason to the penultimate rather than the ultimate, namely friendship with God (ST, II, part 1 q. 85:3.) Reason and the will, thus, become slaves to inordinate passions rather than being subordinate to God. It is a “matter of our will surrendering to those appetites or desires and reason then providing post hoc rationalizations justifying the action” (Angus Brook, “Thomas Aquinas on the Effects of Original Sin: A Philosophical Analysis,” The Heythrop Journal, 59,no. 4, July 2018, 722.). The will of the creature is exalted above the will of the Creator and becomes the measure of all things. People begin to see themselves as capable of creating their own truth rather than needing to discern and submit to the Truth.

This is how the image of God gets distorted in people, and that distortion disrupts the flow of God’s blessing and brings a curse. In other words, people live on lies not realizing that without repentance they will be destroyed by them. Hence, Jesus calls Satan the father of lies and the father of all liars (John 8:39-47). Our fallen world runs on lies, but it is headed for a head on collision with the Truth in the judgment to come.

Lies lead to disaster eventually. Dostoevsky foresaw that on the other side of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn saw it in its aftermath. Both exhorted people to renounce lies and earnestly seek to be people committed to the truth. Inspired by both of them, Jordan Peterson in recent times has urgently encouraged the same. Being people of the Truth in a world of lies is not easy and it can be dangerous as history has proven time and time again. It certainly proved deadly for Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). But in the resurrection Jesus proved that lies will not ultimately prevail over Truth and that the life that is firmly grounded in the Truth will not forever be overcome by death.

Both the claim to absolute immortality apart from God and the denial of any immortality at all (i.e. no eternal judgment to come) are foundational lies that lead people to believe they can live life according to their own rules, “rules for radicals,” if you will. But every lie will eventually be exposed by the Truth. A commitment to Truth in a fallen world of lies can be costly, but the reward in the world to come will infinitely surpass any cost we may incur. And Truth is not just a concept, Truth is a person with a name. He’s the one who said let your yea be yea and your nay, nay (Matthew 5:37). His name is Jesus.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. ~ Colossians 3:1-10 ESV

 

 

 

 

 

The Christian Answer to COVID-19?

N.T. Wright made headlines in Time Magazine in the past few weeks by asserting that Christianity offers no answers about COVID-19. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am a thankful admirer of the scholarship of N.T. Wright and that I am fairly well read when it comes to his work. That being said, I was a bit perplexed with his assertion in the Time article.

I understand his assertion that Christianity offers no answers to be a bit of hyperbole to ward off wild speculation about why God may be punishing us—that its the fault of a particular class of sinners and punishment for a specific set of sins. For instance some conservative Catholics seem to think COVID-19 is punishment for Catholics receiving communion in the hand rather than on the tongue. I can think of a lot of other things that may be upsetting God more. But Wright seems to go a bit further to suggest that it would be a “knee-jerk would-be Christian” reaction driven by mere rationalism to suggest this might be a punishment, warning, or sign from God at all. He also referred to those who might suggest such a thing as “silly suspects.” I was disappointed, not least because I probably fall into his insulting category.

I understand it would be wrong to place blame on any particular group or to suggest that this is a specific sign pointing to a particular end-times scenario. I take Jesus seriously when he warned not to assume that a particular group that experiences tragedy is made up of worse sinners than everyone else. Jesus used two smaller-scale tragedies (a slaughter of Galileans at the hands of Pilate and an accident in Jerusalem) to warn about a greater judgment to come that requires the repentance of all people (Luke 13:1-5). I also take the message of Job seriously that in this world the righteous often suffer in spite of their righteousness and not because of any particular sin. Jesus is the perfect case in point. But it is going too far to suggest that Christianity offers no answers at all and that its not supposed to, even if it is hyperbole.

There are some who have made a philosophical move to define God’s goodness in such a way that it necessarily removes any possibility of punishment coming from God. Some go to extremes this way. I used to be one of them. They take the statement that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ESV) to mean that God never does anything that would cause pain and suffering to such an extent that God is relieved of any responsibility for even what the Bible clearly reveals to be his own judgment. John Barclay explains this as taking a concept—in this case God’s goodness—and “perfecting” it by taking it to its extreme definitionally. Often this takes concepts beyond how they could be defined in context biblically and then reads that concept back into scripture. Usually this involves screening out texts that don’t fit the “perfected” concept. Barclay offers Marcion as an extreme example of this biblically unwarranted “perfecting” of the concept of God’s goodness ( John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, Erdmanns, 2015, p. 71, Kindle).

Not everyone goes to the extremes that Marcion did, but many hold a view of God’s goodness that drives them to downplay God’s judgment almost entirely if not altogether. N.T. Wright is not actually among them. In his book, Evil and the Justice of God, he says, even though we are inclined to find it offensive, sometimes “God has to get his boots muddy and, it seems, to get his hands bloody, to put the world back to rights” (N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, Intervarsity, 2006, p. 65, Kindle). The use of punishment to restrain evil no more impugns God’s character than it would that of a police officer using force to stop someone from murdering another person. But some will feel the need to protect God’s character by disassociating punishment from God altogether. Others will prefer to use passive language to describe God’s judgment by suggesting that God only allows or permits people to suffer but never causes it directly.

The reality is we can never get away from the fact that God set up the world with consequences to sin built into it, and that the Bible at times clearly depicts God taking an active role in bringing about those consequences. Those who define God’s goodness in such a way as to exclude God’s judgment altogether are following the lead of Plato more so than Moses and the prophets, or Jesus and the apostles. Interestingly, when it comes to natural disasters or plagues, Wright does seem to be somewhat conflicted. He admits that the prophets would be content to attribute them to the judgment of God, but Wright himself is not quite as keen on doing that as they were (Evil and the Justice of God, p. 81).

So, what about COVID-19? Is it a punishment for sin? Is it true that Christianity really provides no answers and was never meant to? When Charles Wesley considered the reason for calamitous earthquakes in his day, he traced their cause back to the fall in Eden and their cure to repentance and faith in Jesus. The least we can and should say about the current pandemic is that it is a reminder of the first pandemic among human beings created in the image of God that got us quarantined from Eden in the first place. The pandemic of sin continues to plague the human race today. And its ramifications in creation remain with us still. Even if you consider that Eden was a specific place on Earth and not the entire Earth itself, the fact remains that God intended the shalom of Eden to multiply and spread with his image bearers around the globe. This was also the intention with the call of Abraham’s family through Isaac and Jacob, and this is the goal of the expanded family of Abraham to include Jews and Gentiles in Christ Jesus.

COVID-19 and all other causes of disease and death among people are a constant reminder of the aborted mission of humanity in Eden because of sin and the judgment of God. Atheists might say it’s just part of the cruel and callous randomness of the natural world, but Christians should not suggest the same. We may not have insight into the particular reasons for it in the present moment, but that doesn’t mean there is no reason at all, or that Christianity doesn’t give us any clue at all. From the Christian perspective we live in a fallen world because of the fall, and the fall was because of sin, and the punishment for sin is death. This is the bad news of the problem that points us to God’s solution in Christ. Easter is the answer to the coronavirus and to all disease and death because Jesus’ death and resurrection solves the problem of the pandemic of sin that is, according to scripture, the cause of all that plagues humanity.

Jesus said he would send the Spirit “to convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). I’m not sure how that can happen by downplaying the biblical connection between human sin and natural evil or to simply say Christianity provides no answers. To use a line from C.S. Lewis, what good is it for God to shout to us in our pain if he can provide no answers for its cause? Isn’t it normal for people to look for the cause of pain in order to alleviate it? The fact that we don’t have all the answers or the fact that there are some answers that are more problematic than others does not mean Christianity provides no answers. Rather than just calling people to lament over the brokenness of the world, why shouldn’t we also lead people to lament over the cause of the brokenness? Then we could lead people not only to lament, but to repent and to rejoice in the cure found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who suffered under the curse to redeem us from it. To quote N.T. Wright, “there is no need to shrink back from the radical diagnosis, since the remedy is at hand” (Evil and the Justice of God, p, 100).

If the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, then we believe there are not only answers about the coronavirus, there is also an answer to it and everything else that plagues this fallen world because of the fall. Medical science may discover a solution to COVID-19. We all pray they do! But faith in Jesus is the ultimate answer to the problem of our broken and fallen world, and our sure and certain hope for the complete healing of it. And it is the answer that I know N.T. Wright knows and can explain very well. Maybe I’m just being one of those silly suspects and missing the point, but I think Wright missed an opportunity to present the radical diagnosis and the remedy of the gospel in that Time article.

 

 

Wilberforce in the Flow of God’s Grace

God has given us means of grace and called us to the practice of certain spiritual disciplines with and within the community of faith, the church, to get us into the flow of his grace. When we take time to pray, put our hearts into worship, renew our minds through the study of God’s word privately and together with the church, the Spirit of God shows up to meet with us. In these times of fellowship and communion with God, God transforms our hearts and renews our minds; God heals our sin sick souls in order to renew us in his image.

A grandmother who had clung to her old bicycle from childhood was about to take it to the dump. A friend told her about a man who could restore it to be even better than new. She hesitated but decided to give it a go. She took the rusty old, broken down thing to the shop. The repairman worked wonders. The bike was better than new. And it brought great joy not only to the grandmother, but also her nine year old granddaughter. Like a master craftsmen that can save a jalopy from a junkyard and make it a showstopper and award-winner, God by his grace can not only renew our shine, he can also restore our engine so that we will run in the way of his commandments (Psalm 119:32).

God’s grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit, renews us, but we have to get ourselves to the repair shop and meet with the only one who can really fix us. We have to get into the flow of God’s grace by living in the means of grace through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Prayer, fasting (training ourselves in self-denial by going without food, which helps us to gain self-control over our desires), Bible study, worship, and fellowship with other believers gets us in the flow.

In the early Methodist movement believers would meet together in small groups for more than just Bible study. They also met together to share how God was at work in their lives, to confess their sins to one another, to encourage each other, to pray for one another, all to help each become more like Jesus. They took the exhortation from Hebrews very seriously.

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. ~ Hebrews 10:24-25 NRSV

In meeting with each other for this purpose, God himself also joined in the fellowship by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and worked wonders in them, among them, and through them.

All of these spiritual practices got them in the flow of God’s grace where they could receive the good things that God wants us to have. The goal of the practices are all geared toward believers being renewed in the image of God by putting off the old sinful habits of heart and life and putting on new habits of heart and life.

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. ~ Ephesians 4:22-24 NRSV

Sometimes you will hear people pit religion against a relationship with God. It is true that people can do religious practices without a real relationship with God. But religious practices such as prayer and fasting and attending church for worship weekly are not bad practices. They can be directed toward the wrong goal, but they are definitely good practices when directed toward the right goal. True religion should help us to grow in our relationship with God and with our neighbors. True religion should lead us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as we love our selves (Matthew 22:37-40). You couldn’t really have much of a friendship with another person if you never spent any time with them, talking to them and listening to them, could you? Attending church “religiously” to commune with God and fellowship with other believers also strengthens our friendship with God and our spiritual family; the church is our spiritual family.

Spiritual disciplines, which are religious practices, should be directed toward being renewed in the image of God, which is to be renewed in a holy love relationship with God and neighbor. We must remember that God’s grace is meant not only to flow to us to renew us, but also to flow through us so that we freely and fully share the blessing of God with the world. Our personal renewal is inextricably connected with the renewal of the whole world. John Wesley said all holiness (another way to talk about renewal in the image of God) is social holiness. That is all holiness is about relationships with others. First this includes our relationship with God, who is by nature and eternally social being as one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Holiness is about love of God and neighbor. Through faith we participate in the loving fellowship of the Trinity and thereby are enabled to truly love each other. Renewal in the image of God is renewal in these holy relationships, and is central and essential as the goal of the means of grace and the practices of our faith. John Wesley put it this way:

Ye know that all religion which does not answer this end, all that stops short of this, the renewal of our soul in the image of God after the likeness of him that created it, is no other than a poor farce, and a mere mockery of God, to the destruction of our own soul. ~ Sermon 44: On Original Sin

The more God’s blessing flows to us, the more God’s blessing will inevitably flow through us. According to the Bible the transformation of the world is tied to the transformation of humanity. The transformation of society through ministries of compassion and justice must flow through people whose hearts are being transformed by holy love, and whose minds are being renewed according to God’s holy law. We cannot truly love our neighbors if we do not first truly love God, and we cannot truly love God if we do not truly love our neighbors. The attempt to love neighbor apart from loving God is a twisted and distorted love. The attempt to make the world more just while ignoring our own need for God’s justification and righteousness in our own hearts and lives will be counterproductive at best. Works of compassion and justice in society should flow from human hearts being renewed in the love and righteousness of God.

In 1785 William Wilberforce had a radical conversion experience in England; he was born again. As a new creation in Christ he began to live differently, and developed an overwhelming concern for the wellbeing of others. Through relationships that he had with other evangelical Christians, Wilberforce became a leading abolitionist. He worked

William-Wilberforce
William Wilberforce

tirelessly for many, many years to end the slave trade in England. It was a long-fought and incredibly hard battle with a mighty army of opposition. In 1791, just a few days before his own death, John Wesley wrote a letter of encouragement to Wilberforce. In it he wrote in part:

BALAM, February 24, 1791.

DEAR SIR, — Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, [‘Athanasius against the world.’] I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it. . . .

Through the prayers and encouragement of countless people like John Wesley, and through gaining strength from God through the means of grace, William Wilberforce remained faithful in his struggle in the British parliament. After twenty years heading the campaign to abolish the slave trade, in 1807 Wilberforce finally saw the victory won with the passage of The Slave Trade Act. The blessing of God that flowed to him also flowed through him to bring the blessing of liberation to African slaves, who were all created in the image of God and many of whom were fellow Christians. The blessing of God that flowed to Wilberforce to renew him in God’s image also flowed through him in many other ways into society as well. Wilberforce also supported the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

When we get in the flow of God’s grace by living in the means of grace—by practicing spiritual disciplines, by praying faithfully, by fasting regularly, by renewing our minds to the word of God, and by attending worship at church weekly—God’s blessing will not only flow to us, it will also flow through us to bring blessing to others, and indeed to all creation. By transforming people like William Wilberforce, and people like you and me, God intends transformed people to transform the world. But we have to get into the flow.

For the Church, it’s the flow that started as Jesus’ first disciples devoted themselves to prayer (Acts 1:14) after Jesus ascended into heaven. Then one day, shortly thereafter, just as Jesus had promised (Acts 1:8), they found themselves in the flow of God’s blessing that empowered them to begin the transformation of the world.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. ~ Acts 2:1-4 NRSV

Are you ready to get in or get back into the flow?

New UMC Separation Plan: “Winning” the Church?

News broke late last week that an agreement had been reached to divide the United Methodist Church. Some news outlets wrongly reported that this was an “official” decision to divide the denomination over conflicts about LGBTQIA+ issues. The agreement reached through the help of a world class mediator was an agreement among United Methodist leaders representing people from a very wide swath across the ideological spectrum. This was an agreement among these diverse leaders to support this particular plan of separation together at the General Conference in May this year, giving it wider overall support than plans previously submitted. The General Conference will have to consider, debate, and vote on the plan of separation once presented. Amendments and modifications to the plan are also a possibility. The General Conference vote in May alone will determine whether the plan becomes official.

The new proposal incorporated elements from some of the other plans previously with modifications and additions representing a broader compromise between the differing factions: traditionalist and progressive. Some of the significant compromises that were negotiated involve the voting thresholds needed for annual conferences and local churches to reaffiliate with the traditionalist denomination that would be formed without having to relinquish property and other assets.

Generally speaking traditionalists have asked for simple majorities (50% +1) for annual conferences and local churches to make those decisions. Progressives, on the other hand, have fought for higher thresholds. In fact, up until last year’s special General Conference, they made it clear that they did not want a consistent plan of disaffiliation for local churches to be able to separate from the denomination and keep their local church property at all. Progressives desire as much leverage as possible. When they reluctantly came to provide for disaffiliation plans for conservative churches that do not desire to be affiliated with the increasingly radical progressive movement, they set the threshold for disaffiliation much higher. Their disaffiliation plans required a two-thirds vote threshold as well as other high cost hurdles for local churches.

Conservatives have generally wanted to make the process as painless as possible, but progressives want the decision for local churches to be more difficult. Again, as late as last February, they insisted upon being able to force congregations to have to choose between remaining faithful to their convictions or possibly walking away from their property altogether. Progressives used many noble sounding reasons about the importance of unity to justify the coercive tactics to be sure; but a coerced unity is not really unity at all. And their preferred “One Church Plan” with no disaffiliation option was defeated.

Nevertheless, the newest proposal reaches some middle ground between the simple majorities that traditionalists prefer and the higher thresholds that progressives prefer. By a vote of 57%, annual conferences (Methodism’s version of dioceses) may vote to affiliate with conservatives. Conferences that fail to meet that threshold, or that choose not to vote at all, will remain with the UMC as it now is (but if this separation plan is adopted will quickly allow for same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy without the current constraints of traditional marriage and probably even celibacy in singleness).

Local churches will have to officially call for a churchwide vote to affiliate with the conservative side. There will be an incentive for progressives to try to avoid having churches vote. Conservatives in local churches will need to be aware of the options and push for a discussion and vote in the local church. No vote means no chance of affiliating with the new conservative denomination where there will not be a trust clause, which means local churches will own the local church property.

Conservatives want a fellowship of the committed rather than a coalition of the coerced where the denomination can hold local churches hostage by threating to seize church property. Conservatives want churches free to focus on the mission of making disciples without the current confusion about what a disciple is really supposed to be. And conservatives want to be free to voluntarily work together to sow for a great awakening and see another mighty move of God in our day.

Nonetheless, for a local church not to vote will leave it by default with the progressive denomination, which will retain the United Methodist name and the trust clause (I seriously doubt the progressive denomination will give up the trust clause). If a vote is called, the church council, however, would have the power to set the threshold at a simple majority or at a two-thirds majority. This means a church council that is disproportionately progressive relative to the congregation as a whole could require a higher threshold and vice versa.

Again generally speaking conservatives want the decision threshold to be easier to achieve, and progressives want a higher threshold. Progressives seek as much leverage as they can get. They want to use property as leverage to put individuals and congregations in a position of having to choose between their traditional Christian convictions and remaining in a local church, that in many cases, they and their families have been a part of and helped build for generations. That is a horrible position to put individuals and local churches in, but that’s very well a position in which many local churches may find themselves.

In some cases a mere 34% of a congregation will be able to force a local church into remaining in the progressive affiliation where there will be more going on than many have really considered. Not only will the progressive UMC have same-sex marriage and practicing LGBTQIA+ clergy, there will also be progressive churches having drag queen children’s sermons promoting the early sexualization of children and potentially encouraging children as young as seven years old to begin gender transition treatments. These are real things and real debates happening in progressive circles already, including in progressive churches. There’s a lot more in that acronym than an L and a G! Progressive Mainliners have made it clear that they see an endless spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities, virtually all of which should be celebrated and affirmed. People in the pews and local congregations should not be fooled by those who will employ the terms “centrist” and “moderate” to lure people into remaining affiliated with the progressive radicalism.

The real tragedy here is that many people and conservative leaning congregations will be forced to choose between church property and what is right according to the Bible. In some cases people very well may have to decide between walking away from a local church property and remaining in fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:1-11). It’s a terrible position to be in.

We know Jesus talked about how horrible it would be for someone to gain the whole world but lose his or her soul, but we may never have imagined that local church property might be included in the admonition. We need to pray that local churches will have discernment and courage. If it comes down to it, church property is not worth losing one’s soul over. This doesn’t mean that people should rashly walk away, but we must count the cost. Some are going to gain church property and denominational assets by almost any means necessary, but at what ultimate cost? That’s the worst tragedy with this whole mess. Too many have walked away too early, but some will hold on far too long. May God give wisdom.

The other confusing thing in this new proposal for a lot of people is why it seems the traditionalist side has to “leave” the denomination when the traditional position is still the official position of the United Methodist Church. That position was actually strengthened at last year’s special General Conference! It is strange. But the reality is that progressives are in control of the mother ship so to speak. Although the progressive position is not official, most of the leadership of the denominational institutions and boards and agencies in the United States is progressive. Progressives have created an overall  denominational leadership culture in the United States that operates under the assumption of theological pluralism. There’s really no serious commitment to the historic doctrinal standards of Methodism. Liberals and progressives have played fast and lose with the historic doctrines for a long time. Most of the time they use the traditional vocabulary but with liberal/progressive definitions.

Sometimes they use the term “generous orthodoxy” but really mean a license for heterodoxy and heresy. There is little will or desire among leadership in the United States to enforce commitment to our doctrinal standards despite the very serious vows we all take at ordination about teaching and defending them. In fact, the opposite often happens. Heterodoxy is given a pass or even celebrated, while a serious commitment to orthodoxy is punished as being too narrow or inflexible. In my own case, the board of ordained ministry expressed concerns about my conservative views. One person insisted that I should understand that all religions really lead to the same place. The board also officially required me to read a book that promotes the idea that genuine Christianity is radically diverse in terms of doctrine and that orthodoxy, including that found in the historic creeds and even in the teachings of John Wesley, was a corruption of the Christian faith. True story; I have it in writing.

Just a few months ago I was at a conference, sponsored by Duke Divinity School and the Duke Endowment with two bishops and several district superintendents present, where one of the main speakers not only denied the doctrine of original sin, but denied that Adam and Eve sinned at all in the garden of Eden. Many in attendance were concerned, but not enough among the leadership of two annual conferences and Duke Divinity School. They were indifferent at best, if not openly praising the false teaching. If this is true for two conferences in the Bible Belt, what do you think it’s like across the United States as a whole? Bishops and pastors can not only deny the virgin birth and bodily resurrection and get away with it, they can also deny the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity without any serious concern. For that matter, some can bring monotheism or possibly even theism altogether in question without any serious concern of accountability to our doctrinal standards. If anything they might receive a tap on the hand and a wink and a nod to be more subtle.

So, as strange as it seems, even though the official position of the denomination is the traditional position, most of the leadership of the denomination in the United States will not enforce accountability to that position. For many decades now, the operating assumption in the United States has been a commitment to theological pluralism and doctrinal indifferentism, which ironically involves a hostility to a serious commitment to orthodoxy and traditional morality.

That’s why we have the strange phenomena of it looking like the “winners” at all of the General Conferences since the 1970’s have to “leave” the denomination. The new proposal, however, is actually an agreement to divide the denomination into two separate denominations. One of the concessions though is the progressive side gets to keep the United Methodist name and almost all the denominational assets with the exception of local church properties and annual conference properties that vote to align with the conservative side, which will also get $25 million. At any rate, it will be hard to avoid the perception that Traditionalists were just allowed (forced?) to “leave” with the short end of the stick. If this new proposal in some from passes, denominational property and assets will be gained and lost by both sides, even if some will gain more than others. Everyone involved should pray not to lose their soul in the process.

We all need to count the cost. As strange as it may seem, Jesus just might say, “what good is it to gain a church and lose your soul. God, grant us wisdom and courage!

There are major decisions ahead for local churches. Local churches must call for a vote if they will have a chance to choose which side to align with. Not voting at all is a vote to align with the progressive movement. The potential decisions ahead are quite stark, a broad way of being a church or the narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14). Choose wisely.Broad Path Narrow Path

God be with you!

(Listen to Billy Abraham describe the clear choice that will have to be made)

See News Release from Council of Bishops Here.

Christian Self-defense? Should Christians Fight Back?

In the aftermath of the church shooting last Sunday in Texas where an armed church member killed the murderer, some pacifist Christians expressed sadness. They were sad that church members were armed in the first place; they were sad that the murderer was shot and killed. Some believe witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ itself was greatly harmed by this act of collective self-defense. They believe this because they believe the gospel is, at least in large part, about a commitment to absolute non-violence. In the minds of some it would have been better if church members refused to use deadly force even if it meant many more people would have been murdered.

Many pacifists would be okay with some type of force to stop the murderer, but not lethal force. Absolute pacifists would also object to the use of deadly force even by police officers. Killing, in their minds, is never justified. To them, Jesus’ death on the cross was an act of absolute pacifism and its ultimate example. In this light, to be a follower of Jesus involves a commitment to absolute pacifism. While some pacifists would see their view as one they would personally hold with firm conviction without condemning other Christians, others are quite aggressive (“pacifist-aggressive”) and are quick to accuse non-pacifist Christians of betraying the gospel itself as they see it.

While I respect conscientious pacifist convictions, and believe all Christians should strive to be “almost absolute pacifists,” I do disagree with them. One reason is that pacifists seem to be more committed to non-violence than Jesus. When someone is more committed to non-violence in the name of Jesus than Jesus himself was and is, something may have gone awry.

A key messianic passage in Isaiah 11:1-10 indicates that Messiah will establish a world of perfect peace by bringing perfect justice. He will judge in favor of the meek; and he will do this by killing the wicked.

And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. ~ Isaiah 11:3-4 ESV

Saint Paul evokes this very passage in 2 Thessalonians in reference to the judgment that Christ will execute on the Antichrist and those who allow themselves to be seduced by the same spirit of lawlessness.

And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. ~ 2 Thessalonians 2:8 ESV

Jesus reiterated the promise of the Old Testament that the meek (i.e. those humble enough to trust and obey God’s word) will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). At that final judgment, in Matthew 24 Jesus himself says of the one who fails to remain alert and faithful that his coming will catch them off guard, and he “will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51).

Some will object that Jesus executing divine justice in the final judgment does not mean other people, especially Christians, are allowed to use violence to punish and suppress evil now. Jesus, however, indicated that he would also carry out divine judgment in this world before the final judgment after the same pattern of divine judgment we find in the Old Testament. As the Lord brought judgment on Israel and Judah via the Assyrians and Babylonians, so too Jesus warned that judgment would once again fall on Jerusalem, this time via the Romans, for rejecting him. In the parable of the vineyard and tenants, where the tenants mistreated servants sent by the owner of the vineyard (i.e. the prophets) and killed his son whom he sent, Jesus said in response to his own question about what the owner would do to the tenants, “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Luke 20:16a). This was about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Just before this, in Luke 19:11-27 Jesus tells a parable in which he uses an analogy of investing for faithful discipleship while awaiting his second coming. It too may be in part a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans that also foreshadows the final judgment. Jesus ends the parable by saying: “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:27). There are many other passages like this.

If Jesus came to teach absolute pacifism above all, he went about it in a curious way. This should make one question, at least a little bit, whether Jesus was committed to absolute pacifism. But we’re not Jesus. So, are Christians supposed to be absolute pacifists to be genuine Christians? Well, as I’ve already indicated the Bible is replete with examples of God executing lethal force to punish the wicked. In this world it was often carried out by the hands of humans, including his own people. God actually instituted government authorities to use lethal force to punish and suppress evil. The basis of this is in Genesis 9:6:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

Paul says in Romans 13 that government authorities have been ordained by God to encourage good and to punish, in order to deter, evil.

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. ~ Romans 13:3-4 (see also 1 Peter 2:13-14)

Contrary to what many might think, government is actually a good thing; in fact it’s a God thing for the overall good of human society in this fallen world where evil still lurks. But like any good thing, government can be corrupted by sinful people to promote evil and punish good. It happened throughout the history of Israel and every other nation as well. As a result there are times when God’s people have to say, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29; ). This is a lesson Revelation certainly makes abundantly clear. In general, nonetheless, government authorities are authorized to use lethal force to punish and suppress evil. And among many of the earliest converts to Christianity were Roman soldiers (i.e. Acts 10). There is no indication in the New Testament that soldiers who converted were required to stop being soldiers or to refrain from the use of lethal force in carrying out their duties. Although there were some pacifist voices, like Tertullian and Origen, in the first few centuries of the Church, there was also a rapidly increasing number of Christians in the Roman military. Some of the earliest persecutions of Christians at the hands of the government started first among Christian soldiers.

When government authorities are reasonably functional, nevertheless, no one, including Christians should seek personal vengeance against evildoers themselves apart from recognized government authorities. In Romans 12:9-21 Paul, echoing the teachings of Jesus says Christians should not render evil for evil, but instead meet evil with good, to meet cursing with blessing. Neither should Christians try to avenge themselves by seeking personal retribution. Instead we are to leave vengeance to God. The first section of Romans 13 referenced above should make it clear that this doesn’t mean that Christians should just avoid seeking justice in this life and simply wait for the final judgment. We should cooperate with and support governmental authorities in responsibly carrying out their duties. Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Personal vengeance for an act of evil is not permitted, but the vengeance of God carried out through the sanctioned authorities is when absolutely necessary. But even then we should seek the ultimate good of the evildoer, that they would be led to repentance through the goodness and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ living in us. But what about in situations of an immediate murderous threat to self and others? Should Christians defend themselves and others with lethal force if necessary in situations like that?

Some will say that the teaching of Jesus itself prohibits Christians from defending themselves and others with lethal force.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. ~ Matthew 5:38-42

To interpret this as requiring absolute non-resistance under any circumstance is a stretch, as the context of the rest of the Bible should make clear. A slap on the cheek was a personal insult to express hatred and contempt for another person. Christians are not to return hatred for hatred and contempt for contempt, insult for insult. Christians should seek to diffuse hatred with love and evil with good. Christians should avoid personal retaliation and seeking personal vengeance, as we have already seen. But we should not think that there is no limit whatsoever to Jesus’ command not to resist one who is evil anymore than we should think there is not limit to his command to give money to one who begs. We should give to those who are truly in need as we are able, but it doesn’t mean we are required to give everything we have to a swindler simply because he begs (see 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). If an evil person is murderously rampaging against Christians or anyone else, self-defense and the defense of others is not prohibited. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Christians should not call the proper authorities to stop a criminal attack. An insulting slap on the cheek is one thing, an attack with a deadly weapon with the intent to murder is another.

In Luke 22:35-38, Jesus gave his disciples instruction for what they should have to be prepared after his imminent arrest. He told them to have a moneybag, a knapsack, and a sword. If they didn’t have a sword, he told them to sell their cloak to get one if necessary. The type of sword he mentioned was used for self-defense, especially to ward off violent robbers. When his disciples told him they had two swords, Jesus, in apparent approval, said, “It is enough” (Luke 22:38).Roman Dagger

Some interpret Jesus’ statement as a rebuke for having the swords at all. This makes little sense, however, in light of the fact that Jesus had just told them to get a sword even at the cost of their cloak. Some, nonetheless, will raise the objection that the fact that Jesus told his disciples not to use their swords to defend him when he was arrested indicates that he really did not want them to use swords for self-defense at all. But just because Jesus did not want them to use their swords to keep him from being arrested and executed does not mean he did not want them to be prepared to defend themselves against sudden attacks from malevolent individuals on the streets of Jerusalem.

Jesus repeatedly made it clear, as he again reiterated in Luke 22:35-38, that he was going to be killed at the hands of corrupt religious and government officials in order to fulfill Scripture. Earlier, when he had told his disciples this was going to happen, Peter said he wouldn’t allow it. But Jesus rebuked him for his satanically inspired zeal to thwart the will of God (Mark 8:31-33). The scripture Jesus specifically alluded to in Luke 22:35-38 was Isaiah 53. There we see the righteous suffering servant called to lead Israel back to God and to be a light to the nations, who would die as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice for the sins of others in order to make many righteous. There is no indication that his death was to be the ultimate example of absolute pacifism. In light of so much of the Bible in both testaments, including the teaching of Jesus himself, there certainly seems to be some clear limits to Jesus’ pacifism.

He certainly calls his disciples to be prepared to die for their faithfulness to the word of God at the hands of a corrupt culture and tyrannical authorities like he was if necessary (Mark 8:34-38; Matthew 10:16-32). His sacrificial death and resurrection deliver those who believe from the fear of death that the evil one uses to enslave people to conformity to the ways of a wicked world. But this doesn’t mean Christians should not also be prepared to defend themselves and others in emergency situations when there is no time to wait for the proper authorities. It also doesn’t mean that Christians should discourage God-ordained authorities from justly using lethal force when necessary.

When one interprets Matthew 5:38-39 in a wooden literal sense to advocate an absolutist pacifist position, it seems to lead to a lot of distorted mental and exegetical gymnastics to interpret the rest of the Bible through that lens. Among progressive Christian pacifists, it is quite baffling how they can insist that people under all circumstances deny their God-given desire to preserve life by using lethal force only if absolutely necessary, by employing such an absolutist wooden literal interpretation of a couple of verses from Matthew 5. It’s baffling because they also give a pass on Jesus’ teaching about denying one’s illicit sexual desire especially considering Jesus’ dire hyperbolic warning in that regard (Matthew 5:27-30). Not all pacifists do this, but a lot of progressive pacifists certainly do when it comes to anything on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum of sexual desire. Nonetheless, John Wesley recognized Jesus’ exhortation to non-resistance in the face of evil was not to be taken in a strict wooden literal sense (see Wesley’s Notes). It’s better to interpret Matthew 5:38-39 through the lens of the overarching Biblical witness as Wesley did.

But we should be thankful for the witness of conscientious pacifists that help us to wrestle with these things. We should all be pacifists as far as is reasonably possible. “If possible,” we should all do everything we can “to live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). We should do our best to strive to avoid the use of violence, whether by our own hands or the hands of others. Violence should never be the first line of defense, but at times in this fallen world it will be necessary as a last resort. Thankfully, there will be a time when it will no longer will be. That’s at the second coming of Jesus the Messiah who will usher in a world of perfect peace, but only after he has used lethal force to destroy the wicked.

Come, Lord Jesus!

 

So, What are We Praying for?

Prayer and worship are chief among the means of grace. New life in Christ begins with prayer and is sustained and strengthened by prayer. But genuine Christian prayer is informed and transformed by the word of God. The Bible is essential and indispensable to prayer and all the other means of grace and spiritual disciplines. The Bible should inform and transform the content and direction of our prayer and our worship with the help of the Holy Spirit. The Bible reveals to us that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9-10); the Spirit enables us to believe the message of the Bible and confess Jesus as Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3). The Spirit also helps us in our weakness to pray as we ought to pray.  In other words, the Holy Spirit inspires and guides us to pray according to the word of God, which reveals the will of God. The Spirit even picks up where we fall short and prays for us.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. ~ Romans 8:26-27 NRSV

In our weakness we easily forget what Jesus said should be the focus of our prayer lives. For that matter, we easily forget what should be the focus of the entirety of our lives as Christians, including all the other means of grace and practice of spiritual disciplines. Jesus warned that our focus should not be on worldly riches and acclaim and our own personal comfort and convenience (Matthew 6:19-33; Luke 12:13-34). Instead of allowing our lives and prayer lives to be consumed by the worry over our own comfort and security in this world, “about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25 NRSV), Jesus tells us to “strive first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33 NRSV).

In other words, our personal desires for pleasure, comfort, and security in this world should not be focus of our lives; neither should they be the focus of our prayer lives. God and God’s will for us should be at the center of our prayers. In all things, especially in prayer we should seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. We should pray for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness to come and reign supreme in our own lives, and flow through us into the lives of others and the rest of the world. Jesus said:

  “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” ~ Matthew 6:9-13 NRSV

This is how the Holy Spirit inspires and guides us to pray according to God’s will revealed in God’s word, especially in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:1-18).praying hands on bible

The Spirit will also inspire and guide us in our worship of God together in the church where prayer and the reading and preaching of the Bible together with the liturgy and songs and hymns of the church, and especially the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, conform us to the image of Christ. In worship also we seek first the kingdom and God and his righteousness to renew us into the image and likeness of God so that we will be blessed to be a blessing to our communities and our world for the glory of God’s name among the nations. Prayer, Bible study, and worship are all means to this goal, a goal that will be brought to completion at the resurrection of the body when Jesus comes again. This is what Christians are called to pray for.

It’s not that we should never pray for our own needs. Jesus did say to pray “gives us this day our daily bread.” Indeed, we are to pray for our needs, the greatest of which is for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done in our lives and over all the earth. Jesus is not warning about praying for our need; he is warning about praying according to our greed. Where our will is opposed to God’s, we must pray for our will to be transformed to be in harmony with the will of God. James tells us that praying according to our own desires without regard for the will of God is a mistake. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3 NRSV). But when we pray according to God’s will, when we pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his righteousness to be ours, he hears us and will grant our requests.

And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. ~ 1 John 5:14-15 NRSV

The primary focus of our prayer life should be the truly good things that God wants us to have. We should pray for faith, hope, and love. We should pray for God’s wisdom (James 1:5) so we can know the difference between good and evil and have the courage to do what is right. We should pray for the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control Galatians 5:22-23), to be abundant in our lives in in our churches. We should pray for the works of our sinful nature in us to be removed from our hearts (Galatians 5:24; Colossians 3:5-9) and be replaced by the godly, Christ-like character that God wants to give us.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. ~ Colossians 3:1-17 NRSV

In other words, we should pray to be the kind of people that Jesus said we should be in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This is the will of God for us, and it is the most important thing for us to ask for in prayer. And Jesus promised regarding these good things that God wants to give us:

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” ~ Matthew 7:7-11 NRSV

It is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that makes these virtues and holy character possible in our lives (See Luke 11:1-12). These are the good things that God wants us to pray for. This is what is means to seek the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness first.

A man set his sights on winning the lottery. One day he bought a winning ticket that brought him tens of millions of dollars. He thought it was the answer to his prayers. But winning it all caused him to lose everything that really mattered. His prayer life was focused on all the wrong things. He had millions of dollars, but little to no love. He bought a mansion, but did not secure a place in the house of the Lord. He had lots of fancy cars, but no true friends. He desperately tried to fill the void in his soul with all the shiny things money could buy, but still felt empty. Eventually he blew all the money, he had to sell most of his things, and he lost all hope because he had put his hope in the uncertainty of temporal riches rather than in the eternal God. He gained the world, but lost his soul (see Mark 8:36; Luke 12:13-21).

God wants us to have something so much better than anything this fallen world has to offer us. He wants us to have the things that make for an eternal home with him. Our prayers, our worship, and everything we do should be according to what God wants. And what God wants is the absolute best for us. If God get’s everything he wants, which is all of us, we who trust God with our lives will eternally have everything we could ever need.

So, what are you praying for?