At church this morning, my pastor continued a series called “The Fifth Gospel” based on the book of the same name by Bobby Conway. The idea is that many people will never read the Bible so, to spread the Gospel, we need to live it. In today’s message, he talked about being an example by the way we respond to the suffering in our lives. During the message, he brought up people who he believed exemplified this trait to share their stories. One couple’s story hit me pretty hard and it was difficult to keep from tearing up while listening to the multiple tragedies they’ve suffered together. Unfortunately, I found myself responding in an abysmal way that is regrettably way too common for me. Often times, when I hear someone talking about their misfortunes, I immediately begin comparing them to my own and, more often than not, I determine that what I’ve had to deal with is worse. It’s an awful habit that I frequently catch myself falling into, but today, God really convicted me of it and showed me how it can be harmful in multiple ways.
First, it numbs me to the pain others are feeling. While I can still empathize and grieve with someone during this process, the effect is stunted by the belief that my pain is more significant or substantial. Supporting someone through a difficult time is much less effective when, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking they should just suck it up and move on because they don’t know what real pain feels like. I find this often manifests when someone is mourning the loss of something I’ve never had and I’m reminded of the old saying, “It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” While I’m perfectly aware that this is a horrible response, I’ve yet to be able to overcome much of the bitterness that stems from my lot in life.
The second way that this attitude is harmful is that I’m constantly feeling sorry for myself and bemoaning the ways in which I’ve been wronged. I can’t count the number of times I’ve asked God to help me overcome this attitude, but I continue to focus on the negative aspects of my life much more often than the positive. I try to stop and thank God for all the blessings He’s provided, but as I do, my thoughts inevitably drift to the things that everyone else takes for granted and that I long for so desperately. My overdeveloped sense of justice kicks in and I begin complaining to God that it isn’t fair that everyone else gets to experience love and family while I’m often left feeling lonely and empty.
I know that this is a big hurdle I need to overcome and I could use all the help I can get so please pray that God will help me better appreciate the gifts He’s given me and that I can stop trying to out-do other people’s pain.
A thought occurred to me the other day that, as I’m slowly growing and maturing, I essentially become a new person every decade or so. I imagine this is true of most people and I began to ponder the theological implications of this. When I first accepted Christ, I was around four years old and I did it because my mom wanted me to. I don’t remember much about the situation and what I do remember, may not be completely accurate, but I seem to recall my mom asking me if I wanted to ask Jesus into my heart and I could tell by the way she asked that my answer should be yes. Then she asked me to repeat after her and I did and she was happy. Not long after that, I was baptized and I pretty clearly remember that my primary motivation for that was the fact that the baptism was in a pool and I was promised I could go swimming afterwards. Now, I’m not saying this to slight my mom or her methods of discipling me, that’s a topic for another post. The reason I bring this up is to show the mindset I was in at the time; I was a child and therefore my understanding of God and what it means to follow him were limited.
Years later, towards the end of my time in high school, I realized just how ignorant I was when I first gave my life to Christ and decided to re-dedicate myself to Him. This time, I wasn’t baptized, but I did go forward during a youth event and pray with my youth pastor and, for a time, I felt that I had become a mature Christian. It’s only recently that I’ve become aware of just how little I knew back then and this has lead me to wonder if, as Christians, we should somehow formally re-dedicate our lives and possibly be re-baptized as we grow into these new people with new understanding. At least for me, it feels like the promises I made at four to follow Christ don’t mean much, they were a misguided attempt and being a obedient. My re-dedication in my teen years was more authentic, but still lacking much of the maturity and wisdom I now poses. It almost feels like I need to check in with God and say, “Even though I am now able to perceive more of what following you means and how difficult it can be, now that I know it’s not going to solve all my problems and may at times create more, I’m still in this.”
Recently, Michael Kimpan, executive director of the Marin Foundation, was a guest on Pete Heck’s radio show discussing his views on the same sex relationships/actions. The Marin Foundation’s stance is one of “intentional and strategic neutrality on this subject” siting Romans 3:23, James 2:10, and Matthew 7 to show that: we’ve all sinned, having sinned, we’ve broken God’s entire law, and that, as sinners, we must attend to our own sin before pointing the finger at others. Pete, on the other hand, believes that refusing to point out the sins of those around us “leads people away from the grace of Christ.” As someone who finds biblical arguments both for and against same-sex relationships to be less than completely convincing, I often find myself torn between the two sides in these debates. I understand Pete’s desire to call a spade a spade and to help people turn from their sin, but I also see the value in Michael’s instinct to love first to build relationships with our neighbors. I appreciate the Marin Foundation’s refusal to proclaim people’s sins from the rooftops and to point an accusatory finger in the face of every gay person they meet, I just hope that, when asked one-on-one by an LGBT person about the Bible’s stance on same sex relationships, that they are willing to have a thorough and honest conversation about what it says and not ignore the fact that scripture does seem to have something to say on this matter.
In the second half of the discussion, Kimpan brings up the story of the woman caught in adultery to show that Jesus refused to condemn the woman when Pharisees insisted the law stated she should be stoned. Heck, on the other hand, chooses to focus on the end of the story when Jesus tells her to go and leave her life of sin. It’s interesting because I think these are both important parts of the story. First, Jesus protects the woman; He sees her and loves her as a beloved child of God and chases away those who condemn her and then refuses to condemn her Himself even though, as the sinless Son of God, He had every right to. The thing is, Jesus didn’t need to call her out on her sin, she knew what it was. It was common knowledge that adultery was a serious offense. The people dragging her through the streets made sure she knew what she had done. However, it was only after they were alone that Jesus privately tells her to go and leave her life of sin. So, if we are viewing LGBT people as the woman in the story, do we want to be the accusers publicly dragging the sinners through the streets parading their shame in front of everyone or do we want to be the ones to love and protect first, and then, when we’re alone, encourage our brothers and sisters to sin no more.
After reading another great post by Prodigal Paul (http://goo.gl/CtNhLh), I decided to look at Romans 9 again, a passage that’s caused me some theological distress in the past. Verse 18, in particular causes my over developed sense of justice and equality squirm. On the surface, this verse appears to say that God can and will, on occasion, choose to harden a person’s heart and bar them from ever accepting His gift of salvation and I believe this is how it has traditionally been interpreted. I don’t necessarily intend to refute this interpretation, but merely to offer another possible meaning.
One of the primary reasons I have a hard time with this traditional interpretation of Romans 9:18 is that it appears to conflict with Jesus exhortation in Matthew 18 to forgive others’ offenses against us 70 times 7 (typically believed to mean an infinite number of times). Presumably, the reason God would choose to harden a person’s heart is because of their repeated offenses against Him, but if He asks us to forgive infinitely, it seems strange that there could be some limit to His forgiveness of us.
In an attempt to find new meaning in this troublesome passage, I looked at the verse in the original Greek*, particularly the word that every version I checked translated as harden. The Greek word here is σκληρύνει (sklērynei) the root of which is σκληρός (skléros) which BibleHub translates as “hard, violent, harsh, stern.” This seems to mesh well with the original translations and interpretations of the verse so, for my purpose of finding new meaning in the passage, it was a dead end. However, I thought for fun, I might try entering skléros into Google translate. It also came back with a definition of hard, but it also included another word: tough. If we were to translate sklērynei as toughen instead of harden, in conjunction with the rest of the verse, it could convey a vastly different message, one that fits so much better into the picture I see painted by the rest of scripture. Read this way, it could be saying that for some of His children, God chooses to grant a grace and a relatively peaceful life, but others, he chooses to toughen by gifting them with trials of many kinds. It still doesn’t sit well with my sense of justice and equality and it may be completely unbiblical, but it’s just a thought.
*Disclaimer: I am by no means fluent in Greek (in fact, I don’t know any) nor can I be considered a Biblical scholar by any stretch of the imagination.
I find it interesting that for almost every argument in all of Christendom, someone has argued the point that love is the most important thing, that God is love, or that, of faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these is love. How can this same argument be used for both sides of every disagreement? I think what it comes down to is we often fundamentally disagree on how best to love those around us.
The definition of love that my pastor likes to use is “to will the good of another” which, while simple and beautiful, leaves a lot of gray area regarding how we ought to act towards one another. In many instances, it’s self explanatory, don’t murder, steal from, or otherwise harm other people. In short, treat others as you would like to be treated. However, what happens when things become a little less clear and how I want to be treated is different from how you want to be treated? What happens when we act in what we think is someone’s best interest, but in reality, we’re causing more harm than good?
For example, what if I found out a friend was having a difficult time in her relationship with her husband and I decided to bring this up to my prayer group. I could see that as trying to help and being concerned for my friend’s well being, meanwhile, she could feel hurt and betrayed that I broke her trust. As another example, many Christians vote against same sex marriage based on their belief that such a relationship would be sinful and therefore decrease a person’s likelihood of entering Heaven. They do this (or at least claim to do this) out of love, but gay couples hoping to marry see it as rejection of their deepest selves, a dismissal of their rights, or plain hatred. When we claim to be doing something out of love, we need to honestly examine our motives and be sure what we’re arguing for is the truth and not an unexamined belief.
Now, that’s not to say that we can’t question someone’s actions and confront them out of love. I definitely believe there is a time and a place to broach the subject of sin in someone’s life, just make sure you don’t have a log in your own eye first. Also, make sure you and the other person are on the same page. People aren’t going to want to change their behavior if you haven’t first convinced them that it’s unhealthy/unbiblical and that distinction might not be as clear to them as it is to you.
I started following Rachel Held Evans’ blog a few months back and I really appreciate the topics she brings up and how she addresses them with grace and love and an open mind. I find that, through her blog, I have been able to contemplate ideas and values that I’ve unconsciously held and exercise my theology in ways I’ve rarely had opportunity to. Sometimes, though, she worries me a bit.
Her most recent post gives me pause, not in it’s topic, but in some of the things she has to say regarding the idea of gender binaries. I am more than happy to discuss the idea that there is some gray area between the black and white of male and female. One need only look at the fact that some people are born with both male and female sex organs to see that it’s not always cut and dry. It seems obvious to me that there are people who don’t fit neatly into one category or the other, but I don’t think that means and anyone who wants to can change, reassign, or forsake their gender just because they don’t identify with our society’s expectations for them. I myself, in addition to being solely attracted to my same sex, don’t fit with really any of the typical male personality traits, but I think that means we need to make our definition of male and female fit us, not adjust our gender to fit into those definitions. Granted, this is only my limited perspective and, having never known a transgender or intersex person, I can’t speak with any real authority on this subject, but I feel that my experiences have given my some perspective on this issue.
The thing that worries me most in Rachel’s post is the second to last sentence “But if our theology doesn’t “work” for the least of these…then it doesn’t work at all.” While I agree there is plenty of room for discussion about what the Bible does and doesn’t say, and I greatly appreciate Rachel’s passion to be inclusive and loving of all God’s creation, I’m very concerned by the idea of trying to make our theology “work” for everyone. God is who He is, the Bible says what it says, and I think it’s dangerous to try to re-work that to fit our idea of how things should be. When we read the Bible and discuss theology, we need to be careful of starting with our own biases and trying to fit what we are reading into what we want it to say. Of course, I’m not saying Rachel is necessarily guilty of this and even if she were, she wouldn’t be the only one (not by a long shot). I think what I would most want to make sure of is that Rachel agrees with is that there is a line somewhere. There is right and wrong and while I think there is a lot of room for discussion about where it is and while I would never claim that I know the exact location, I just hope she remembers that the line is there.
One final thought: While I absolutely believe there is one set of absolute truth in this world, I don’t think we should ever assume that we’ve found it and therefore, we should never stop seeking it.