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Monday, November 30, 2009

The Weight of Knowing

I've missed being able to write on here, and I can see by my Google analytics page that some of you have been missing me. I'm encouraged by that, by the way. As an author, I really need readers, and I don't just mean to boost my own ego. Without you, I'm out of business.

So I'm pouncing on this brief break in my busy holiday schedule (now that I'm not on the road, miles from an internet connection) to share something that has been on my mind for quite some time. But first, an illustration from my own life...

Ignorance Isn't Bliss, It's Just Ignorant

Call it one of the darkest days in the history of my school career, if you like. It wasn't funny at the time, but now, feel free to laugh.

It was Saturday evening, and my final for that class was scheduled for Monday morning. A huge term paper I'd been working on for 4 weeks (about 40% of my total class grade) was due at the final, the library had just closed, I had nothing more than a mostly unread pile of sources and a thesis, and suddenly my pile of sources were spelling out my doom. The paper, my class grade, and even my academic standing and GPA crumbled like dust before my eyes.

Why? I had built it all on a basic ignorance of history. I had proposed to analyze the effects of British colonization on Japanese literature, but suddenly I was confronted with the incontestable fact that Britain had never conquered Japan!

Okay, I heard that snore.

Let me rush on to the point. Either I had to press on with the paper as it was, basically a lie, and try to bamboozle my professor; or I had to invent a new topic, redo 4 weeks of research, and write a paper, all in the following afternoon after the library re-opened at 12 p.m. It didn't seem possible.

I cried, I begged God to prove my sources wrong, I called my mom (poor Mom!), I rued the moment my blissful ignorance had been stripped away, and then God told me to snap out of it and get to work, because feigning ignorance at that point was not a Christian option.

All That to Say...

I realized that night some basic points that scripture and experience bear out to be true:
  1. Ignorance may feel like bliss for the ignorant ones, but for everyone who knows the facts, their ignorance just makes them look like idiots, or worse, liars. You may be fooling some, but you can be sure there is someone out there to tell you that the emperor has no clothes (to reference the fairytale).
  2. It is no excuse at all to claim innocence due to ignorance when you have the capacity and opportunity to find out the real facts. If the truth was in plain sight, there was no ignorance. In that case, there are very few innocently ignorant people in the world, and none who can claim ignorance of God and His nature. The Bible says,
    "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (Romans 1: 18-20 NIV).
  3. Every individual is held accountable for what he knows, and for what he has chosen not to know. In society, for instance, a doctor better know his or her medicine, because claiming "I didn't know that" is no protection from a lawsuit. In the same way, it just won't work to claim to God, "I had years to learn, I had friends who tried to tell me better, and yet I still didn't know."
  4. Knowing something is bad, harmful, or wrong and then doing it anyway, hoping that others around you don't share your knowledge, is a grave sin in God's eyes. It's lying. There is no relative morality, only God's standards, so don't waste time proving something right with public consensus.

And so I was confronted that night with the realization that knowledge has weight (don't ask me if it's ounces or pounds!) in that it bears with it a certain amount of accountability and responsibility. I knew I couldn't lie to my professor because I wanted to please God, and also I knew that my grade wouldn't be anything to be proud of if I earned it through lying. I knew that, impossible or not, I had to try to write the paper using honest facts, not fabrications.

Christianity, like my term paper, presents us with incontestable facts that sometimes undermine everything we want and everything we have believed up to that time. If we want to go on calling ourselves Christians, though, we have to get busy realigning our lives to fit the truth. We can't claim ignorance and say that we didn't know that God was displeased with our lives the way we wanted them. We can't pretend that God loves something that we know He hates. In that case, our Christian life is as fake and unsatisfying as a grade gotten under false pretenses.

The Painful Part

Thirty-six hours later, I hadn't had a wink of sleep, but I'd rewritten my thesis to better fit my topic (I hadn't thrown the whole project out!), I had grabbed a couple of new sources from the library that miraculously meshed with many of the ones I already had, and somehow I'd produced one of the best papers I'd ever written. (Seriously. My professor told me later that he'd taken that paper around the department and let all the other professors on the floor read it!).

God blessed me that weekend for facing up and telling the truth, even though it caused me tremendous pain. I had to confess that I was wrong and that I had taken three World History classes but somehow missed this giant detail (major blows to my academic pride). I also had to stay awake and type nonstop for about 18 hours, with only three ten-minute breaks, which meant that I felt awful.

That's my pain. Now for yours. Oh, c'mon, now. You didn't think I wrote all of this out just because I wanted a sympathetic audience, did you?

This is a challenge to grow, even though some of you might hate me for going here. Because I care about you, I'll do it anyway.

Has there ever been a moment in your life when you suddenly learned, or at least suspected, that God didn't approve? Did you go to God to find out for sure what He thought, or did you say to yourself, "Ignorance is bliss. What I don't know can't hurt me."

If you thought the latter, today I'm telling you that God holds you responsible for what you know, and for what you chose not to know. Either way, the whole weight of responsibility is resting on your shoulders. Shouldn't you go to God right now and let Him bless you for facing up to the truth and straightening out this problem?
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1: 5-9 NIV).

Monday, November 16, 2009

How to Read the Bible, Part 3

At this point in the series, we are really getting into parts of the Bible that need a "guided tour," because some passages make a lot more sense when viewed in the context of the original languages and cultural practices. An experienced scholar could point out things that are not obvious in translation, such as the fact that the name "Adam" is very similar in sound to the Hebrew word for "dirt, earth," so his name is really a reference to the fact that God formed him from clay. In fact, most names in the Bible have meanings that comment on the significance of the place or the character of the individual. As for cultural practices that need explaining, there are instances in the Old Testament where men had multiple wives, children fought over their birthright blessings, people's heads were anointed with oil, things are measured in "cubits," and so forth.

Sometimes the Bible doesn't clearly explain the meaning of the symbol or the reason why something was so important, because it was obvious to the people at the time that passage was written. Good for us that we have historians, linguists, and archaeologists who have devoted their lives to rediscovering what these things meant so that we can understand those passages better. I am always thankful for Bibles that are printed with enlightening footnotes, but just in case you don't have one like that, you might want to check out Bible reference books like the ones I discussed in "Studying Your Life Instruction Manual".

God's Perfect Plan, Worked Through Imperfect People

If you've been following along, you have now read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Acts, Romans, Hebrews, Genesis, and Exodus. Today I'm focusing only on the Old Testament.

You have read about how God made the earth perfect in six days, and on the day of completion (the seventh day), God rested. Then humans messed it up by disobeying Him. When that happened, God didn't give up on His creation, but rather He dealt out punishment mixed with mercy. Even at the moment God was carrying out justice against Adam and Eve, He was promising that He had a plan to fix what they had done and restore His fellowship with mankind, and He was going to carry it out through the course of history. In God's curse on Satan, the serpent, God said,
"And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" (Genesis 3: 15 NIV).
This didn't mean that from then on, all women would be mortally afraid of snakes and teach their sons to kill them. It meant that one day, a son born of a woman (an Eve), but not of a man (a virgin birth), will do battle with Satan. Satan will do harm to the man, but ultimately be destroyed by that man. Who are we talking about? Jesus, of course. So, three chapters into the Bible, Jesus' victory has already been predicted.

Much of the Old Testament is, in one way, a straight historical telling of how certain men or women lived and what these persons did, but on another level, it is a narrative of how God accomplished His plan for redeeming mankind through the lives of imperfect people, culminating in the life of His own perfect son, Jesus. These people demonstrated a right way and a wrong way of living, so they are examples of righteousness and unrighteousness that we can take lessons from. Much of what happened served also as a symbolic prediction of Christ's life and ministry. When Jesus said that He had come to fulfill the law and prophets, He was telling the truth.

So, in this post, I'll say that the next books a new Bible scholar should read are those that follow Old Testament historical figures, because these narratives make the symbolism more accessible to people who are unfamiliar with it. I think that's why my earliest Bible education focused so much on the people in the Bible, adding the more abstract concepts later when I could link them with real individuals. There are many books to choose from, and you don't have to read them in any particular order. The most I can do is try to put them in historical order for you with a brief explanation after each one.

Heralds of Christ

  • Genesis and Exodus--You've already read them. Note the funnel-like pattern of the narrative. We see good people and bad people, but the focus always narrows to the good person, that is, the child of promise or the one person who obeyed God. God selects the people through whom He will carry out His plan, and begins narrowing that down to a specific family line who will eventually include Christ.
  • Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy--Much of these books outline ceremonies, genealogies, and laws which Christ later fulfills. These passages may be baffling. If that happens, skip that section and continue reading the narrative parts about Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and others as you follow the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the land where God will carry out His plan for the nation. You can come back later to read the rest.
  • Joshua--Follows the man who was selected after Moses to lead the nation of Israel and puts the nation into the context of all that was happening in the region at that time. Also, note the appearance of Rahab, who is mentioned repeatedly throughout the Bible, since she is in the line (family) of Christ.
  • Judges--Follows multiple leaders of the early nation of Israel, before they had a centralized "royal" government. The nation had been delivered from Egypt as a whole, but here we begin to see, what can I say, a "culling" of the nation, or the elimination of bad people. God's promise to preserve Israel doesn't mean a promise to protect them from the consequences of sin.
  • Ruth--a woman in the line of Christ. The theme of redemption is strong here, paralleling Christ's redemption of anyone who will trust in Him.
  • Job?--Some place this story sometime in Genesis, between Noah and Abraham's times, which makes it the oldest book of the Bible. Job deals with the problem of suffering as a follower of God. Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • First and Second Samuel--Covers the last great Judge of Israel, and the anointing of the first kings of Israel. The symbolic element in these books is the difference between what people want or think is the right thing, versus obedience to God and submission to His will. Samuel's and David's lives are parallels to Christ's life, especially David, who was in the line of Christ.
  • First and Second Kings--Call this the good kings versus the bad kings. There's a spiritual battle going on here for the souls of Abraham's descendants, which is also played out in the historical context of civil war and apostasy. Who will the people choose to follow--God, and His anointed human leaders, or Satan, and the sinful leaders who follow after his rebellious practices?
  • First and Second Chronicles--More kings and their reigns, but here we see the historical context surrounding these kings. Abraham's descendants are delivered into the hands of a foreign power because they refuse to obey God.
  • Daniel--the first half of the book is easy to understand, how God raises up people in bad situations to do His will. The second half, Daniel's visions of the future, should be saved for later.
  • Esther--chosen to marry a foreign King, Esther is used by God through her position as queen to rescue her entire people from certain destruction. Very much a "type" for Christ.
  • Ezra and Nehemiah--Chronicles God's miraculous delivery of his people back to their homeland, and their return to following His direction. As narratives go, Nehemiah is interesting since parts of it are written in first-person, almost like a diary.
  • Jonah?--I'm unsure of the time period, but I think this book comes after Israel returns to their former homeland. His prayer, the length of time in the belly of the whale, his mission, and other things are fulfilled symbolically in Christ's death and His purpose on earth. This is so critical to understanding Jonah that Jesus even mentions him as an example of what He came to do (Matthew 12: 38-40).
As a professor of mine used to say, just put the needle down wherever you want to start. Have fun reading the Bible and discovering God's miraculous plan for mankind!

Have questions, comments, or corrections? Leave a comment. It'll help me and everyone else out a whole lot. Don't forget to subscribe to my feed if you like my content!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Right Kind of Heroes

Veteran's Day and the 234th "birthday" of the U.S. Marine Corps are this week, following closely at the heels of the Ft. Hood shooting. I think this week we ought to direct our attention to the soldiers in our lives, whether they are the kind who use weapons or those who use words in pulpits.

As the Nation Goes, so Follows the Army...

I've spoken before on the armed forces, and how much our servicemen need our support and moral guidance as they do their jobs every day. I think this week should remind us how important it is to pray for our servicemen and women, counsel them and teach them about the Bible, and even to witness to them (evangelize them) when we get the chance. Every army needs a commander. Above human commanders, our military men and women need God's guidance, protection, and moral direction.

There's something else to consider this week, too.

Who are our heroes? What is gaining our approval? Whole peoples are judged by their armies, because the morality of an army's actions reflects what its individuals have been taught at home. Our service men and women are taking cues from the rest of society on how they can act and what isn't allowed. Are we supporting the people who clamor the loudest, who don't respect boundaries, or who have the biggest clout (physically, monetarily, etc.), or are we celebrating heroes who are kind, fair, moral, and law-abiding? Just turn on your television and you will have your answer.

What kind of people would you like to see in the military? I'd like to see men and women I can trust not to harm me, who will draw respect, not shame, for their nation and their countrymen, and who love God first. The only way I know to achieve this is to pray for a spiritual revival and model the kind of behavior I'd like to see.

Two Kinds of Heroes

Not too long ago, in a land not too far away, two armies gathered on hills opposite each other, with a valley between them. Every morning, the most celebrated hero of one army would walk out into the plain and stand there, mocking the other army, insulting their beliefs, and bragging on how, through his might, he was going to destroy their whole culture and humiliate their God. He seemed fully-capable of backing his words, too. He was over nine feet tall, and his armor weighed over a hundred pounds. He had one challenge: send out your own hero to meet me in battle, and whoever wins will lead his army to crush the other.

This giant man was the world's idea of a hero. He was bigger and stronger than anyone who opposed him. He spoke louder than anyone around him, and through the promise of pain and humiliation, he had thousands of people as his captive audience. People were awed by him, but their respect was really motivated by fear. He didn't respect other people's culture, their values, or their religion, and because he was unchallenged, his people took their cues from him and joined him in his mockery and disrespect. He was in this for personal prestige, and everyone with him were willing to take advantage of the opportunity. They didn't care who got hurt, because they were confident no one would resist them.

On the other side of the valley, all the listeners were inclined to agree with their enemies that might makes a winner, and their strength to resist the enemy drained away because of that fear. Reflecting the culture that had raised them, they had forgotten about their history with God, and how God had helped them to defeat other foes who mocked Him and His ability to save. They were scared to death of this bully, and they trembled in their armor. If it really had been a battle between two physical powers, the enemy had defeated them already.

Then along came this teenage kid, the kind of hero we should follow instead, and he saw through the threats and the size of the other warrior. He judged him, not based on his size, but based on his words, and he saw that they were actually powerless. He still remembered God's power, and he was absolutely convinced that God wasn't going to put up with mockery. God wouldn't allow His good name, and the behavior He desired from His people, to be mocked and trampled upon. So this kid accepted the challenge and with God's help, he miraculously defeated a foe at least twice his size, strength, and experience.

The moral of this story, which is my word for the armed forces and other "spiritual soldiers" out there this week, is that with God on your side, guiding your every move whether on the field or off it, you will prove your enemies to be all bluff and threats, with no power. Don't tremble at public opinion, just do what is right. Don't look for glory, just obey God.
"When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran." (1 Samuel 17: 51 NIV)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

How to Read the Bible for the First Time, Part 3

There are many ways to read the Bible, including a whole library of books out there. I can't claim to be the best person to give advice, as I've said before. My main reason for tackling the subject is my conviction that, of all the advice I can offer Christians for becoming "savvy sheep" in a predatory world, reading the Bible, well and often, is the most crucial. If you don't know your Bible, you might as well put a "Trick Me/Trip Me" sign on your back when you get up in the morning.

I got another anonymous comment on my last post in this series. This time, I know who left it, but since this individual chose to post anonymously, I'll leave it at that.

Anyway, "anonymous" pointed out some gaps in my teaching that I should have noticed, but hadn't :(. Mainly, that I had assumed that someone reading the Bible for the first time would check the index at the front of the Bible if he/she couldn't find the book I was recommending. However, some Bibles might not have a table of the books at the front. If it doesn't, go here and print out the list for reference, since these are listed in order and grouped into Old and New Testaments.

Also, I had been wondering how I was going to link the Old Testament to the New Testament. The simplest way, as pointed out in the comment, is to suggest that every time the New Testament says, "this was in fulfillment of prophecy," or the like, that new readers should stop there and go back to the referenced Old Testament passage (which should be listed in a footnote).

One thing the comment didn't mention is a basic Bible skill I ought to cover--that is, how to read a scripture reference. When you read something like,
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3: 16 NIV).
the part in the parenthesis should be read as "The book of John (New Testament Gospels), Chapter three (that big number three separating the text), verse sixteen (the tiny number sixteen in the text of chapter three), in the New International Version translation." For detractors out there who are rolling their eyes about this paragraph, just remember that there was a first time for learning every skill.

I apologize for throwing people in the pool without even giving them life vests! I needed the teacherly advice, "anonymous." Thanks!

Getting a Sense of History

Okay, so the next step is to really get a grounding in the history contained in Scripture. Since I'm assuming complete unfamiliarity with the Bible, I think you might wonder right about now how the promise of salvation in a Jewish religious book came to be offered to non-Jewish people. If you want to know that, you'll have to get busy reading a whole bunch of books.

The comment suggested reading the book of Acts next, and I think that is a good idea. In the book of Acts, we pick up right where the Gospels left off. In those pages, we read how Peter filled the role Jesus had prophesied, that "On this rock I will build my church," how the group of believers grew beyond the few followers of Christ and spread outside Jerusalem, how they discovered that Jesus wasn't just for Jewish people, and even how they first came to be called "Christians." We also are introduced to the teacher who carried the new Christian movement forward into the doctrine and principles that shape it, even today: the Apostle Paul.

After that, the comment suggested the book of Hebrews, but I'm going to amend that and say that Hebrews ought to be read alongside the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus. It's like a companion book, really, generalized and explaining concepts first introduced there, relating the themes in various historical figures' lives to the more general themes of God's plan of salvation for all peoples.

What You Should Know at This Point

Besides learning a lot of church and world history, you should know at this point about the origins of the basic doctrines you hear from pulpits. The basic teachings of the modern church weren't made up recently, by nineteenth-century men in starched shirt collars or twentieth-century men in silk ties, as so many modern teachers would have you believe. When something has been taught so many times that people are getting bored with it or have begun to call it cliche, it is always good to go back to the beginning and remember why the old teaching is still good and powerful.

One other thing I have to interject, since I've been talking about Jewish versus non-Jewish content in this post, is that antisemitism is shameful in a Christian context. For one very obvious thing, Jesus was Jewish! For another, through countless centuries, the Jewish people have recorded everything that Christians can now base their faith upon. They were at times the only people on the face of the earth who actually knew and believed in God and made any attempt at honoring Him. Gentile Christians shouldn't be hateful, they should be grateful! Yet, all too often, this is not the case, and I don't believe that reflects a loving, Christlike attitude for our fellow man.