Solzhenitsyn ::: Godlessness, The First Step to the Gulag
“Men Have Forgotten God”
More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.
Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.
What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.
The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. It was a war (the memory of which seems to be fading) when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation which could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. Only a godless embitterment could have moved ostensibly Christian states to employ poison gas, a weapon so obviously beyond the limits of humanity.
The same kind of defect, the flaw of a consciousness lacking all divine dimension, was manifested after World War II when the West yielded to the satanic temptation of the “nuclear umbrella.” It was equivalent to saying: Let’s cast off worries, let’s free the younger generation from their duties and obligations, let’s make no effort to defend ourselves, to say nothing of defending others-let’s stop our ears to the groans emanating from the East, and let us live instead in the pursuit of happiness. If danger should threaten us, we shall be protected by the nuclear bomb; if not, then let the world burn in Hell for all we care. The pitifully helpless state to which the contemporary West has sunk is in large measure due to this fatal error: the belief that the defense of peace depends not on stout hearts and steadfast men, but solely on the nuclear bomb…
Today’ s world has reached a stage which, if it had been described to preceding centuries, would have called forth the cry: “This is the Apocalypse!”
Yet we have grown used to this kind of world; we even feel at home in it.
Dostoevsky warned that “great events could come upon us and catch us intellectually unprepared.” This is precisely what has happened. And he predicted that “the world will be saved only after it has been possessed by the demon of evil.” Whether it really will be saved we shall have to wait and see: this will depend on our conscience, on our spiritual lucidity, on our individual and combined efforts in the face of catastrophic circumstances. But it has already come to pass that the demon of evil, like a whirlwind, triumphantly circles all five continents of the earth…
In its past, Russia did know a time when the social ideal was not fame, or riches, or material success, but a pious way of life. Russia was then steeped in an Orthodox Christianity which remained true to the Church of the first centuries. The Orthodoxy of that time knew how tosafeguard its people under the yoke of a foreign occupation that lasted more than two centuries, while at the same time fending off iniquitous blows from the swords of Western crusaders. During those centuries the Orthodox faith in our country became part of the very pattern of thought and the personality of our people, the forms of daily life, the work calendar, the priorities in every undertaking, the organization of the week and of the year. Faith was the shaping and unifying force of the nation.
But in the 17th century Russian Orthodoxy was gravely weakened by an internal schism. In the 18th, the country was shaken by Peter’s forcibly imposed transformations, which favored the economy, the state, and the military at the expense of the religious spirit and national life. And along with this lopsided Petrine enlightenment, Russia felt the first whiff of secularism; its subtle poisons permeated the educated classes in the course of the 19th century and opened the path to Marxism. By the time of the Revolution, faith had virtually disappeared in Russian educated circles; and amongst the uneducated, its health was threatened.
It was Dostoevsky, once again, who drew from the French Revolution and its seeming hatred of the Church the lesson that “revolution must necessarily begin with atheism.” That is absolutely true. But the world had never before known a godlessness as organized, militarized, and tenaciously malevolent as that practiced by Marxism. Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions. Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot.
The 1920’s in the USSR witnessed an uninterrupted procession of victims and martyrs amongst the Orthodox clergy. Two metropolitans were shot, one of whom, Veniamin of Petrograd, had been elected by the popular vote of his diocese. Patriarch Tikhon himself passed through the hands of the Cheka-GPU and then died under suspicious circumstances. Scores of archbishops and bishops perished. Tens of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns, pressured by the Chekists to renounce the Word of God, were tortured, shot in cellars, sent to camps, exiled to the desolate tundra of the far North, or turned out into the streets in their old age without food or shelter. All these Christian martyrs went unswervingly to their deaths for the faith; instances of apostasy were few and far between. For tens of millions of laymen access to the Church was blocked, and they were forbidden to bring up their children in the Faith: religious parents were wrenched from their children and thrown into prison, while the children were turned from the faith by threats and lies…
For a short period of time, when he needed to gather strength for the struggle against Hitler, Stalin cynically adopted a friendly posture toward the Church. This deceptive game, continued in later years by Brezhnev with the help of showcase publications and other window dressing, has unfortunately tended to be taken at its face value in the West. Yet the tenacity with which hatred of religion is rooted in Communism may be judged by the example of their most liberal leader, Krushchev: for though he undertook a number of significant steps to extend freedom, Krushchev simultaneously rekindled the frenzied Leninist obsession with destroying religion.
But there is something they did not expect: that in a land where churches have been leveled, where a triumphant atheism has rampaged uncontrolled for two-thirds of a century, where the clergy is utterly humiliated and deprived of all independence, where what remains of the Church as an institution is tolerated only for the sake of propaganda directed at the West, where even today people are sent to the labor camps for their faith, and where, within the camps themselves, those who gather to pray at Easter are clapped in punishment cells–they could not suppose that beneath this Communist steamroller the Christian tradition would survive in Russia. It is true that millions of our countrymen have been corrupted and spiritually devastated by an officially imposed atheism, yet there remain many millions of believers: it is only external pressures that keep them from speaking out, but, as is always the ca se in times of persecution and suffering, the awareness of God in my country has attained great acuteness and profundity.
It is here that we see the dawn of hope: for no matter how formidably Communism bristles with tanks and rockets, no matter what successes it attains in seizing the planet, it is doomed never to vanquish Christianity.
The West has yet to experience a Communist invasion; religion here remains free. But the West’s own historical evolution has been such that today it too is experiencing a drying up of religious consciousness. It too has witnessed racking schisms, bloody religious wars, and rancor, to say nothing of the tide of secularism that, from the late Middle Ages onward, has progressively inundated the West. This gradual sapping of strength from within is a threat to faith that is perhaps even more dangerous than any attempt to assault religion violently from without.
Imperceptibly, through decades of gradual erosion, the meaning of life in the West has ceased to be seen as anything more lofty than the “pursuit of happiness, “a goal that has even been solemnly guaranteed by constitutions. The concepts of good and evil have been ridiculed for several centuries; banished from common use, they have been replaced by political or class considerations of short lived value. It has become embarrassing to state that evil makes its home in the individual human heart before it enters a political system. Yet it is not considered shameful to make dally concessions to an integral evil. Judging by the continuing landslide of concessions made before the eyes of our very own generation, the West is ineluctably slipping toward the abyss. Western societies are losing more and more of their religious essence as they thoughtlessly yield up their younger generation to atheism. If a blasphemous film about Jesus is shown throughout the United States, reputedly one of the most religious countries in the world, or a major newspaper publishes a shameless caricature of the Virgin Mary, what further evidence of godlessness does one need? When external rights are completely unrestricted, why should one make an inner effort to restrain oneself from ignoble acts?
Or why should one refrain from burning hatred, whatever its basis–race, class, or ideology? Such hatred is in fact corroding many hearts today. Atheist teachers in the West are bringing up a younger generation in a spirit of hatred of their own society. Amid all the vituperation we forget that the defects of capitalism represent the basic flaws of human nature, allowed unlimited freedom together with the various human rights; we forget that under Communism (and Communism is breathing down the neck of all moderate forms of socialism, which are unstable) the identical flaws run riot in any person with the least degree of authority; while everyone else under that system does indeed attain “equality”–the equality of destitute slaves. This eager fanning of the flames of hatred is becoming the mark of today’s free world. Indeed, the broader the personal freedoms are, the higher the level of prosperity or even of abundance–the more vehement, paradoxically, does this blind hatred become. The contemporary developed West thus demonstrates by its own example that human salvation can be found neither in the profusion of material goods nor in merely making money.
This deliberately nurtured hatred then spreads to all that is alive, to life itself, to the world with its colors, sounds, and shapes, to the human body. The embittered art of the twentieth century is perishing as a result of this ugly hate, for art is fruitless without love. In the East art has collapsed because it has been knocked down and trampled upon, but in the West the fall has been voluntary, a decline into a contrived and pretentious quest where the artist, instead of attempting to reveal the divine plan, tries to put himsef in the place of God.
Here again we witness the single outcome of a worldwide process, with East and West yielding the same results, and once again for the same reason: Men have forgotten God.
With such global events looming over us like mountains, nay, like entire mountain ranges, it may seem incongruous and inappropriate to recall that the primary key to our being or non-being resides in each individual human heart, in the heart’s preference for specific good or evil. Yet this remains true even today, and it is, in fact, the most reliable key we have. The social theories that promised so much have demonstrated their bankruptcy, leaving us at a dead end. The free people of the West could reasonably have been expected to realize that they are beset · by numerous freely nurtured falsehoods, and not to allow lies to be foisted upon them so easily. All attempts to find a way out of the plight of today’s world are fruitless unless we redirect our consciousness, in repentance, to the Creator of all: without this, no exit will be illumined, and we shall seek it in vain. The resources we have set aside for ourselves are too impoverished for the task. We must first recognize the horror perpetrated not by some outside force, not by class or national enemies, but within each of us individually, and within every society. This is especially true of a free and highly developed society, for here in particular we have surely brought everything upon ourselves, of our own free will. We ourselves, in our daily unthinking selfishness, are pulling tight that noose…
Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest for worthy spiritual growth. Our entire earthly existence is but a transitional stage in the movement toward something higher, and we must not stumble and fall, nor must we linger fruitlessly on one rung of the ladder. Material laws alone do not explain our life or give it direction. The laws of physics and physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator constantly, day in and day out, participates in the life of each of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when this assistance leaves us, we die. And in the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit surely moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour.
To the ill-considered hopes of the last two centuries, which have reduced us to insignificance and brought us to the brink of nuclear and non-nuclear death, we can propose only a determined quest for the warm hand of God, which we have so rashly and self-confidently spurned. Only in this way can our eyes be opened to the errors of this unfortunate twentieth century and our bands be directed to setting them right. There is nothing else to cling to in the landslide: the combined vision of all the thinkers of the Enlightenment amounts to nothing.
Our five continents are caught in a whirlwind. But it is during trials such as these that the highest gifts of the human spirit are manifested. If we perish and lose this world, the fault will be ours alone.
(World copyright ©1983 by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn; translator: A. Klimoff; reprinted by kind permission of the author.)
When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, co-authored with Steve Estes, a pastor in Pennsylvania. The following list of God’s purposes in our suffering is from one of the appendices in that book.
Take some time to meditate on the wisdom of God as He works out His perfect will through our suffering. No wonder James, the brother of our Lord, commanded us to “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2)!
Suffering is used to increase our awareness of the sustaining power of God to whom we owe our sustenance (Ps 68:19).
God uses suffering to refine, perfect, strengthen, and keep us from falling (Ps 66:8-9; Heb 2:10).
Suffering allows the life of Christ to be manifested in our mortal flesh (2 Cor 4:7-11).
Suffering bankrupts us, making us dependent upon God (2 Cor 12:9).
Suffering teaches us humility (2 Cor 12:7).
Suffering imparts the mind of Christ (Phil 2:1-11).
Suffering teaches us that God is more concerned about character than comfort (Rom 5:3-4; Heb 12:10-11).
Suffering teaches us that the greatest good of the Christian life is not absence of pain, but Christlikeness (2 Cor 4:8-10; Rom 8:28-29).
Suffering can be a chastisement from God for sin and rebellion (Ps 107:17).
Obedience and self-control are from suffering (Heb 5:8; Ps 119:67; Rom 5:1-5; James 1:2-8; Phil 3:10).
Voluntary suffering is one way to demonstrate the love of God (2 Cor 8:1-2, 9).
Suffering is part of the struggle against sin (Heb 12:4-13).
Suffering is part of the struggle against evil men (Ps 27:12; 37:14-15).
Suffering is part of the struggle for the kingdom of God (2 Thess 1:5).
Suffering is part of the struggle for the gospel (2 Tim 2:8-9).
Suffering is part of the struggle against injustice (1 Pet 2:19).
Suffering is part of the struggle for the name of Christ (Acts 5:41; 1 Pet 4:14).
Suffering indicates how the righteous become sharers in Christ’s suffering (2 Cor 1:5; 1 Pet 4:12-13).
Endurance of suffering is given as a cause for reward (2 Cor 4:17; 2 Tim 2:12).
Suffering forces community and the administration of the gifts for the common good (Phil 4:12-15).
Suffering binds Christians together into a common or joint purpose (Rev 1:9).
Suffering produces discernment, knowledge, and teaches us God’s statutes (Ps 119:66-67, 71).
Through suffering God is able to obtain our broken and contrite spirit which He desires (Ps 51:16-17).
Suffering causes us to discipline our minds by making us focus our hope on the grace to be revealed at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:6, 13).
God uses suffering to humble us so He can exalt us at the proper time (1 Pet 5:6-7).
Suffering teaches us to number our days so we can present to God a heart of wisdom (Ps 90:7-12).
Suffering is sometimes necessary to win the lost (2 Tim 2:8-10; 4:5-6).
Suffering strengthens and allows us to comfort others who are weak (2 Cor 1:3-11).
Suffering is small compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ (Phil 3:8).
God desires truth in our innermost being and one way He does it is through suffering (Ps 51:6; 119:17).
The equity for suffering will be found in the next life (Ps 58:10-11).
Suffering is always coupled with a greater source of grace (2 Tim 1:7-8; 4:16-18).
Suffering teaches us to give thanks in times of sorrow (1 Thess 5:17; 2 Cor 1:11).
Suffering increases faith (Jer 29:11).
Suffering allows God to manifest His care (Ps 56:8).
Suffering stretches our hope (Job 13:14-15).
Out of His deep love for us God is more interested in making His children like Christ than He is in making us comfortable. The glory He receives from redeeming depraved sinners like us and remaking us into His image will be the song that fills the halls of heaven for all eternity (Rev 5:9-10). Since that will be the case in the future, let us pursue joy in the Lord here in the present.
Forgiveness is rewarded not just in the afterlife but also in this life. It is the key to happiness in this life. Forgiveness dissolves feelings of anger and hatred and resentment and leaves peace, gratitude, and joy in their place. Such feelings make us happy. Feelings of anger, hatred and resentment make us feel unhappy and miserable. So forgiveness rewards itself in this life.
Jesus told his disciples how to pray and that prayer included “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt 6:12). He continued and taught them that if they did not forgive, neither would they be forgiven. That means that in the kingdom of heaven they will not be forgiven and not even find entry into the kingdom of heaven. However, isn’t there reason to believe that even in this life, an unwillingness to forgive results in unhappiness? Just consider what a person is like who does not want to forgive. They hold a grudge and because they do, they are angry that something bad has happened to them. They nurse the anger and rehearse the slight or harm done to them over and over again. They continue to see themselves as a victim. Even if they are not being harmed now they continue to feel harmed. And they have to keep up a feeling of hostility toward the one who harmed them until they can get even. Getting even may not be possible so they are also frustrated that justice is not done.
I have an uncle who was put on the street when he was 16 just after his father had died. His step-mother had her attorney call him and tell him to get going. Although he went to live with one of his older sisters and everything turned out okay, he continued to nurse anger and resentment that this happened to him. When one day he ran into this attorney on the street he punched him out and stuffed him down a manhole to get back at him. Although a police officer witnessed this he sided with my uncle and didn’t press charges. My uncle tells this story with relish because it showed how he got vindication, however, this hasn’t always happened with other people who have harmed him. He holds his grudges as a habitual response to any perceived slights. He has developed a self-righteous attitude toward other people because he always sees himself as the victim and never as a victimizer. And he is an unhappy person because he is alienated from people since he sees himself as superior to them.
On the contrary, my mother, who experienced the same thing, responded with forgiveness. She didn’t hold onto a grudge and didn’t develop a habit of responding to slights with anger and grudge holding. She was grateful that her sister has taken her in and had helped pay for her college. She decided to be grateful where her brother chose to be resentful. She now has many friends, gets along with people, and has empathy for others who may also suffer. As a result she has peace of mind and experiences joy knowing that she is also forgiven by God for any of her failings.
Forgiveness is a command of Jesus and not optional for the Christian. And yet forgiveness and mercy are difficult. Let me give you a tip I got from my friend Steve Brown of Key Life. When I find it difficult to forgive, I tell God how I honestly feel and that I don’t want to forgive, but I tell him to make it a contract with me to change my heart so that I can forgive and then I give it over to him. Forgiveness doesn’t always come easily and quickly but when I faithfully do this and continue to pray for the person who I don’t want to forgive, my heart gradually changes. The feelings of hurt and humiliation begin to disappear. I don’t feel like a victim anymore and my anger transforms into an honest appraisal of the person who hurt me and a realistic picture of the harm that was done. I begin to see where they are failing but I also see where I can pray for their betterment. And finally I also begin to see where what happened actually was to my greater benefit and that perception results in gratitude. Gratitude is a wonderful feeling and is completely conducive to happiness. In time a feeling of peace and joy reasserts itself and I see myself as the recipient of goodness not harm. And this is the basis of happiness.
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Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and traces his ancestry back to Abraham and King David in the Gospel of Matthew. Some people wonder whether Jesus is really Davidic because it is Joseph’s lineage that is recounted in Matthew’s Gospel and Joseph was not really the biological father of Jesus. Jesus’ father is the Holy Spirit of God. But ancient in ancient Israel, Jesus was considered the son of Joseph and hence the son of David because Joseph adopted him as his son.
Others say that Jesus is not the rightful son of David because God took away the signet ring of Jechoniah who was also called Jehoiachin (Jeremiah 22:24) during the Babylonian Exile when he was carried off to Babylonia. This objection however is not worrisome since God also gave the signet ring back to his grandson Zerubbabel (Haggai 2:23) who then was one of the progenitors of Joseph.
Although not all of his ancestors were kings, Jesus is still considered the son of David because of his father Joseph. And as son of David, he is then fulfilling the prophecies regarding the Messiah. He fulfills the prophecy that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:1) and be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14).
Jesus also fulfills the prophecy from Jeremiah (31:15) that Rachel would mourn for her children and refuse to be consoled because her children are no more when Herod massacred the boy infants in Bethlehem. When Jesus was then taken to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath, his return to Israel fulfilled the prophecy “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1).
Finally, John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah 40:3 as the “Voice [that] cries out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord!” And while Jesus was begin baptized a voice came from heaven saying “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” and this fulfilled the Servant prophecy by Isaiah (42:1).
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“Life is not for sissies,” my friend Steve Brown says, and when we look at Job, that statement is so true. We all seem to have the expectation that Job had that if we follow the law and do the right things, that everything will go well for us. We look around us and we see that everyone else seems to be doing the same thing and things are going well for them so it must be true for us too. People who obey the law generally are able to work a full life, have a family, take vacations, and eventually retire and use the time to take care of grandchildren and travel. It seems like that is the way it ought to be for us. And indeed, for Job he was told that if he was righteous God would bless him. Everyone knew that righteousness meant being blessed. And the fact that he was righteous and was blessed for a long time confirmed him in that expectation for the longest time. He even made sacrifices for his children to atone for any sins they might commit. He made sure he was righteous.
The problem is that even when you are righteous or obey the law, things can completely fall apart and you can end up devastated. Harold Kushner puts it this way: bad things happen to good people. So even though Job was righteous (and even God says he is), everything was taken from him except his wife and his life. Everything can be going along well for us and we can lose a job, lose a loved one, lose our house due to a storm or flooding, lose our health, find ourselves unemployed and unemployable, become disabled, go bankrupt, be betrayed by a friend, lose our investments, become a victim of crime or violence, or any number of other things that can go wrong in life.
The question then is how do you get it right when things fall apart? It doesn’t mean you weren’t getting it right before that, because bad things really can happen to good people. But when things fall apart, we can fall apart too and make it even worse, and that is what happens to most people and did to Job as well. When things started to fall apart for Job, he held it together at first and proclaimed, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21). In one day he lost all his herds of animals and his children, and he was devastated but emotionally he was able to bless God in spite of the misfortune. But when he is afflicted with all kinds of sicknesses, he loses it: “After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed his day. Job spoke out and said: Perish the day I on which I was born, the night when they said, ‘the child is a boy!’” (Job 3:1-3). If it is not enough that he has lost everything, then even his wife turns against him, “Are you still holding onto your innocence? Curse God and die” (Job 2:8). And if that is not enough, even his friends blame him for what has happened to him. They accuse him of every sin imaginable, including oppressing the orphan and the widow.
When things fall apart for us, our spouses may then abandon us. Our friends start walking by without greeting us. Our friends can even turn against us. Everyone wants to blame the person who suffers a negative life event. They want to point their finger and say we should have acted differently. And we may easily lose it emotionally, spiraling down into depression and despair. Job resisted his friends’ negativity and blame but he lashed out at God and demanded an answer to what he perceived as a clear injustice.
We too may turn against God and grow angry and bitter at what has happened to us. And that would make the situation worse. Bad situations and negative life events aren’t dealt with and overcome by getting angry that they happened. Job learned that too. After God finally did address him and ask him where he was when God had created the heavens and earth, Job finally realized that his sense of justice and demand that he be blessed when he was righteous, was something that he had only heard by hearsay. We learn that when things fall apart. We learn that our expectations about how things are going to go in life are really only based on hearsay and word of mouth. After Job silences himself in response to God’s account of his majesty and sovereignty, he says “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know. I had heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3-6). Job learned through his suffering to love God, not for what God could do for him, but for God himself. And in this way, Job finally got it right. He realized that he cannot manipulate God and that God does not have to respond to him but does so out of his own grace and sovereignty.
When things fall apart, we might become despondent and walk the house back and forth going over in our minds how this could have happened. We will struggle emotionally with feelings of insecurity, mourning, despair, fear, anger, feelings of rejection and abandonment and this is normal and natural. We will be tempted to blame someone else for what happened to us, or even blame ourselves. But key to getting it right when things fall apart is to realize that bad things just do sometimes happen to good people. That is why the story of Job is such a blessing to us. He really was righteous. He really did lose it. We will probably lose it too in some ways. But ultimately, we can get it right by realizing that our expectation that things are always going to go right for us was just not a well-grounded expectation. It was based on hearsay. When we realize that bad things just do happen we are better able to respond to them and start overcoming them. Realizing that God still has a plan for us in the midst of the chaos, keeps us from losing hope. Realizing that God has the power to fulfill his plans for your life can keep hope strong. And that is why continuing to have faith in God during it all is the best way to work your way out of the chaos.
God restored Job’s life and health and that is what God can do if we don’t make it impossible by becoming so angry and bitter and addicted to substances in order to numb the feeling of suffering. Those are ways we get it wrong when things fall apart. But it is possible to get it right and Job showed us that it has to do with trusting God’s plan and power to accomplish it even in the face of chaos and evidence to the contrary.
We have to face the fears, the anger, the blame, and the resentments, but they don’t have to have the last word. We need to remember that God uses this time to bring us closer to him and teaches us to depend upon him more. And in the ultimate scheme of things, he is all that ever matters. Bad things can bother us only if we let them. If we think that the loss of a job is a bad thing, then it will be. If we think that our financial woes are impossible to overcome, then they will be. If we think we can never recover from the loss of a marriage or a loved one, then we won’t be able to. But if we know that what ultimately matters is what our relationship with God is, then all the bad things that happen to us are put in perspective and relativized. And in relativizing them, we are on the path to overcoming them.
God can lead us when we finally let go of what we think is a horrible thing that happened to us. He has other plans and we can start being part of those plans in letting go of what is no longer alive in our lives. This is not to say our despair and sadness is not normal, but eventually we need to move beyond that to accept the plan that God has for our lives. So when things fall apart, know that we will be sad but we don’t have to blame ourselves and we don’t have to blame others. We can realize that things fall apart for all people at some time in their lives and that is when God is leading us elsewhere and when we need to trust him most and have faith that he has something else planned for us.
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In ancient Israel, there was nobody more poor and vulnerable than a widow and an orphan. A widow had no way to provide for herself unless her children provided for her. In Naomi’s case (in the book of Ruth), she lost her husband and then lost both of her sons. She was left with only two daughter-in-laws both of whom were now widows like herself. Worse than that she was in a foreign land and had no family to support her. Her situation was dire, so she decided to return to Israel. Naomi then got it right even in her poverty. She released the daughter-in-laws from any obligation to help her and follow her. She told them to return to their families and communities so they could find another husband. She insisted that she had no more husbands to offer them. By releasing them from any obligation, she did what was right for the women, but she put herself in an even more dire position. Still, this is the first act of Hesed in the book.
Hesed is the equivalent of grace in the New Testament. It is translated as mercy but also means a great act of generosity. There is something about hesed that inspires more hesed. So when Naomi releases Ruth, one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth responds with an act of hesed on her part. Ruth says, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Wherever you die I will die, and there be buried. May the Lord do so and so to me, and more besides, if aught but death separates me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17).
So both Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem where Naomi has a stake in land because of her deceased husband. There people hear of her story and also of Ruth’s decision to remain with her. But she has nothing to eat and hence Ruth takes it upon herself to go to a field to glean ears of grain. In ancient Israel, this was permitted to poor people and the law that enjoined their right to do this and also the obligation to leave ears of grain for the poor was a law that expressed the hesed of society. She happens to choose the field of Boaz and when he discovers this and finds out who she is since he has already heard of her great act of hesed toward Naomi, it inspires him to an act of hesed and he enjoins the harvesters to allow her to harvest grain alongside them. He also invites her to lunch and sees to it that she is safe. When she returns to Naomi she is rich with grain.
Ruth then makes another act of hesed toward Boaz, by presenting herself as someone he can marry. He is an older gentleman but she does this because it gives a redeemer to Naomi’s claim to the land. Boaz responds to this offer knowing that his child will actually be the Naomi’s child and make claim to the land. And when the child is born, Ruth acts in hesed again, handing the child over to Naomi to nurse.
This story in the book of Ruth illustrates the power of hesed to inspire more hesed and to create a situation in which everyone’s needs are met. When we are afraid that there will not be enough for us, we hoard what we have and as a result there is not enough for everyone. But when we give generously what little we have it creates a willingness on the part of others to share too and then everyone’s needs will be met. Ruth gave of herself to Naomi without hope of her own needs for a husband being met. She made herself a servant of Naomi to make sure that Naomi was fed, but in doing so she met Boaz her future husband. Naomi released Ruth, but Ruth in her freedom and gratitude gave herself to Naomi out of her great admiration for the kind of religion that would lead to such an act of hesed. Ruth who was a Moabite and pagan, converted to Judaism because of what she saw in Judaism as this great virtue of hesed. She saw this manifested in Naomi and it attracted her to an act of hesed as well. Ruth’s hesed inspired Baoz’s hesed and in the end everyone’s needs were met, including Boaz’s need for a wife and Naomi’s need for an heir.
Poverty is a very trying human condition and getting it right when you are impoverished is very hard. But the book of Ruth gives us an hint about how to get it right. By giving generously, one actually ends up receiving. Hoarding creates scarcity and competition and viciousness. We hoard when we believe our needs are not going to be met because there is not enough. It is based on the fundamental belief that things are scarce and that there is not enough to go around. But the act of hesed is a paradoxical act that says there is not only enough, but I have more than I need and hence I can give it to you. That kind of generosity inspires further generosity and hence the gift comes back. One doesn’t give hoping that it will come back, but one gives genuinely believing that there is no scarcity and that there is enough for all. This kind of giving is only possible when you believe that God, the great gift giver, is lavish in his gifts. The hesed of human beings is possible because they believe in the great mercy and gift-giving of God. Confidence that God will provide gives a person the peace of mind to give without hope of return. And that gift-giving inspires further gift-giving. And God does provide.
I once asked God why poor people were closer to him than people who had wealth and I received a dream in which I saw how poor people were getting something for nothing. That is the concept of hesed and grace. Poor people, because they don’t expect that they have enough, must rely on God month to month to make it through the month and when ends get met at the end of the month is like a gift from God. They don’t know how it will happen in the beginning of the month but by the end of the month it has happened. Poor people then experience the grace of God on a regular basis. They experience God’s hesed and are hence closer to God. In no way does this idealize poverty and make it something we should aim for, but we can understand by this how poverty is really a part of all of our lives since we all need the hesed of God and of other people in some form or another.
Hesed is getting right in a state of poverty. Hoarding is getting it wrong. And since we are all impoverished in some way or another, hesed is something we should all practice all the time. A person with good practical judgment will recognize that hesed generates and inspires more hesed and when people are generous, everyone’s needs get met.
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Probably one of the hardest things to do is to get it right when you are being persecuted. There really are nasty people in the world who target others and bully them by harassing them. Almost everyone has experienced a bully in his/her live. Bullies are insecure and so they pick on people they see as a threat and it doesn’t take a nefarious activity on your part to trigger the targeting of the bully. It may just be that you are vulnerable and an easy target. It is almost impossible to get it right if you blame yourself for being bullied because blaming yourself is exactly what the bully wants and that represents the success of his bullying behavior. The bully wants you to be intimidated and submissive because this satisfies his/her ego and feelings of insecurity. But living in a state of constant fear and intimidation undermines our ability to think for ourselves and to use our practical judgment to make good decisions. So we need to know how to respond to a bully.
We have already seen how Jesus responded to the bullies in his life (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes), so I would like to reflect on how David in the Old Testament responded to the bully in his life. David had already been anointed king by Samuel before he came into the court of King Saul, but Saul did not know this and David did not tell him nor do anything to undermine his kingship. We are told in the story that God has turned his face from Saul already and that is why he is suffering from madness. Saul had invited David into his court because he was suffering from some sort of mental disease and he wanted someone who could play the harp for him and sooth his soul. David was an accomplished harpist and played gladly for Saul. In fact, David served Saul gladly and with respect for his position as king. But David also slew Goliath and made a name for himself militarily. Saul then put him in charge of the army and David went out to fight the Philistines again and again.
David was loved by Saul until one day, Saul heard the women of the town singing a song in which he heard the phrase: “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands” (I Samuel 18:7). It was this unflattering comparison that suddenly turned Saul against David. Later we would see that Saul began to think that David would take over the kingship from him and steal it not only from him but also from his son Jonathan. This kind of paranoia clearly had no basis in reality because David was doing nothing to conspire against him. David did nothing nefarious to deserve being targeted by Saul except serve him successfully. So it is important to recognize that bullies can target someone even when there is no basis for it in reality. Bullies, like Saul, probably suffer from some kind of mental disorder that creates paranoia in their mind. They believe they are being persecuted, when it is the case that they are the persecutors.
Saul, then took aim at David and tried to kill him a number of times before David realized how serious the homicidal tendencies were and he finally fled Saul’s court. It took awhile for David to realize that he was being targeted and he enlisted his friend Jonathan to help him determine if indeed he was being targeted. When you first become the victim of the bully you are not sure because they try to conceal their activities so that they cannot be accused of bully activity. So there is a period where you are afraid to confront the bully because you don’t want to make a false accusation. Still, as things develop you become more and more sure that you are being targeted. But the more you become targeted the more fearful you become and hence the more isolated and vulnerable you become. By the time David realized he was really being targeted by Saul he was completely isolated and vulnerable and his only recourse was to flee.
Saul then began to pursue David and David not only had to hide he had to watch out who saw him because that person could betray him. Many times others turned against him to betray him as they took sides with King Saul. One of the problems of being bullied is that others wittingly and unwittingly join in and suddenly you don’t know who you can trust because no one is going to tell you they are not on your side. People will conceal their betrayal from you. It ultimately meant that David had to leave Israel and go to one of Israel’s enemies in order to find safety. He also began building a following around him of others who were outcasts and bullied. Finding those who were former victims can be consolation when you are being bullied. You may or may not be able to build a coalition as David did. Some people find themselves so alienated and afraid they are even afraid to reach out to others who have been bullied. But this is precisely why it is important to find others who understand what you are going through so that you don’t internalize the intimidation that the bully is hoping for. David shows us that sometimes you just have to leave the situation in order to find yourself in a safe place. This is especially hard if the bully activity is happening in a marriage or a workplace. David was able to leave the country but that is not always possible for everyone.
It is thus important that you trust God to protect you from the bully. David turned to prayer to determine what was safe for him to do and when he received word from God he then acted. When we pray and bring things to God he has a chance to give us his wisdom. Just taking the time to pray about something can give you an opportunity to let insight come to you. Even so, God looks out for us even when we don’t know it. Several times Saul went out looking for David and had almost apprehended him but he was called back by the need to fight the Philistines elsewhere (I Samuel 23:25-27). It is like God was making sure that Saul did not catch David by distracting him at the last minute. You have to believe that ultimately the bully cannot prevail if you resist the bully. You have to trust that God will make the bully’s ultimate efforts come to naught. It is true that you may lose your job or your marriage, but ultimately you will not lose your sense of self-worth and dignity. God’s plans for your life cannot be overturned by a bully for God is more powerful than a bully, but God may use the bully to take you somewhere else.
It is important to keep a detailed account of what the bully is doing. David, when he had a chance to confront Saul with his persecution, detailed what Saul was doing to him. “Against whom are you on campaign, O king of Israel? Whom are you pursuing> A dead dog, or a single flea!” (I Samuel 24:15). David refuses to let himself be characterized as someone who is a threat to Saul. He reproaches Saul with these words showing that he is innocent of what he is accused. He is the victim, not Saul.
But ultimately, it is not the bully that is in question, but you. How are you going to respond to being bullied unjustly? David shows us the way to get it right. Not only do you not give into the intimidation but you also do not respond in kind. Twice David is given the opportunity to kill Saul, but he refuses to do so. In his pursuit of David, Saul comes to a cave where he relieves himself not knowing that David and his men are hidden deep within the cave. They see the opportunity to kill Saul but David cuts off a piece of his mantle instead to show Saul that he is not intending to kill him. David is innocent of insurrection and he is able to get it right because he never becomes like the bully. He shows Saul to be the bully that he is by refraining from killing him. David is motivated by loyalty and respect for God’s anointed king and he stays true to his values even in the face of horrendous persecution and fear of his life. David says: “Look here at this end of your mantle which I hold. Since I cut off an end of your mantle and did not plan to kill you, see and be convinced that I plan no harm and no rebellion. I have done you no wrong, though you are hunting me down to take my life. The Lord judge between me and you, and the Lord will exact justice from you in my case. I shall not touch you. The old proverb says, ‘from wickedness comes forth wickedness’” (I Samuel 24:12-14).
This is getting it right under persecution. David does not give into intimidation, nor does he give into revenge and retaliation. He doesn’t respond to evil with evil, but maintains his innocence and dignity.
David’s response to Saul, caused Saul to repent of his homicidal path. David’s generosity toward him in sparing his life convicted him to the core and by the second time David had spared his life, Saul blessed David and recognized that David deserved to be king. Ultimately, Saul did meet his demise on the battlefield, but even then David did not rejoice in this destruction of his enemy. He mourned Saul and Jonathan, his best friend. When we can relate to the bully with this kind of compassion, then we know we have gotten it right. To want the destruction of the bully and to will his suffering is not getting it right. To want to be free of persecution is understandable but to desire to see the bully suffer and be destroyed makes us into the bully. Jesus enjoined us to pray for the enemy. That means you have to will blessings on the enemy, not curses. It means praying for his/her wholeness, not destruction. This is not easy and maybe impossible, except that nothing is impossible for God.
You may not be able to pray for the bully’s well-being, but then what you do is tell God how much you would like to see the bully suffer but that you know God wants you to pray for his blessings and well-being and then pray for it anyway and ask God to conform your heart to that contract: “Heavenly Father, I have suffered so much at the hands of this bully and I hate him and want to see him suffer as I have, but I know it is not your will for me to be filled with hatred and ill will. So I pray for blessings on the bully and I ask that you conform my heart to that contract in the name of Jesus my Lord.” We don’t have the power to do the right thing all the time even if we know what the right thing to do is. But then we can ask God to give us the power to do it by conforming our hearts to that contract or covenant. He is faithful and will do it. When I prayed this prayer, the very next day my St. George medal (which had been protecting me from the bully) was gone from my necklace without a trace. It was God saying I don’t need to be protected from the bully anymore and he had taken over fulfilling the covenant.
David was ultimately vindicated and I believe that God wills our vindication but it is not always as we expect it. It is not the destruction of your enemy. It is you letting yourself be guided in the direction God is leading. You may successfully stop the bully or you may be unsuccessful, but God doesn’t measure success in defeating bullies. God measures success in your response to being bullied. Can you refuse to be intimidated and can you stand up to the bully without retaliation and intimidation? Can you maintain your dignity and innocence, and find a way out of the bullying that doesn’t depend on returning evil for evil? Can you keep your head high?
Good practical judgment requires knowing how to handle a bully sometimes. People don’t choose to be victims of bullies, they just happen to be chosen. But responding correctly is a task of practical judgment. It is knowing not to retaliate but also not to give in. It is staying in prayer with God so that God can guide you. God’s wisdom is more urgent than ever. Being bullied and persecuted can bring you closer to God and make you rely on his wisdom more than you ever have before. And that is a good thing. God can use this experience to help you grow in faith.
As adults we need to revisit the Cain and Abel story because it isn’t just that Cain killed Abel that the story has significance for us today. It is a story about how God in his sovereignty gives preference to one person over the other and how a person who is not preferred has to deal with that. Although God’s grace is poured out to all, nonetheless, some people are given greater gifts than other people in the course of life and those who feel cheated must deal with that.
In the story, both Abel and Cain make sacrifices to God. And although Abel is said to give of the best of his flock, we are not told that Cain’s sacrifice is less worthy, we are simply told that God approved of Abel’s sacrifice but did not approve of Cain’s sacrifice. This is an expression of God’s sovereignty. He gives to whom he wills. It may well be that Abel made a sacrifice in order to please God and Cain made it because he wanted to be recognized by God. We don’t know. Perhaps their motivations were different. But the bible doesn’t tell us. All we know is that Cain did not receive the approval of God.
It would be wrong I think to attribute this lack of approval to something that was lacking in the sacrifice. First of all, the bible doesn’t say there is something wrong with the sacrifice. Second, Cain’s disappointment at not receiving the approval of God tells us that he wanted to please God. However, what stands out as a great hint as to why God did not accept Cain’s sacrifice is found in what God says to Cain in response to his disappointment and anger. God says: “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well you can hold your head up high; but if not sin is a demon lurking at your door, his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master” (Genesis 4:6-7). In other words, Cain’s disappointment turned into resentment toward his brother, and that anger was lurking in his heart and God is telling Cain, you can master that disappointment and not let anger over take you. And if Cain had mastered his disappointment, then God would have recognized that has a far greater sacrifice than even Abel’s sacrifice. It is the sacrifice of our inner revenge and anger that God appears to want in Cain’s case. We can always manage our disappointment if we are given another chance and Cain was given another chance. But Cain had to give up the resentment too. And if Cain had been able to make that sacrifice he could have held his head high. God would have been so proud of him.
As God says “If you do well, you can hold your head up high.” In other words, this is a test. Cain has the chance to get it right. All he has to do is give up his anger and resentment and manage his disappointment and God will be pleased with him. If his only motivation were to please God this would probably not be so hard to do. God has come to him and given him a clear indication of how he wants to be pleased. But perhaps Cain does not want to please God as much as he wants to be recognized by God. So repenting of his anger is not easy and he did not want to overcome the anger and resentment at this brother. He then retaliated against his brother and killed him, instead of giving up his anger.
Cain was given a second chance to get it right. God does test us and it is in the testing that we realize the faith to get it right. Cain took matters in his own hands and tried to set right what he perceived as an injustice, but thereby created an even greater injustice. If he had rather looked inside his heart at the injustice there and repented of it, he would have gotten it right.
We too have to deal with the fact that other people have advantages and gifts that we don’t have. Some people have a lot of money while other people are very poor. Some people are born with many talents and some with almost no talents. Imagine what this world would be like if everyone responded like Cain to this kind of unfairness? We would have terrible injustice everywhere. So people have to look inward and correct the injustice in their hearts – the resentment, the envy, the hatred, and the anger. This is the sacrifice that is called the sacrifice of the heart.
There are many passages in the Old Testament that testify that God prefers the sacrifice of the heart over the blood sacrifice. Psalms 51:17 reads: “For you do not desire sacrifice; a burnt offering you would not accept. My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart.” In Isaiah 1:11, we read: “What care I for the number of your sacrifices? says the LORD. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; In the blood of calves, lambs and goats I find no pleasure.” The prophet Samuel says (I Samuel 15:22): “Does the LORD so delight in holocausts and sacrifices as in obedience to the command of the LORD? Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission than the fat of rams.” In Proverbs 15:8, we find: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is his delight.” And finally in Hosea 6:6, we are told: “For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts..” Such passages are clear indications that that there is an even more important sacrifice than the blood sacrifice, namely a sacrifice of our inner dispositions.
The story of Cain and Abel is a story that gives us a hint about how to get it right. Getting it right is not about making the right kind of outer sacrifice, but about making the right kind of inner sacrifice. Practical judgment knows that we can’t always control things outside of us and that there will always be injustices in the distributions of gifts, money, property, etc, but it also knows that these things do not always make life worth living. It is the dignity that follows from self-control that gives us self-worth. And that is what is most pleasing to God.
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The wisdom literature in the Old Testament teaches the skill of practical judgment. Books such as Proverbs, Sirach, Wisdom and Ecclesiates are full of warnings and advice about how to live prudently and successfully. In the following chapters I will explicate some of the themes in this literature as it pertains to practical judgment. One of the main themes one finds is a warning about those who plot mischief for other people. In Sirach 27:22-27, we read about the person with shifty eyes who digs a pit for others to fall into. This is a person’s first warning that they are dealing with someone who wants to make mischief. The person has shifty eyes. This person does not look you straight in the eye. Such a person is so obvious, however, that really shifty people have learned to look you straight in the eye and lie. The writer of Sirach warns us that this person will use honeyed talk to butter you up and relax your guard. He even goes so far as to admire your every word. So the next warning you have regarding this person is that he is too agreeable and flatters you. To not fall for this kind of strategy you have keep a humble attitude about yourself and actually find it uncomfortable when someone expresses too glib admiration for you and what you say. To have too high an opinion of ourselves would make us vulnerable to believing this sugar water.
The writer of Sirach then warns us that he will change his tone and twist your words to your ruin. This kind of betrayal will feel all the more painful if you believed his honeyed words to begin with. But once words are out of our mouth there is no bringing them back. The purpose of the honeyed words was to make us relax our guard so that we would speak more candidly and open trusting that our words would be heard only by people sympathetic to them. But now we see that this person intended to use the words against us and to distort them so that they would make us look bad. We know now that we are the victims of treachery and have fallen in the pit that was dug for us. This is a very vulnerable place to be since words can not be taken back and it is hard to convince other people that you did not say what you were said to have said. So it is best to spot this kind of person before they have an opportunity to do this to you. The writer of Sirach gives us three hints. They will use honeyed words, have shifty eyes, and express admiration for your words. These three clues have to be taken seriously. We have to be careful not to let false flattery seduce us into being more candid with someone than we should.
First of all, it is clear that we don’t know this person very well because if we did we would know that they could not be trusted. So this tells us that we have to develop the habit of not speaking candidly with most people. We have to restrict what we say according to the amount of trust we have in a person, and awareness of how they will handle the words that we share with them. That kind of awareness takes time. You have to share things with a person and then watch how they use it. Do they share it with everyone? Do they twist what you say or do they give it accurately? When you test someone and share a little with them at a time, the harm that is done is not so great if it turns out that they will distort what you say. Once you develop trust in them you can share more candidly.
But it is also true that what makes us vulnerable to this kind of mischief is that we are flattered by the expressions of admiration and honeyed words. To make us less vulnerable to this kind of manipulation we have to develop a distaste for flattery. First of all we should recognize flattery as manipulative. You should be repulsed by flattery rather than attracted to it. To get to this point you have to be honest with yourself about your own abilities. You can’t let yourself believe flattery in the face of the counterexample of reality. So honesty with yourself is key to disarming flattery of its power. Face the fact that you may not be as admirable as this person makes you out to be. You can still live with yourself if you are not! In fact you can live with yourself better than if your words are being used against you.
Honeyed words ought to be raising red flags in your mind rather than putting your critical thinking skills to sleep. Honey is a very attractive substance because it is sweet and tastes good, but we all know that not everything that tastes good is good for us. Hence honeyed words may also be bad for us. Shifting eyes tell you that he is not looking at you and concerned with you. He is looking elsewhere for his bread to be buttered. So you should not trust those eyes. Keep your eyes open and withdraw them inward to keep track of what is going on inside of you as a warning to what he is really like. The very attraction of his speech should be a warning to you that all is not right. Especially since you hardly know this person and he hardly knows you!
The writer of Sirach goes further in warning us against this person. He suggests that the person who digs a pit for you and lays a snare for you, will fall into it himself! “Whoever does harm will be involved in it, without knowing how it came upon him.” This is a warning against such people. Taking advantage of the vulnerability of other people comes back around to haunt you. It is like the old Southern proverb: “What goes around, comes around.” However, if this person really believed that their distortion would come back to haunt them they probably wouldn’t do it.
We have all become painfully aware of how the banks set a snare for people by giving them mortgages they would not afford and then watching them go through foreclosure and snatching the house back up again. This is a perfect illustration of how people can set snares for other people. The banks knew that the people could not really afford the size of the mortgage they were giving them. They knew the people would end up in foreclosure and they knew they would get the house back again and be able to sell it while still making a hefty profit. But this ruined a lot of people’s lives. And it did not follow sound principles of lending. Today, U.S. attorneys are looking carefully into the banks’ records and prosecuting bank CEOs for violations of laws. Although this trap caught many people the trap is now catching CEOs as well.
Wisdom literature seems so sure that the trap layer will fall into his own pit, but we all know that many times those who cheat and deceive and law traps for others somehow escape any consequences. It really doesn’t always seem to be the case that “what goes around, comes around.” I recently hired a heating and air man to do my duct work and ready my air conditioner for summer. He talked a big talk and told me all the things he was going to do, but when it came to doing it, I suspect that it wasn’t done. He knows I won’t be able to tell the difference. I can’t go into my ducts and see if they are really clean. I don’t know if he did all he said he would do to ready my air conditioner for summer. But what I do know is that when I was watching, he was not doing what he said he was going to do. He had honeyed words, but no follow through. But when will he ever be caught? He can continue this kind of deception for a long time without every getting caught. Who can catch him?
But wise people do not rely on the probability of not being caught. Once the consequences do come back and bite you it is too late. And you can never know when the consequences might catch up with you. Living with that uncertainty is not worth it to wise people. They would always have to be watching their back. People with practical judgment will live a life of honesty and let the cards fall as they may. People with good practical judgment trust that “what goes around, comes around” and that when they are honest with other people their reputation will only be blessing to them. Likewise, when you are the victim of the trap layer, other people will see a trap for what it is. It may take time, but a person can recover from a trap and expose the trap layer as such.
But that can be down the road, so it is better to be wary of the person who is planning mischief and not give them any occasion for their traps. A person with good practical judgment will be on guard against honeyed words, shifting eyes, and flattery.
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In Old Testament you will find that people believed in unlimited revenge (Genesis 4:13) until the law came and limited revenge (Exod 21:22-25; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21). Cain knew anyone could retaliate against him for having killed Abel. But with the law, revenge was limited to the damage done. So in exchange for an eye, an eye could be taken. This is a higher notion of revenge because it makes the punishment fit the crime. In Roman society it became known as the law of the claw (lex talionis). This law of revenge was ameliorated by the silver law – “Do not do unto others what you would not
want done unto you” (Tob 4:15) and mercy (Genesis 4:15, where God’s mercy spares Cain from revenge). In the New Testament, the golden rule “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you” creates a social fabric in which generosity and an atmosphere of good will undermine the likelihood of wrongful acts in the first place. But wrongful acts will occur and hence lex talionis is hence not done away with. But Jesus recognized that that personal revenge had became a standard response to those who merely frustrate us or disappoint us, in other words, to those we consider an enemy. So Jesus added an even higher stage of moral response to this kind of evil that is directed at a person for personal reasons.
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel (Matt 5:38-39), Jesus says “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” In such a circumstance as here described, someone is slapping another person on the face. This is not a crime so much as it is an insult and humiliation. So Jesus is not saying that the punishment no longer should fit the crime, but he is saying that in interpersonal relationships where people are unethical to one other one should not respond by becoming unethical with them and exacting revenge. Jesus suggests instead that we not return evil for evil. Instead, we should give them the other cheek so that they can continue to humiliate us. This is not passivism, resignation, and being a wimp. Jesus is not saying you should accept the humiliation and internalize it, but that you should resist the humiliation but not exact revenge. Although he says we should not resist evil, he also says we should offer the other check which is a type of resistance, just not violent and retaliatory. In offering the other cheek, we are shaming the enemy and portraying him as a bully, someone who would pick on a defenseless and unarmed person. In other words, such an action should disarm the enemy because it accuses him of being abusive. Turning the other cheek is meant to help you retain your sense of dignity (hence resisting the evil of the intent) while placing the other person under censure. It is not acceptance of the humiliation intended but is meant to lead to vindication, namely the restoration of the dignity of the person when the enemy relents and recognizes that he is in the wrong. Resisting the evil on its own terms would only escalate the evil. But not retaliating makes the violence of the act stand out in bold relief and accuses the perpetrator.
In Romans 12:19-21, St. Paul writes, “Beloved, do not look for revenge, but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” St. Paul knew how hard it was not to resist evil with evil. Our tendency is to return violence for violence, humiliation for humiliation. But Christians are being reminded that God will set the scales straight and it is not for the Christian to repay evil with evil. Our obligation is to love. Jesus corrects the Old Testament tendency to hate the enemy (Deut 7:2) and instead he enjoins love for the enemy (Matt 5:43-48). He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Enjoining love for the enemy is an incredibly high standard of morality. It demands that we see the best in the enemy and not the worst. It demands that we will good for the enemy and that we pray for blessings for the enemy. It takes our eyes off of our feelings of persecution and helplessness and puts it on the hope for the betterment of the enemy. This very act of willing good for the enemy helps us overcome our feelings of powerlessness in the face of persecution and frustration. So we will not only what is good for the enemy (maybe even moral improvement), but we strengthen our inner confidence in ourselves because we are not overwhelmed by the persecution and we don’t give into the persecution. Praying for the enemy and loving enemy is a way of standing up to the enemy and not giving into the enemy, whereas returning hate for hate puts us on the same level as the enemy and we become what we despise in the enemy. It is a type of resistance that is non-violent and preserves the dignity of our persons. It also affirms the idea that love is going to be victorious over hatred. It affirms that love is more powerful than hatred. Returning hate for hate gives hate the power.
Jesus did not enjoin love for the enemy so that Christians would lose. He meant for Christians to have a winning strategy. This is a strategy that comes out of the wisdom literature in the bible. Proverbs 25:21 says, “If your enemy be hungry, give him food to eat, if he be thirsty, give him to drink; For live coals you will heap on his head, and the Lord will vindicate you.” In doing good to the enemy, we bring the enemy to awareness of his evil as he compares his evil with our good. This is what is needed for repentance and an awareness of sin. Doing good has the paradoxical effect of bringing another person to awareness of their unrighteousness. Doing good in response to evil is not giving into evil but standing up to it and overcoming it. It is asserting that good is stronger than evil and that good will prevail someday. Believing that God will vindicate you relieves you of the burden of having to exact the right punishment and having to recover your dignity, something that is almost impossible anyway. How can you undo some of the harms that have been done to the dignity of human beings? But having a disposition of love and goodness in response to evil, minimizes the harm that is done and in fact makes it impossible for lasting harm to be done. How can you humiliate someone who loves you in return and is praying for you? Such a spirit is indomitable and cannot be defeated.
So turning the other cheek and loving your enemy are moral injunctions that lead to success and not failure. Trying to get revenge for perceived harms is doomed to failure. There never really is a true satisfaction in retaliating for the evil of humiliation and harms done. Many harms cannot be corrected and set right and certainly not made better by inflicting harm on the perpetrator. Revenge is hence a failed strategy. But love and non-violent resistance minimizes or impedes harm from being done and is hence the best strategy for a person with practical judgment.
A person with practical judgment recognizes the power of non-violent resistance and recognizes that humiliation is something we do to ourselves by giving into the enemy. But standing up to the enemy and not returning evil for evil, we do not internalize humiliation and the belief that we have been excessively harmed. And hence we minimize or dissolve the harm done. Thinking about and dwelling on how our enemy has harmed us and then planning revenge and retaliation perpetuates the belief in ultimate harm. Whereas responding with love and well wishes to the enemy limits the harm and we bounce back from the harm thereby limiting the effect of the harm and making vindication a greater possibility.
John is a prisoner I have taught for many years and I taught him the principles of non-violence without knowing that it was having a profound effect on him. But he told me this story one day and I realized that he had gotten it right. One day in prison he ran across the cop who had put him in prison by setting him up. The cop was now a prisoner. Immediately the thought of revenge came to John’s mind. He knew that if he informed the other prisoners that this man was a former cop that the man would be dead in a short period of time. This was a great opportunity for revenge for John. It was easy and he wouldn’t even have to do the dirty work. But what I had taught him came to mind. Suddenly, revenge did not look so attractive. Instead he looked down at the man’s feet and noticed he didn’t have any socks and so he went and got the former cop some socks. The cop knew the significance of what John had done. Instead of returning evil for evil, John had returned good for evil and he thanked John for not ratting him out. When John told me this story and how amazed he was that he had been so transformed it brought tears to my eyes. John had gotten it right and he knew it.
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Some people try to gain power over you by setting themselves up as righteous while accusing you of unrighteousness. This is really laughable, but the truth is it can be very disconcerting. Usually the self-righteous person will attempt to paint you into a corner as an immoral person because of your affiliation with what they consider immoral institutions. They concoct a whole story about how immoral a particular affiliation is and then they believe they have thus established themselves as wonderful and moral people because they can see how clearly immoral the other affiliation is. The other person feels self-righteous and pure in putting someone else down, just like the Pharisee who prayed next to the tax collector.
Atheists do this to Christians by detailing all the mistakes of the Church. It makes Christians defensive, but there really is no need to be defensive. One has to remember that the atheist is probably no better than the Church he is criticizing, but he is just setting himself up as its judge and in doing so feels superior to the Church. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that at the time the Church made its mistakes it didn’t have the kind of knowledge that we have now and it didn’t have the societal mores that we have now. And the atheist doesn’t prove thereby that had he been in the position of making decisions at the time that he would have made a better decision. But even more worrisome is the assumption that the Church is someone how an entity that is acting like a person. I was told by the atheists who have attacked me recently that the Church raped Native Americans. Wow, that would be a feat. The fact is that it is people who rape not an institution. Those people may have used the Church to justify what they were doing, but that doesn’t mean they are the Church. People are basically very selfish and will use their power and positions to do things they normally couldn’t or wouldn’t do if they weren’t in those positions. And people will use the Church to defend a position they have chosen independently of the Church.
Most important of all for practical judgment, it is key that we see that it is individual human beings making decisions, not an institutional entity. It was Pope Urban II who called the first Crusade. It is true that he was head of the Church, but he was not the whole of the Church. To understand the morality of that call you have to also realize that the Pope had no control over the Crusaders who made decisions on their own. In fact the Pope was horrified that the Crusaders decided to kill Jews in Europe before leaving on the Crusades. One man had the power to call the Crusades, but that doesn’t mean that he carried it through. Then you have to consider the fact that although the Crusaders called themselves Christians, they were very much manipulated by some preachers into seeing the Saracen (Muslims) as devils. Again, are these preachers the whole of the Church? By no means. For the longest time it was also possible to enjoin hatred of the Jews by using scripture to say the Jews killed Jesus. But that is a distortion of the text and since people could not read the scripture for themselves they were dependent upon preachers to interpret it for them. It wasn’t until Luther translated the bible into the vernacular German that people began to be able to read for themselves and even then, misinterpretations of scripture were widespread because scripture can be interpreted in many different ways. But who are these interpreters? They are individual human beings, all of whom have agendas.
Manifest destiny for instance made use of the concept of God, but it was fundamentally a political movement. It was a concept that served the purpose of people who wanted to take land away from other people. It gave them a justification and the fact that they used God to justify this doesn’t mean the Church supported that position. There may have been some preachers who supported the movement but the fact is that it was fundamentally a political movement. Yet, two different self-righteous people have criticized the Church to me lately for having taken land away from the Native Americans and tried to force convert them. One has to ask who these people really were. They were people who had a political agenda and they used the Church to support their otherwise determined position.
One of the reasons self-righteous people seem so persuasive is that they implicitly portray themselves as superior and righteous. But we should not be moved by this. They may not be doing what they are accusing you and your affiliation of, but they may well have done it had they been in the same position at that time. Hindsight is 20/20 vision and we understand now that the Crusades and the Inquisition were wrong, but then the Church knows that now too. The fact is that human beings are basically very selfish and violent and people who get in power in our institutions abuse that power and use it often for their self-aggrandizement. Pope Urban II thought he was doing something good for Europe by getting the knights of Europe to stop fighting each other and abusing the people and so he sent them to fight a real “enemy.” Had he known how things would turn out, I am sure he would not have called for the Crusades. We look back on the Inquisition and Crusades and Manifest Destiny now from a perspective that has been won through historical struggle. That historical moral struggle had yet not taken place.
People who are self-righteous distract us from awareness of exactly who and how decisions are being made. They set themselves up as judges who attribute causality in ways that distort true attribution of causality. They distract us from being alert to where decisions are being made today and how they are being made. If you look around even today we can see how the Republican Party often uses Christianity to support its political leanings. Some use the bible to argue against homosexual marriage. The bible was also used to argue against interracial marriage. But are the Republicans the Church? Of course not. Has the bible been used to deny people rights? Yes, of course. But it has also been used to argue for rights.
People with good practical judgment do not let themselves be distracted from analysis of true causality. Self-righteous people distort true causality because they want to make themselves feel good by identifying with a good moral cause, so they set up a false dichotomy. But they are no better than any other fallible human being in human history. All human beings make mistakes and people who are in positions of power can make big mistakes. Self-righteous people want you to believe they are good, but in setting themselves up as self-righteous and projecting those who disagree with them as evil, they are creating a false dilemma. All human beings are capable of evil and a person with good practical judgment needs to keep that in mind. A person with good practical judgment understands that it is individual human beings who make decisions, not institutions.
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Today people want to lower standards of morality and make them convenient and easy to fulfill. And if a standard is not to their liking they simply get rid of it. But morality is not something that one can get rid of so easily. Morality makes a claim on one. Morality demands adherence. That is the nature of an imperative – it makes a demand upon us. So people find many different ways to get out of moral commands. They look for excuses and utilitarian outs. Just consider the fact that many people make vows to love a person for life but then feel they can get out of that vow when things are not going their way. Or how many people think they can cut the corner on stealing because their company owes them. Then lying is okay because it is just a little white lie. You don’t have to honor your parents because they did you wrong. Adultery is okay because it is consensual. Being envious of another person is almost valorized. A little jealousy is not really that harmful. Fantasizing about revenge is harmless if it doesn’t result in action. And we don’t have to care for the poor because they are responsible for their own situation.
All of these are ways in which people try to evade the demands of morality. Rather than accept the fact that we are under these moral codes they simply dismiss the codes or give some reason for not having to meet up to them. But these evasive tactics do not get rid of moral norm and they do not get rid of the claim they make on us. Our very reason makes the claim – we find these standards in our reason, they are not imposed from without. Otherwise we wouldn’t need to make excuses and find ways to evade them. So when we do that we are going against our own reason. We may escape the damning of our own reason at a conscious level, but we can never out run the condemnation we experience at an unconscious level. We simply suppress our awareness of it. We know what we are doing is wrong, but we suppress that acknowledgement. The reason I know this is that at some point people can come to their senses and they realize that the demand of morality never went away, it just went underground.
Jesus came under attack by the Pharisees again in Matthew (Matt 19:1-12) because they wanted to test him. This time they wanted to get him to say something against the law of Moses, so they asked him: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatsoever?” In Jewish law a man could divorce a wife by giving her a bill of divorce. A wife could not divorce a husband, however. Deuteronomy 24:1 states that if a man finds something indecent about his wife, he may give her a bill of divorce. The word ‘indecent’ was not well defined and different schools of thinking arose regarding what requirement this had to be. One school believed this meant just ‘displeasing’ to the man, but the other school believed there had to be some moral indiscretion in order to justify divorce. But in any case, divorce was permitted for the husband, but not for the wife.
Jesus was not satisfied by this reading of the Old Testament and he interpreted marriage in the context of what God intended for the institution. He went back to Genesis 2:24 “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” This statement defines the fact that in a marriage the two become one. So Jesus says, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Not only is it wrong to divorce but a man commits adultery if he divorces his wife and marries another. This is a very shocking position for Jews since it means that the man is committing adultery against a woman and in Old Testament times that was not possible. Men could marry more than one woman and not be committing adultery. They were committing adultery only if they had an affair with the wife of another man and then it was adultery only against the husband. So what Jesus is saying makes men guilty not only of divorce but also of adultery.
Matthew gives an exception clause to the prohibition on divorce “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife [unless the marriage is unlawful] and marries another commits adultery.” In cases where there was incest then the marriage was considered unlawful. But this exception was not found in Mark and it is likely that Matthew puts this exception in Jesus’ mouth because of the issues his church faced with Gentiles who were married to first cousins. Still, it is pretty certain that Jesus’ position raised the moral standard. Where divorce was accepted in the Old Testament, Jesus interpreted the intent and meaning of marriage so that divorce would be forbidden. He explained to the Pharisees that Moses allowed them to divorce their wives because of the hardness of their hearts. But that is not what God wants. He wants a married couple to stay together for life.
There are a number of reasons why this position is morally superior to the position that a man may divorce his wife. First of all, the wife has no say so. Second, women in that society were very vulnerable and could not care for themselves without a husband so when a man divorced his wife he made her destitute. Thirdly, marriage is an institution that cares for the well being of persons. To take those benefits away from a person is to deprive them of their well-being.
Jesus didn’t believe everyone should marry, but if they did marry they should not divorce. Even today, where women have more rights and can work to support themselves it is often the woman whose standard of living is lowered after a divorce because men have a greater earning potential than women. And it is true that divorce does not stigmatize a person like it used to, but it is still one of the most traumatic experiences a person ever has to experience. People give up opportunities and other support networks in order to enter into a marriage so that if they lose the marriage they often have lost most of their support network.
The Pharisees just wanted to see Jesus go against Moses so they could trap him, but Jesus used the Hebrew Scriptures to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures. They could not fault him for that. Jesus had the authority to interpret the scripture because he was given that authority by God. He doesn’t just follow the scripture blindly but sees the whole of scripture and the intent of God as it is expressed in scripture. He understands that human weakness is there, but he does not give it credence. He makes the demands higher and doesn’t give weakness its excuse.
A person with good practical judgment doesn’t try to evade moral responsibility with excuses and suppressions. Morality is a very serious demand upon us and when we deny it we turn against ourselves because the demand does not go way, it just does under. A person with good practical judgment is smart to keep a clean conscience, and when they do violate a moral norm they do not try to deny it, but confess it and receive forgiveness. Trying to make moral demands go away is a losing battle.
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Today, atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris attack Christian belief because they think there is no proof for the existence of God and that Christian belief is delusional. They demand proof based on their own criteria of empirical evidence. They want to be shown that God exists by means of what the New Testament called a “sign.” But Christians need to be wary of this demand and refuse to attempt it. Jesus refused to give a sign to the Pharisees and Sadducees because his life was already a sign and they refused to give it credence.
In Matthew 16, the Pharisees and Sadducees, as the religious leaders of the Jews, come to Jesus to test him and to demand of him a sign from heaven to confirm his authority and ministry. Jesus does not give them one but says “In the evening you say, ‘Tomorrow will be fair, for the sky is red’; and in the morning, “Today will be stormy, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to judge the appearance of the sky, but you cannot judge the signs of the times.” (These verses were probably a later edition to Matthew’s gospel). He is telling them that they know well how to judge natural signs and should be able to apprehend the signs that they are witnessing in Jesus’ ministry. But they are refusing to apprehend the signs in Jesus’ ministry. What kind of refusal is this? Is it simply a failure to recognize something or is it a refusal to let the evidence have power over them?
Jesus goes on to say that no sign will be given to this unfaithful and evil generation except the sign of Jonah. This is an enigmatic phrase but we can probably make sense of it if we recall what Jonah did. Jonah was a prophet who was called by God to go and preach to the Ninevites and call them to repentance. Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because the Ninevites were hateful people who had done much harm to Israel and Jonah did not feel they deserved God’s mercy and forgiveness. So he refused to go to them and in fact ran the opposite direction. God then brought it about that he would be thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale and stay in the belly of the whale for three days before being spewed up upon the land. Finally, Jonah does what God calls him to do and to his surprise and dismay the Ninevites repent immediately.
We don’t know this for certain, but there are probably two things about this story that are signs of the times for Jesus. First, of all Jesus may be referring to his own crucifixion and resurrection when he talks of Jonah because of the three days Jonah spent in the belly of the whale and should have been dead but did not die. Jesus is later said to be resurrected after 3 days. That is surely a sign like no other and did in fact have a powerful effect on the generation who witnessed it. But all of that is in the future for the Pharisees and Sadducees who are confronting Jesus now. Is there another sign of the times that they could have paid attention to? I think that is clear in Jesus’ ministry.
Many people responded to Jesus the way the Ninevites did. They recognized right away that Jesus’ ministry was calling them to repentance of their sins. They could see that immediately in what he taught and how he healed. Jesus’ power to heal and to forgive sins must have been a powerful sign of the times of God’s presence and activity in the world. The Pharisees and Sadducees saw what everyone else saw but they refused to respond to the call of repentance. They didn’t just not see the sign, they refused the sign. It was not like they were neutral observers who with a bit more convincing could be won over. They couldn’t be won over because they refused the demand that was upon themselves to repent. They could see clearly from where they were that Jesus was calling them to repentance and that is precisely why they found him so threatening. That is why they wanted so badly to trip him up and make him look bad. So they reversed the demand and put it upon Jesus rather than recognize that it was they who were in question.
This is why today, Christians need to be wary of atheists’ demands for proof. The proof of God’s presence is evident in Jesus’ life and ministry because it is a life that puts us to question. It is a life that calls us to repentance and recognition of our sin. Atheists don’t just want proof, they want something more, they want to be free of the demand upon themselves that they repent. They want to believe they are good people and it is God who has to answer to them. But the gospel message of Jesus is that it is we who have to answer to God. We are the ones who are in question and that alone is enough proof of God’s existence. God’s call to repentance strikes us at the core of our being and we know that we are being addressed. The Pharisees and the Sadducees knew they were being addressed and couldn’t stand it and so they constantly wanted to trip up Jesus to make this address go away.
But the wonderful part is that repentance is not becoming a worm and ingratiating yourself to a tyrant. It is simply a turning away from the sin and turning toward God and accepting the love and forgiveness of God in return. God knows we cannot live up to the moral standards he sets for us. We simply can’t. And we don’t have to in order to please him. He is already pleased through Jesus’ forgiveness. The cross and resurrection took care of the penalty for sin and now there is a restored relationship between human beings and God.
So Christians should remember that the demand that atheists have for proof and signs is actually an attempt to evade the call to repentance. The sign of Christ’s resurrection and the effect it had on people, and the call to repentance that Jesus’ life and ministry makes is sufficient evidence of God’s presence. It is the atheist who is in question, not the Christian.
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Guilt is such a powerful emotion that it has the potential to wreck our lives and undermine our confidence in ourselves. True guilt is based on violating moral standards but false guilt is based on violating social standards and traditions that are human made for specific purposes. True guilt and false guilt both have the same feeling to them, yet one is legitimate and the other is highly questionable. With true guilt you can repent of the immoral action and God is forgiving, but in false guilt there is no way to make it better because people use false guilt to manipulate you. They keep you in a sense of false guilt to keep you from having freedom and power. They gain power over you by means of instilling false guilt.
False guilt is used by people to get power over you. They accuse you of violating some social norm or group norm that has been artificially constructed in order to keep the group together or create identity for the group. People who allow this guilt to be put upon them can be devastated by it because the threat implied in the guilt is that you will be excluded by the group and ostracized. For a species that is social as the human species is, being excluded by the group and ostracized is the equivalent of death. So false quilt is a very powerful emotion that has the power to keep you imprisoned by social norms that are not moral norms.
In Matthew’s gospel, we see the Pharisees and scribes come to Jesus and accuse his disciples of not washing their hands before eating (Matthew 15:1-20). They are looking for anything to gain power over Jesus and the disciples and they have discovered this violation of a norm. They ask him, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash [their] hands when they eat a meal.” Jesus, however, does not let himself be ambushed into false guilt. Instead of answering the question and going on the defensive, he goes on the offensive and asks them in return, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall die.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is dedicated to God,” need not honor his father.’ You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” He then quotes Isaiah for support in the distinction he is making between the moral code and tradition. Jesus says, “Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about your when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’” Jesus sees the Pharisees giving precedence to human precepts and traditions over the moral law.
Jesus doesn’t try to justify what they disciples are not doing or doing, instead he draws a careful distinction between norms that are human made and moral laws that come from God. The Pharisees and scribes believe that the human traditions are just as important as the moral law. But washing hands was something priests are required to do, not lay people. They have decided that all people should wash their hands so that all people are holy like priests. In other words, this is a norm they created in order to establish a group of people who have a group identity. Jesus rightly identifies this norm as coming from human traditions and not from God. But he goes farther and accuses the Pharisees of undermining the moral law by creating a tradition of the qorban in which a man can evade helping his needy parents by making a declaration that his money is dedicated to God. Jesus rightly recognizes that this violates the command to honor one’s parents.
So what Jesus does is to show the Pharisees that they are the ones who have true guilt while they are trying to put false guilt on him. He refuses the false guilt and places the true guilt rightly where it belongs. This reversal keeps Jesus from having to defend the disciples and himself and hence keeps him from being cornered. Instead he corners the Pharisees and scribes. Their adherence to human traditions undermines God’s laws, which are more important.
The Pharisees are not finished with their guilt trips though and respond to Jesus by saying they are offended by what he is saying. This is a typical response of someone who is mired in false guilt. They will defend themselves by saying they are offended and you are now supposed to feel guilty for having offended them. But again, Jesus does not let himself become defensive and he responds that “every plant my Heavenly father has not planted will be uprooted.” In other words, he is saying your guilt is false guilt that has no real roots in morality and will be uprooted by God. There is no reason for a person to adhere to human traditions and norms that are not grounded in God’s will, since these have no basis in reality. What God does is the standard, not what humans do.
Jesus also makes the clever distinction between things that go into a body and things that come out of a body. A person doesn’t defile themselves and produce guilt by what they put into their body but what proceeds out of them namely, “for from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” A person becomes impure and guilty from what proceeds out of her heart not from what she puts into her body. In other words, true guilt is something that we deserve because we did an interior act that violates the moral law. Violating ceremonial laws is not a true violation of morality.
The Pharisees and scribes attempted twice to gain power over Jesus and his disciples by accusing them of violating human norms. This is a serious attack because false guilt can really devastate a person. But Jesus attacked back with true guilt immediately, and when they were offended he told them God will not let their traditions stand. Jesus held fast to the true standard of morality, namely, God and did not let himself become defensive. There is no reason for us to be defensive in the face of true guilt. We need only repent and receive the forgiveness of God. But that is not possible with false guilt because there is no resolution for false guilt. It is the guilt that undermines you and keeps you imprisoned by those imposing the guilt.
So a person with good practical judgment will be on alert and watchful for when people try to manipulate and control her with false guilt. And she will hold fast to the true standards of morality so that only true guilt is allowed and then that guilt may be repented of and forgiveness received.
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Good practical judgment requires good critical thinking skills and that includes understanding where the burden of proof lies. Anyone can demand that you prove something and by doing it they make you carry the burden of the proof. But it is not always easy to carry the burden of the proof and some things by their very nature cannot be proven. In the American criminal justice system, an accused is considered innocent until proven guilty. That is an extremely important position for the criminal justice system to take because that means that the accused does not have to prove he is innocent but the government has to prove that he is guilty. It means the burden of proof lies with the government rather than with the defendant. Imagine how impossible it would be to prove you are innocent! So the burden of proof lies rightly with the prosecution.
In everyday arguments, there is always a side the proof lies with. For the most part, anyone who initiates a claim has the burden to prove that claim. So it is a slight of hand to say: “prove that it isn’t so.” That would be shifting the burden of proof to the other person who is not making any claims and so shouldn’t carry the burden of proof. Really cunning people are always shifting the burden of proof and hence you have to be on guard against this very subtle but important shift. But sometimes shifting is the only way to avoid a trap and we see that in how Jesus responds to the chief priests and elders.
In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 21:23-27), we see the chief priests and elders of the people come to Jesus and demand: “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” These questions put the burden of proof on Jesus. The chief priests and elders believe that Jesus will have to claim divine authority for his ministry and then they will accuse him of blasphemy, so this is a trap. Jesus is aware of the problems of defending prophetic authority. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 warns against false prophets who perform wonders. The people are not to follow these prophets because they are sent as tests from God. So Jesus cannot appeal to his miracles and healings to justify his authority either. And yet, the Hebrew Scriptures are full of prophets who were clearly called by God to minister to the people. So, although Jesus’ authority derives from God and the sriptures, he would put himself in a very vulnerable position if he were to claim his authority comes from God. The chief priests, however, deriving from the tribe of Levi have a basis for their authority in scripture and rely on that basis to challenge Jesus.
Yet, Jesus does not let himself be caught in this trap. Instead he shifts the burden of proof to the chief priests and elders by telling them: “I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me, then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things. Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or human origin?” The burden is now on them to answer the question of the authority of a prophet. They discuss the issue among themselves and realize that if they say that John’s authority had a “heavenly origin” then Jesus will come back and ask them why they did not believe John the Baptist. In addition, if they acknowledge the authority of John’s ministry then they will have to acknowledge Jesus’ authority as well. But, then they also realized that if they say that John’s authority was human in origin, they would alienate the crowd of people who believe that John’s authority was heavenly in origin. They are caught in a trap themselves. And what is amazing is that they let Jesus shift the burden of proof to them. What is so amazing about what Jesus did is that it is a brilliant strategy for defeating a trap. The chief priests and elders are now in the very trap they wanted to put Jesus in.
They finally tell him that they don’t know from whence John’s authority comes and Jesus tells them: “Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.” With this, Jesus has released himself from the burden of proof of his authority. Implicit in his testing of the chief priests and elders is his own position that his authority and John’s authority derive from God, but he is able to communicate this without having to make an assertion, which would leave him vulnerable to a charge of blasphemy. So Jesus was able to get it right again.
The chief priests and elders are reduced to silence and go away to leave Jesus for the time being. It is true they will come back and condemn him to death later but for the time being Jesus is completely effective in evading the trap. That is what good practical judgment can do. It is knowing just the right thing to say at the right time and in the right way so that it is completely effective. Jesus was able to do this because he bases his authority in the Hebrew Scriptures and their accounts of prophets and in God’s calling to him. He knows that all the things he is doing are things that prophets do, but he also knows that his authority is given by God directly as he spends time with God in prayer daily. He could have said this directly but that would leave him vulnerable. So he said it indirectly by using John the Baptist as an example. Not only was he able to refer to his own authority, but he was also able to point out the sin of the chief priests and elders who did not acknowledge the authority of John’s baptism. And so where they set a trap for him he not only evaded it, but was able to express his central ministry. He was able to bring the chief priests to awareness of their own sin: they are more afraid of the people, then they are of God and that they may be going against God in challenging Jesus.
So beware of the burden of proof. The burden of proof always lies with the one who makes the claim, but proving something is not always easy. When people not only shift the burden of proof to you, but limit what can count as proof, you should shift the burden of proof back to them. Atheists do this a lot to Christians. They demand that Christians prove that God exists and then they restrict what can count as a proof, so Christians are trapped. Instead, shift the burden of proof back to them or demand that they open their acceptable evidence to what the bible itself uses as evidence, namely faith.
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Jesus faced another test of his practical judgment when the scribes and Pharisees brought him a woman who had been caught in adultery. John tells us that they intended to test him so they could bring some charge against him (John 8:3-11). The scribes and Pharisees want Jesus to fall into a trap. They tell him that the law of Moses (Deut 22:23-24) commands them to stone the woman. Now they want to know what Jesus has to say. If Jesus says to stone her as the law requires he will be consistent with Jewish law but he will be against Roman law. Later John tells us that the Jews did not have the right to carry out the death penalty on people (John 18:31). If Jesus tells them they may not stone her he will be consistent with Roman law but inconsistent with Jewish law. Either way, the scribes and Pharisees have him. He can be charged as an insurrectionist or as a false prophet. Jesus knows they have given him another false dilemma, but the solution to this problem is not to say they may stone her and they may not stone her as in the case of taxation. This is a difficult dilemma and I think Jesus gains time to give an answer coming from wisdom by leaning down and drawing in the sand. The Patristic authors suggested he did this by the suggestion of Jeremiah 17:13 “those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord.” But his writing in the sand may also cause the scribes and Pharisees to be surprised. They expect a quick answer that will give them the evidence they need to charge him. The tension must increase as Jesus hesitates to answer. Instead of falling for the trap, however, Jesus resolves the tension by putting the ball back in their court. He says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
This answer acknowledges the legitimacy of the law of Moses so they cannot charge him as a false prophet. But at the same time, he is putting the burden on them to follow the law of Moses which he knows will put them in conflict with the law of Rome. So this answer not only gets that right, it gets Jesus’ ministry right. Jesus’ ministry is to tell the good news of the forgiveness of God which no one deserves because no one is without sin. By suggesting to them that they have the right to stone her only if they are without sin, he makes them realize that no one is without sin and no one deserves the forgiveness of God. So when he forgives the woman, he is actualizing the whole intent of his ministry. He not only escapes the trap but he turns the whole episode into a God moment in which he is able to express the center point of his ministry.
That is what getting it right is all about. Jesus not only escapes their trap but he turns the whole episode into a ministry moment. He ministers to the scribes and Pharisees and shows them their own sin, which they have concealed behind their self-righteousness. He forces them to face their self-righteousness. They leave one by one as each person becomes convicted of his own sin and lack of courage. He also ministers to the woman to whom he gives the forgiveness of God. He asks her if no has condemned her and hearing from her that no one has, he concurs and tells her that he does not condemn her either. He sends her away with an admonishment not to sin again. He ministers to her and he teaches her.
This kind of brilliant practical judgment is not beyond human reach, but it takes the same commitment that Jesus had to God. Our lives need to be centered on God and we need to be open to God’s wisdom for our lives everyday. That wisdom can come to us when we spend time in quiet and prayer. During the day, we will have to make split second decisions, like what Jesus did, but those times are prepared for in quiet time at the beginning of the day, or by taking time during the day to hesitate and let wisdom come to us.
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Getting it right means you don’t make mistakes that are costly. Getting it right means you do not have unintended consequences that cause you more headaches than the initial problem. If you get it right you, you know it and the action is completely effective. You don’t go back over the decision and think about ways you could have made a better decision. In other words, when you get it right, you have no regrets about your decisions and actions.
That is a tall order. Most people don’t get it right and have to do things to correct their mistakes. It adds to the burdens of life when you have to go back and correct mistakes and when your life circumstances change completely because you made the wrong decision. Life is hard enough without our screwing it up. But life is also very complicated and it is hard to see what one should do. Hindsight is 20/20 vision but foresight is rare.
Jesus had that kind of foresight and insight that allowed him to make the right decision in very trying circumstances. In fact, the Pharisees and Sadducees were always trying to trip him up. That is not unlike us today. There are always people around us who would like to see us fail because that would make them feel better about their own failures. So we are faced with traps just like Jesus. But do we respond as well?
Matthew tells the story of how the Pharisees were out to get Jesus. “Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. They sent their disciples to him with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard an opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:15-17).
They flatter Jesus first of all to make him think they are not trying to trip him up, but Jesus sees through this false flattery and knows that it is motivated by malice, not admiration. He knows they are setting him up for trouble because if he says people should pay taxes he will be going against the opinion of the masses and that will alienate his followers. He also knows that if he says they shouldn’t pay taxes that he will be in the crosshairs with Rome. The Pharisees think that he must say either one or the other and both will get him in trouble, either with the masses or with Rome, so they have their disciples pose this question. They think they have Jesus in a trap. But Jesus uses good critical thinking skills and knows that there is always a third option to a false dilemma (pay taxes or not). He asks the men why they are testing him and without expecting an answer because he knows the answer, he says “Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” When they handed him the coin he asked them whose image was upon it and when they responded that it was Caesar’s, Jesus says “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Matthew tells us that the disciples of the Pharisees were amazed at the statement Jesus made. It was a completely unexpected answer that totally outwitted the trap. Jesus was able to say “pay taxes and don’t pay taxes” at the same time. That was not one of the options. But that is how Jesus knows the right thing to say at the right time and in the right way. The disciples of the Pharisees were amazed and speechless and so the answer was completely effective. They went away and left him alone for the time being so he had no regrets about the statement. It got him out of the trouble they had planned for him. And not only that, at the same time he was able to honor God and his mission by telling them that we owe to God as well. There was a right answer to the question that the Pharisee disciples posed and Jesus got it right.
But Jesus didn’t get this right because he is God and hence omniscient. He is also a human being who is centered in his relationship with God and in constant prayer with God. Because of this he sees reality as it is. People can’t pretend to be someone they are not; he sees right through them. He doesn’t have x-ray vision, it is just that he knows the heart of God and he sees when humans depart from the heart of God. And he knows the heart of God because he is in prayer with God. And because he has a commitment to God he is not going to give an answer that will compromise that commitment and truth. The Pharisee disciples were right about him that he teaches the ways of God in accordance with the truth. But he is also not going to fall for cunning, and blunder into mistakes by saying something that could put his ministry at risk. Knowing the right thing to say at the right time and for the right reason was crucial to the success of his ministry and calling as it is for us.
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Having practical judgment is knowing the right thing to do at the right time and for the right reason so that one’s actions are completely effective and so that one has no regrets about the consequences. That means that there is the complexity of the world with all the variables and chaos, it is possible to get it right and do the right thing. Life is incredibly complex and when we act we don’t always know all the consequences of our actions because those consequences are dependent upon what other people are doing and what nature is doing (including animals and bacteria!). There are so many variables to take into consideration when making a decision, it is almost amazing that we ever do get it right, and that is why it is a true statement to say “to err is human.” It is far easier to err, than to get it right.
Yet, the bible testifies to the possibility of getting it right. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament talks about how prudence (getting it right) comes from wisdom (fear of the Lord). Being in an intimate relationship with God tunes one into a frequency that guides one to the right actions. Wisdom literature talks about meeting wisdom at the gate early in the morning and prudence following one the rest of the day. Spending time in prayer early in the morning can put one on the right path so that one doesn’t make blunders all day long. We see Jesus often withdrawing from the disciples and the crowds to go away and be in deep prayer with God. This prayer time oriented him so that he could make the right decisions at the right time in the right way and for the right reason. His prayer time put him in the right relationship with God and from that right relationship, right action flowed.
Everyone needs practical judgment but Jesus did especially so. Just consider his first sermon at Nazareth. He read from the scroll of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). With these words from the prophet, Jesus announces his own prophetic ministry and implies that he is being sent to the Gentiles the way Elisha and Elijah ministered to non-Jews. The people in his hometown are so incensed by his bold claims that they take him to the cliff at the edge of the city to throw him off. This may have been the end of Jesus’ ministry, except that he knew what was the right thing to do at the right time. He allowed himself to be taken to the edge of the cliff and did not resist. He did not panic. He didn’t beg for his life. He simply went along with them. Then when he was at the edge and they were about to throw him over he left by walking through them.
For those of you who think this was some kind of magic, it was not. For those of you who think only Jesus can do this kind of thing, that is not true. Jesus understood the danger but he also understood human nature. They were infuriated with the claims of his ministry but they were not really homicidal. He understood that if he allowed them to spend their fury in the journey to the edge they would exhaust their fury. He did not resist them when they were angriest. He finally resisted them and simply left when they had exhausted their outrage.
Allowing people to exhaust their outrage is a very important insight into human behavior. Every customer service agent knows that they have to listen to the irate customer even if the customer doesn’t make sense or if they can solve the problem in no time flat. The customer has built up frustration about something not going right and they need to vent that frustration. Good customer service agents listen and agree and respond empathetically and this defuses the anger and outrage. The customer calms down and then the solution can be suggested. This is simply a law of human nature and Jesus understood it and he waited patiently for them to expend their fury and run out of steam. Then he simply, without resistance, was able to walk away right through their midst.
But how do you get this kind of patience and foresight so that you don’t panic in situations like the one Jesus found himself in? You only get this kind of deep insight into human nature by spending time in contemplation and prayer. Prayer time should not just be for asking favors. Prayer time should be time in which you are quiet so that God can reveal a deeper level of reality to you. Prayer should be time of listening and following. God can guide us in our thoughts and help us understand a deeper wisdom regarding our plans and as a result as we work out our plans during the day we can find the right thing to do at the right time so that it is completely effective as God intends it to be.
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To even call something a trial, we already presuppose that there is a purpose for it. If we experience disappointment, death, loss, and failure these experiences can be devastating to one’s confidence and hope. These kinds of experiences can easily lead to despair, the belief that such experiences will continue and that there is no hope for life. What keeps disappointment, death, loss, and failure from turning into despair? It is faith. Faith is trust that you will bounce back and that life will be trustworthy again. Faith is trust in the buoyancy of life. Resurrection is another term for buoyancy. Resurrection is what happens when you bounce back from death. Jesus resurrected because he bounced back from death. Death did not defeat him.
A Christian who believes in the resurrection of Jesus should believe also in the buoyancy of life because death is everywhere, but Christ promised eternal life and that means our capacity to live in spite of death and live through death and beyond death. A lot of Christians think that resurrection refers only to the life after death, but clearly when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God as among people, he was referring to eternal life here and now. Eternal life is abundant life, life that persists in the face of disappointment, death, loss, and failure. Faith is what brings that eternal life into existence. Faith is what carries you through the disappointment, death, loss, and failure until you find yourself on the other side of it. Faith gives you the resilience to bounce back, to hang in there, to keep hope alive, keep trust alive, to keep love alive. Faith is based on God’s promises and those promises are for eternal life and abundant life, not for despair.
If you really want to measure the power of faith you have to see what happens when there is no faith. When there is no faith, then people turn to drugs, material things, sex, alcohol, food, work, sports, relationships, etc to meet the needs that are real in the absence of faith. Note again that lack of faith is living a life of distrust. One is in a state of doubt and semi-despair or full-blown despair. When you don’t have any promises to rely on then there is a kind of emptiness that demands to be filled immediately. We might not call it despair, but it is despair because without promises to rely on there is a hidden doubt and hopelessness when encountering the normal obstacles that we encounter in the course of the day. We mask that despair with anger or self-righteousness when we encounter obstacles and then we don’t feel the full force of the despair because anger is empowering and can make you feel alive. But the despair is what is fueling the anger. If we didn’t feel the despair and feelings of helplessness we would not be so angry.
Faith responds to obstacles with buoyancy. An obstacle or a disappointment or failure do not last long in the face of faith because is trust and trusting things to get better and trusting that God wants what is best for you, actually has the effect of bringing better things to you. The more buoyant you are the more you stand to be rescued from drowning in despair. Looking with hope on the horizon has the effect of keeping oneself on the surface long enough to be rescued. Good things come to those who are hopeful. That is just a law of human nature. Those who are angry and mired in self-pity and self-loathing tend to turn away what could rescue them. Without faith, many people do turn toward self-pity and self-loathing.
I lost my job a year ago and am still unemployed but today as I ran into a fellow colleague in the supermarket he stopped and asked how I was doing and I could report honestly and hopefully “really good, really good.” Now he is not going to turn around and give me a job, but he is going to wonder how it is that I could lose my job and still be doing “really good.” I continue to keep faith that God’s hand is in my unemployment and that he has a plan. That is trusting in the process. I am undergoing changes and having to downsize and sell my house, but these are not bad things, but rather good things. God is remaking me for my future. And I trust the process even though it is trying and sometimes I am very much afraid. It is just trusting that God’s hand is in and through this whole experience and he is guiding me. And that faith keeps me buoyant and happy.
So I can say that I trust what is happening to me. I am not wasting time fighting it but actually making very positive choices within the range of what I have to choose from. Trust allows me to feel comfortable and calm and have peace of mind even while I am constantly being taken out of my comfort zone, and even while I am constantly having to do things I am not used to doing. Trust keeps me from becoming panicky and worrying all the time. Trusting in God’s promises and his guiding hand keeps me from making bad decisions because I am not making hurried decisions but taking time to pray and letting wisdom come to me because I trust that things will work out in the end. Trust allows me to enjoy the freedom I have from work and obligations. It allows me to do what I want to do – namely write, because I trust the freedom I have. I trust that God gave me this freedom for a reason.
Trust and faith allow me to entertain new ideas about my work life and my possibilities of employment. I am considering the possibility of never teaching in a classroom again. I am considering the possibility of having an online school, something that sounds good, but is overwhelming in terms of getting started and acquiring students. All of these things are possible because I trust that God will work things out and that life is buoyant enough for me.
Faith is not just belief in a God, it is belief in a God who cares and it is belief that relies on that belief. Faith is not mere belief in the existence of God, it is trust in his guiding and planning hand. The scriptures are full of his promises and trusting these promises tends to their fulfillment. This is so not just because God makes them so, but because he can make them so if you trust his promises. That is why Jesus says, faith can move mountains. Faith can do the impossible because it trusts it enough to engage it. If you have no faith, you won’t even attempt it. But faith has confidence that it can be done and so it attempts it and finds the resources to accomplish it. Faith gives you time to wait for the resources to appear on the horizon. Faith gives you the patience you need to let help come. You may be stuck in your own mind but there are resources that can come your way to help you get unstuck. Faith gives you the power to hang in there until help is on its way.
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Atheists rail against Christians because they believe in an invisible God for whom they believe there is no evidence. But this is a mistake because faith itself is evidence. I am not saying that belief is evidence for itself, but that faith, which is far more than belief is a kind of evidence that confirms a Christian in the belief in God. And because atheists cannot distinguish between faith and belief they never see this kind of evidence and how powerful it is.
Atheists hold that beliefs should be based on empirical evidence and since there is no empirical evidence for God’s existence, they hold that one should not believe in God. God obviously cannot be apprehended through the five senses directly. Philosophers and theologians through the ages have argued however, that one can reason to God’s existence by observing the order in nature. But this is evidence that is inferential and somewhat distanced from God. Faith, on the other hand, is more intimate evidence of God’s existence. So let us look at faith.
Faith is more than belief although it contains knowledge. Faith includes belief and knowledge, but is more than belief. You could believe in God for instance but not trust God and hence not have faith. So faith is more than belief. Faith is trusting in God. Faith is trusting that God’s promises are real and reliable. Faith is primarily based on promises, not on evidence. To show you the difference between trust based on promises and evidence let me use marriage as an example. In a marriage, a couple believes that the other person will remain faithful because the other person has made a promise to remain faithful. One doesn’t believe the other is faithful just based on the empirical evidence of the other person because that evidence could be deceptive since if a person is cheating they would conceal it. So faith in the other person’s promise to remain faithful is based more on the promise than on the empirical evidence. We trust the other because of the promise, not because of the empirical evidence although the evidence may also help confirm the trust.
To see why this is so, consider if you wanted to prove that the other person is really faithful. That would mean you now have doubts about the other person’s faithfulness. The distrust that enters the picture puts you on guard. You begin to question everything the other person says. You begin to see ulterior motives. You become paranoid about their explanations. You are on constant guard. It is a very stressful way to live. Everything becomes evidence of their cheating. They may be completely faithful but you see evidence everywhere and it all confirms your suspicions. Before long you will have to confront the person and no matter how much they protest you will not believe them. Your distrust will be so excessive and now so confirmed by all the empirical evidence you will not ever be able to get back to faith in the promise again.
This is an extreme situation and let us hope you never go this way. But what I want to illustrate is the power of the belief in the promise of the other’s faithfulness. When we believe that promise, we trust that everything is okay. We don’t have suspicions, we don’t have doubts. We go about our lives and enjoy our lives. We trust what the other says about themselves. In other words, we live in a state of faith. Is it possible that we are being deceived? Yes, but no one can live with that state of constant suspicion. So we trust. And that trust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because we trust, the other person is much more likely to be trustworthy. We give the other person’s trustworthy possibilities a chance. And because we assume they are trustworthy, they become trustworthy. We don’t make them trustworthy, but we give them the opportunity to prove their trustworthiness. Could they be trustworthy for many years and then begin to deceive us? Yes, but if we didn’t trust them at all, they never would be able to prove their trustworthiness even in that initial period. Distrust engenders distrust. Trust engenders trust.
So faith is a fundamental reality to marriage and to relationships. Faith is more than belief, it is trust in the spoken and unspoken promises the other makes. So now, let us look at faith in God. The bible makes a gazillion promises. Abraham was give promises by God that he would be the father of a huge nation through Isaac. The Israelites were given promises that God would be their God and guide them and bless them if they would follow the law. Then Jesus came and gave even more promises that are directed to all people. He promised the thief on the cross that he would be with Jesus in paradise that very day. Jesus promised to give people eternal life if they have faith in him. Eternal life is something we can see evidence for in this life.
Having faith in Jesus Christ is more than just belief that he existed and was the Son of God. It is trusting in the realities that Jesus lived. Jesus trusted God and not himself. He lived a life of prayer and servanthood. He trusted the plan that God had for him, which included dying on a cross. He trusted the promises of God. Now faith for us is trusting an unseen God, living a life of prayer, trusting the plan God has for us which includes living the life of a servant and dying to ourselves. It means trusting that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purposes (Romans 8:28). When you trust this process it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Faith confirms faith. One actually does experience eternal life.
What are the empirical evidences that are confirmed by faith? We take these so much for granted that I can make them evident only by imagining the opposite. Imagine again, if you were living that distrustful life. Things go wrong in life and you lose your job or a member of your family and you distrust life. You become bitter because life has let you down and you become suspicious that life is out to get you. This is again an extreme possibility and I don’t think an atheist becomes distrustful just because she doesn’t believe in God while these things are happening to him, but it is definitely a possibility if you don’t have faith. Instead, having faith that things will work out, that your life is not over when you experience death to yourself and your dreams, or death of a family member, or loss of your home or job is something that actually supports you through trying times. Faith is a powerful reality that gives a person hope and peace of mind. Faith allows us to live our lives in a trusting manner. Instead of going crazy when things go wrong, we become resilient and bounce back because faith bouys us up. And when people endure and continue to trust in their resources (because God never gives them more than they can handle) they actually are able to survive and thrive. They overcome their fears and their despair. And in doing so they are more prepared for when things will turn around.
Faith becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is true in marriage and it is true of one’s relationship with God because it is fundamental trust that carries the relationship and the person’s hopes and anticipations. And living a life of trust conduces to living a life that “works out’ in which a person continues to be able to live life abundantly. This doesn’t mean there won’t be trials and suffering, but it does mean that a person will be resilient in the face of those trials and suffering. A person of faith will not go down in despair.
This kind of empirical evidence of God’s existence and faithfulness is readily available in Christian lives everywhere. This evidence is so abundant, that it is impossible to deny. It is only by limiting what counts as evidence that an atheist can deny that evidence for God’s existence exists.
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