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Being Right and Wrong at the Same Time

Thursday, July 02, 2020

I am quite sure that God frequently shakes His head in amazement at my foolishness.  However, I hope that year by year, decade by decade, I manage to get a little bit wiser.  One such hard-won nugget of wisdom has to do with being right and wrong at the same time.

When I was younger, I believed that when it came to a difference of opinion, there was a right side and a wrong side, and that was that.  I tried to listen to the views of others and give them a fair hearing, but when I thought I was right, I was quick to inform others of their error.  The only thing that mattered was who was right, right?

Wrong.

The problem is that people aren’t computers.  People are people.  All of us have an emotional attachment to the things we believe.  When those convictions are challenged, we don’t enjoy it and are apt to become defensive.  If the challenger continues to push, either we push back or disengage from the conversation.  There’s been a lot of talk recently about white fragility, but frankly, I think human fragility is the real issue.  Nobody’s skin color makes it easier or harder for them to hear things they don’t want to. 

If we don’t acknowledge this fundamental truth about people, we are much less likely to win converts and much more likely to create conflict.  The map is not the territory, and merely presenting the abstract truth about something often fails to persuade.  When we’re right on a conceptual level but get the human aspect wrong, we will end up being right and wrong at the same time.

I spent years being right and wrong at the same time, and I probably spend too much time there even now.  I don’t recommend it.  It strains and fractures friendships, creates lots of enemies, and accomplishes nothing worthwhile.  People won’t listen, and we will become cynical and embittered because they aren’t listening.

 If we want to avoid this trap, there are several things we need to consider.  What’s our goal?  Usually, it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) just to “get somebody told”.  As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:11, knowing the fear of God, we ought to try to persuade others.  Winning hearts is the goal of the gospel.  Winning arguments isn’t.

Persuasion requires us to account for the humanness of those we are trying to persuade.  One of the most enlightening books I’ve read in recent years is Kerry Patterson’s Crucial Conversations.  It observes that people only are persuadable when they feel safe.  The less safe they feel, the more inclined they will be to reject what you have to say.

There are a number of ways to build safety in a difficult conversation.  Having a strong pre-existing relationship is perhaps the most important.  The more others trust us, the better able we are to safely discuss a difficult topic with them.  In fact, I think it’s sound practice for all Christians to build and reinforce relationships with everyone they know as a matter of habit.  We never know when we will have to put that relationship to the test.

Second, we need to choose our words carefully.  In Colossians 4:6, Paul urges us to season our speech, and our efforts toward palatability can make all the difference between acceptance and rejection.  Harsh, condemnatory language rarely wins over its target.  On the other hand, when we strive to be understanding, fair, and compassionate, we are much more likely to find an open heart.

Finally, we have to make change as easy as possible.  All of us are proud, insecure creatures.  We don’t like to admit when we’re wrong, especially not in front of others.  Consequently, private conversations generally are more effective than public confrontations.  They allow people to change without suffering a dramatic loss of face.

We also need to put ourselves in the place of the one who is wrong and speak to them as we ourselves would like to be spoken to when we are wrong.  We never should demand that someone forfeit their dignity in order to acknowledge an error.  As satisfying as it may be to make the moron crawl, such demands will destroy our future influence.

Doing even these things is not easy, and there is much more that I could say on the subject!  Sadly, I’m sure that I have even more to learn.  We live in a society that has forgotten the art of having conversations like these, but this is a skill that we must master if we want to win souls and inherit eternal life ourselves.

Fulfilled Prophecy and Dating the Gospels

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Fulfilled prophecies play a central role in the New Testament.  Matthew and Luke use passages from Isaiah and Micah to explain the events of Jesus’ birth narrative.  All four gospel writers take predictions from Isaiah and other prophets and employ them to define His ministry.  In John 12, John explains the unbelief of the crowds by claiming that Isaiah predicted it.  So too, the stories of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection are studded with citations of prophecies that Jesus and His enemies fulfilled.

To Christians both 2000 years ago and today, these prophecies are powerful evidence in support of our faith.  As meteorologists prove on a regular basis, it’s very difficult for human beings to predict what is going to happen even next week.  When, however, a man foretells an event that happens centuries in the future, it shows both that God has intervened in history and that the man is speaking for God.

Not surprisingly, then, the authors of the New Testament are at pains to indicate when a prophecy by Jesus or one of His followers is fulfilled.  In John 2:19-22, John explains Jesus’ facially bizarre claim that He would tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days as a prediction of His death and resurrection.  In Acts 11:28, Luke notes that Agabus’ prediction of a worldwide famine was fulfilled. 

More subtly, there are many instances in the gospels when prophecies are confirmed by subsequent events.  In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus predicts His death, burial, and resurrection three times during the last part of His ministry, then dies, is buried, and is resurrected.  In Acts, Paul is told by Agabus that he will be imprisoned, then is imprisoned.  Again, examples abound.

It makes perfect sense for Christian authors to do this at every opportunity.  Every time they can write that Jesus predicted something and it happened, it confirms that Jesus is the Son of God.  Every time Luke can establish that Paul, Agabus, and all the rest did the same thing, it shows Jesus’ authenticity and theirs.

However, there is one fascinating exception to this rule.  In the gospels, Jesus probably spends more time predicting the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans than any other event.  Some of the prophecies are cloaked in apocalyptic language, but others are quite plain.  In Luke 19:43, for instance, Jesus says to Jerusalem, “For the days will come on you when your enemies will build a barricade around you, surround you, and hem you in on every side.”  Pretty straightforward!

The prophecies of Jesus concerning Jerusalem were indeed fulfilled, 40 years after His death.  This is a huge piece of evidence confirming that Jesus was a genuine prophet.  Thus, we would expect Luke, for instance, to point out that Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled as he pointed out that Agabus’ prophecy was fulfilled.  This opportunity was not lost on the ante-Nicene Fathers, several of whom noted in the second and succeeding centuries that Jerusalem was destroyed according to the word of Jesus. 

However, Luke never says a word about it.  Neither does Matthew, Mark, or John.  There is not a shred of evidence anywhere in the Scriptures that Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70.

I see two possible explanations for this.  The first is that the Evangelists are idiots.  After painstakingly highlighting all these other fulfilled prophecies, they simply missed their chance to confirm Jesus’ divine origin by pointing to His correct predictions of Jerusalem’s fall.  I find this hard to credit.  Whatever else one may think about the Gospels and Acts, they clearly are not the work of idiots.

The second is that the Evangelists failed to make this rhetorical point because they did not have opportunity to make it.  They couldn’t write about Jerusalem’s destruction as a fait accompli because when they were writing, that destruction hadn’t happened yet.  Like the general resurrection that Jesus predicts in John 5, it was an event they anticipated, not one they celebrated. 

If so, the dates for at least the Synoptic Gospels, and probably John as well, are all very early, before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.  If this in turn is true, all of the Evangelists are writing within 40 years of the bulk of the events they record—well within living memory.  The gospels, then, are not the accretion of decades or centuries of folkloric tradition about Jesus.  They are nearly contemporaneous records that deserve to be treated as reliable historical accounts, and that has a host of implications.

Unequally Yoked

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

2 Corinthians 6:14 is one of those passages that seems to lend itself more to discussion of what it doesn’t mean than what it does mean.  Everywhere I’ve been, brethren have been adamant that it does not mean that it’s wrong per se for Christians to marry non-Christians.  I agree, but that still leaves us asking what kind of relationships we’re supposed to avoid.

Most commentaries will say that the metaphor in the text (“Do not be unequally yoked,”) has to do with putting a strong ox and a weak ox in a yoke together.  The strong ox will pull harder than the weak ox, and the wagon will go off course.

Notice, though, that there are two elements here that make the situation problematic.  First, there has to be a yoke.  The two parties have to be joined in some way.  Second, there has to be an inequality between them.  Logically, I think this has to mean that the unbeliever has more influence over the Christian than vice versa.  After all, we generally call a Christian influencing an unbeliever for good “evangelism”.

This does not apply to every marriage between a Christian and an outsider, but it does apply to some.  If you are considering marrying a non-Christian and you know in your heart that eventually they will lead you to fall away, you should not marry them!   On the other hand, I know plenty of Christians who have been married to unbelievers for decades.  That’s probably not the wisest decision, but if the believing spouse still is on course for heaven, clearly the yoke has not been unequal.

I think this principle also can be applied profitably to the political realm.  Recently, I’ve seen a number of Christians warning against conflating “black lives matter”, the slogan, with “Black Lives Matter”, the political movement.  Semantic disputes aside, the former is a conviction that every Christian should share.  Do black lives matter?  Yes!

However, Black Lives Matter does not merely stand for the inherent value of black people.  It also stands for expanding abortion rights (behold, here is irony!), normalizing transgender behavior, and various other unrighteous goals.  The concern is that a Christian might be led by their godly convictions into an association that will influence them to accept or at least wink at ungodliness. 

This seems to me like an example of unequal yoking.  After all, no individual is going to exert more influence on BLM than BLM is going to exert on them.  The only question is whether yoking has occurred.  Has our connection with BLM become so strong that our allegiance to it overrides our allegiance to Christ?

I do not, of course, speak with reference to BLM, which is too radical to be appealing to most brethren.  Instead, this is a danger that arises whenever we join ourselves with any political party.  There are none righteous, no, not one! 

For every godly policy a political party promotes, there is another that is ungodly.  For every morally upright political leader in a party, there is another who is a scoundrel.  If we become so filled with a partisan spirit that we ignore the ungodliness and excuse the scoundrels (while loudly pointing out the ungodliness and the scoundrels on the other side), we are unequally yoked.

This is not to say that we cannot hold political convictions or vote.  However, we must maintain a wary detachment while doing so.  Even as we cast a ballot for one side or another, we must not put our hope and confidence in them.  Politics can’t save the world, but it can cost us our souls. 

It is easy for us to separate ourselves from the parts of the world that disgust us.  When it comes to the parts of the world that allure or even inspire us, separation becomes more difficult.  However, it also is then that separation becomes most important.

Believing the Best About Other Christians

Friday, June 19, 2020

I’ve stayed out of the online debate about how churches should respond to the coronavirus, and whether churches that assemble are more righteous than churches that don’t (or vice versa).  As far as I am concerned, this is a marvelous opportunity to honor the great Scriptural principle of congregational autonomy.  If we all mind our own business, Facebook will be a quieter, happier place.

However, I did see an argument advanced that I thought was worthy of further consideration.  Somebody online, I don’t remember who, opined that continued suspension of services was a problem because many Christians would get out of the habit of assembling and never come back.  I don’t think that’s true.  From what I see, the vast majority of Christians assemble because they want to, not out of habit.  Those who stop assembling because of coronavirus isolation probably would have stopped assembling soon anyway.

The argument does reveal, though, a lamentable tendency among brethren—a mistrust of other Christians’ moral capacity and goodwill.  We can’t trust them to figure out the right thing to do, or to do it if they did figure it out, so we have to figure it out for them and manipulate or coerce them into doing it.

I think this is what is behind, for instance, the “conservative” conception of modesty.  In 1 Timothy 2, Paul instructs Christian women to be modest, supplies a few examples that have to do with costly rather than revealing clothing (not normally a preoccupation of brethren today), and then leaves it to the sisters to determine what modest dress means for themselves.

However, some today are not content to leave modesty where Paul left it.  From the Scriptural principle, they draw their own conclusions about appropriate hemline height and neckline depth, using some truly obscure passages (Exodus 28:42, anyone?) to bolster their arguments.  To them, these conclusions have the same force as, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and woe betide the woman who shows up at church with a 23-inch skirt instead of a 24-inch skirt!

I believe that those who make such arguments sincerely believe that they have to, that without such explicit, concrete application, the women of the church are foolish and ungodly enough that they won’t reach the right result on their own.  Here too, I disagree, not merely with the result, but also with the mode of thinking behind it. 

Fundamentally, the churches of Christ exist because of the conviction that individual Christians are competent to understand and apply the Scriptures for themselves.  If we don’t think that’s true, if we believe instead that most brethren are not willing and able to figure out what pleases God on their own, we might as well give it up and join the denomination of our choice! 

What’s more, when church leaders insist on doing all the thinking for their people, even if the sign out front says “church of Christ”, within, a denominational spirit predominates.  The Bible is no longer the authority.  The church leader is.

Second, those who are so skeptical about others would do well to turn their skepticism on themselves.  All of us have our moments of foolishness and ill will.  All of us grapple with the temptation to determine our conclusion first and twist the Scriptures to fit.  When we disagree with someone else’s conclusion, then, rather than seeking to impose ours on them, we first must humbly re-examine our own thinking.  Even after we have done so, we must accord their views the respect we desire for our own.

I recognize that to some, this vision of Christianity will seem unbearably chaotic.  You will end up going to church with people with whom you disagree.  On the basis of their different conclusions, they will say and do things that make you uncomfortable.  Where is the 1 Corinthians 1:10 unity in that???

We must remember, though, that Jesus prayed for His people to become one rather than expecting them to start that way.  Greater unity in local congregations must come from below, as we grow in understanding and love for one another, rather than being imposed from the top. 

Top-down unity, though appealing, is brittle.  It relies on church leaders silencing or driving out those who disagree, which doesn’t sound much like John 17 or 1 Corinthians 1 either.  Instead, we are called to believe the best about one another, speak truth in love, and be patient.  That way, over time, those who are in error will be called to grow beyond their mistaken conclusions.

Maybe we will be the ones who will do the growing.

How Knowing People Should Change Us

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Over the past few months, a couple of progressive friends of mine have challenged my critique of the LGBTQ agenda by saying that my views would change if I knew someone in those categories.  If I knew someone who was gay, if I knew someone who was trans, I wouldn’t say such things about them.

My initial response was to dismiss the argument.  After all, I do know people who are gay, trans, etc., and I still write the things that I do.  Whatever my motivations, I’m pretty sure ignorance and bigotry aren’t on the list.

However, I think there’s more to consider here than that.  Though I believe that a Christian’s closest relationships should be with other Christians, we also should not isolate ourselves from the world.  That’s a Pharisaical approach, not a Christlike one. 

Indeed, Jesus came to earth in the first place to dwell among sinners.  If He was willing to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes, we also should not shy away even from those whose conduct seems to us to be least consistent with God’s will.  What’s more, knowing them should change our perspective on them and those who are like them.

First, it should teach us compassion for them.  Every human being is created in the image of God, and that does not change, no matter what sins they practice.  The better we get to know someone who is gay or trans, the less we will see the label, and the more we will see the human being.

Second, it will help us see the ungodliness of treating them badly, and I think both sides of the culture wars fail to approach this subject honestly.  On the one hand, progressives are inclined to label anyone who repeats the teaching of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 as a homophobe and a bully.  That’s an ad-hominem attack designed to shut down any discussion of God’s expectations for sexual morality, and it’s frequently untrue besides.  It advances the conversation in much the same way that a concrete bridge abutment advances the progress of a car.

On the other hand, conservatives are so used to being called homophobes and bullies that they dismiss the existence and ungodliness of genuine homophobia and bullying.  It is never, ever right to treat someone else hatefully, regardless of who they are or what they have done, but so-called Christians have justified tremendous cruelty against gay and trans people in the name of Christ.  The best way to avoid such cruelty is to know and love its potential targets.

Third, it will reveal our commonality with them.  In my interactions with people in the world, I always try to keep Hebrews 5:2 in mind.  There, it says of the Levitical priest that he was able to deal gently with the ignorant and misguided because he himself was beset with weakness.  We always must view the sin of others through the lens of our own sin. 

I know what it’s like to be tempted.  I know what it’s like to give in to my own evil desires.  As long as I keep my own failures in mind, it becomes very difficult to climb up on my self-righteous soapbox and give those wicked sinners over there what-for.  On our own merits, we’re no better than anyone else, and the better we get to know people, the more apparent that will become to us.

Finally, forming connections with gay and trans people will motivate us to share the gospel with them.  This is not the fruit of moral indignation, but of compassion, gentleness, and love. 

Satan is not a kind master, and his handiwork often is evident in the lives of gay and trans people.  Statistically, LGTBQ people have a much higher risk of alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and even suicide.  Anecdotally, most whom I’ve known have not been happy, not particularly because they were persecuted, but because they couldn’t seem to make life work. 

Such problems, significant as they are, pale in comparison to the problem of sin and separation from God.  Gay and trans people are no greater sinners than I am, but that only means that they need the grace of Jesus as much as I do.  I feel bound, then, to speak truth in love, to them as much as to everyone else, not because I think that everyone will listen, but because I hope that some might.

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