It’s time for a little update, not much, but I am no longer new to blogging. I have been at it a few years. Not that I have gained any particular stature. I simply can’t claim to be new at it. I still write as part of my profession, but blogging is more interesting. Blogging is my way of sharpening ideas and fleshing them out. I know I don’t always “get it right”, but it’s the journey that counts.
I have been on a journey for truth since I emerged from the haze and confusion of adolescence, much of it self-induced. Stepping out of that myopic existence I began to get an inkling that a world of truth lay in front of me to encounter, and so I set off. I didn’t realize, then, how much faith is required to seek truth. Continue reading “My Journey”→
This blog post is inspired by today’s sermon where I go to church. The sermon was the last in a series about how followers of Christ are called to have an impact on the world. The text is out of Matthew, known as the Sermon on the Mount:
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Matthew 5:13-14 ESV
The themes here are salt and light. God calls His people to be salt and light in the world. These should be familiar concepts, but it always helps to dive a little deeper into the things we think we already know, and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded and encouraged to live them out.
I will preface my thoughts with a personal story I have told before. In high school and college, I found in myself a yearning to go off in the woods and retreat from society. That feeling might have been originally inspired by reading My Side of the Mountain when I was in grade school.
My Side of the Mountain was about a young boy who left his home for the woods of the Catskill Mountains where he took up residence in a hollow tree. He fended for himself in the quiet and solitude of nature, taming a peregrine falcon in the process, in a very idealistic depiction of life alone in the Eden of nature.
You probably won’t be surprised to know that I was very drawn to Henry David Thoreau. That kind of contemplative life lived alone in the peace and abundance of the outdoors was alluring to me. Even after I became a believer in college, my personal dream included peace, quiet, solitude and nature.
I am still drawn to that, but God took me through a college class in which I realized that God was calling me to the noise, bustle and busyness of society – despite my reluctance. It seemed like a personal paradigm shift to me, and it was; but it really wasn’t as profound a revelation (or shouldn’t have been) as it seemed at the time.
I won’t bore you will the details here, but I realized that I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) run from the encroachment of “civilized” society on that idyllic vision of personal utopia. I needed to turn and face it. I realized God was calling me to engage the world and not run from it.
Throughout history, religious believers of various kinds formed groups that cloistered themselves from the world. From monasteries to modern communes, the tendency to want to run from the grit and grime and dirt of humanity and human institutions is a strong idealist and religious theme, but not one, it seems, God wants most of us to pursue.
That is because He calls us to be salt and light.
As I listened to the sermon today, it dawned on me that salt is only effective when it comes in contact with food. It’s purpose in drawing out the flavor of food and in preserving it can only be realized when salt is in close contact with it. Salt can’t flavor or preserve food it doesn’t touch. Continue reading “On Being Salt (and Light) in the World”→
Job was a “righteous man” (as far as people go), but he wasn’t very sympathetic toward other people going through tough times. We realize this only when his friends mirror the advice to him that he gave to others. (See Job: When the Tables Are Turned Part 1) It’s easy to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to. It’s easy to be “good” and religious when things are going well. When the tables turn, however, our attitudes and perspectives change. (See Job: When the Tables Are Turned Part 2)
The Book of Job is an example that religious people, and good people, generally, sometimes have a hard time sympathizing with people going through tough times. We tend to think that they deserve what they get for making bad decisions, doing bad things or just being unwise.
The truth is, though, that bad things happen to “good” people; and sometimes, “bad” people don’t get what they deserve. Life isn’t fair, as I say often to my children.
Job thought of himself as righteous, and he was righteous – at least more righteous than most. He was proud of his goodness and attributed the good fortune he enjoyed to his moral character and wise living.
Job and his friends looked down on others who suffered hardship, believing that the hardship they suffered was the just fruits of their bad decisions, bad character and lack of wisdom and faithfulness toward God.
Only when the tables turned did Job wake up to the fact that life isn’t fair. He may have been a better man that most or all of the people he knew, but that didn’t prevent calamity from overtaking him. The hollow advice he had given others (live right and all will be well) rang false when the shoe was on the other foot.
Of course, goodness and badness are relative in human terms. We often only think of goodness and badness in human terms, and we fail to appreciate that God’s standard of goodness is on a completely different level than ours.
Jesus made that clear in stating that “only God is good” (Mark 10:38), words that Paul echoed when he said no one is righteous, not a single person. (Romans 3:20)
Again, we have to look to Jesus to understand God’s standard of goodness (perfection). He explained the standard in the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus demonstrated that standard in his own life.
Jesus went well beyond the Ten Commandments by directing people to look inward. We don’t satisfy God’s ultimate standard by refraining from murdering people or committing adultery, for instance. That’s only scratching the surface. Perfection requires that we refrain from harboring anger in our hearts towards others, refrain from casting insults and thinking them fools. (Matt. 5:21-26) Perfection means not even looking at another person with lust in our hearts. (Matt. 5:27-28)
Jesus went much, much further still. Perfection isn’t just what we should refrain from doing; perfection is demonstrated in affirmatively loving people. And, it’s not enough merely to love family friends and people good to us.
“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,so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:43-48)
Perfection requires love, the kind of love God demonstrated in Jesus. In Jesus, God emptied Himself of His power, privilege and position to become one of us, and He submitted Himself to the point of laying down His life for our benefit. (Phil. 2:6-8) When Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for others (John 15:13), Jesus backed those words by doing exactly that.
Job and his friends had no sympathy for people going through hard times because they thought more highly of themselves than they should have. They thought they were better than they were, and they thought heir goodness (or lack thereof) should result in reward in this life. But it doesn’t. That is the harsh reality.
When the tables were turned on Job, he came to realize that it didn’t matter that he was “better” than others. He became aware that bad things happen to “good” people, and sometimes “bad” people reap good things they don’t appear to deserve. Job and his friends felt comfortable in a world in which they thought they could earn good things with good behavior, and Job is undone when he realizes the world God made doesn’t work like that.
The story of Job is a lesson in the way we should view ourselves, others and God. I wrote in Job: When the Tables Are Turned Part 1 how Job was viewed, and viewed himself, as a righteous man. We know, though, that no one is really righteous, at least when compared with the perfection of God.
Who hasn’t gotten angry with other people, insulted them and called them fools? Who hasn’t lusted after other people in your heart? Who hasn’t lied, cheated, acted or reacted out of jealousy, spite or pride? Who has observed every law, all of the time, even when no one is looking? We can’t boast of being perfect because no one is perfect. (Romans 3:20)
We don’t even have a good idea of what perfect means.
Jesus said being perfect means turning the other cheek, offering our coat to the person who asks for our shirt, going two miles when someone forces you to go one, giving to all who beg from you and loaning to all who ask to borrow. (Matt. 5:39-42) Jesus said that being perfect means loving our enemies! (Matt. 4:43) It’s not enough to love our friends, family and people who are good to us. Being good means loving our enemies and praying even for those who persecute us. (Matt. 5:44)
Thus, when the Book of Job says he was a righteous man, we need to understand that this was how Job viewed himself, but he wasn’t righteous like God is righteous.
Job’s view of himself colored the way he saw himself, other people and God. He thought more highly of himself than he should have, and he looked down on others. He believed that his good fortunes were the result of his good living, and he was convinced that the misfortunes of other people were brought upon themselves by their own failures.
Job believed that God rewarded good living with good things, like a worker earns his wages. His friends believed that too, as we see it in their responses to Job and their attempts to “counsel” him. In fact, the way Job’s friends respond to him implies that they were mirroring to Job the exact same advice Job had given to others in the past.
Eliphaz was the first to speak to Job, asking, “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient? But who can keep from speaking?” (Job 4:1)
These words smack of being rhetorical. Eliphaz knew Job would be impatient with him, but he was going to speak anyway. A clue regarding why Job’s friend responds this way to him is found in the next verses.
“Behold, you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope? ‘Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?'” (Job 4:3-7 ESV)
From these verses we learn that Job was known for the “advice” he gave to others in their distress, but now the tables were turned. Job was no longer in the superior position of fortune, privilege and ease. Job had lost everything – his wealth, his house, his children and his health. Joseph was complaining bitterly. Now that he was no longer on top of the world, his attitude had changed.
Job was a righteous man the Book of Job says in the opening chapter and verse. (Job 1:1) But was he really? It seems that Job was very well regarded in his community, taking a prominent place (at the gate where the wise men sat). Job thought he was righteous and believed that everyone saw him that way too: as a righteous man above reproach. (Job 32:7-17)
Job was also a very wealthy man. He had a large family. He was proud of his good fortune, which he believed was the result of his righteous living. He even offered sacrifices for his children in case they sinned. (Job 1:5) I get the impression he didn’t think they had sinned, but he wanted to get a jump on it if they did.
Job reminds me of the kind of person who lives in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. The kind of person who has a perfect wife and perfect children who got good grades, got along with each other and always did the right things in their parents’ eyes. The kind of person who listened to his parents and other authorities growing up, was the example the coaches pointed to on the athletic field, got good grades, went to a good college, got a good job, didn’t smoke or drink, went to church on Sunday and lived a good and secure life.
Job was probably the envy of all who knew him, and he was probably insufferable because of it. It seems Job was righteous, at least compared to other people. Job was also righteous in his own eyes (Job 32:1). And that’s the issue: Job viewed the world through the lens of his own self-righteousness.
Job viewed the world through the lens of his own self-righteousness
Job reminds me of the kind of person who was good and proud of it. Job clearly believed that his goodness was the source of all the good things he accomplished and acquired in his life. Job believed in God, of course, like a good Catholic or Protestant Christian. Job would have been a good American, a self-made man, equal parts proud of good living and proud of the wisdom of his belief in God. He would probably be a proud patriot too, if he was alive today.
Scripture is clear, however, that no man is righteous before God. (Romans 3:10) None! Job may have been righteous compared to other people, but no one can stand up to God on his own merit.
Jesus eliminated all doubt on the subject when he said, “No one is good but God.” (Mark 10:18) To bring that point home, Jesus challenged the holy men of his day (men like Job) saying: it’s not enough to refrain from murder – you sin when you are angry at your brother, insult him and call him a fool (Matt. 5:21-22); and it’s not enough to refrain from committing the act of adultery – you commit adultery in your heart when you lust after a woman (Matt. 5:27-28).
Then Jesus really got down to the bottom line: if you really want to be good, then don’t just be just (Matt. 5:38) – be merciful and gracious and loving:
“[I]f anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matt. 5:39-42)
If you really want to be good, then don’t just love your family, friends and people who are good to you:
“But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'” (Matt. 5:44-48)
The statement in the first chapter and verse of Job, then, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It isn’t true. It can’t be true, because we know that no man is righteous before God, but that statement sets the stage for the entire Book of Job. It isn’t meant to be taken as true, but it is the way Job viewed himself.
Job’s view of himself a a righteous man colored Job’s view of the world. His belief that he was righteous defined who he thought he was. He attributed all of his success to it.
As we will see in the next blog post, Job viewed others through the lens of his own self-righteousness. We see this in his friends who mirrored to Job the advice Job had given others. Now that the tables were turned, Job and his friends would come to realize how cold and hollow that advice really is, and they would come to see God in a different way.
We tend to think that all of the misfortunes of other people are brought on by their own bad decisions, bad actions and bad living, but that isn’t always the case. We tend to think our fortunes are the result of our good decisions, good actions and good living, but that isn’t necessarily true either.
“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.'” (Genesis 4:3-7 ESV)
I have written about this passage before. (See When Sin Crouches at the Door) In fact, it seems that every time I read the story of Cain and Abel it gives me pause. I always wonder: “How would I react?” “Would I be more like Cain or more like Abel?”
The truth is that I would like to fancy myself like Abel, offering a better sacrifice, one in which God would be pleased, but I have doubts about that. Would God really accept my sacrifice? More pointedly, would I really be willing to offer the kind of sacrifice God would regard? If I am being honest, I have to wonder.
I am bit surer that I wouldn’t get angry like Cain did, and I certainly wouldn’t take it out on Abel, right?
Do I protest too much?
I picture myself in my comfortable 21st Century world feeling fairly smugly that I wouldn’t be like that, but I’m not so sure I should be confident about that. The circumstances were much different then.
Cain didn’t have a world full of people to which to compare himself. He couldn’t have said, “At least I am not as bad as so and so.” He wouldn’t have had centuries of wisdom at his fingertips in the way of sermons, books, fables with morals and the Bible. Cain didn’t have the Bible or any moral compass but his own conscience and experience, such as it was.
When I first read this passage (again), I read it to say that God didn’t regard Cain’s offering, and so I thought it wasn’t that God didn’t regard Cain. But then I read it again and realized I was wrong: “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”
It was personal for Cain. God didn’t regard him. What did he do wrong? What is the lesson in the story for us?
As I pointed out in the previous blog post on the subject, the clues are in the text. Abel offered more than Cain did – the best of his flock. The implication is that Cain didn’t offer the best, the “first fruits” of his produce.
It wasn’t necessarily that Cain did something wrong, as he didn’t do it right. He didn’t offer as much a Abel did. Abel offered a better sacrifice, and God took notice of him because of it.
Abel went above and beyond in his offering to God. Maybe Abel’s offering was more heartfelt. Maybe Abel was more thankful to God. We don’t know.
Cain might have felt that Abel was just “sucking up” to God. Abel was making him look bad, as if it was a competition for God’s attention. We think like that, don’t we? Maybe Cain thought, “I’m not going to suck up to God like that!” Right? Don’t we think like that sometimes?
Of course, that is pride talking.
Would Able have been inclined to think the same way if the shoe was on the other foot? We don’t know. We can’t really say.
Did Abel just get lucky? Did he happen just to offer a better sacrifice. Did he really know what he did “right”? Again, we don’t know, but I think it’s safe to say that Cain didn’t know what he did wrong. He might have made some assumptions, but I doubt his assumptions were very good.
Maybe Cain did know why God regarded Abel and his sacrifice, but he wasn’t willing to offer that much. I kind of doubt it, though. If Cain had known what the difference was between his sacrifice and Abel’s sacrifice, I don’t think he would have taken his anger out on Abel. Maybe he thought God was being arbitrary. Maybe he thought Abel had an unfair advantage. Maybe he thought God just liked Abel better.
Of course, that wasn’t the case at all. God tried to console and counsel Cain. He offered advice and hope, and he warned Cain of the danger of letting the sin crouching at the door get the best of him.
If there is one thing I take away from this story, it is this: regardless of what we are going through, and that we have done or haven’t done, the best answer is always to go back to God. Our own perspective on our circumstances is limited and flawed. God knows what is best for us, and He has the best intentions towards us. We need to trust Him.
If Cain had listened to God, he could have provided a sacrifice the next time that God would regard, and life would be good.
If Cain had trusted God and listened to His advice, I don’t think Cain would have been angry enough to murder his brother. If Cain had taken his anger to God, he wouldn’t have taken his anger out on Abel.
We often don’t get what we think we deserve. Maybe (sometimes) we don’t get what we actually do deserve, but that cuts both ways. We might not get the positive consequences we “deserve”, but we also might not get the negative consequences we deserve. When we “get away with” something, do we rue the fact that we didn’t suffer the consequences? I think not!
Life isn’t fair. Not in this world. Still, God works all things together for the good – not just our good, but the good of all people and all creation (eventually anyway). That is His promise to us. We just need to hang in there. We need to stick by God’s side.
Where else would we turn anyway?
In the end, God actually loves us. We could live in a world in which the creator didn’t love His creation. What an amazing thing that we live in a world in which God loves us! We know this from the fact that God emptied Himself to become one of us. And He didn’t just become one of us, He allowed Himself to be sacrificed in human flesh foe us. He endured our pain, and He bore our sin. We can trust a God like that.
This world also isn’t all there is, though we often lose site of that. Jesus has prepared rooms for all of us who call him Lord and Savior. We can’t even imagine what God has in store for us. It will make all the “good” things in this life pale in comparison. We have no reason to be a Cain and every reason to be an able.
Perhaps, the difference is nothing more than perspective. Maybe Abel had the right perspective about himself and God, while Cain’s perspective was too limited. Maybe Abel was willing to give his best to God because he trusted Him, he believed God and believed God loved him. Abel was thankful for what he had, knowing that all of it came from God in the end.
“But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.'” Genesis 50:19-20 ESV
I have written recently about the verse, Genesis 50:20 (things men might mean for evil God is able to use for good). (See God in the Dark) The message that God can turn the evil that impacts our lives for good is powerful one. Though we might despair in our circumstances, especially when the evil we experience is caused by people, maybe even people we love, God is ever at work. God is able to redeem our circumstances, and, more importantly, redeem us.
As with any verse in the Bible, though we need to read it in context to understand the fullest, and most complete meaning. Genesis 50:20 was spoken by Joseph in a very specific context, so let’s take a look at that context and mine this well-known verse for some deeper meaning.
Other world religions state the Golden Rule in a limited way, such as not doing things to others that you would not want them to do to you. It’s the idea of refraining from doing evil. Under that concept of the Golden Rule, we simply need to avoid doing evil to our neighbors. There is no compulsion to do good to them. Ignoring your neighbor would be perfectly acceptable on the this principal.
Most major world religions do not express Golden Rule positively, as Jesus did: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Doing unto others is an affirmative duty. Simply refraining from doing them evil is not the concept of the Golden Rule expressed by Jesus.
Jesus made this clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable begins with a man who was robbed and left injured on the road. A priest and Levite (the priestly cast of Judaism) walked by the man on the other side of the road, ignoring him, while a Samaritan (an outcast to Jews) crossed the road to tend to the injured man. The good Samaritan was the example of the person who demonstrated love for a “neighbor” because he didn’t just ignore the injured man lying in the road. The idea of the Golden Rule that Jesus expressed includes an affirmative duty to do good.
To be fair, some religions come close to an affirmative expression of the Golden Rule, which I affirm in the previous blog piece, but there is one additional expression of the Golden Rule that stands alone: that is the concept of loving even our enemies and doing good to those who intend evil toward us and do us harm.
Douglas Murray, an atheist and openly gay man, makes the observation that most Christian tenets can be found in other cultures, save one: that is the principal that of loving and forgiving even our enemies. Loving and forgiving our enemies is the ultimate statement of the Golden Rule. Even when we have enemies who intend to do us harm, and even when they actually do us harm, Jesus says, “Forgive them.” The conversation got into some recent examples of that expression of love and forgiveness that I will explore.