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Looking Back

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Reading about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah recently, it struck me how odd it is that Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Commentators tend to see this incident as a direct result of disobedience to the divine directive, “don’t look back (v. 17).” They see it as a cautionary tale with the theme of immediate, painstaking obedience to God’s word. If you disobey, disaster will overtake you, and you will die. One backward glance and bam! instant punishment.

None of this sounds anything like the patient, compassionate Father Jesus revealed God to be. In fact, it sounds like the sort of interpretation the Pharisees would have come up with, turning as it does on a strict, literal understanding of the angels’ words while ignoring the sins of Lot himself, who offered his virgin daughters to a mob of horny men and left Sodom with such reluctance that he and his wife and daughters had to be dragged out of the city by the angels.

How then should we understand this story? If the fate of Lot’s wife was not punishment for her disobedience, what was it?

This is one of those stories that sounds like a myth: a capricious god, an equivocal warning, a minor infraction, an incredible metamorphosis, and a disastrous outcome. It’s not even the focus of the narrative. It’s an aside, a way to account for why Lot’s wife is suddenly out of the picture, why just a few verses later, he would get drunk and have sex with his two daughters—and why the daughters thought this was a good idea.

Let’s start with the assumption that God in this story is the same God Jesus talked about—loving, compassionate, merciful, and kind. Why would such a God destroy an entire city? There are clues in the preceding chapter.

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous  that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Genesis 18:20-21

The two men—angels—sent to destroy the city were not the first to be waylaid by a mob for their own gratification. Other victims had cried out to God—even perhaps to other gods—and their cries for redress had reached the ears of the Lord. Ezekiel, writing many years later, tells us that the people of Sodom were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49). It was not merely for sexual sins that God destroyed the city but because they made no provision for the poor and neglected the needy. It was God’s compassion for the poor and needy, for the victims of Sodom’s self-absorption, that moved God to judge the city and send agents of destruction to destroy it.

He told Abraham his plan, and Abraham, concerned for his nephew Lot, extracted a promise from the Lord to spare the city if he can find just ten righteous men within it. Unable to find even ten, the Lord nevertheless went beyond his promise by sparing Lot and his family. That is why the two angels urged Lot to flee and even grabbed him and his family by the arms and forced them out of city telling them not to linger “for the Lord was merciful to them” (Genesis 19:16).

We know very little of Lot’s wife. There is no mention of her in connection with Lot prior to his escape from Sodom. It’s likely, therefore, that he met and married her after he settled in Sodom and that she was a native of the region. She would have had friends and family in Sodom, and there is little wonder then that in her concern for them, she should turn back to see what disaster would befall the place where she grew up and where all her memories were. Did God punish this natural concern? I don’t think so.

When the angels led Lot and his family out of the city, they told him to flee to the mountains, but Lot protested. “It’s too far,” he said. “We’ll never make it. The destruction will overtake us. Look, there’s a very small town nearby. We could make it there.” The angels agree to spare the town of Zoar (which means “small”) so Lot and his family can escape. This whole conversation, however, indicates either that Lot had knowledge of what was about to happen and how swift the judgment would be, or that the destruction was already beginning and threatening to overtake them where they stood. That’s why the angel was so vehement in urging them to run for their lives and not look back.

Jesus urged the same alacrity on his disciples when he told them about the coming of the Son of Man in Luke 17:

[N]o one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!

Luke 17:31-32

So it was not a mere backward glance that doomed Lot’s wife. It was lingering; it was delaying; it was a failure to appreciate the dire emergency of the moment. She stopped. She turned. She looked back. Perhaps the horror of what she saw petrified her. Perhaps the fire was already beginning to fall around her. Perhaps God, in one last desperate act of mercy, turned her to salt like the nearby hills before she could suffer the torment of being burned alive.

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Flesh

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The New International Version of the Bible consistently translates the Greek word “σαρκος” as “sinful nature” in contexts where it refers to that part of a person that tends toward sin. Older translations had it as “flesh,” and I think something is lost in the newer rendering, namely, the connection with the body. Indeed, it seems that this connection is the very one that the translators sought to sever in changing the translation from “flesh” to “sinful nature.”
God has no body. He is spirit and is not limited by physical form. He created people as an amalgam of body and spirit. We are not merely physical nor pure spirit. God created animals that have no spirit though they live and move as we do and even exhibit certain kinds of intelligence like our own. He also created angels, which are pure spirit and have no bodies. People alone of all his creation (so far as we know) are made of body and spirit combined. Not until God had created people did he declare his creation “very good,” and Christian tradition has held that both body and spirit are good. God spoke all things into existence by the power of his word. But when he created people, he got his hands dirty (Gen 2:7). So God took a very personal interest in the making of people and made them just as he wanted them.
Nevertheless, when the New Testament writers write about the active principle within us that causes us to tend toward sin, they called it “the flesh.” They recognized that sin arises from appetites and desires, and that our desires come from our own flesh. We all experience desires: hunger, thirst, sexual desire, the desire for comfort and security. All these desires have a wholesome and appropriate expression. But the body seems to know nothing of what is wholesome or appropriate. A plate of cookies may tempt me no matter how many calories I’ve had recently. If I yield, I risk gluttony. In the same way every evil desire arises from the flesh: lust, greed, hatred, envy, conceit—each clamors to be fulfilled at whatever expense to our well-being and integrity.
The reason for this state of affairs seems to be that our bodies are not yet redeemed. God has given life to our spirits, but our bodies remain the same old bodies we always had. They will not be redeemed until the resurrection. Thus Paul writes that “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Rom 8:23-24a)” He makes it clear that our great hope is to be free at last—not of our bodies, for then we would be but half-redeemed—but of our flesh. While we live in the body, we are still subject to the desires of the flesh. We must put to death the flesh by the Spirit of God. This does not mean, as some have supposed, that we mutilate our bodies or practice some kind of self-torture. It means that we are to oppose the desires of the flesh by yielding to the guidance of the Spirit. “Mortifying the flesh” means saying no to its evil desires; it means developing the habit of saying no so that the flesh grows weak and dies.
Christians often contribute to the mind–body split by saying that when you die you go to heaven, and that’s that. But heaven is not our destination. The Bible clearly tells of a resurrection of the body, when those who have been redeemed get new, incorruptible bodies, free at last of the sinful nature that dogs us now. It tells of a time yet to come when God re-makes the world and the city of God comes down to earth and he makes his dwelling with us. We will go to him when we die but only so we can return with him when he comes to reign. Our destiny is to be united, body and spirit, for all eternity as God intended from the beginning.
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Repent!

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John the Baptist, Jesus, and his followers all called on their hearers to “repent.” It’s a religious word that has lost its meaning. It conjures up images of homeless men bearing hand-lettered signs: “Repent or perish.” It seems to belong to the fringes of fundamentalism, a seedy, down-at-heel, countrified Christianity. It’s no longer fashionable to preach repentance. Yet repentance is still needed, perhaps more than ever.

The concept of repentance includes not only change but remorse. It is, in fact, change driven by remorse. Not all remorse leads to change. There is a remorse that sees the injury done or the fault committed as irremediable. Such remorse leads only to despair. But godly remorse leads to change. The first change that must take place is a change in thinking. The call to repent, therefore, is primarily a call to change your mind. It involves seeing things differently and responding to the new reality.

John, Jesus, and his disciples followed the exhortation to repent with a reason. “For,” they proclaimed, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” It’s time for a change because God’s kingdom is right at your elbow. Kingdom is another of those religious words that has lost much of its meaning. God’s kingdom is where his will holds sway, where he is respected and esteemed according to his magnificent worth and his will is promptly and gladly obeyed. To say that his kingdom is at hand implies that God will no longer tolerate rebellion in the hearts of people. He is calling all people everywhere to change the way they have been thinking about themselves and their lives in the world, to turn away from their rebellion and surrender to his rule in their hearts and lives. Lest the prospect of giving up one’s independence seem too great a price, he promises indescribable joy to those who do it. So the message holds both the threat of judgment and the enticement of eternal delight.

Repentance is neither easy nor pleasurable. Moreover, it is not something you can just do like taking a walk or brushing your teeth. Repentance begins with a sense that maybe, just maybe, the cause of your unhappiness, the source of the emptiness you feel lies within you. You begin to suspect that it is not that the world is out of whack; you yourself are out of whack. What’s more, you have not been merely mistaken, like a child who gets its sums wrong. No you have been willfully, culpably rebellious and self-centered. You have not known God or honored him. In fact, you have turned away from every intimation that you might know him, and done everything you could to make yourself look good even though you know you don’t deserve it. You begin to lose the esteem you’ve so carefully nurtured for yourself. You start seeing yourself as a coward, a bully, a hater, a betrayer of those who have trusted you, an arrogant and selfish pig. Instead of flinching from these revelations, you feel a deep sorrow and regret for your behavior, and you resolve to know just how deep your own depravity goes. You examine yourself and find yourself shot through with wickedness on every level. It seems that you have never desired anything that was good or beautiful for its own sake but only for the use you might make of it. You may cry. You may grieve over yourself as if you had died, though, in fact, you discover you have never been alive.

Then comes a moment of clarity, and your understanding of everything changes. You recognize that Jesus has a right to demand everything of you and give you nothing in return. Instead, he demands everything and offers you a life that death itself cannot overcome. With fear and trembling you return to him, hoping against hope that he will accept you. While you are still on your way, he meets you and sweeps you up in an embrace that crushes all doubt out of you. Suddenly, you find yourself enraptured by his love. You read the Bible like letters from a lover at war. You realize that there is nothing he can ask of you that you won’t do or attempt.

This is what Christians mean by repentance. To the hellbent world it is foolishness because they have to lay down their weapons and surrender. To religious hypocrites it seems unnecessary because they have always done what was right in their own eyes. But to those who repent, it is like being born again: trauma and pain followed by a new world of unimaginable splendor.

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