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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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Violence and Meekness

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“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” –Matthew 5:5

Who can believe this? How can the meek get anything? You have to be aggressive. You have to be bold and assertive. You can’t wait for anybody to give you anything. What was Jesus thinking, telling people that being gentle and mild, being meek will get you anything? We know that the rich—those who really inherit the earth—don’t get it without being decisive, seizing the opportunity, making their own opportunity, and taking what they want. You can’t be soft. You can’t let feelings get in your way. You’ve got to be hard; the world isn’t for sissies.

Of course, you don’t want to be cruel. You want to be kind. But when others use violence, you have to be prepared to respond with force. You won’t strike the first blow, but when you do strike, it will be to end it. You have a right to protect yourself, your home, your family, your property. You have a right to defend yourself against violence. Get a gun, and learn how to use it. If anyone tries to cause you pain, you’ll bring the pain to them.

Of course, sometimes you have to strike first. If you wait for them to make the first move, you could be dead. If they threaten you, they had better be prepared for what you will do. If they so much as glance at your daughter, they won’t get a chance for a second look. If they come through your door, they had better already be shooting. Otherwise you will take them out.


Jesus commends the gentle, calls them blessed—lucky to have soft answers for the wrath of others, favored by God with a mild temper that forbears to injure anyone. He says that they and not the aggressive go-getters will inherit the earth. The world will become the possession of mild-mannered men and women, those who value peace and love and simple happiness. “Be happy,” he says. “Consider yourself lucky if you’re the type of person who abhors violence, who wants to live and let live, who looks for ways to de-escalate tense situations. The world of the future will be yours.”

It is not only the world that does not believe Jesus; it is Christians. How do I know? Because we praise strength when it is a willingness to use violence rather than a readiness to endure it. Search for images of meekness on Google, and you will find a lot of memes proclaiming, “Meekness is not weakness. It is strength under control.” Notice that the virtue being touted is not gentleness or patient endurance. It is control. You harness your violence and make it do your bidding. You keep the threat of force in check and only use it when necessary. The trouble is, it will always eventually become necessary.

This is a lesson taught and reinforced again and again by our media and the stories we love to tell. The good guy knows how to use violence as well as the bad guy, but he uses it judiciously: in self-defense, or the defense of others. He does not use it wantonly like the bad guys who care nothing for others and kill or destroy to advance some evil agenda. The good guy’s violence is under control, made to serve good purposes or at least some end that is less bad than the bad guy’s aim. The good guy’s violence is for justice. It is for vengeance and retaliation. He may train for violence, but he does not originate it. When the bad guys offer violence, he retaliates.

This lesson feels good and right to us, in part because it helps us believe that our wars are just, that our police are upright, that our laws and their enforcement are humane. But this is not a lesson Jesus taught. Until the night of his arrest, whenever the authorities sought to detain him, Jesus always evaded them. He ran away. He avoided confrontation. He didn’t stand his ground. He didn’t put up a fight. During his arrest, when one of his followers tried to defend him, he rebuked him and told him, “Put away your sword. Everyone who draws a sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:50-52). In his own actions and in the teaching he gave his followers, Jesus was relentlessly non-violent. If we consider ourselves his followers, then he taught us to endure violence. He taught us not to retaliate, not to seek retribution, and to leave justice to the Father. We can plead for God’s vengeance, but we are explicitly told not to take matters into our own hands. Those who have sought to emulate Jesus’ teaching of non-violence have had better success in changing the hearts and minds of their oppressors than all the warriors and agitators in history. The future belongs to the gentle. The meek will inherit the earth.

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Just Deserts

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Among atheists, Christians have a reputation for consigning people to heaven or hell based on the orthodoxy of their beliefs. You can be a sexual predator who preys on children, but if you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your savior, you have a guaranteed spot in heaven. On the other hand you can be a world-class humanitarian, but if you deny the basic tenets of the Christian faith, you are doomed to hell. To be sure, this is something of a caricature of Christian beliefs, but I think it describes fairly accurately what many Christians believe to be true. However, there is no foundation for this view in the Bible. The Biblical view of judgment in the afterlife is that it is based on deeds. Again and again, both Old and New Testaments stress that all people will be judged according to what they have done, whether it is good or bad. This includes Christians. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of people being judged according to their beliefs. Everyone is judged according to their deeds.

Suppose a man believes—as some Muslims reportedly believe—that he will go to heaven if he kills an infidel. Will he be sentenced to jail for such a belief? Will our courts fine him or exact some other punishment for this belief? No. He will go to jail only if he is found guilty of actually killing someone. Are human courts more righteous than God’s? Of course not. Then how can we think that God will condemn people or reward them for what they believe?

Someone may object at this point that there are many Bible verses that also tell us we are saved by faith, that God rewards believers with eternal life in heaven, and that these rewards are not promised to unbelievers. To answer this objection, I need to introduce a distinction in different kinds of believing.

I believe that the earth is round, that the sun is a nearby star, that all life on earth has a common ancestor, that Abraham Lincoln was our 16th President, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Will any of these beliefs save me? No. They will not. Most of them have little or no impact on how I live my life. Even the last one cannot save me if I do nothing about it. It is perfectly possible for me to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and not follow him or do anything that he commands. These are what I think of as propositional beliefs. They are beliefs in certain propositions, statements of fact or opinion. This kind of belief is almost never meant when the Bible talks about faith. James is a notable exception, and if you want to see what the Bible has to say about whether faith or deeds are more important, read James 2:14-26. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

See? James points out that demons believe in God’s existence. Merely believing that there is a God gets you no brownie points with him.

I believe in my children. I believe in my wife. I believe in myself. I believe in Jesus. This is a different kind of belief. This is not an academic assent to certain propositions. This is relational trust. I have confidence in my kids. I have watched them grow into adulthood and take responsibility for themselves. I know they have learned good principles, and I have done my best to set them a good example. I believe in them. Likewise I believe in my wife. She is talented and smart and strong, and she can do what she sets out to do. I trust her. And, yes, I trust Jesus. He has proven himself loving and good in everything I know of him. He encouraged me when I struggled with depression, and he has given me a family to love, enriching me beyond anything I could have hoped for or imagined. This is the belief the Bible talks about, confidence in God’s goodness and love as a father to us all. It is this faith that saves us because we fully entrust ourselves to him, fearlessly doing what we know is right because our souls are at rest in him. By this faith we share with others when we have barely enough for ourselves. By this faith we speak out against injustice. By this faith we continue to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus even when we are ridiculed for believing impossible stories.

What we believe matters far less than what we do, but what we do depends a lot on whom we trust.

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