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Who Lied? Literal Truth and Deception – Part 2

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In my last post, I closed with an accusation of lying against God. In this post I intend to clear him of the charge—even though he does not need my defense.

How you understand what someone says depends on how much you trust that person. If you trust them a lot, you will try to interpret what they say as truthful. You will be generous and allow them a lot of freedom to use metaphorical language. If you don’t trust them, however, you will treat what they say with suspicion. You will be guarded and construe what they say as literally as possible.* You can see the difference if you compare love letters to legal contracts. Love letters are written with an expectation that the reader will construe what is said with love and kindness. The language is very open and highly metaphorical. Legal contracts are written with the expectation that the reader may construe them with suspicion and hostility. The language is very careful, circumspect, and literal. Terms are clearly and carefully defined.

We think that we trust others because they tell us the truth, but that is actually backwards. We believe that others tell us the truth because we trust them. Our default is trust. We meet strangers and trust them immediately, and our trust is usually justified. We don’t normally fact-check the clerk who tells us the price of an unmarked item is $12.99. Occasionally we meet people who take advantage of our trust to lie to us or cheat us, but they are the exception not the rule. We normally expect others to tell us the truth even though we do not know them and have no reason to trust them. True, we don’t construe what they say with the same generosity that we use with those who love us, but we also don’t treat them with the same suspicion that we reserve for people who have already wronged us.

In the myth of the Fall, the serpent does not lie to deceive Eve. Instead, he insinuates that God has an ulterior motive for his prohibition. He implies that God is not concerned about protecting her life but about excluding her from opportunities she ought to have. He introduces suspicion into her normal and natural trust of God. Eve is tempted by the prospect of improving her life but also by the suspicion that God is withholding that improvement from her.

Adam and Eve do not suffer biological death when they eat the fruit. It is not poisonous. Something happens, however. They experience shame. They feel exposed and want to conceal themselves from one another and from God. They hide. They blame others for their own choices. Though their bodies remain healthy, something within them has died just as God had said. This metaphorical understanding of death continues throughout the whole bible. Read Ezekiel 18 with this in mind, and it makes a whole lot more sense. Paul tells the Ephesians that they were dead in there sins until they believed in Christ. In the same way, the eternal life implied in Genesis that comes from eating the fruit of the tree of life is not an unending biological life. It is the eternal life that Jesus promises his followers, a life that overcomes their fear of death and makes them invincible. Those who put their trust in Jesus pass from death into life. He restores them to a relationship with God characterized by mutual trust and love.

Some people have strayed so far from this trust in God that they do not even believe he exists. They imagine that the whole story is a fairy tale perpetuated by the powerful to dominate the ignorant. I know that for the most part I cannot change minds and hearts so distrustful of God. Jesus came into a culture where God was viewed as an exacting tyrant, insisting with hair-splitting accuracy on correct behavior. Jesus revealed God to be utterly different, a loving Father who embraces those who return to him and throws them a party. Yes, he is demanding, but in the way a good Father demands the best of his children, encouraging them, comforting them, loving them, and at times disciplining them. But he is not harsh. His commands are not burdensome; they are easy. His way is not weighed down with impossible demands; it is light. He encourages his children to love one another, help one another, carry one anothers’ burdens, and forgive one another. This is the God I serve. He does not lie. He does not deceive. He invites us to trust him and live.

*This goes a long way toward explaining the wildly differing accounts of events offered by supporters of Hillary Clinton and those of Donald Trump. Trump’s supporters give Hillary’s statements and events in which she has been involved the worst possible construction. Clinton’s supporters do the same to Trump. They trust their own candidate and treat as self-serving and cynically manipulative anything the opposing candidate says or does. This is not to say that the candidates are equal. But their supporters are roughly equal in their regard for truth and justice.
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God’s Top Ten List

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The Ten Commandments are widely regarded as the foundation of Western jurisprudence. But they are also regarded as hopelessly archaic and old-fashioned. Some of them (Don’t murder. Don’t steal.) seem like common sense rules for people living in any kind of community. Others (Don’t commit adultery. Don’t desire what belongs to your neighbor.) seem to run counter to modern sensibilities. Still others (Don’t misuse God’s name. Don’t work on the Sabbath.) just seem pointless now. I propose taking a look at the Ten Commandments structured as a top-ten list, which allows me to start with number 10 and end with number 1.

The Ten Commandments are sometimes called the Decalogue, literally ten words. They were originally given to people who were mostly shepherds and nomads, without much use for the sort of tomes that get passed into law by Congress nowadays. They had to be succinct and clear. Most of them can be thought of as a two-word prohibition. Here they are rendered as briefly as I can:

  1. No other gods
  2. No images
  3. No misusing God’s name
  4. No work on Sabbath
  5. Honor parents
  6. No murder
  7. No adultery
  8. No stealing
  9. No lying
  10. No coveting

Of course, there’s a good deal more to the Law than this. There are regulations for all kinds of things, some with no discernible relation to these ten. (What possible reason could God have for prohibiting wearing clothes made from two different materials? Lev 19:19). Yet a good deal of the Law seems to be exposition of these ten. You can almost here the objections people have: “Is it murder if I accidentally kill someone in a fight when I was only trying to seriously injure him?” “Is it stealing to take something I find abandoned in a field, even if it’s not mine?” As soon as someone makes a law, someone else will be right there trying to find a loophole, and the law will get a little longer and a little harder to understand but hopefully more just. There will be judges whose job it is to interpret the law and determine whether a particular loophole is in keeping with the intent of the law. And the judges decisions will become precedents and affect how the law is interpreted going forward.

In fact, it was just this sort of process that culminated in a law so fraught with traditions and human interpretations that it was no longer recognizable, and Jesus rejected it and sought to cut through the layers of interpretation to the spirit of the Law. So he tells his followers that hatred is the equivalent of murder, that looking at a woman with lust is the equivalent of adultery, that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. Again and again he confronts the religious leaders who were condemning the poor while excusing their own violations of the law on technicalities. So I’m not much interested in the traditional interpretations of the commandments. I would like to get at the spirit behind them.

Next time, I’ll start with number 10: No coveting.

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How Great is Our God?

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O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.   —Psalm 34:3

The idea of magnifying God always seemed a little odd to me. We don’t typically talk of magnifying except in the sense of making something appear larger or nearer. How can God be made to appear bigger than he is? Is he not infinite? Or how can he be made to appear nearer? Is he not everywhere present? What can it mean to magnify the all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present God?

Then I recall the language of lovers. Lovers extol what they love. Ask a lover about something he loves—it need not be a person but a hobby or vocation—and prepare to hear his love magnified as if it were the only thing in the universe. For in a sense it is; it fills his own universe. Those who love God cannot help praising him. Everything that happens in their lives will be found to connect in some way to the God they love.

They will speak of the glory of Your kingdom
and will declare Your might,
informing all people of Your mighty acts
and of the glorious splendor of Your kingdom. (Psalm 145:11-12)

But there is more.

We live in a world that belittles God. Our culture for the most part considers God as unimportant and regards people of faith—especially those whose faith impels them to public action—as dangerous lunatics. God is okay as long as he is the private delusion of a few fanatics. He is tolerable as long as he doesn’t matter in any meaningful way to the life and business of the world. Let God have his little corner in religion. Let him make his rules and have his “kingdom,” but let’s not have any nonsense about absolute truth or a universal moral law. Looking at God through the lens of our culture is like peering into the wrong end of a telescope. God seems small and distant, parochial and insignificant. His acts aren’t mighty; they’re puny. He is weak and stupid, perhaps even evil.

Consider what Christians credit God with: he created everything that exists; made a way through the Red Sea so the Israelites passed through on dry ground; he sent fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering; he shut the mouths of lions; he raised Jesus from the dead. But these things are all in the past. What has he done lately? What do we credit him with today? He gave me a parking place near the door so I wouldn’t get rained on; he reduced the severity of the flu I had; he provided a grocery gift card anonymously when I really needed it. While these acts reflect a personal care seldom found in the old stories, they don’t seem to magnify God. They make him out to be a kind of doting nanny, more concerned with our comfort than with our character. Perhaps the culture is only reflecting back the smallness in the testimony about God that Christians have given. Sometimes in our zeal for his omnipotence, we Christians even credit him with evil—at least with what the world regards as evil.

God intends that his children be like him, that they exhibit his character. In doing so, they reflect his good character and bring credit to his name. This is why Jesus told his followers, “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The world unacquainted with God knows him by the deeds of his sons and daughters. It is by our good works that we show the world how merciful and loving is our God, how forgiving and patient, how terrifying and awesome. If our deeds are evil, we discredit God. One does not have to look far to see how much discredit Christians have brought to God. In the world we are known for bigotry and intolerance, hatred, ignorance, and ineffectiveness. So let us turn back from condemnation and from evil deeds that discredit God, and let us do good: bring health and healing to those who are sick, bring life and hope to the discouraged and depressed, love and accept the outcasts, set people free from systems that confine them. Let us magnify the Lord and exalt his name together.

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