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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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David’s Sin with Bathsheba

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Some evangelicals have compared Donald Trump to the Bible’s King David, pointing out that despite David’s several moral failings, God still referred to him as “a man after my own heart.” So let’s take a look at a scandal that rocked David’s administration and see how he handled it.

From his vantage point on the roof of his palace David saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing nearby. He desired her, and since he was king, he could get what he desired. He sent for her and slept with her. Not long after, she sent word that she was pregnant. Hoping to avoid discovery, David had her husband, Uriah, returned from war. He figured that the war-weary man would be only too glad to spend his leave in the arms of his wife. But Uriah was a man of principle. He vowed not enjoy the pleasures of his wife when his comrades in arms were still suffering on the battlefield. So David plotted to have Uriah killed by the enemy by ordering his general to put Uriah where the fighting was fiercest. Everything goes according to plan, and when David receives news of Uriah’s death, he takes Bathsheba as his own wife.

David appears to have gotten away with adultery and murder.

Nathan the prophet, a position not unlike the free press in our democracy, appears before David with an odd story.

There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him. (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

What is interesting about this story is that there is nothing in it about adultery or murder. Instead, it is a story about abuse of privilege and power. David is outraged. “The man who did this should die!” Nathan then confronts him with the truth of what he has done. In doing so, he continues to emphasize how David has abused his position to take what he should not have taken.

At this point David had options. He could give commands to silence Nathan and continue to deny and pretend that nothing happened. Just ravings from a fake news site. He could start his own misinformation campaign, smearing Uriah in the alternative press and using his own popularity to suppress dissent. But David does none of these things. Instead he admits everything and repents.

Just here, then, is where I see a difference between David and Donald Trump. David lost his sense of perspective and began to feel that his position as king, his wealth and power, entitled him to whatever he wanted. One could even make a case that his taking of Bathsheba was rape since to resist or even protest against the command of the king was to endanger one’s own life. David’s power was great enough that Bathsheba dare not refuse him. In any case, the narrative lays all the blame on David and none on her. Yet when confronted, he immediately confesses his sin and repents. Will Donald Trump repent? Will he acknowledge having done wrong by abusing his position as President to further enrich himself? Will he repent when proof comes to light of his campaign’s collusion with the Russians to fix the election? Only time will tell, but I do not see it in him. He is not like David after all.

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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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