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theology

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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Misplaced Guilt

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Guilt often misleads us. We think that we ought not to fail, that we ought to be competent at whatever we undertake, that we ought to anticipate what will happen and be prepared for it. The things we berate ourselves for are our incompetencies. But only God is all-competent.

Jesus showed us what a good person is like. A good person is totally dependent on God. Jesus did only what he saw his Father doing. He always left outcomes up to God and just did what he knew was right. From a human perspective, his life was a failure. Executed for insurrection, he did nothing of lasting note except persuade his followers of something really insane—that he was God’s unique Son. Yet his life and death and resurrection have transformed the world.

God does not consider our failures as important as our disobedience. Again and again in the bible, he demonstrates his displeasure at being disobeyed. And disobedience arises from distrust. It was so when the Serpent tempted Eve. She doubted the goodness of God’s purpose in prohibiting the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is so now whenever we don’t do what we know is right because we fear the repercussions. One essential part of Jesus’ teaching is that God loves us and treats us as his own children. He taught us to trust God so that we would have the courage to obey him. The repentance he demands is not for our failures but for our disobedience and the distrust it springs from.

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Love is Patient

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Love is patient…. (1 Corinthians 13:4)

When Paul embarks on a description of the characteristics that distinguish love from other virtues, he begins with patience. This seems at first counterintuitive. What has patience to do with love? Shouldn’t he begin with doing good and being generous? We commonly think of patience as waiting without getting upset. So if I spend an extra 15 minutes at the doctor’s office waiting to be called but don’t get angry, it’s because I’m patient. This is certainly an aspect of patience, but I don’t think it is what Paul has in mind when he says, “Love is patient.”

The King James version has “Charity suffereth long,” and I think the concept of long-suffering gives us a clue to why Paul chose patience as the first characteristic of love. Today the concept of suffering almost always has to do with experiencing pain, but it was not so when the King James version was translated. It meant “to let, to allow.” So when Jesus said in Mark’s gospel, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” (Mark 10:14 KJV), he meant let them come. Jesus instructed his disciples not to control access to his presence. He had a genuine open-door policy, and he meant to see it enforced.

Therefore, patience is not primarily about waiting. It is about letting events take their course. It is about not trying to control what happens. Since love is other-centered rather than self-centered, it means specifically that love does not try to control other people. It allows people their own agency. It does not seek to manipulate, coerce, or cajole others into behaving as you want. Rather, it lets people make their own decisions, take their own actions, and suffer their own consequences.

This exactly describes the way Jesus behaved toward the rich young man who came to him asking how he could have eternal life. Jesus begins by giving him the standard religious answer: follow the rules, and you will live. But the man is not satisfied. He tells Jesus that he has kept the Law since he was a boy. Then Mark tells us, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” It is this love that motivates Jesus to tell the man about the one thing he still lacked. And it is because of that same love that Jesus watches the man walk away sad. Jesus does not do any of the things we are tempted to do for those we love. He does not pursue the man and try to talk him into making a different decision. He doesn’t lower his standard for entrance into the kingdom so the young man could meet it. He doesn’t try to trick him into changing his mind. He lets the man be sad. He lets him walk away.

I am convinced that the single greatest mistake that parents make with their children is in ignoring their child’s agency. They seek to control their child for any number of reasons—because they find their child’s misbehavior embarrassing, because they fear what may happen if their child makes bad decisions, because their own parents used deceit and manipulation to control their behavior. Of course, parents are legally responsible for their children, and they need to exercise a certain level of control. The aim of parenting, however, is the freedom and independence of the child. How can the child learn the self-discipline necessary to become an independent adult if the parents are always stepping in to impose artificial consequences or averting the natural consequences of their child’s behavior? It is only natural, then, that the child eventually reaches an age where they resent their parents and rebel against them. Our culture tends to consider this progression a natural part of growing up, but it is actually the result of a faulty concept of parenting that does not begin with the patience of love.

Before Paul says “Love is kind,” which introduces our own agency in doing good for others, he insists that love recognizes and honors the agency of others and does not try to subvert it or diminish it. Love begins with letting other people be and allowing them to decide and act in ways they think best. This is the love God has for us, and it is the same love he requires of us toward others. Love is patient because God is patient.

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