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Faith and Certainty

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Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων.

Hebrews 11:1 (Original Greek)

The New Testament makes very clear how damaging doubt can be to faith. For example, Jesus tells his disciples that they can move mountains with the smallest amount of faith, provided their faith admits of no doubt. What is less clear, however, is that certainty can also damage faith.

The author of Hebrews is a careful reasoner who leads his readers step-by-step through an argument to show that Jesus’ sacrifice for sin makes the Jewish sacrificial system obsolete. By the time he gets to the end of chapter 10, he is applying what he has taught to the lives of his readers, and he is exhorting them to persevere in their faith despite ongoing suffering and persecution. This leads him to consider the nature of faith and how it has influenced the behavior of believers who have gone before. He starts chapter 11 with a definition of faith: “Faith is what supports our hopes, what proves matters that can’t be seen. (My translation).”

He identifies two areas where faith is essential: things that don’t yet exist because they are future events, and things that exist now but can’t be discerned by our five senses. He then lists several champions from Jewish history, all of them commended for holding on to what they believed despite opposition from those around them and despite having no tangible proof. He says that they were “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” and “looking for a country of their own.” They were holding on to hope for a better world, a better future which they glimpsed by faith but which they never attained. Instead they were

tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

Hebrews 11:35-38

In a word, they suffered without obtaining what they hoped for. He goes on to refer to them as a “cloud of witnesses,” like spectators at a marathon, cheering and encouraging the participants to keep going no matter how hard it might seem or tempting the desire to throw in the towel.

Faith, because it grasps what doesn’t yet exist and perceives what is invisible to the senses, is essential to every creative endeavor. Creating something—anything from composing a symphony, to writing a novel, from proposing a new philosophy to propounding a new theory—requires faith, a grasp of the not yet, a vision of the invisible. Faith will endure suffering, even face setbacks and failures, to procure a better future that the believers themselves might never see.

Certainty, by contrast, is thoroughly grounded in what is. It focuses on the past, on what has always been true, on what is incontestable, on what can be seen and touched and heard and smelled and tasted. In Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees and religious leaders, we can see their certainty, their conviction of their own rightness. They have devoted themselves to meticulously keeping the law, structuring their lives to maintain the smallest observances like tithing their mint, dill, and cumin because they believe that flawless adherence to the legalistic requirements of the law is the way to have life. In their myopia, they give their attention to minutiae and completely miss the main point of the law, which is love.

When Jesus healed a man born blind on the Sabbath, the religious leaders were divided by their certainties. Some, starting from Jesus’ violation of the Sabbath, declared him to be “not from God.” Others, beginning with the incontestable fact of the healing, asserted that such miracles could not be performed by sinners. The one thing they did not do was question their own preconceptions about what constitutes godliness. Yet that is precisely what Jesus’ miraculous healing invited them to do. Jesus had already told them that the sabbath was instituted for the benefit of people, not to force people into honoring God’s rest after creating. In doing so, he put human needs ahead of legalistic proscriptions of the law. But for those leaders, the law was holy, and any infraction was dishonoring to the law and to the Lawgiver. That is why they plotted to kill Jesus: they were certain that he was dishonoring God.

Certainty is empowering because we will fight for what we believe is true and right. We will commit violence. We will hate. We will kill, as long as we are certain that what we are doing is right, perhaps even God-ordained. Faith is empowering because we will suffer for what we believe is true and right. We will endure violence and still love those who persecute us. We will die rather than give up our hope for a better future and a better kingdom. The devil loves certainty because he is risk averse. God loves faith because he accepts risk in order to access possibility. Certainty is content to leave mountains where they are, accept the status quo, and deal with reality as it is. But faith imagines mountains cast into the sea, yearns for a better world, and reaches for a reality that is still to come.

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fear kindness leadership love magic strength struggle suffering theology violence war weakness

The Strength You Have

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The story of Gideon found in Judges 6–8 is one of my favorites from the bible. Gideon is not handsome or charismatic like David. He doesn’t have superhuman strength like Samson. He’s not chosen from birth like Jeremiah or Samuel. He’s just a regular guy, frightened like everyone else by the Midianite marauders who roll into town on their Harley camels. Like the banditos in The Magnificent Seven, they take whatever they want and leave so little for the Israelites that the people are doomed to perpetual poverty and hide their families and belongings in caves.

Gideon, too, is hiding from the Midianites when the angel of the Lord first approaches him. He is threshing grain in a wine press. Grain is usually threshed on a threshing floor—a wide, open space where the wind can carry away the chaff as the grain is tossed in the air. A wine press is an especially poor place for threshing. It was usually a large pit lined with bricks with a smaller hole in the center. The grapes were dumped in around the center hole and crushed by stomping on them. The juice would flow into the center hole. During threshing, the walls of the press would block the wind, making it harder to separate the chaff from the grain, but they would also block the view of any passing Midianites who might come and seize the grain as soon as Gideon was done with the threshing.

I can imagine Gideon suddenly being hailed by the angel, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” He freezes with fear but relaxes when he realizes the angel is not a Midianite. His fear turns to anger.

“Excuse me,” he says. “If the Lord is with us, why has it been decades since we saw any evidence of it? We hear stories about God’s wonders, but we never see them, and right now we are being savagely oppressed, and God does nothing.”

Then the angel of the Lord gives him a most extraordinary command. “Go in the strength you have and save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Am I not sending you?”

Gideon is dumbfounded. “Me? You want me to save Israel? I’m the least influential guy from the weakest clan in Manasseh.”

“Oh, that,” says the Lord. “Not to worry. You’ll have me with you.”

As the story unfolds, however, God shows Gideon that he means exactly what he says. Gideon does save Israel using only the strength he has. The only wonders God performs are signs to reassure Gideon that he is really hearing from God rather than hallucinating or going mad. His military strategy is insane. He attacks with 300 men armed with—swords? no—trumpets and torches hidden in clay jars. The plan is to scare the Midianites into killing each other, and amazingly it works. Once the Israelites see the Midianites are on the run, then they are emboldened to pursue them until there are none left. Then peace and prosperity return to Israel for the rest of Gideon’s life.

God didn’t equip Gideon with special powers or abilities. He didn’t provide him with overwhelming force, an army to match the size of Midian’s invasion. He called Gideon to use the strength he had to relieve the suffering of the Israelites. The Apostle Paul makes it explicit:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.

1 Corinthians 1:26-2

God can call you and give you a mission now, where you are, with the strength you have. You can begin where you are to express his love. You can join with others to oppose injustice. You can alleviate the suffering of those in pain. You can be kind. Kindness requires no preparation or training or special talents or gifts.

Here are three things to keep in mind if you feel God is calling you to do something.

  1. Check your motives. God didn’t call Gideon to make him rich or famous or powerful. He called him to relieve the oppression of his people, to correct an injustice, to right a wrong. Gideon did become rich and famous and powerful, but that was a by-product of God’s mission, not the main event.
  2. Make sure it’s God. God provided signs that he was one speaking to Gideon, signs that made sense to Gideon. He burned up the meal Gideon brought to the angel. He did the thing with the fleece, wet with no dew all around one day and dry when the surrounding ground was wet with dew the next. He also gave him intelligence about his enemy in advance of his attack. All of these things served to reassure Gideon that he was acting as God intended.
  3. God isn’t magic. God’s presence with Gideon did not make Gideon’s task easier. It made it possible. Gideon still had to deal with smashing idols, raising an army, selecting an elite force, planning his military strategy, pursuing the enemy, and cleaning up after all the slaughter. He had to deal with self-doubt and fear. None of those things were easy. Easy would have been staying in the wine press threshing.

God may have a special mission for you, a unique calling to a particular task, but if he does not, he still expects all who belong to him to follow his commands to love others, to do good and act with kindness even toward those who scoff at your beliefs or persecute you, and to pray for the coming of his kingdom. These things are a general call to all his followers. Go in the strength you have and do them.

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Christmas death death penalty guilt law murder myth religion sin suffering violence

First Murder

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The story of the first murder found in Genesis 4:1-16 has got to be one of the oddest murder stories in history. Here’s a quick recap in case you’ve forgotten it.

Cain and Abel were the two oldest boys born to Eve after she and Adam were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Cain grew up to become a farmer, and Abel grew up to become a herdsman. Cain brought produce from his farm and presented it to the Lord. Likewise, Abel also brought animals from his herds and presented them to the Lord. The Lord looked with favor upon the offerings Abel brought but not on the offerings Cain brought. Because of this, Cain grew angry and frowned. God said to Cain, “Why are you angry and frowning? If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if not, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Then Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out into the field.” Once they were in the field, Cain attacked Abel and killed him.

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

Cain replied, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Wandering, east of Eden.

Let’s start with Cain’s motive for murder. It appears to be jealousy or envy of his brother. Yet it is not envy of his brother’s success or of a woman they both love. No, it is envy of God’s favor. Cain resents the fact that God accepted Abel, but didn’t accept him. Of course, the story is sparse. We know nothing of their possible sibling rivalry, nothing of the resentment Cain may have felt at seeing a younger brother preferred over the first born. We don’t know how God showed his favor, whether he appeared as a man as he sometimes does in Genesis, or whether his favor took the form of blessings on Abel’s endeavors. The events related could refer to a single instance or to an ongoing pattern of preferential treatment for Abel. What we do know is that God places responsibility for this state of affairs squarely on Cain himself: “If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted?” Both brought offerings to the Lord, but Cain’s was rejected because he was not doing right.

God also warns Cain that if he continues going his own way, then his life is in danger from a croucher at the entryway to sin. God tells Cain he must subdue or master the croucher. The language recalls God’s words to Eve when he pronounced punishment for eating the forbidden fruit. “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Like Adam and Eve, Cain goes on to sin despite God’s warnings. When God pronounces judgment on him, though he bemoans his fate, he does not repent.

Later on when God provides civic laws for the Israelites to follow, he institutes the death penalty for murder (cf. Numbers 35: 16-21). Clearly, if God were determined to be just and teach the new human race a lesson in justice, he would have put Cain to death. Instead he sentences him to banishment. Cain complains that once his crime is known, anyone who finds him may kill him. Instead of saying, “Too bad. That’s what you deserve,” God does something extraordinary. He puts a mark on Cain to prevent anyone from killing him. The mark of Cain, far from being a sign of sin’s shame and God’s displeasure, is a sign of God’s grace and protection. God goes even further, threatening a sevenfold vengeance on anyone who dares kill Cain. Consider, therefore, the amazing mercy God shows toward the first murderer before insisting that God favors the death penalty for murder.

In both Genesis 3 and 4, though God threatens those who sin with death, the actual punishment is banishment from his presence. Life is in the presence of God, and death is exclusion from his presence.

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