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What If God Ruled the World?

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As a child in elementary school I already had a reputation among my peers as a Christian. Other kids called me a goody two shoes. Boys would try to get me to swear. One day a boy asked me if I believed God could do absolutely anything.”

“Of course,” I replied.

“Can he make a stone so big he can’t lift it?” he responded.

I was speechless. I saw in a flash that if I said he could then I would be admitting there was a stone God couldn’t lift, and if I said no, then I was admitting that he couldn’t make such a stone. Either way, I had to admit God was not omnipotent. I thought long and hard about this conundrum.

I finally decided that what I was being asked to admit was that God could not do what was logically impossible. There can’t exist both an unliftable stone and an omnipotent being who can lift any stone.

Christians tend to take God’s omnipotence for granted. Yet it raises a lot of questions. How can God stand by and allow horrors like the Holocaust or the Cambodian killing fields or the Rwandan genocide to occur unchecked? And if God allows such things because they fall under the free will of human actors, then how can he stand by and allow natural disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Maria, or the tsunami that claimed so many lives in southeast Asia or the earthquake in Haiti? Some Christians propose that such catastrophes are punishment for sin. Yet what kind of punishment sweeps away the innocent with the guilty and visits the worst disasters on the poor while sparing the rich?

There are only two possible conclusions. Either there is no God, or God is not omnipotent. Many of my friends on Facebook have opted for the former explanation. Some of them were raised in Christian homes, and their disappointment with God has fueled their disbelief. I have come to conclude that God is not omnipotent, at least not in the way we commonly think of omnipotence. In fact, I think that belief in God’s omnipotence is one of the most successful lies of the devil. There are things God cannot do, not because he lacks the power or will to do them, but because he lacks the authority. To act without the authority to act would call into question his goodness.

The New Testament is very clear about who the ruler of this present world is, and it is not God. It is the devil, Satan, the serpent who beguiled our original parents into giving up their authority over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field. It is the devil, along with those deceived by him, who are responsible for the evil in the world.

Jesus revealed God as a loving Father who cares for his children and wants them to love as he loves—without condition or favoritism. Jesus demonstrated that love by healing the sick, curing those who suffered from inner demons, and by eating and drinking with the outcasts of his society. He touched the untouchable, forgave the unforgivable, and esteemed the worthless. What he did is what God does, and it is in this context of putting forth extraordinary effort to find ways to be kind that we must understand that with God all things are possible. You can be kind to those who hate you. You can love those who say awful things about you. You can contribute your hard-earned income to help those unfortunate enough to have been born in poverty in a place where upward mobility is all but impossible. You can use your own influence, however small, to bring God’s rule into the world ruled by the devil. This means war. It is inevitable when kingdoms are in conflict.

There will be casualties. Don’t give up.

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Opportunity to Display God’s Work

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In chapter 9 of his gospel, John launches into the story of how Jesus healed a man blind from birth and the aftermath of that healing. Here is how the story begins:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

John 9:1-2

Notice the assumption behind the disciples’ question: this man’s suffering is the result of sin—his own or his parents. In other words, this man is bad or was badly brought up. That’s why his life is messed up. This same assumption is still current in our society and in our churches. People are poor because they’re lazy. People are sick because they eat junk food. Some even say that natural disasters are the result of sin, often sexual sin. (You can find examples here, here, and here.) Jesus’ response sweeps away this kind of thinking.

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him….”

John 9:3

Jesus first addresses the disciples’ false assumption. He says remarkably, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Now, of course, Jesus was not claiming that this man and his parents were paragons of virtue who lived sinless lives. Imagine, however, what it was like to be a man born blind in a society where misery is regarded as proof of God’s judgment for personal sin. Since the man was born blind, the judgment fell on him at the moment of his birth. This means that either it was a judgment on his parents for some terrible sin they had committed, or it was a judgment on the man himself for some prenatal sin. In fact, the disciples were not seeing a suffering man at all. They were seeing an opportunity to hear from the Teacher about an academic discussion current among the religious sages and scholars of the day: can you sin before you’re born? To the disciples, the man himself and his misery evoked no compassion. He was merely Exhibit A in an intellectual debate. To be fair, the disciples had no idea that the man could be helped in any substantive way, but their ignorance was in part due to their assumptions about the justness of the man’s condition. To help such a man might be to oppose God’s righteous judgment.

So when Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he liberated the man from the judgment of God. He also liberated God from the inexorable logic of cause and effect. Then he explained how his disciples were to regard suffering, “…but this happened that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

It’s tempting at this point to regard God as some kind of monster who afflicts people with blindness so he can later heal them and get praise and adulation for his “mercy.” This is not at all the God that Jesus revealed. Jesus consistently blamed suffering and evil in the world on the devil and his demons, and he credits God with doing good and overthrowing the schemes of the devil. According to Jesus, the devil lies, steals, kills, and destroys, but God tells the truth, gives to all who ask, raises the dead to life, and restores all things. So God can’t be blamed for the man’s blindness. In fact, Jesus seems uninterested in the question of who or what caused the man’s blindness. He focuses instead on the opportunity the man’s blindness presents, an opportunity to respond to the situation with God’s work.

And what is it that God does when faced with blindness? He heals. Again and again in the gospels when Jesus confronts suffering and oppression, he responds with love and compassion. Nor is his compassion an empty feeling of good will or empathy. He acts on what he feels. He touches lepers even though doing so makes him technically unclean. He heals the sick even when doing so angers the religious authorities because he does it on the Sabbath. He feeds the crowds of people who came out to hear him even when doing so endangers him because the people are ready to force him to be king. Jesus risked ostracism and opposition from the authorities to meet the needs of people who needed his help. Sometimes, as in this instance, he even invited opposition in order to lay bare the hypocrisy of those in power.

For Jesus, therefore, and for all who want to follow him, suffering and oppression never represents an occasion for assigning blame or railing against the results of sin. Instead, they represent an opportunity to display God’s work—to heal the sick, to deliver the mentally ill from the destructive thoughts that torment them, to provide help to the poor, to feed those who are hungry, to give drink to those who are thirsty, to alleviate suffering and pain wherever it appears.

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Love is Care

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It has become standard practice now to follow “Love your neighbor as yourself” with admonitions to love yourself. Yet the New Testament never has any such admonitions. Has self-loathing become such a problem over the past 2,000 years that we now need to be told to love ourselves? Or are we missing something that first-century readers took for granted?

When Jesus told his disciples to love their neighbors as themselves, he was talking about care. He was not talking about feelings of self-worth or affection. He was not urging people to like their neighbors but to care for them. If your neighbor is hungry and you have food, feed them. If your neighbor is thirsty and you have drink, give them a drink. If your neighbor is naked and you have extra clothing, clothe them. Don’t ignore your neighbor’s need but treat it as you would your own. Just as you would act on your own behalf to secure what you need to thrive, so act on your neighbor’s behalf to help them thrive. This is what the New Testament means by love. It is care.

Jesus made this meaning explicit when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. There was nothing about how the Samaritan felt affection toward the injured traveler or how the Samaritan had to like himself first in order to help. No. He took care of his obvious needs when the man was unable to care for himself. Instead of blaming the man for whatever he did to become a victim, he just saw a fellow human being in need and went out of his way to help him. He treated him as he himself would have wanted to be treated—with kindness, compassion, and love. He took care of the man. He tended him and paid for his continued care. He helped.

This kind of care is not intended as a long term relationship of dependency. The Samaritan did not undertake to provide for the injured traveler for the rest of his life. He didn’t seek to make the man show gratitude. He just did what was within his means to provide the sort of short-term help he could see the man needed. He assumed that when the man recovered, he would resume taking care of himself.

Jesus contrasts the Samaritan’s behavior with that of two other men, both revered by his Jewish audience: a priest and a Levite. These two men, steeped in the Law and assumed to be holier than the average Jew, did not see a fellow human being in need. They saw an entanglement to be avoided, and unexpected expense, a burden. Their own pursuits were more important than the life of the beaten traveler. They didn’t have time. They didn’t care.

Jesus made his hero a Samaritan to drive home that the love he is talking about transcends racial and social barriers. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews as half-breeds who had compromised their faith and married Gentiles. If anyone had reason to not help the man who had been robbed and beaten, it was the Samaritan. But he did not see a hated Jew bleeding by the roadside. He saw a human being. He didn’t have to like him. He didn’t have to be friends with him. He didn’t have to keep in touch after the man recovered. He just had to help him when he needed help.

The New Testament writers assumed that those they were writing to were adult enough to care for themselves. That is why there are no admonishments to love yourself. Reasonably healthy people take care of themselves. They feed and clothe themselves and take showers and go to work and earn their own living. It doesn’t mean that they like themselves or don’t feel ashamed or guilty. It doesn’t mean that they have high self-esteem or self-confidence. The love they have for themselves expresses itself in care for themselves. It is that kind of love that Jesus urges his followers to have for their neighbors, a willingness to help when help is needed, a willingness to bear someone else’s burden for a while. Love is care.

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