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Theology and its limitations: Part two

Getting too analytical and taking everything apart for examination can cause us to lose perspective. I’ve had wonderful friendships with Reformed Presbyterians as well as Free Will Baptists. Having hung out with both camps, I know that in reality they agree on much more than they disagree about, and I have learned much from their own peculiar doctrines, even if they do have different ideas about what election, predestination, and perseverance mean.

On one hand, Reformed thinking taken to its extremes casts God as some sort of dictator who picks and chooses who goes to hell, and he pretty much micromanages all the goings on in this crazy world, both good and bad. On the other hand, when we take Arminianism (that’s the fancy word for the free-will side of the issue) and really run with it, we can make God seem impotent, hamstrung by man’s feebleness, and our own salvation can be a rather tentative arrangement.

Now, the theologians out there will argue that I’m oversimplifying their concepts, which I deliberately am just to make a point, or that I am completely misunderstanding them, or that I’m simply an idiot. Perhaps I am an idiot, but I am God’s idiot, and I have delved into various theologies pretty extensively. On points where they are polarized against one another, opposing camps have their Bible verses lined up, and they have their explanations for what they believe.

I choose to cling to what is precious and plain and simply let God keep some of the details to Himself. The Apostle Paul wrote down many of the very ideas all these divergent theologians use for their doctrines, but even he knew that he didn’t have everything sized up completely by exclaiming in Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable are His ways!”

While I may sound like a mush-headed mystic, I want you to know that I’m not at all against theology. We all need some of it, to be sure. Certain truths must be taught, guarded closely, and defended passionately, but beyond these nearly universal basics of the faith held by most Christians, their apparently divergent theologies are mere lenses through which we may view reality.

We can certainly glean insights from many different theological constructs, but like any lens by which we view truth, each has its limits. I can use a microscope to see strange organisms swimming in my spit on a glass slide, or I can use binoculars to spot a deer I wouldn’t otherwise notice in a grove of trees, or I can use a telescope to view Saturn’s rings, but these tools can’t be used interchangeably, and they don’t help me one bit if I’m trying to tell my wife how her makeup looks before we go out on a date. Sometimes it’s simply best to use what God has given directly–His written Word and His Holy Spirit–and leave everything else alone.

Granted, the Bible can be hard to understand, and the Holy Spirit, or rather our perception of His work, is rather subjective, and that is where the theology guys start arguing their worth. Still, I can’t escape the fact that I’ve known and loved people with rather diverse theologies who all loved and served God well, nor can I escape the conviction that no single theological approach can answer all our questions. Much, we simply must leave to God.

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People are put off by the Bible

People often read the Bible and are put off, primarily because they expect the book to be something it’s not. Folks want inspiration, comfort, or self-improvement, but they fail to realize that above all else, the Bible is a book about relationships and reality.

Some readers get quite distressed when they find that some men of God had multiple wives and still slept with people other than those women. Supposedly godly people arranged murders, raised rebellious children, killed multitudes in acts of war, owned slaves, constructed elaborate lies, engaged in deliberate acts of deception, and generally acted in less than exemplary ways. These biblical figures aren’t intended to be examples, at least not of perfection or godliness. They are, however, flesh and blood portraits of people caught up in life; sometimes they were walking closely with God, and sometimes they weren’t.

Christians like to say that the Word of God is perfect, and it does perfectly reveal man’s imperfections. There are honest psalms where, besides offering praise to God, the speaker seems to crave vengeance or arrogantly compare himself to other people, and one even blesses those who bash the babies of the psalmist’s enemies against rocks (Psalm 137:9).

Does all this really demonstrate God’s perfection? Jesus Himself said at least a portion of God’s perfect word reflected not so much His perfection as man’s lack thereof when he told the Pharisees that part of the laws concerning divorce were written because of man’s “hardness of heart” and not because of God’s perfect will, which always has been for one man and woman to cleave to one another (Matthew 19:7-9).

I Corinthians 13:9 indicates, “We know in part and prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, they will be done away.” Some of my non-Charismatic friends interpret this to mean that when the Bible was assembled, we no longer needed certain gifts like tongues and prophecy, but I beg to differ with them. The “perfect” refers not to the Bible, but to Christ Himself. A few verses later, Paul, writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit, wrote, “Now we see in a mirror, but then face to face; now I know in part, then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known” (13:12).

At some point, we will see Jesus face to face, and when that day comes, we will have full knowledge. Until that time, we have a collection of writings inspired by God’s own Spirit that can be misinterpreted, mistranslated, and used in deceitful ways, but that doesn’t invalidate them in the least. For thousands of years, God’s people have used these written words as a standard against which they can measure their thoughts and experiences, and we do well to consider these writings as nothing less than completely relevant.

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Bible reading keeps me on track

I’ve read the entire Bible one or more times in the following versions: King James, New American Standard, Living Bible, The Message, The Way, Contemporary English Version, New International Version and the English Standard Version. Additionally, I have read the entire New Testament scores or maybe hundreds of times in an even greater number of translations and paraphrases, and the same is true for Psalms and Proverbs. I don’t say any of this to brag, but rather to give some hope and perspective.

First of all, a little Bible reading a day really adds up. There have been times when I’ve sat for long periods with a Bible in front of me, but mostly I read just a chapter or two, sometimes in more than one session each day. In truth, it’s usually better not to read very much, but rather to read a little as deeply as possible.

If we cover too much too fast, we don’t really understand what’s there. I remember once reading Philippians 4:4-20 over and over for about a week because I felt there was much in those verses that I needed to absorb, embody, and live out. I’m sure that I still have much to learn from that small section of the Bible, but eventually I moved on and found other passages to ponder, pray about, and incorporate into my life.

Secondly, and most importantly, I’m sure all that Bible reading has kept me pretty much on the right road for all these years. It has saved me from making horrible mistakes, given me the insight to do things right, and it has helped keep me in the faith when many of my contemporaries have strayed.

Even though I’ve spent much of my life as an English teacher, and I’m a real book guy, I’m convinced that the Bible is the only book everyone needs to read. Sure, works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner and all those others teachers have badgered kids about can be profitable, but the only thing all of us really need is the Bible.

Too often people read little devotionals or other Christian books that have some nice thoughts with a little Scripture and neglect the Bible itself. It is the most influential book in the history of world, so a thinking person should know what it says, and a serious seeker of God should read it widely. That means we should read whole books of the Bible, the entire New Testament, and eventually the Old Testament with all its strange stories, lists of dead people, obscure laws, and seemingly repetitious prophecies.

We should also read it deeply, focusing within those pages on verses and small sections while really thinking, praying, and listening to the Holy Spirit, so we can know what those words really mean. If we don’t do this for ourselves, others may try to do it for us, and that isn’t always a good thing.

I’m convinced that reading the Bible for myself and seeking to know its wisdom has protected me from cultists knocking on my door, charlatans and lunatics on television, good friends parroting various deceptions, and well-intentioned church leaders who simply didn’t know what they were talking about.

Oh, and best of all, the Bible has delivered me from my own ignorance and deception. When you get right down to it, we don’t really need others to lead us astray. We do a good enough job of it on our own.

Adapted from Keeping It Between the Ditches

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Sin, Slavery, and Freedom

People talk about the freedom that is found in Christ, and like many spiritual truths presented in America, this freedom is too often seen as something granted instantaneously. Usually, it isn’t. Jesus said that if we “abide in His Word,” and that’s a process, we will “know the truth and the truth will make us free” (John 8:31-32). Some of this freedom is an objective present fact. In Christ, we are already free from the penalty of sin and have the liberty to know God.

The greater reality of this freedom grows as we know more and more of Him and His ways, but ultimately, this freedom will only be realized fully in the life to come. The freedom addressed in Scripture is freedom from sin, not freedom to do whatever we want, which is really another form of bondage.

For centuries, oppressors have used the Bible to justify human slavery. I’ve looked myself, and I don’t think this is the case. The Bible does not condone any institution of slavery, but rather simply recognizes that people are enslaved at various levels. Some of us are literally slaves owned like property by others, others are slaves to bosses and jobs, and many are slaves to their own self-centeredness. In essence, we are all slaves.

Paul put it in perspective when he stated, “He who was called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freeman; likewise he who was called while free is the Lord’s slave” (I Corinthians 7:22). The spiritual realm is our great equalizer.

As Bob Dylan sang, “It might be the devil or it might be the Lord, but you’re gonna’ have to serve somebody.” We have a choice to make, and unless we are slaves of Christ, we will have a harsh taskmaster, regardless of our station in this earthly life.

Adapted from Keeping It Between the Ditches

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Fighting sin

Those who have been cleansed by the shed blood of Christ and have His Spirit within them still struggle with sin. Some Christians will battle certain sins’ temptations all of their lives, and there may even be a genetic link to such orientations, but we all have inherited an essentially fallen nature, and most of us will feel like we are perhaps fighting against our own selves at least during various seasons of our pilgrimages toward a deeper relationship with God.

Undaunted, we must “fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience” (I Timothy 1:18-19). We need to resist sin so that we don’t wreck our faith, at which time our relationship with Christ ceases to be an experiential reality. Sin and faith are at odds with one another; each dilutes and weakens the other. On the night of his betrayal, Jesus knew Peter would deny Him. His behavior was not in question, but the result of it was, so Jesus also prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail him (Luke 22:31-34).

Whatever is sin should be avoided, never embraced. As we do this, our perceptions of sin become keener, and our conscience becomes stronger. When this takes place, we may realize that some of our prohibitions are nothing more than religious hang-ups, and we find ourselves putting aside groundless rules and moving in more freedom (Romans 14). More commonly, that which we were once doing without remorse becomes troubling to us, and if we are wise, we will respond by “putting aside our sin and the weights that so easily entangle us” (Hebrews 12:1).

Sin wreaks havoc with our conscience. Once that happens, there are only two ways to go. Repent and turn from that sin–even it it’s the thousandth time, turn to God and be cleansed, and walk like Christ walked, or else we can excuse ourselves and walk on our own.

Everything we do is either drawing us closer to God or taking us farther away. Likewise, our actions are either drawing people to Christ, or the opposite is true.

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If Jesus forgives, why not sin?

I used to carpool with a good churchgoing man, and he told me his wife asked a question in Sunday school that floored the teacher. She asked if all this was true about Jesus making us righteous, then why bother doing right things at all?

This woman only asked what many think, and what many actually live. A better question might have been, “Why do so many claim to be Christians, but their lives don’t seem much different from anyone else’s?”

Even though our deeds may not give us right standing with God, our justification with Him ought to produce righteous lives. The Apostle James wrote, “Faith without works is dead” (2:17).

If we truly have faith in Christ, we should want to do the things that please Him. Real faith must produce a new life. We cannot truly encounter one like Jesus and simply continue on our way unchanged.

The Apostle John wrote that those who are born of God “practice righteousness” and are unable to practice sin (I John 3:9), or that’s how the New American Standard translates the verse. Some English versions simply read that “no one who is born of God sins,” but that doesn’t seem to make as much sense because everyone sins, and we can come to the same conclusion as my carpool buddy’s wife: What’s the difference whether we sin or not?

The difference is that no one who has truly come to know Christ can be a good sinner anymore. We cannot abide in Christ and sin (I John 3:6), and knowing Jesus simply ruins us for wickedness. It gets harder and harder for us to deliberately pursue what we know to be sin.

That’s not to say we don’t lapse and fall short, for even James the hardnosed apostle admitted, “We all stumble in many ways” (3:2). But we Christians are always falling face down, Christ-ward, asking forgiveness, brushing ourselves off, and moving on in God’s will.

Sinners are running their own show, and while sin eventually catches up with them, they are often the last to admit they’ve done anything wrong.

Faith and sin are like the two sides of an American coin. On one side is the motto “In God We Trust.” We’ll call that faith. On the other side is a Latin motto, and, nothing against Latin, but we’ll call that sin. One side or another is going to be up; it’s never both at the same time.

Paul wrote that “whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23), and this is sin’s biggest danger: it replaces faith, and only those who walk in faith can know God and please Him.

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Following Christ in the same way we received Him

The Book of Colossians states, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (2:6). When I first came to Jesus, I realized I was sinner without a way of making myself right. Even now, nothing much has changed. Sure, I have lived a generally good and decent life. I’ve been married over three decades to the same woman and haven’t cheated on her. I’ve raised my kids to love God, and I’ve worked honestly for my pay.

Despite all these good things, I can’t lay claim to any real righteousness before God. When I look just a bit too long at a woman who is not my wife, I have sinned. Jesus calls that committing adultery in my heart. When I am angry at the guy who cuts me off in traffic and call him an idiot, I am similarly guilty of murder (Matthew 5:21-28).

I’m not saying that every sin is equal with the flippancy I’ve heard some Christians demonstrate. There are certainly levels of sin with differing results.

Actual acts of adultery and murder certainly bear more serious consequences than my internal sins. I won’t contract any venereal diseases from adultery in my heart, and, at least in the short term, I haven’t torn apart my marriage and family or anyone else’s. (However, Jesus made it clear that adultery does indeed start with this heart sin, so we better not dally with anything like lust. Thoughts usually precede the actions that result in disaster. )

Cursing a fellow commuter from the privacy of my own car won’t land me in jail or leave anyone a widow or orphan, but when it comes to my right standing with God, any act of sin is an affront to His Holiness.

The Bible indicates that even my righteous deeds are like filth before the Lord (Isaiah 64:6), so as far as my acceptance with God goes, I can never look to my own conduct for any sort of merit. I must only trust in the sacrifice Jesus made for me and be assured that His righteousness, and not my own, is more than enough.

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Misery and our choices in the matter

The pat Christian answer as to why we face misery in this life is that sin is to blame. We are all born into it, ever since Adam and Eve. Now, those two had a great life in the Garden of Eden. Naked and unashamed, they had good work to do that was satisfying and not terribly exerting. Naming animals and looking after a garden that pretty much watered itself sounds pretty good to me. God even showed up regularly, putting aside his terrifying awesomeness and taking on human form to walk and talk with them, so the Garden of Eden days were about as good as life could get.

God didn’t make humans because He was bored or lonely. The good qualities we see in people, He possesses in infinite measure. His love and generosity make life with Him a possibility, and God doesn’t need us because He has perfect fellowship with Himself. CS Lewis likened the Holy Trinity to a dance that we are invited to join. Adam and Eve were part of this dance, sharing fellowship with God Himself and enjoying the blessings He had so abundantly chosen to bestow on them.

Without a choice, though, there is no real love. God could have done anything He wanted, but He chose to share Himself with humans. If loving God were the only option available to us, it wouldn’t be love at all, so Adam and Eve were given the ability to choose something other than Him, and they had the audacity to do the one thing God told them not to do.

They could do pretty much what they wanted, except eat fruit from one tree, but that’s just what they did. Afterwards, they covered themselves up with fig leaves, in essence hiding from one another, and then they tried to hide from God Himself, which never works. He knows all our secret places and won’t leave us alone.

I believe in inherited sin, which means we are all born sinners because of what Adam and Eve did in that garden. You can say what you want about the innocence of babies, but I was amazed at how strong-willed and defiant my infant children could be, twitching and fighting against me when all I wanted to do was change their nasty, stinking diapers. (Don’t we act that way with God, too? He’s trying to break in and clean us up, but we would rather sit in the crap of our own misspent lives.)

Even if I didn’t believe in inherited sin, I’d still have to say we’re all guilty because we all have had our little garden of relative innocence way back when we were kids, and at some point—usually at a surprisingly tender age—we do one thing we know is wrong, follow up with other actions we know to be morally incorrect, and then we cover ourselves with our own feeble fig leaves of self-justification, or we blame-shift like Adam, who insinuated that God was responsible for giving him a wife who tempted him, and then his wife blamed the serpent. The serpent offered no defense and slithered off, at least for a while.

Fortunately, God is always seeking us out and exposing our misguided attempts to justify ourselves, so He can generously redeem us. I finally let God clothe me in His righteousness, way back on the day of my conversion, but then I had to stake out a life far from Eden, just like the rest of us.

Adapted from Keeping It Between the Ditches

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Life, faith, and the theological implications of desk top graffiti

When I was a young Christian, I worked at a job I absolutely hated, which was selling shoes. My loathing of this occupation was so intense that even the days I was off work were poisoned by the fact that I had to deal with shoes, feet, and the people attached to them.

At that time my church met in a high school, and an old man greeted everyone at the door. Once, he grabbed my hand, pumped it, and said in an obnoxiously buoyant way, “This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Even though I knew he was quoting the Bible, I found his little greeting and exhortation irritating. As I walked away, I thought, “It’s easy for you to be happy. You’re retired!”

All through the church service, I tried to worship, but I was so discontent and morose that I hung around afterwards for some serious counseling. Our pastors were involved in various classrooms, greeting newcomers, praying for sick folks, and doing other pastoral duties, and I was in the hall waiting for one of them to break loose so I could discuss my extreme vocational displeasure.

While impatiently standing around, I noticed that school furniture was stored in one locked room, and the chairs and desks were stacked up right next to the door. Through the little window, I noticed on old wooden desk, covered with graffiti. Among all the cuss words, professions of love, and various names, someone had scratched a Bible reference: PS 118:24. I looked it up in my Bible, just to pass the time, and to my amazement, it was the exact verse the old man had quoted at the door.

Deciding that God was trying to get my attention, I walked out and didn’t see a pastor about my self-obsessed problems. As I recall, I went for a long hike in the woods, did a lot of praying and listening to God, and finally got my mind right.

Since then, I’ve wondered about all the theological implications of this incident. Did God preordain and direct a Christian to commit an act of vandalism for my benefit? Or was it an evil and misdirected act of zeal that God simply used to bring about good? Does He engineer every little action and event, moving us around like celestial chess pieces, or does he give us borders and boundaries and free will and then let us pretty much run the show?

Various Christian theologies provide their answers, but none of them completely satisfies me.

I’m not sure how or why God does what He does, but ruling creation is not my job anyway. Down here where I actually live, I’ve been trying to love and obey Him, rejoice, and be thankful, but I’m not always successful.

There was once a beer advertisement that proclaimed, “Some days are better than others.” This is true, and some days drive me to anything but joy and gratefulness. That’s really my problem and nobody else’s because each day is an opportunity to serve God, love others, and rejoice, despite our circumstances.

Even in the worst of times, there are glimpses of grace, and whatever comes my way is better than what I actually deserve. After all, I am a sinner, and apart from the tender mercies of Christ, hell is my only entitlement.

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We were married in a 7-11 parking lot

More than three decades ago, my wife and I were wed in front of a convenience store. The decision to do so was practical: our church met in a school, and getting married in a gym or cafeteria wasn’t our idea of a dream wedding.

My parents came to the rescue and made it possible to use the church building I had grown up in. Unfortunately, our pastor wasn’t licensed in Washington, D.C. where the church was located, and making him “legal” would have been a bureaucratic hassle.

The solution was quite simple. On the evening of our wedding rehearsal, we simply went out the church doors, crossed Eastern Avenue, and improvised some vows for the pastor on the first piece of Maryland real estate we came to, the 7-11 parking lot.

The maid of honor and best man, my brother, witnessed it all, and a snapshot commemorates the event. In it, we are all smiling with the 7-11 sign in the background while my brother is holding a Slurpee and a Marlboro cigarette.

That night my bride and I went to separate beds in different residences. The 7-11 was good enough for the government, but God deserved better, and we held to a notion some find rather quaint and outdated, that sex is reserved for a man and woman after making life-long promises before the Maker of the Universe.

The next day my wife and I celebrated a church wedding with vows we had written ourselves, and there was some inspired preaching and lots of good music. Some guys from our church used guitars, electric bass, keyboards, and drums to create instrumentals prior to the service that could best be described as jazz-rock, a classical guitarist provided the processional, worship choruses were played and sung, and a couple of friends shared special songs.

My buddy, who looked a lot like a young Sammy Davis Jr without a glass eye, offered a fine gospel rendition of “You Are Everything to Me,” which my bride and I selected because the song was about Jesus, not us.

The service was very beautiful, and that night, my wife and I consummated our marriage, as they used to say before people reversed the order, like is so often the case now. You know, have sex, live together, maybe even bring a child into the world, and then get married. Or not. Whatever makes you happy.

So much has changed in thirty-one years. A couple of summers after the wedding, my buddy who sang the gospel song came out as gay and left the church.

Not long after that, my wife and I moved from the area, but he did visit us once. We have a photograph of him smiling and holding our infant daughter, but now she’s grown up and married, and my buddy and I drifted far apart as friends too often do.

I have no idea where he is, but I hope he’s well, and it would be great to get together. There is so much we could talk about.

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