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All Things are Yours

"… whether Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life, death, the present, or the future— all things are yours, but you are Christ's…" (I Cor 3)

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Spiritual Life

Evangelism and Genuinely Liking People

Forget apologetics.   Forget signs and wonders.   If you really want to excel at evangelism, there is one golden key worth more than all the others – LIKE the people you are reaching out to with Jesus.   Since we often get really messed up with doublespeak when we talk about what it means to “love”, I’d like to submit that the real issue is whether or not we LIKE “them.”   In general*, we can’t bring people to Jesus that we don’t like.

What is evangelism, first of all?

A student of Greek will quickly explain that evangelism involves sharing good news, being an ambassador, etc etc.   And that’s all good and true.  Evangelism is part of our kingdom role of being priests and kings.   Malachi talks about one of the jobs of a priest:

“True instruction was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. 7“For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.”  (Malachi 2:6-7)

Sharing the knowledge of God both with believers and nonbelievers is incredibly important and is our honored role in the Kingdom.   I’ve heard people often quote, St. Francis in saying, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.”  But the reality is that words will always be necessary.   We are to help people UNDERSTAND things about God, and share knowledge.

BUT –  if our view of evangelism is just about TELLING people something, shoving a sign or a track or a well-rehearsed message at someone, I don’t think we’re going to get very far with real humans with that approach.   At least, I never saw much come of my own efforts at evangelism when I approached people with that mindset.  Evangelicalism for a long time has I think based much of its lifeless attempts at sharing the good news with people on a misapplication of one verse:

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”Isaiah 55:11

Screenshot 2017-05-23 at 11.44.25 AMThis verse is often used to justify completely violating or at completely impersonal attempts at sharing Christ with people.   Under this mindset, all that matters is making people hear words.   It doesn’t matter if the message comes to them in any real understandable form, or if it has any personal connection to them… simply shouting at them is good enough, for God will make any words we shove at them “not return void.”   Though an explanation of why that’s a bad way to read that verse is well beyond the scope of this blog post, that’s not what this verse meant when it was written, and I don’t think its what it means for us today.

LEARNING A DIFFERENT WAY

My relationship with being an emissary of the gospel really started to change a few decades back when I stopped trying to be a “good witness”  (which is evangelicalism-speak for “hiding all your sins and faults from nonbelievers in order to supposedly attract them with the perfection of your life now that you are a believer in Jesus”) and instead let a non-Christian friend see me “for real,” as I shared with him the depths of the depression I was in, as well as my intense struggles with God at that time.   When he suddenly up and decided that Christ was real and he wanted in on the Kingdom when I was contemplating how best to hurt myself, I started realizing that my first “convert” was teaching me something about how Christ makes Himself known to people – and it wasn’t by me being fake and seemingly having it all together in front of non-believers.

I also started learning that it wasn’t about shoving impersonal sentences at people that supposedly were “the Word of God that won’t return void” to them.   Some wise person shared with me that every person in existence is already in a relationship with God, and that He has been dancing with them their entire lives, carefully cultivating a conversation with them.   I started to understand that my job as an evangelist was not to plod on into that conversation like a bull in a China shop, but to respect it – and to learn to peer into how God has already been engaging with that person, and that person with God – and to enter appropriately into THAT conversation.   children-1426769_640Just as the Holy Spirit is one who “comes alongside and helps” I started to see my job as a colaborer with Christ by the Holy Spirit, agreeing with the Holy Spirit in coming alongside a person being drawn to Christ, rather than coming at them.  Good evangelism is midwifery, and while some babies are born on their own, much of the time someone helps the baby along.

But how does one come “alongside” the process, already in progress, of the Father drawing someone to His Son Jesus?  This is where I would say that there is no replacement for GENUINELY LIKING the people one is trying to reach.

Liking People is the Opposite of Alienating Them

It’s almost too obvious to write about, but people don’t generally want to hear what someone has to say when they sense hostility coming at them from the speaker.  Instead, most humans put up walls, and get defensive.   This is why standing on a street corner holding a sign and shouting, “The end is near!  Repent or burn!” is probably one of the worst images that our society has of Christians…and of evangelism.   It would take an extraordinarily humble person to want to subject themselves to learning from someone who approaches them full of condemnation and hostility.

wall-1436752_640But an even more subtle form of hostility that Christians present to nonbelievers comes from an “us/them” perspective.  If we walk into a relationship with an us/them mindset means it we carry a type of “alienation” to the relationship with nonbelievers before we’ve even started.  It puts a wall up between oneself and one’s target or uh, “victim” because us/them is a form of alienation already in play.  Most of us have experienced this: when you have an “us/them” perspective in your approach to someone, they will feel like a project to you – and the person will eventually sense they are a project in the evangelist’s eyes as well.    If you manage to convince the person that being a project is ideal, and a spiritual thing, then you might be able to bring them to the point of becoming your disciple where the project mentality can continue even past the point of their conversion.   But generally people feel a bit creeped out at being someone’s project.

Incarnation

Ideally, evangelism should be “incarnational.”    Incarnational has at times been a Christian buzzword, but it’s a good one.   It means that neither of these two above things are in play – there is no hostility, and there is no us/them mentality.   “Incarnational” describes what God did when He put on human flesh and became one of us.   It sparkles; there is a closeness about it, a warmth where the one who is incarnated is identifiable and now as one of those he or she has now become.  They are tangible and relatable as “one of us” now to the culture they have stepped into.  In fact, we don’t just share a message, we become the message, as the apostle Paul wrote:

“It is clear that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…”  2 Cor 3:3

In order to BE the letter, we need to be able to be known, to be seen.   This is true even with all our messiness; the point is that as we relate to God and He relates to us, our history with Him marks us and writes something into our souls.   And this is available for those we walk with to read.  This is Christ incarnated into us, even as we are incarnated into someone else’s world.

Screenshot 2017-05-23 at 12.03.50 PMBut uniquely, all the gifts and beauty of the realm from which the incarnated one has come are brought into the realm of the society and reality in which she or he is now involved…and those gifts are offered for the taking in a very personal, connected way.   Someone who is incarnated brings their pre-incarnated identity into their incarnation.   But incarnation is a position “in the middle” of where they are coming from and what they are stepping into; for the person who has been incarnated takes on the identity of the people he or she steps into to become, as well as the flavor, the struggles, the atmosphere and rhythm and likeness of them as well.

INCARNATION SETS US UP FOR CONNECTED SYMPATHY

As all of humanity was made in God’s image, it was because He wrote, as it were, a prophecy in human flesh of Himself which was waiting for fulfillment: we were made in His image, so that at the right time, He could come to us in our own image.    And thus He did.  And there were many reasons for this, many specific benefits and necessities, one of which was so He would know what is like to be us….so that He could fully relate to who we are and what we go through.

The writer of Hebrews captures this in Hebrews 4:15 –
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin.”

And this is INTENSELY important.   It brings us back to my opening point about LIKING those we want to reach.   For too many years the type of Christianity I was in treated Christians as “real” people while nonbelievers weren’t worth really knowing or being friends with.   They were simply objects to be captured.   But as I kept trying to keep in step with the Spirit and how He was moving in someone’s heart and life, I found those people becoming real to me in a way that makes me now ashamed to admit how I treated people as evangelistic objects.   When we like someone, we get to see them as a real person, valuable and truly worth being connected to, and having real friendship with.   And we find ways to sympathize with what they are going through.   If we can’t sympathize with the things keeping someone from seeing Christ clearly, we’re not going to reach them very easily.   Examples:

ATHEISTS

flat-earth-1054350_640
There was a time when “the four corners of the Earth” was taken literally by the church (in fact, some people still take it literally.)

I love to reach agnostics and atheists.  Why?   Because I genuinely ENJOY atheists and agnostics.   I tend to think of atheists as one of God’s gifts to the church.   When the church tries to make theology that is inhumane, or nonsensical, sometimes it takes a bunch of atheists to bring us to our senses.   This doesn’t mean that every criticism or critique a nonbeliever makes will turn out to be valid.   But I love the fact that these guys challenge us when we get too lost in the clouds with stuff that just doesn’t make sense.

I also can relate really well to these folks because I know what it is like to be unable to believe in something, even when I wanted to.  My own testimony involved coming from a place of unbelief, struggling really hard to find out if there was “anything out there” and having a really hard time taking a leap of faith to find out.   Some Christians would never believe how many atheists and agnostics have told me they really WISH they could believe in something – or that if “Someone” were there, they really wish they could know that.  And especially for those folks, I get it.

And when I hear people bash atheists as if they are somehow deliberately in rebellion against God, that there is something ugly and hateful about someone honest enough about their doubts as to say, “I don’t know if God is real” or, “I’m pretty sure he isn’t there”, it really upsets me.   I would rush to most atheists defense in a moment, because many of them are intensely truth-hungry people that I just want to help them find how to truly find Him, and the army of rancorous Christians shouting at them about how horrid they supposedly are sure doesn’t help.

Screenshot 2017-05-23 at 11.15.48 AMYou’re not going to win an atheist or agnostic to Christ by telling them that God doesn’t care about how they try to be a moral person; they were never being moral for the sake of God anyway.   You’re not going to draw them in by telling them by telling them that without God they have no basis for ethics or morality, because they know you’re wrong.  Quoting at them from a completely different context out of the book of psalms the verse, “The fool says in his heart there is no God,” just affirms to them that you hate them, that you call them a fool, and you’re quoting at them from a book they can’t relate to anyway. Again, all you’re doing is putting up that wall of alienation and hostility for them that Christ died to take down.   And that is the opposite of the incarnation.  And besides, Jesus gave dire warnings about calling someone a fool.

We can win atheists and agnostics to Christ by putting ourselves in their shoes, being honest with ourselves about our own doubts and difficulties at times walking in faith.   We empathize with them by being a real friend and letting them see our real struggles – and victories – with Christ.   We sympathize with them by walking with them through their questions about God, being honest about not having all the answers for them, while appreciating these people for who they are and what they bring into our lives, and how God is using them before they even know Him.    We show Him to them by just being who you are in a real way, talking about Him and His truth in authentic contextual ways that are real to our lives, and giving them all the room in the world to do the same – knowing that a real God is lighting the way forward for you and them together to figure it out.

MUSLIMS
quran-1719546_640One of the surest ways NOT to draw Muslims to Christ is to have all sorts of ideas about them.   I continually run across evangelicals that think they’ve got the “Muslim thing” figured out because they’ve learned about a half dozen ugly statements from the Koran about hating infidels or something.  They also tend to approach those verses in the Koran the way Christians approach their own Bibles – not realizing that Muslims may have their own reasons for approaching those texts differently (just as Christians have their own reasons for approaching Deuteronomy differently than nonbelievers often assume they do.)   But none of that really is the point anyway – you can’t learn a culture just by studying some of its documents ; you learn a culture by hanging out with people.

You can read the Koran from cover to cover 1000 times and still understand next to nothing about muslims, because to some degree, it doesn’t matter what a holy book says – it matters how the people who believe in it interpret it and live it out (or don’t live it out.)  There are many, many cultural things that affect how any particular Muslim will view themselves as a Muslim, and view the teachings of the Koran.  There are various nationalities, various sects in those nationalities, various levels of commitment, various understandings of how to interpret the Koran, and there is folk Islam with its own sets of beliefs.   There are militant Muslims, there are devout yet peaceful Muslims, there are disinterested Muslims and disaffected Muslims.   And just as there are many different cultures of Christians (nominal Catholics, Bible banging Baptists, serious Catholics, liberal Baptists) there are many many different categories, movements, and personalities of Muslims.

But no matter what, one can’t LIKE a Muslim without hanging out with him or her and really getting to know them.  As long as Christians regard Muslims as “the enemy” rather than approaching them as their next best friend, one will never have the privilege of getting to be part of their Islamic friends’ exploration of their own prophet, Isa (Jesus).

kid-1077793_640But this requires learning to LIKE Muslims.   I have found that practicing Muslims are inspiring in their adoration and love for God.  Their reverence and awe for Him are beautiful, the way they seek to involve Allah (and even Christian Arabs call God, Allah) in everyday life puts many Christians to shame.   One thing that seems to be fairly universal however is the importance placed on hospitality; if you can let yourself be invited in, the value of hospitality in this culture in many cases completely transcends any anti-Christian sentiment you might fear your Muslim friend might hold towards you.   Muslims tend to value their guests very highly, and its a great way to get to know them and learn all the things there are to like about them.

And as far as sympathizing goes; I know what it is like to have a works’ mindset in approaching God, and I think many Christians have at some point in their relationship with God a similar experience from which to relate to Muslim religious experience.   Instead of judging devout Muslims for approaching God with a works mindset, I find myself being reminded of how I’ve struggled with the same thing, both before and after knowing Christ.   And many Muslims are not necessarily even approaching God that way either – it’s important to get to know what is actually going on in the lives of one’s friends.

On the flip side, I’ve met young Muslims so in rebellion against the teaching of their parents that they were taking steps with their lives that the God who cares for them would not want them to take.   Sometimes sharing my own sins and stupid decisions and how “Allah knows best” (Allah is just the Arabic word for God) is the best way I know how to help a Muslim-culture friend care about knowing God – and Jesus – when everything about God seems irrelevant to them.

WHOEVER IT IS, LIKE THEM

The main point is, we will be most effective with the people we like enough to truly relate to them, and probably be completely ineffective with people who we are only sharing Christ with as some sort of a duty, or some sort of niche on our Christian-y belts.   I’m also not writing this to give folks an excuse to shrug off reaching out to people they don’t LIKE or don’t GET.     But instead, I’m writing this as an encouragement and a challenge to the church to stop making ourselves “feel good” by how we can look down on those “foolish, God-hating Atheists”, or those “evil satanic Muslims.”

Joshua and Caleb set themselves apart from the other men who “spied out the land” of Canaan because they liked the land they saw, and they thought it was a good land that God was ready to give them.   The other spies looked at the land as being too full of strongholds for their trouble.   Likewise, do we approach people like they are cherished and beloved by God, and that the things keeping them from Christ are not that big of a deal?  Do we find them delightful and enjoyable and know they are a hair’s breadth away from the Kingdom, and that God is near them?  Or do we put up walls of fear and hostility that just don’t need to be there, which alienate us from them and them from us, ultimately cutting us off from our inheritance and the blessing of walking in Kingdom relationship with them?

We’re called like Jesus to love and serve people, and one of the biggest differences from serving someone from a place of superiority verses authentic incarnationality comes down to one thing: Do we authentically like them?  If not, I do think it’s worth asking God to show us how.

 

* Footnote from first paragraph:   I say, “in general” because, heck, God can do anything and when God is really moving in someone’s life, they may not need much human involvement at all – whether you or I hate them or like them may be completely immaterial.   But in most cases, we’re talking about the actual action of evangelism here, where we are the tour guides taking someone by the hand and showing them all the sights along the way and leading up to an encounter with the cross and the resurrected Christ.)

 

 

What Does it Mean to be “In the Image of God?”

When the topic of evolution and the Bible is brought up, one of the many concerns people have is how that fits with humans being “in the image of God.”   But before we can go there, we have to address the underlying question:  What does it mean to be “in the image of God” anyway?

For years and years and in different movements and corners of the body of Christ, I have heard this question asked and answered in many different ways.   Let’s look at some of the ideas I have heard, and then I’ll share what I believe Genesis implies about the topic.

Theory A:  God is three parts, and so are we
In the charismatic church, many leaders and teachers put emphasis on teaching about the Tripartite (three-fold) nature of humans.    This comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:23 where people are refered to as being “Spirit, Soul, and Body” – as well as other scriptures alluding to this metaphysical anatomy.    I also believe humans are tripartite, and I did a whole investigation of the topic here.

So, in many areas of the charismatic church, I have heard it taught that humans being composed of three parts is what it means for us to be “made in the image of God.”

While this three-ness is indeed a similarity between humanity and God, I don’t think it actually is a good identification of what Genesis is implying when it first mentions humans are made in God’s image.   There’s nothing in the immediate context of the passage to suggest three-in-one is the main point of being made in God’s image, nor is there anything about being three-in-one in any other verse about being in the likeness of God in the rest of the Bible.   So to make this the main point of “being made in the image of God” is maybe as a conjecture and musing based on disconnected scriptural ideas, but I’m not sure it’s really the best case in the context of the passages where the actual ideas of “the likeness of God” are presented.   If there were nothing else to go on, I’d say its workable and there’s nothing specifically wrong with it – other than that it tends to overshadow the obvious and immediate meanings which I’ll get to later.

But the other problem with it as the dominant theory on Imago Dei (the image of God) being specifically about being in “three parts” is that this setup is not exclusive to humans.   Animals are also repeatedly referred to in the Bible as being “souls” (although English translations tend to obscure this badly; do a study on the Hebrew word nephesh for more clarity) and obviously they have bodies, and less often (sparsely, but it is there) they are referred to as having spirits.   So if animals are three-part beings too, it might bode well for discussing the implications and validity of evolution in theological circles, but it still doesn’t help arrive at what this unique, “being in the image of God” thing is that is supposed to be a specifically human thing.

Leaving my charismatic brethren, we’ll go to a theory I hear often from mainline and non-charismatic evangelical Christians:

 

Theory B: God is a moral agent, and So Are We

I don’t know what the hangup is …or love affair…that the church has with God and morality, as if the be-all of God and man is morality, but here it shows up again in this theory.   (I’ve written before of how I think it’s an unfortunately bad apologetic to try to “prove” God with the “morality exists, therefore a moral God must exist” line – see here, but this seems another symptom of the same obsession.)  While the entire gospel is about how we fail so desperately in terms of moral righteousness and that grace is the answer to it all, we still hang on to thinking morality is the highest aspect of humanity.  Our obsession with morality is right up there with why we as the church often seem to think the Ten Commandments needs to be displayed on secular government property, but I digress.   From here we tend to go to arguments and discussions about whether or not animals can display true empathy, or morality, with some presenting arguments that actually seem to be “yes” to some degree or another, while others hold out saying those animals don’t quite meet the human standard (obviously, as they are not human.)  But this is probably all very unnecessary.

Surely God is really into fairness and justice, truth, law-giving, and most specifically keeping His own oaths, but you’d be hard pressed to define Him as specifically “moral” by any usual definition of the word (that might be a topic for another day.)  But if you want to use the word “moral” to describe God, you’d have to note that the God of the Old Testament assumes all rights to transcend human morality and stand somewhat over and above it.   At any rate, we’ll save all those moral questions and debates about God for another day but….

Let’s just note that in Genesis, the promise of “knowing good from evil” is not something that Adam and Eve were endowed with as part of being “made in God’s image.”  Instead, the ability to become moral agents was something that another being, other than God, first offered Adam and Eve AFTER they were designed and created.   (Until then, humanity’s only morality was to do as God says and not do as God forbids, rather than figuring out good and evil for themselves.)

Why then, “being able to make moral decisions” would therefore be considered as what it means to be made in the image of God is beyond me, as the very concept seems uncannily like a repetition of the very lie that satan offered to Eve, “You shall be like God, knowing good from evil.”  While perhaps this is a type of “being like God” – it does not seem to have been the specific likeness of Himself that God was aiming for during the creation of humans in Genesis, but rather a similarity to God perhaps that came later as an add-on via the forbidden fruit, after the fact.  At any rate, to view humans as “moral like God”  seems almost like a Deist perspective to me, or perhaps a hangover from the enlightenment period’s humanist view of humankind.

 

Theory C: God has arms and legs and stuff, so, so do we
I’m not sure this theory is worth covering but since I’ve heard and read people arguing for it, it doesn’t hurt I guess to mention it.   Most folks read the Bible and when it speaks of God having hands or nostrils or whatever normally “human” body parts may be ascribed to Him, they see this as anthropomorphism.  But that wouldn’t be everyone’s viewpoint.   Instead, some folks see physical attributes of humans being a reflection of some sort of metaphysical anatomy that God has.  Ok, sure, why not?   I can’t say for sure what “shape” God’s spiritual form takes.  But still, I don’t think this is what Genesis is aiming at when it talks about male and female being made in God’s image. Why not?

(Because in my opinion,)

Genesis actually makes it fairly clear what it means to be “made in God’s image” right in the context of the first mention of the notion.

So here’s theory D:
Being made in God’s image means taking dominion over the Earth.

Ok, I can see why this theory isn’t particularly attractive.   After all, the word “dominion” generally isn’t a very nice sounding word unless you’re playing a first person shooter video game or something.  And that’s just it: the dominion mandate in Genesis has to be one of the most abused concepts in all of Christianity.   Sinful humanity, and particularly religiously sinful humanity, has a way of really messing up anytime it has rights to power.

But that’s what’s there in Genesis:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
Genesis 1:26-28 RSV

God is the ruler of the universe, the head honcho, the one who is greater than all of creation, and he makes humans – to be His representatives on the Earth.   They are the top of the food chain…errr…wait, that’s not what I meant – but they are the leaders of all the animal kingdom and all the created realm, as an echo (or image) of God’s leadership.

Adam is made both high priest and high king in Eden, along with his bride Eve.   Together they are going to rule the galaxy (or small patch of Earth…whatever people knew about at that point in time.)  In short, Adam and Eve are proxies – God’s government on Earth.  (At least pictured so before the “fall.”)

And there are extensions of this.   Jonathan David and Melissa Helser come to mind as they have an entire ministry geared towards releasing the creativity of musicians and artists and basically everyone who will listen – and one of their main points of teaching is that God is Creative, and so humans walking in true creativity is our inheritance as the image-bearers of the Father.   I see this as an extension of the dominion theme – because one of the reasons that God is the one who has dominion is that He created everything one way or another – and so humans being creative therefore the more beautiful form of “taking dominion” in the Earth than that previously mentioned first-person shooter game would conjure up.  Of course, stewardship, kindness, meekness (for these inherit the Earth), these are all Biblical themes about what the responsibility of having “dominion” actually looks like…and of course as the Helsers would remind us, beauty and creativity.

When I told my friends on FB I was writing on this topic, several stepped up to bring forth this very theory, and to also introduce me to the writing of Mike Heiser.   Here follows my friend Eric Weiss’s quote introducing me to Mike (thank you Eric and Mike):

Dr. Michael S. Heiser, Hebrew and ANE scholar for Logos Bible Software, says that the phrase means to be given authority to act as God’s representative. I.e., being made in God’s image meant that mankind was in charge of God’s earth and God’s creation:
“This last example directs us to what the Hebrew preposition translated in means in Genesis 1:26. Humankind was created as God’s image. If we think of imaging as a verb or function, that translation makes sense. We are created to image God, to be his imagers. It is what we are by definition. The image is not an ability we have, but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God.
“This is why Genesis 1:26–27 is followed by what theologians call the “dominion mandate” in verse 28. The verse informs us that God intends us to be him on this planet. We are to create more imagers (“be fruitful and multiply … fill”) in order to oversee the earth by stewarding its resources and harnessing them for the benefit of all human imagers (“subdue … rule over”).”

So why the heck does any of this matter?

Because there is theory E, which I’ll call the “theory of all the theories.”

Theory E:
Jesus is the ultimate “image of God”.

For just as Adam (and Eve) were the image of God which became corrupted, Jesus (and those who ultimately rule with Him as His bride) is the image of God, uncorrupted – in a NEW CREATION.   Just as Jesus said to the Pharisees that Abraham was not their father as they were claiming, because they didn’t ACT like Abraham would have acted, so also we have failed to really be God’s proxies and look and act like Him in this creation.   But there is a new Adam (and Eve) and a new creation, and this one is not corrupted.   This one will see a New Heaven and New Earth ruled over in all the beauty that God ever intended.   And Jesus, as human and new Adam, laid down His life as the ultimate act of selflessness, dominion taking turned on its head in the truest way.

And this, this is ultimately what it means to be in the Image of God.

 

A Democrat Walks into a Church….

My aunt, as long as I’ve known her has always been an extremely liberal Democrat and a staunch atheist.   That is, until a couple who were planting a church in her housing development befriended her and invited her to start attending their church.

At first it seemed like an unprecedented change was happening in my aunt’s life.   I couldn’t believe she had even said yes to the invitation, but somehow going to church became intriguing to her, and from there it was only a few months later that she told me, with daring and nervous tones, that she no longer considered herself an atheist.   She told me wasn’t quite ready to believe in a “personal God” and didn’t yet know what to do with Jesus, but that she had decided that there was “something out there.”   From my theist perspective, having known my aunt my entire life, this was unprecedented progress.   She laughed at herself as she agreed with me at the change in her viewpoint that she had never thought possible.

And she kept going.   Something was drawing her to continue going to this church, even though she told me their Republican-sounding views on Israel she found somewhat annoying to her liberal, secular Jewish sensibilities.   But she found it something she could overlook, and continued fellowshipping with her friends.

Until Trump was elected.   As his magic pen signed executive order after executive order, the leadership of her church rejoiced and extolled that the man they had helped elect was taking what they considered to be such glorious stands for righteous lawmaking.

  My aunt, still reeling with grief about the fact that this man was even in office, was repulsed beyond measure that the leaders of the church she had come to call home had not only helped elect him, but were proclaiming the very executive orders that sickened her and kept her up at night worrying about the future of the world were their pride and joy in the man.  

She quit going to church, and now tells me she has a real ax to grind with Christians for ruining the country.

Another story, if you’ll allow me:
I knew a man named John, he was a brilliant concert pianist who had destroyed his life with drugs and alcohol.   My friend Rob, who was John’s brother, told me that he could barely believe his ears when this brother he had prayed for his entire life suddenly asked him one day on the phone to buy him a Bible.   By some very strange event, John, who was now in his mid-60s, after spending a life carousing and studying all types of philosophies and intellectual pursuits through a drug-induced haze, had met a Korean pastor in a McDonald’s one morning.  Somehow the pastor managed to entice him to come to his church – and John became a regular, going to Bible studies regularly.
John attended this church and incredibly enough, gave his life to Christ.

But then, he started to tell me and Rob that he needed to find a new church.   Apparently the church had started railing against legislation that had been passed allowing homosexual couples to marry; and John, who had dabbled in homosexual relationships in his life and said, “I think it was wrong what I did, and I don’t want to live that way anymore, but I just can’t agree with the way they are talking about people who are gays and lesbians and the way they want to make laws against them.   And it’s not just that: I’m also bothered by the way they keep holding these classes teaching pseudoscience trying to prove evolution isn’t true.”

The “moral” of both these stories:

I think the evangelical church has some serious questions to ask itself…the biggest one being,

“Does someone have to have a Republican view of politics to feel comfortable finding Jesus with you?”

Have we gotten ourselves so confused that we don’t even know the difference between presenting the Bible and the gospel to people and what our derived viewpoints are that are actually just Republican or Democrat?

Are we comfortable in creating a church culture where a political platform and leanings are so married together with what it means to follow Jesus, that if someone wants to find God and Jesus in your church it will be presented to them that they can’t really do that without accepting Republican beliefs too?

I suppose liberal and progressive churches can ask themselves the same question in reverse.  I know many churches where Republicans coming into the church will find themselves inundated with so many leftist ideas of what it means to follow Jesus that they may well walk out of your church before they’ve really had a chance to know much more about Him.   But this is not the norm as much as the conservative version of this, so I aimed this blog post more at my conservative friends and thus I ask:

Do we expect that as soon as someone begins to open their hearts to Jesus and finds His message and work attractive, that they will immediately adopt our church’s version of political leanings?   Have we taken the typical salvation message and added to it our political leanings, thus essentially saying,

“Accept Christ into your heart, and please change your voting registration to Republican or go find other friends to fellowship with?”

(And how soon after ….or even before….accepting Christ are we assuming peoples’ political viewpoints should become the same as ours?)

I fear our emphasis on “politics emanating from our understanding of the Bible” has created a situation where, we’ve conflated teaching people to be Jesus’s disciples with teaching them they have to vote the platform of a particular party, or they may as well leave our churches because we don’t need Christians that think like THAT – that “other party’s” way of thinking.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians against factions and parties in the church.  At that time the issue was parties arising over spiritual leaders in the church, not political ones.   He called such party thinking “carnal” – fleshly, unspiritual.  I don’t think he ever imagined the church would divide up over something even beyond that – earthly politics.

If his answer to that was “all things are yours” – the very name of this blog, in fact, is there something to be said for the idea that both the Republican parties and the Democratic parties in the USA might have ideas on BOTH sides of the fence that the church could see Jesus agreeing with?   Perhaps ALL things really are ours?   (After all, Jesus did ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, not an elephant.  Ok, bad joke…)

That will take some really outside-the-box we’ve created for ourselves thinking.  Until we can go there, let’s not forget that there is something to be said for creating a church culture that has something of this at its heart:

“And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”    (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)

Otherwise, we end up promoting one of the kingdoms of this world – the Republican kingdom (driving away all the Democrats from Jesus and our churches) or the Democrat kingdom (driving away all the Republicans from Jesus and our churches) – not to mention all the independents and Third Party folks among us too.   All of these kingdoms are the kingdom of our God, and His Christ, Jesus – He’s at work in all of them, and owns all of them.   So let’s learn to reflectively listen to the various perspectives represented by people in our society, and make sure the only thing that someone would be sick of if they decide to leave our churches, is Him… not our love affair with some party platform (or our hatred of it either.)

I Lived With My Boyfriend – and it didn’t mean what you think it meant.

A few years back I lost my job, in a traumatic burn-out on the level that caused me to retire permanently from teaching and shake with anxiety and fear every time I even tried to explain the struggles of my career to anyone.   (Actually, I had to quit my job, but the reasons were so compelling that unemployment found in my favor and started paying me for job loss.)   Even though I was on unemployment, I could no longer afford my apartment and in a perfect storm of weird dynamics within a church I had been in that was crumbling, and abusive family dynamics, I found myself faced with two choices: live in a homeless shelter or live with my boyfriend.   My boyfriend and I chose the latter.

Evangelical and others’ viewpoints on the matter:

Among charismatic evangelical Christians (which is my spiritual background) this was absolutely a no-no.   In the Pentecostal world there is a name for this: it’s called, “shacking up.”   Shacking up is denounced loudly in sermons without so much as a Bible verse mentioned as to why it is deemed absolutely hideously unacceptable, but the assumption is that you’re having sex.   And even if you’re not, by living together you’re violating another one of the great, immoral, evangelical rules: “Having the appearance of evil.”  Merely “appearing” evil is as great of an evil to Christians as doing the evil itself.

 

Except to those outside the evangelical community, it doesn’t come across as evil.   Non-Christians, at least the average Western nonbelievers, absolutely don’t care or find anything at all questionable, immoral, or indecent about two unmarried people living with one another, nor even with them having sex.   To them it is not only normal, but wholesome.  So it is not nonbelievers that find the appearance of two people living together to be potentially evil.   It is exclusively Christians for whom the appearances thing is an issue.

The fact is, the Bible verse that Christians often use to say that Christians need to be careful to not “look” like they are doing anything immoral really shouldn’t begin to be understood that way.   That Bible verse isn’t saying, “avoid looking sinful.”  It’s saying, “wherever evil appears, avoid it.”  Click here for a better explanation.

But beyond considerations of what the verse says or doesn’t say, the concern ultimately is a concern about sexual purity between unmarried persons.  Religious cultures however have a long-standing fear of men and women being alone in a home or room together.   Orthodox Judaism has a rule called Yichud which means that any time a man and a woman are alone in a space together, it can be assumed that sex has occurred.   Billy Graham (and now, by extension, Vice President Mike Pence) had a rule that he would never be alone with a woman in any setting, not in his office or out at lunch.    The irony is that religious culture, in its quest to prevent sex, often ends up looking like it is obsessed with sex, albeit preventing it.   And often law triumphs over mercy.

So…I moved in with my boyfriend.   Was it a great idea?  No.

If I had any other option that I could have emotionally handled at the time (moving in with strangers or living in a homeless shelter were not things that I could have handled in the midst of the upheaval of job loss and other things going on.   Call me emotionally weak if you want, because I was…) I would have done so.  If there were friends who would have allowed me to move in with them while I had no money left from my measily unemployment check to pay them for rent, I would have.   Do I recommend after reading this blog post that others go home and move in with their fiance’s or boyfriend/girlfriends?  No.

The choice carries with it all sorts of emotional complications, not to mention bearing total shame in front of one’s faith community, that stigmatizes people who “shack up.”  As our relationship hit the rocks that other couples living together (read, newly married people) would hit, we were without the help and resources of counseling that others trying to share a household in the context of an intimate (emotionally intimate) would have had in our context – because we were not yet married.   It strained us to the point of calling off our wedding plans because we both became unsure of our future together.

But aside from our faith communities, there are others that instantly have the wrong idea when you tell them you are living with a domestic partner, in ways that sometimes make me wonder what century I live in.   As we sat in the secular counselor’s office (since we couldn’t go to faith-based counseling, although some well-intentioned friends were helpful) she asked us about our sex life.   We told her that while we had a very sweet time cuddling, that we did not as yet have a “sex” life as we were both committed to waiting until marriage for sex.   But I learned most people think:

Men’s sex drives are an issue, women’s are considered a non-issue.

She then asked my boyfriend, who had previously told her moments earlier that this was his conviction as well, “How are you handling going without sex?”   She never posed the same question to me.    In instance after instance, my boyfriend was asked by various people how he is holding up in a relationship without sex.

I have never been asked the same question – never – neither by men nor by women.  It is assumed somehow that a woman has no desire for sex?  In Judaism, it is interesting that sex is considered a woman’s right, not a man’s.   It is her right to have children, or at least to attempt to have children.

While everyone was busy asking my boyfriend how he was enduring the supposedly awful ordeal – assumably imposed by me – of not having sex, no one was asking me about the tears cried into my pillow regularly about forced infertility being a relationship that was not coming to completion in marriage.   Not to mention the fact that shouldn’t have to be mentioned:  women have a sex drive too.   The assumption that male pleasure and temptation was somehow always an issue and female pleasure and temptation somehow just doesn’t exist was something I found passively insulting, to say the least.

Not that I wanted to break our mutually-enforced rule of chastity either – despite my libido, my convictions about sex before marriage are still stronger than my sex drive.   But, there is something in both secular society and religious culture that acts as though self-control doesn’t exist as a thing.   That the only way to explain abstinence is by absence of desire.  

While no one ever asked me if I minded going without sex, there were several who asked me if I thought my boyfriend might be gay.   Again, not having sex is all about the male party….but this question is one that betrays the assumption that not having sex is only possible if one doesn’t want it.   There does not seem to be a narrative in either the church or the world in which two people can very much want it, but for one reason or another decide not to do it – while being alone in a room together.

Is it possible? Definitely yes.   Is it ideal?  No.   I wholeheartedly affirm that ideally – two people have a marriage covenant together and can let their wildest sexual pleasures and fantasies with each other find a whole range of beautiful expression, while having babies and providing emotional security with one another, in the context of the joyous partnership of sharing a home.

But we live in a world that is not always ideal,

where sometimes the only person who loves and cares enough for you to keep you off the street or help you find your way is someone of the opposite sex whom you are not yet married to.    I’m grateful for the love shown during our confusing relationship of non-marital cohabitation, and for the commitment to abstinence that both of us held on to.   And I sincerely hope that as I go on from here, I can be open about this part of my past – even though it hardly counts as a “past” – without being seen as not-really-a-serious-Christian because of it.  Although doubtlessly, that will be the case for some.

(I should add that we eventually found a faith community to be part of that was non-charismatic but accepted our situation without misjudging our situation, and yet offered us pastoral counseling in the midst of it.)

Types of Obedience To God’s Voice

A long time ago I wrote a post called, “A Different Kind of Obedience” and posted it here.  It wasn’t terribly noticed as a blog post – but an odd thing has happened since I wrote it.   It is the number one “searched for” post on my blog.   For some reason, a lot of people seem to be typing into search engines, “Kinds of Obedience” and “Types of Obedience” and end up on that post because of that search.

I’m intrigued by this – honestly I never thought that people would go searching for those terms all that often, but apparently, according to my blog statistics, they are.   So I say, let’s give the people what they want, and talk some more about different types of obedience to God! 🙂

BEFORE YOU CAN OBEY, YOU NEED TO KNOW HOW TO HEAR HIS VOICE
First of all, before we can talk about types of obedience, the most important thing is to have a relationship with God and to have learned how to connect with Him through Jesus, and to hear His voice.   I am busy writing some blog posts on the topic of hearing God, but until I have them finished, I will point you to another resource, the AKOUO page.   AKOUO has an entire course (for free) about learning to hear God’s voice.   You can’t obey Him if you can’t hear Him, and you need a relationship with Jesus to be able to hear Him reliably (or else it gets very confusing as to whether it’s God’s voice or the enemy’s voice – Jesus is the way through that.)

The blog post I mentioned above I think is probably the best thing that I personally have to say on the topic of obedience to God, so if you’re someone who has googled “types of obedience” then by all means, read that post.   But here is another little bit of thinking I’ve done on the topic –

And that is, that obedience really differs in difficulty according to what is being asked of us according to a few factors.   One factor is whether or not we know how to do what God is asking us to do.  Being asked to do something you are good at and like to do and have the means to do is very different than the type of challenge someone faces if they believe God is asking them to do something they don’t know how to do, or don’t like doing, or don’t know how to get the means to do it.

Another factor is if we know the probable outcome.   Do we think the outcome of obeying what God is saying is something we will enjoy?   Or is it something that seems like it might turn out badly but God is telling us to do it anyway?   Or do we have no idea what the reason or outcome of our obedience might be?

Putting these factors together into a scale, I’ve come up with:

7 types of obedience to God:

Type one:  You know how to obey, and know the results will be pleasant
You are led to do something where you clearly can see the intended outcome of your actions and that outcome is clearly going to be overwhelmingly positive. You also know how to do this thing and it is fully within your power. The only thing at stake is diligence on your end.

Type two: You’re not sure how to obey, but know the results will be pleasant
You are led to do something difficult that you aren’t sure you fully know how to do. However, you can see that it will have a positive outcome on all counts.

Type three: You know how to obey, but don’t know the reason or outcome.
You are led to do something easy but you don’t know why or what it would accomplish. However, you know the Lord is asking you to do it.

Type four: You’re not sure how to obey, and don’t know the reason or outcome.
You are led to do something difficult that you aren’t fully sure how to do it, and you don’t know why or what it will accomplish. But you know the Lord is asking you to do it.

Type five: You know how to obey, but know the outcomes could be both pleasant and unpleasant
You are led to do something that clearly will have positive outcomes but may result in other negative outcomes as well. You may fully understand why, and it is a choice of whether or not you are willing to bear the negative outcomes for the sake of the positive ones.   If you can’t see any positive outcomes at all, it’s probably not God asking you to do this thing – God always has a good purpose, and if there is no good purpose at all then it is usually not God asking you to do this thing.

Type six:  You know how to obey, but don’t know why and know the results will be very unpleasant.
You are asked to do something that makes absolutely no sense to you whatsoever, but you clearly know what it is you are to do. It is also very clear that some seriously negative ramifications will come as a result of your actions.

Type seven: You’re not clear on how to obey, and you don’t know what will happen when you do.
You have a vague awareness of what you are being asked to do but some details are missing and you aren’t sure you fully know what you are to do. Outcomes are also unclear.

Of course, if things are all the way at type seven, you might want to consider that you are just not ready yet to obey this instruction, and ask God for more clarification.   But sometimes, sometimes the Lord’s clarification will be, “Just do what I am telling you.”  Sometimes His clarification will be more conversation on the topic than that.  When all else fails – read the other article! 🙂

And one of these days – I’ll have published the article series I’m working on that goes into the HOWS of even hearing God’s voice.   So, stay tuned!

6 Types of “Prayer-Engagement” with the World

I like to observe trends in the body of Christ and keep an eye out for what God is doing, and since I hang out in and around various “prayer movements” I have been intrigued by what I see happening with prayer when it comes to engaging with those outside the church.

I’m noticing what I think is something of a scale or range in how praying for people outside the body of Christ to know Jesus engages with those very “stake-holders.”  By stake-holders, I mean that “the people the prayers are aimed at reaching or helping know God better”, since they are ultimately the folks who have the greatest stake in how the prayer plays out!  🙂

So with no further intro, here is the scale that I think we are seeing:

(Type 1) Evangelism of some type or another, with little to no specific prayer

I hope this type is somewhat rare, but I know it is out there.    Taking a cue from verses such as, “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God to salvation for them that believe,” there are workers in the body of Christ who consider prayer to be a small trivial piece of their engagement with the world.    “All that matters is sharing the gospel – and since in and of itself, the gospel is powerful, there doesn’t NEED to be any prayer involved in sharing it with people” is the mindset this set brings to evangelism.

While in my experience, people proceeding on this basis often find evangelism to be a lot of effort for a tiny bit of headway, I can’t deny that there is a tiny itsy bitsy morsel of truth here.   I consider the verse to, “preach the Word!  Be ready in season and out of season…” to somewhat describe what is happening here.   Without prayer, it will almost always be something of an “out of season” activity to preach the Word, but hey, even that sometimes helps people.   (And if the ‘preaching’ is done without BEING preachy – with cultural sensitivity, and real engagement with people, and acts of kindness and justice – so much the better.)

(Type 2) Prayer for “workers to be sent” into the harvest field.

This type of prayer has a pretty explicit scriptural basis and takes many forms – whether it is praying for workers to be sent, or praying for workers to have strength or provision or an open door into a culture.   Prayer of all types involving workers comes into this category – praying for safety, praying for strategy, praying for workers to find spouses or ministry partners or have happy marriages so they can be their best while reaching a group of people evangelistically – there are all sorts of ways to pray for workers.   This prayer focuses on Jesus being the Lord of His own growth strategy – and honoring Him in that by asking Him to direct and provide for His body as they are led by Him in this endeavor.

Prayer for the body of Christ itself can often fall into this category – as praying for the body of Christ to be strengthened, equipped, strategic, obedience, unified, etc, is in some way a prayer for everyone who represents Christ in an area, when people who approach evangelism in a mostly category #1 sort of way may also engage in this type of prayer, as even a simple prayer to “help me find the person you want me to talk to today, Jesus” is, technically, this type of prayer – a prayer for the worker themselves as they are sent.  But this type of prayer is only in the beginning part of the range of the evangelism/prayer spectrum, because there is no direct engagement of prayer here with the actual stakeholders – those who are to be met with the gospel.

(Type 3) Prayer in a room somewhere for people but – mostly about peoples’ lifestyles, rather than their ability to believe in Christ.

Now the prayer starts to focus in on the stakeholders, as prayers are actually being aimed on their behalf, directly.   In this case, what does this look like?   Praying against crime in a city, praying for people to choose certain political candidates, praying for peoples’ minds to be changed to something “better” on a specific topic whether political or otherwise.

The word “repent” means to “change one’s mind” so essentially these are prayers for repentance.   It’s hard to find much explicit Biblical precedent for this, as there are not many clear examples of people praying for other people to act or think a certain way – although assumably, praying “for those in authority” per 1 Timothy 2:2 would include prayers for rulers to have divine wisdom to make good choices.   And there are other non-explicit rationales that can be gathered from Scripture that there might actually be some value to praying this way.  1 Timothy 2:1  simply says to “pray for all people” with petitions, prayers, and thanksgiving – which seems to open the door wide to pray for basically anything that might improve their lives.  2 Timothy 2:25 contains nothing whatsoever about prayer, but does mention the idea that God grants repentance – so if repentance comes from God, then it’s not a leap of logic to decide petitioning him to move over people in that way is not beyond reasonable.

Declaring the wisdom of God in the cross of Jesus in prayer and worship also has an effect on the spiritual powers over a region, too, so if a group of people know what they are doing there is some value in tackling the spiritual “winds” blowing over the minds of people in an area.  However, thankfully, most groups that pray in this way tend to mix other forms of prayer into the mix, which we’ll talk about next.

(Type 4) Prayer in a room somewhere – or sometimes at a specific strategic location – specifically for Christ to be made known to those who don’t know Him.

This probably makes up the bulk of prayer that intercessory prayer groups engage in for our non-believing “stakeholders.”   Surprisingly, however, there is again in this category not much ‘explicit’ command or example in Scripture about praying for people to know Jesus.   Most of the prayers about peoples’ minds being enlighted to see or know Jesus better in the New Testament, were not actually prayers for those outside the church, but were prayers for folks who already believed in Jesus to know and see Him better.

However I don’t believe there is no scriptural support whatsoever for praying for nonbelievers – it just doesn’t show up in the Bible with the intensity or frequency we might think it should, and this is worth considering.  Of course 1 Timothy 2:1, the verse we saw in Category 3 which talks about praying for all people, certainly still applies to praying for them to come to faith in Christ in some way or another.   Category 4 here would include prayers for “revival”, and Acts 3:9 talks about turning “to God” as being a step before he sends “refreshing,” there is some evidence here for the idea of believers “turning to God in prayer” being a precursor to something that might end up bigger than the initial “turning to God,” – in this case, “refreshing” – as a result.  Identificational repentance – where believers in God repent on behalf of those in their city or region – would seem to also be in this category.   And anecdotally – and historically – many, many believers testify that they have seen amazing outcomes when they have prayed specifically FOR the people they are trying to reach with the gospel.

Watchman Nee once made a list of all of his friends that he wanted to share Jesus with, and after being frustrated by seeing not one of them come to faith, his mentor advised him to start praying for that list daily.   In a short time after he began to pray, almost the entire list had come to faith in Christ.

(Type 5)  Encountering people and praying for them where you meet them.

This takes things up a notch in terms of interaction of the people doing the praying, with the actual stakeholders that are receiving prayer.  Instead of praying for people in a room somewhere, this is when believers offer to pray for people – nonbelievers included – wherever they have had a meaningful encounter with someone.

The newest prophetic evangelism approach called “Treasure Hunts” often involves people finding people on the street somewhere and striking up a conversation that results in praying for someone’s needs then and there.   This brings prayer TO the people who need it, as well as to God, and creates a bridge between someone who might not know how to pray for themselves, and God.  The people offering prayer are therefore doing a priestly function of ministering both to people and to God in prayer on behalf of those people.  This is where prayer first starts to directly turn into evangelism, as sharing the good news of Jesus with people and praying for them become in some ways one united action.

(Type 6) Creating opportunities where people who are foreign to prayer are invited and enabled to begin praying to Him themselves.

This is a trend that some groups have begun exploring and the beautiful thing in this is that it goes beyond all the other steps in that the medium really becomes the message – stakeholders are brought right into the adventure of engaging with God, and isn’t that right where things need to go at some point?  I was once with a group at the University of Pennsylvania who did something called “Prayer Week” where they set up a tent in the center of campus and posted signs around it inviting people to come inside and explore prayer.   Once inside, they were greeted with gentle worship music, drawing supplies, 3×5 cards and pens to write prayers on and post on the walls, and papers explaining ideas about how to engage with God, as well as other people who were praying or ready to help orient them in how to begin praying.  For a great example of what this can look like, read this story about a prayer space in a school in the Congo.  In some ways this is discipleship, prayer, and evangelism all tied into one – people are given an opportunity to come to God and thus develop a hunger to know Him better, which can sensitize them to a need for Jesus who is the one who provides direct access to the Father’s presence.

So there you have a it – a scale from Type 1 to Type 6 of how prayer and evangelism can intersect.

And even though Type 6 is the most engaged with the people who are the topic of the prayers – because they themselves do the praying – the reality is that all those have their place somewhere along the way as the body of Christ walks out its priestly role to make God and His Christ known to all the Earth.

Being “Unoffendable?”

In various circles that I participate in, multitudes of books and sermons have been coming out lately about the need to be “unoffendable.”   The idea being, that anytime someone feels snubbed, hurt, bothered, upset, overly concerned, or even in some cases, abused – by those in their circle (or particularly leadership in a church), in a word, “offended”- they are told they are exhibiting a very unwanted, unBiblical, and wrong disposition.   Thus the fault lies with them more than whomever they are daring to be “offended” by or with. There is this idea that everyone should treat absolutely everything like water off a duck’s back.

Ok, this idea of being “unoffendable” – I want to call it what it is:  the uniquely Christian version of gaslighting.  I hope you don’t find that too offensive!

woman-65061_640So, if you’re not familiar with what “gaslighting” is, stop here and click through to read about it.   Generally in the secular world, we hear about gaslighting most often in reference to when men belittle the concerns of women with whom they are in a relationship.

But gaslighting is not something that only occurs between men and women – it occurs anytime one person is trying to silence people around them who object in some way to their behavior.  This can be on a small scale where a coworker is ruling the roost in an office, or one person is ruling the roost in a group of friends, and of course can exist where a leader in Christian group does not want to be vulnerable or approachable by people bringing even helpful forms of criticism.

Sad to say that in the short term, it’s soooo much easier to create a culture in a group of people where everyone is conditioned to believe that anytime they feel hurt, bothered, concerned, etc. with someone’s behavior, they have committed a fault in their own souls called, “being offended” – than to do the hard work of creating a culture that holds together and works through managing tension, conflict, and confrontation in a healthy, productive way.

Of course this doctrine of “being unoffendable” doesn’t come out of nowhere.   There are numerous verses in the New Testament where the word “offended” is used in a way that, without really examining the use and meaning of the word, a doctrine can be built that “being offended” is generally a bad thing.   And, there are times when “being offended” is a very bad thing – namely, when we are offended by things that are righteous.   That is one place we really do want to cultivate an “unoffendable” heart – just as Jesus said in Matthew 11:6 “And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.”  Ironically, one of the most important things in life to “not be offended” by is when someone else comes and shares with us how we have wronged them!

Misunderstanding the Biblical Word for OFFEND

But most of this, “Do not be offended, ever,” doctrine I do believe comes from a misunderstanding of the way the word “offended” is used in scripture.  For instance, one friend of mine talked about Psalm 119:165 which reads in the KJV, “Great peace have they which love Thy law; and nothing shall offend them.”  She pronounced that people who were offended at her for things she had done were just demonstrating that they had no love for God’s laws!  How convenient to be able to proclaim that any hurt or harm one is accused of causing to others is simply because those others are unspiritual!

stickman-310587_640 But the use of the word “offend” in this verse does not translate easily into our modern vernacular use of the word and other Bible versions than the KJV do a better job translating it to what it really means:  that nothing shall cause someone to stumble and sin.   For a whole long word study of the term “offend” or “offense” in scripture, click here.

In general, also, the Bible says a lot more against people who CAUSE others to “offend”, than against the person who is “offended.”   It’s sort of backwards towards what is commonly taught.  Luke 17:11 – “He said to His disciples, “Offenses will certainly come, but woe to the one they come through! “

So if “being offended” really was wrong (and it isn’t, as we’ll discuss in the next paragraph), the person whom you are offended BY would be much more in the wrong for causing someone to become offended at them!   This isn’t how it really works, but if we were to translate “offend” in a normal English way, that’s what we would end up with.

The Luke 17:11 verse above is translated much better by the ESV, however, which reads, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!”  Here there is no mention of the word “offend” – as it is all about temptation to fall into sin, sin of ANY type – temptation to steal, lie, mistreat others, have immoral sexual relationships, etc. and it has nothing at all to do with “being offended” once the word is translated properly.

So am I saying it’s OK to be offended?

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This duck loves God’s law!

Well, I’m saying it’s the wrong question to be asking.   No one should make an issue about whether or not someone is offended by something, as if it is the fact that someone is “offended” which is the problem.     To concern ourselves over whether or not someone should be allowed the audacity to be hurt, angry, concerned, or upset as if that in and of itself is the problem (which is needlessly meta-) rather than with WHY they are offended is not going to be very productive for anyone involved.

Jesus said that if someone sins against us, we’re to go to that person, one on one, and discuss it with them.   He didn’t say, “Don’t be bothered by what they did to you, just pray about it and don’t let yourself be hurt or upset.”   Never did He say such a thing.   He said to go to them and talk about what you feel they did wrong, one on one.

So if you are the person that someone feels has wronged them, there are some good ways to respond, and some not-so-good ways.

Since Jesus said for people to approach you about how they feel you’ve wronged them, one-on-one, one of the worst things you can do (and people do this sometimes) is to refuse to be available one-on-one.   Don’t insist that you’ll only meet with the offended person with another person present of your own choosing, unless you honestly fear for your bodily safety. (Matthew 18 prescribes a time when you’ll meet with others if the one-on-one meeting doesn’t work out.)   Don’t quit returning phone calls or emails when someone wants to talk something out with you.

pair-707502_1280Don’t belittle the person or use manipulative tactics of telling them they are “too sensitive” or that they have no room because of some sin in their own heart or life that makes you unwilling to hear about your own.   This is back to gaslighting, which I discussed above.   Don’t tell them that Jesus demands they forgive you (because truly it is never the place of the offending party to demand someone forgive them.)

Instead, try to hear where this person is coming from – be humble and willing to examine your own self through their eyes.  No one said confrontation is supposed to be comfortable, but rise to the occasion, and talk out honestly with that person why you did what you did, being willing to admit your own faults in the matter and ultimately hear from them and admit how your actions have affected them.  That’s so basic that it shouldn’t even have to be said – but, unfortunately, it does.

And, if you are the person who is offended at someone, there are good and bad ways to handle that too.  

Do not refuse to allow yourself emotions on the topic – but do not let your emotions flare unnecessarily hot, either.   Keep yourself level headed enough that you can discuss the matter with the person who has offended you in such a way as to win them over – to help them see the problem or pain they are causing, but not to pour out revenge on them by making them feel your wrath.  There is a fine line between showing someone they have hurt you in order to bring them to their senses, and showing them how upset you are in order to get back at them and vent on them.  (I’ve definitely been the venting one at times, in the interest of full disclosure – so learn from my mistakes!)
If they don’t hear you, then Matthew 18 says to return with other people to try talking to them as well.

And a Word to Third Parties…

But finally, if you are a third party – you are neither the person whose words or actions have been “offensive” nor the person who is “offended” – you are probably one of the most important people in this whole situation, believe it or not.  When schools teach about the dynamics that go on with “bullying” they will often talk about the role of bystanders and how bystanders create the environment for people to be treated wrongly.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of bystanders in the body of Christ – who see or hear about people mistreated by others and figure it’s not their place to get involved.  In the beginning, it isn’t usually your role to get involved, other than to encourage people to talk things out, one-on-one.   But in Matthew 18, when one person feels sinned against by another person and they’ve tried to talk things out and that conversation has failed, the wounded person is told to bring one or two others to get involved.

If you’re called upon at that point to get involved, you can be healing balm to both parties by sitting down with the two people in conflict, as Jesus prescribed – and talking things out.   Mediation is held as a high value in scripture.

But you will lose the opportunity to be that healing person if you – 

  • -Insist the wounded person go back and try again and again to work it out “one on one” when they’ve already tried that.
  • -Judge the situation before you’ve heard BOTH sides by telling the victim/accuser that they “should forgive and not be offended” before there has been any resolution or hearing on what has gone wrong
  • -Judge the situation before you’ve heard BOTH sides by letting yourself become a new “offended person” on the offended person’s behalf, who is now launching themselves at the accused, rather than mediating between the two parties (unless you were present when the wrong was done and know what happened first hand.)
  • -Refuse to get involved because it’s “not your business” or you don’t want to lose a friend
  • -Gossip to other people about the situation other than the handful of people who are involved.    In a Matthew 18 situation, the rightfully involved people are 3 or 4:  the person who feels wronged, and the person accused of doing wrong, and the 1 or 2 others that the wronged person is instructed to bring along with them.

Most of the time, Matthew 18  (Jesus’s instructions) never gets carried out correctly because of a lack of willing bystanders to follow Matthew 18 in HOW they get involved.   The goal of Matthew 18 is correction, restoration and healing of all those involved – and when mediation doesn’t happen, often instead of restoration and healing we just end up with more of a mess.

At any rate, let’s stop defeating ourselves from handling conflict in a meaningful and constructive way in the body by saying that people just “shouldn’t be offended.”    In most cases, that just ends up creating an environment that grows more and more dysfunctional by the day.    Let’s deal with offense in a way that helps us all learn and grow from it, in a way that shows we’re a family and what we all do really has an effect on each other.   And let’s stop silencing possible victims of our thoughtlessness or whatever other thing we may be doing by teaching everyone that it is wrong to “be offended” – because, plain and simple – it’s not.

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PS – there are times that Matthew 18 is not applicable – such as when dealing with a public/famous leader.  But neither is the idea of “being unoffended” applicable in such situations, either!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My review of “Free to Love” by Jamal Jivanjee

In my circles, there has been some stir lately over a book, “Free to Love,” by a Facebook friend of mine, Jamal Jivanjee.   I didn’t really know much about this book until another friend of mine, Keith Giles, wrote a scathing review of it, which prompted me to hit up Jamal on instant messaging to ask him some concerned questions – questions which really in my mind were not about his book at all, but just about his own heart and life and what his book said about his marriage – that it had ended.

See, I’ve never met Brandie Jivanjee nor spoken to her, but I knew that such a person existed from having been FB friends with Jamal for so long, and finding out that Jamal had gotten divorced via a scathing book review was somewhat shocking.   Honestly my initial reaction was to feel that I had been a lousy friend to not know this had happened to Jamal and Brandie, that I hadn’t been reading his page often enough or something to be there in even a small way for this huge trouble in their lives, and all what was generated in me was foremost an empathetic concern – a desire to help, if help at all was still possible.   Writing to Jamal however I was met only with defensive irritation and relative coldness – I suppose this was perhaps justly an instance of me feeling my friendship with Jamal was more real to me than maybe he felt it was to him – and he told me he wouldn’t talk to me at all about this aspect of his life until and unless I bought and read a copy of his book.

The iciness was surprising to me, particularly since I knew the book had something to do with the importance of valuing relationships and friendships in the body of Christ (I knew it also had something to do with cross-gender friendships.)  More often than not I have been surprised by people whose message is about love or togetherness who put up walls when their message seems to suggest that walls should come down when relationship is at hand.   I know it was a sensitive issue, however.   My protest was that I didn’t really care about the book, that I cared about him – but he insisted my concern was only because of Keith’s review and therefore that he wasn’t interesting in talking, and that instead I should buy his book.

I did know his advertising efforts – including posting an advertisement for the book on my personal page immediately after our conversation – seemed fairly zealous, to the point of being impersonal.  (I mean, he knew I was concerned and then posted an advertisement to my wall?)   And Keith, who had written a negative review of the book somewhat reluctantly and apologetically, is an incredibly welcoming person whose household had once treated me with the kindness of Christ in a very dark hour of my life.  In a few days after Keith’s review, one of Jamal’s friends had lifted a quote from Keith’s review about the book being “dangerous” and was proudly flaunting it on Jamal’s advertisements on his page.

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Jamal in my initial conversation meanwhile insisted that Keith was out to malign him – and when I asked what possible motive Keith would have for such a thing, he replied that “Keith feels he is acting in good faith as all folks do when reacting to having their paradigms challenged.”   Ok, this answer could have some merit (although again, I didn’t care about the book, I only wanted to talk to my friend Jamal about what was going on in his life) but then, another friend of mine, Dan Brennan, an author whose book on male-female friendships in the body of Christ I had once recommended to Jamal (did I help create a monster in so-doing?), wrote that he could not recommend Jamal’s book either.

If anyone I know has embraced a “new paradigm” when it comes to the importance of cross-gender friendships in the body of Christ – friendships that challenge many people’s expectations of what is appropriate between men and women outside of the marriage covenant – it would be Dan Brennan.    (Dan’s writing style would appeal largely to progressive Christians, while my friend Joshua Jones has also written what I have heard is a fairly brilliant book about cross-gender friendship as well from an evangelical standpoint, although I have yet to read it.)

Thus, a very long preface to why I am writing a review of a book I really wasn’t initially concerned with in all this but which evolved into a thing I was sort of forced to read.   And since I have read this book now, and as a moderator of a discussion group where Jamal has been wanting to advertise and embrace controversy about his book, this thing seems to have been placed into my lap whether I wanted it to be or not, so it seems I need to at this point write a review as well.

SO HERE’S MY ACTUAL REVIEW:

Firstly, I’ll say that Jamal is an excellent writer.   The book is an easy read, flows along smoothly, and warmly dialogues with the audience.  Jamal and I both agree on many things – we have both sought after a true experience of organic church (house church) and ultimately had some disillusioning experiences there – while retaining a passion for true relationship in the body of Christ.   Jamal clearly has a passion for the body of Christ to function like a family – for people to experience the kind of relationships that Christ died and rose again to make possible among His people.

But while the book promotes the value of cross-gender friendships, which I can cheer and appreciate, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to talking about how one spouse can be weighed down with insecurities and thus keep the other spouse from really walking out a life that God wants for them in this realm of oneness with God and others (what Jamal refers to as a “divided marriage”) – and the book hints, sometimes small, sometimes large, of “marriage idolatry” in most chapters.  Jamal expresses concern that the institution of marriage seems to be the only relationship that many Christians seem to prioritize and that often other relationships are only viewed in light of how dangerous they may be to the intimacy between a husband and wife.

As someone passionate about the need for the body of Christ to learn to embrace the beauty of friendship between the sexes, both as Biblically valid and incredibly valuable to the body of Christ as a whole, I am still greatly concerned at Jamal’s tone.  The problem here I feel is in the distinction of approaching this topic as “both-and” vs. “either-or.”   When reading Jamal, I start to perceive that for him, the beauty of cross-gendered friendship is an either-or thing; either one values relationships with the body of Christ, OR one values relationship with a spouse.   Jamal leans heavy on verses and arguments that minimize the marriage relationship to create his paradigm.  I think that is the overwhelming error in his work, as I think the proper order and balance is one of “both-and”; holding one’s spouse in high priority AND, while honoring and valuing them all along the way, also learning how to have healthy, devoted, and wholesome friendships with both sexes in the body of Christ.

The Book I Wish Jamal Had Written

Despite this, Jamal does make some good points about various spiritual things related to the body of Christ and the innocence and value that cross-gender relationships can have, ideas which many in his circle might not have been ready for [according to Jamal’s presentation of things.]   Jamal’s book is rare in that it is one of a very small corpus of reading material on the topic of opposite-sex friendships in the Kingdom, and he tackles the even more rare question of how to view and relate to a spouse who has a different viewpoint not just on that topic, but on kingdom pursuits in a more general sense (in what he terms a “divided” marriage.)   But I have to say that the book Jamal has written on this topic still isn’t the book I’d be hoping to read to gain wisdom about these things.

He does a good job of showing what healthy non-marital relationships can look like without becoming sexual.   But, rather than reading about how living out the new paradigm of inter-relational oneness in the body of Christ even cost the author his marriage (and the subtle but palpable suggestions that the author is copacetic if costs you your marriage too, because as Jamal reminds us, “Jesus came to bring a sword” into families), I would rather read the book that might have been written about how Jamal and Brandie walked through a difficult time where Jamal had one idea of how to live out these things while Brandie had quite another, and how they learned to appreciate each others’ differing attachment needs both learning to respect each other’s callings, insecurities, giftings and weaknesses.

I wish I could read how they pressed through, humbling themselves to each other, and learned to love one another through the difficult process of hearing God in the midst of their various convictions and concerns to break through as One.  But I, and the others alternatively critical of or lauding his book, did not get to read that story, because Jamal and Brandie for one reason or another didn’t get to finish creating it together, but instead ended up divorced.   One might suspect from how the book handles issues of disagreement between spouses, that Jamal might have not fully engaged that process, perhaps feeling that investing too much into that process would have been “marriage idolatry” when there were other relationships for him to invest in as well.  (Jamal also comes down pretty hard on “needy” spouses, and along the way makes me wonder if he has ever read about adult attachment theory or knows how his own attachment style might influence his preferences in what he views as too “needy” in a spouse.)

I can empathize with Jamal’s concern in the book that a husband who simply acts as a martyr and  “dies to self” to serve his spouse’s insecurities may not be walking out the life he is called to – but then again, I’m not sure there are only two choices here – be a doormat for another person’s neediness/fear/insecurity, or resolutely ignore/demean their desire for security or intimacy or attention to walk out a “higher calling.”   Jamal is willing to concede that marriage is about meeting each other’s sexual needs, but does not seem to extrapolate from that that emotional needs should be concerned with nor met as well.  Jamal never does say exactly what the opposite of giving into a spouse’s emotional neediness looks like in his mind, other than that a spouse shouldn’t need to pander to such things.  (I consider the Apostle Paul said sexual needs could be unmet for short times of prayer and fasting but only by mutual consent – as at least a little hint that a wife’s thoughts and feelings and “needs” do indeed count, even when contrasted with spiritual endeavors.)

But it seems to me that a Savior, embraced by two believers, should be able to see them through these things and often when He does so, often the person who thinks or feels they’ve got the higher road doesn’t always have it as much as they thought they did.  This is part of iron-sharpening-iron methinks – that, and that for the most part, when Jesus said a sword would divide families over Him, that he was talking about what would happen when one spouse was a believer and the other a nonbeliever.   While that sword can still show up in a marriage to a small degree where a believer has a different sense of how to run after the Kingdom than the other, between believers it seems that there is less room to not work that sort of thing out over time.   After all, the same Bible Jamal avidly quotes about marriage not being the be-all of existence surely has a few things to say about God’s feelings on the demise of a marriage, right?

“Marriage Idolatry?”

Could we flip the table and say that while marriage idolatry – whatever that truly is – is indeed misguided, that there are other forms of relationship idolatry that one could sanction with spiritual argument and fall into as well?   After all, while there are plenty of things written in the Bible about the woefulness of broken relationships in the body of Christ, none are quite so loud and dramatic as the woefulness ascribed to divorce.  Why is that particular woe so pronounced scripturally if, as Jamal says, no priority is given to marriage over other relationships?  Is a spouse just a sexual outlet and a venue for reproduction, while everyone else in the body of Christ is where real Kingdom relationship is centered?  Jamal doesn’t say this exactly, but his presentation of this is so bad this reader was given the impression that this is a definite possibility.

It seems to me to be all in the framing of it.   It reminds me of a conversation I recently had with some well-meaning folks in ministry who were talking about their relationship with their children, when I asked if their children were excited about being part of their ministry and, they replied, “When we were children, our parents always put us first.  But we realized that that is not what it means to be kingdom oriented, so we are following God and expecting our children to come second to that.”   Regrettably, I have seen many parents with this attitude that is sadly considered “spiritual” in some circles raise kids that don’t grow up to share their passion for the Kingdom, or even believe in God.

I contrast that with some other amazing missionary friends of mine, who have uprooted their lives and done many things that traditional thinkers might not have thought were good for their children – but these parents have never said anything along the lines of “we put God, not our children first, when we make decisions.”  Instead, as a family, they have patiently and creatively cultivated a deep love in their kids for the things they are passionate about, vision-casting together, and have treated their kids as deeply integrated members of ministry team since they were little, developing a true oneness of purpose in their family – and their kids from a very young age have learned to worship with them, pray for, and receive words from the Lord for the people they all minister to.   Even now, the dad often quotes from his 7-year-old’s journal the prophetic realizations she is having about God and their ministry as a family, and how much he learns from his children as they learn from him.

Similar to the child-rearing example above: Do we have to frame things in such a way to say that loving a spouse above all others is the enemy of close relationships with those others?    After all, if love for a spouse has no priority, then why IS sex reserved for marriage, anyway?  Is it just some arbitrary moral duty be exclusive in one’s sexuality and the sharing of their body, or does any form of exclusive love have something to do with it?  Husbands are specifically exhorted to love their wives three times in the New Testament, and despite verses that Jamal quotes about marriage, the body of Christ in all its intimate oneness of fervent devoted relationships is still instructed to hold out a place of honor for marriage.

(I would also add that women were not as highly honored from my vantage point in most of the polygamous examples of the Old Testament as they later were in the more monogamous  New Testament – and onward beyond the New Testament.  The flavor given to the marital relationship in a culture has some parallel to the value and place given to women in a society in general – something Jamal doesn’t tackle at all in his thinking.  However this may be one reason why Moses and Jesus’s feelings on divorce were so highly divergent.  Along this line, an obsession with verses that highlight a lesser view of marriage such as “let those who are married be as though they were not” may be comparable to someone who prefers to emphasize verses about women being silent over those where women had a powerful leading role in speaking.)

If Jamal is right about anything, he is right that marriage isn’t everything – married or single, we are created for more.   But if Jamal is wrong about something, it is in the way that seems to want to get to the “more” by making marriage – and by extension, one’s spouse – a less honorable, less valuable thing than the place God gives them.

It is in this vein that I agree with Keith Giles’ assessment that the book is dangerous – but not in the “good-dangerous” type of way that Jamal wanted to spin it, promoting his writing as that of just some really “spiritual badass”, one who has taken the veritable “red pill that only the fearless dare to take.”

It is dangerous because it seems to promote pursuing spirituality without empathy nor patience for one’s spouse if they have different perspectives or viewpoints or needs than you, and in all the verses that Jamal quotes that are harsh on marriage, I would wish to include the one that speaks to husbands who consider their wives to be lacking something compared to themselves, to live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.”  (1 Peter 3:7) 


Living the “Dream”

Instead, he shares stories of women who were showing some sort of Jamal-identified spiritual weakness (needing financial security, needing spousal attention, etc) in a way that invites husbands to dismiss them as mere impediments to the grand call on their lives.  I’ve sadly seen this in action before: it is the same reasoning I heard from the prosperity-wealth-preaching friend of mine as to why he needed to buy a Hummer while his family was impoverished and his wife was mortified – to prove that he was learning to live in God’s provision and not her concerns about financial security.   It is similar to the argument I just heard yesterday from one of my non-believing best friend’s husbands about why he needs to be free to spend all night away from her every day of the week to smoke pot with his buddies, claiming she is being “controlling” by wanting time with him herself (although he did invite her to come smoke with him, but she doesn’t want to.)   I’m sure Jamal will protest that he’s not advocating lavish spending nor drug abusing, but the same glorification of the dismissal of one’s wife’s concerns and needs are present in this book as in my other experiences of those who turn a selfish and sometimes spiritualized deaf ear to the emotional concerns and pain of their spouse.

And while emotional neediness or spiritual weakness can be found in men as well, Jamal never shares a story of a husband holding his wife back from pursuing a greater calling, thus making me wonder if ultimately the real genre this book belongs to is the unfortunate category of “a cold-hearted book written by a hyperspiritual spouse parsing out why he was right and his wife was wrong” about the ideas that led to the dissolution of their marriage.

We do not know what Brandie truly asked for or thought because he does not tell us,  but we do know in this book that he leaves little room for a spouse who is not tracking completely with their spouse’s desire for opposite sex friendships (or ministry, or travel, or other various lifestyle decisions) to be given much consideration or weight.  (Moreover, he never remotely suggests that one way an opposite-sex friend helps keep a friendship pure is by standing resolutely for the health of their friend’s marital relationship.)  Positively, he does say that even in a divided marriage, where one person is pursuing “the Kingdom” in Jamal-terms and the other isn’t, that the Kingdom spouse still should love the other and not walk away.

But I voice my concerns because Jamal, by writing that the ideas of this book were hard won at the cost of his marriage, implies whether he intends to or not that Brandie must have been a very worldly woman for his marriage to have ended over the things in this book – he the wise and spiritual one compared to her more petty or earthly values whatever they may have been, and leaves no room for her to have any legitimate concerns or voice in any of this.  There is no category in Jamal’s description of divided marriages where both spouses are getting some things right spiritually while both are also having blind spots where they both need to learn from each other – it’s just a totally “one is on target, and one is not,” sort of thing.

It also seems inappropriate to me that in the midst of whatever heartache and disaster Brandie and he have gone through in this, is now something that Jamal hopes to use to bolster his own name and ministry by writing a best-seller about the ideas that were destructive to his marriage.  As nice as Jamal is, truly there seems to be something narcissistic or even abusive about that.   Indeed, almost every chapter of this book on friendship and “oneness” has some mention of how marriage can be improperly viewed and become an impediment to a truly loving life in the Kingdom of Oneness, but sadly there is no “oneness” of which Jamal is so fond of speaking remaining for Jamal and Brandie to share in together.

broken-heart-1207383_1280So that’s where I will leave this.   If you want a copy of this book, contact me on FB and I might be able to find someone who will pass along one that has already been read, so that you don’t have to drive up ratings on something nor provide blood money to a book birthed from a couple’s divorce.

I hope and pray that my words might in any way help any and all that are involved to find a way towards restoring this marriage, rebuilt on better principles than the dogmatism in this book (and anything outside this book) which led to its demise.  I do hope, that now that this thing has been brought out onto a larger stage than the original circle of friends and loved ones who were unfortunately not able to help Jamal and Brandi avoid this outcome, that in my idealized hope for them they would be able to find fresh resources, skilled counselors, and impartial help to come to a place of restoration.   It is in that hope, as well as a concern for others influenced by some of Jamal’s ideas, that I write this post with as much care and diligence as I am able.

Coping with Pain, Theological Preferences

A few years back, when a tornado ripped through Oklahoma killing a bunch of elementary school children and others, John Piper famously came under fire for tweeting a verse from Job about Job’s children being suddenly killed.   The outrage over his tweet, and how insensitive many viewed it to be, took the internet by storm in hours – to the point where Piper himself uncharacteristically deleted it.

As a somewhat neutral observer, I thought then and have chewed on it fairly often since then, that it was interesting to see how people cope with loss theologically – and what ways they are offended theologically at the same time.   The wild thing about it is that it is really completely DIFFERENT from one person to the next, and from one subculture to the next, how we want to, and don’t want to, see God’s role when we suffer.   It’s almost like a love-language thing.

For some people, from some backgrounds, there is nothing more comforting when going through trauma than the idea that God has a plan for it – in fact, that God even sent it.   While I don’t hear this view as often as I used to, it’s still firmly held by many as their source of strength when something goes terribly wrong.   A few years back, some friends of mine were in a horrible car accident and their infant child was killed.   In the days and months following, they spoke passionately about being comforted in knowing that God was sovereign, and that He had a plan for this.   For them, the theme of TRUST in a God who knew what He was doing in the midst of tragedy – either by causing it or allowing it, helped them get through it all and get back on their feet.

For other people, however, the idea that God could behind such a thing, whether actively or passively, just shatters any sense that they have that God is trustworthy at all – so they just don’t go there.   For these folks, if someone attempted to comfort them in a time of tragedy or loss with the words, “God has a plan in this,” that person bringing that word might have to duck and cover.   So where do these folks see God in pain?   More likely, they see God as their ally against the enemy that caused it – whether they perceive the enemy to be a personal enemy, such as satan, or a generalized enemy, such as “the randomness of life and nature” or “the corruption of the Fall.”  For them, God is there as the One who we can take our pain to and find perfect sympathy and encouragement through it.   For these folks, the universe is not operating according to a sovereign plan of God, but it is either broken, or if not broken, just not quite tame – and thus bad things happen that are really no one’s fault.   Yet in the midst of that, God understands our loss – He is there to lean on, and to comfort us as a good friend or parent might.  He is there to help us have the strength to get up, dust ourselves off, and go on to conquer the challenge that the trauma has thrown us.

moore-112783_1280The wild thing is that people usually don’t realize that their agitation at how other people make sense of trauma and tragedy is a preference.   Wars could be (and have been) started over this stuff in theological corners – because there are Bible verses that can be lined up and used to bolster either of these positions against the other.   But I don’t think that’s what this is really about – this is about what makes people feel loved by God.   We tend to cling to the Bible verses that resonate most with our understanding of what love looks like – love either means to me, He’s working everything out even if it doesn’t look that way, OR, love looks to me like He couldn’t possibly plan something awful in an “ends justify the means” sort of way, but His love is there for me to face whatever crazy things come our way.

You can go to war about this with someone and tell them that their understanding of God’s love is lacking and unenlightened compared to yours – and maybe you are even right.   But if you step back for a moment and look at this, the reality is – everyone is trying to understand God and this crazy universe in a way that they can handle.  And what some people can handle ends up being the exact opposite of what other people feel they can handle.   Someone who trusts that God is behind everything would feel very unloved if they suddenly found out that God isn’t controlling the details of their tragedy – it helps them to trust that He is.   And someone who sees God as their ally against freak tragedies would feel very unloved to think that God had actually sent the tragedy to them – it helps them to believe He was not at all involved, and is even upset at what happened to them.   And, the wild reality is that the Bible provides enough material to support a variety of viewpoints on the topic, even as we change and grow through out lifetimes – strangely enough.

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