May 27, 2011

Tornados and Locusts, Joplin and Joel

This past week I started a Bible Study on the Old Testament book of Joel.  When I started preparing for chapter 1 I thought it was going to be difficult to help the students see how a description of a locust invasion is relevant to their lives.  However watching the news it was easy to see how relevant this is.  In chapter 1 Joel describes an unnerving natural disaster.  It doesn’t take us long to think of recent natural disasters that have caused massive devastation: the Joplin tornado and other recent killer tornados, the Mississippi flood, the Japanese earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 that killed 230,000 people, and the list continues.

In Joel 1 (read it) the prophet describes a locust invasion of unparalleled proportions.  This was not the kind of thing that happened to every generation (see verse 2-3).  All vegetation was completely stripped away by the locust army.  The crops were destroyed.  Food for the people and their animals was gone.  Think about the effect this would have on a society in Old Testament times.  It isn’t as though they could drive to the next town to buy food.  No trucks would be coming with supplies from FEMA.  Their animals were going to die.  People were going to die.  There was no escaping this tragedy.  Even the drunkards would not be able to escape by drowning their sorrows in alcohol (vs. 5). 

Why did Joel spend so much time writing about this?  Joel could have just written, “There was a terrible locust invasion that destroyed all vegetation.”  This would have been true, but it wouldn’t have helped others to feel the impact of this tragedy.  In the same way, it is one thing to hear a news report about the Joplin tornado.  It is another thing look at the pictures.  It is another thing to be there, and another thing to actually live it.  I think that one of the reasons Joel wrote in poetry is that poetry communicates feeling.  This isn’t abstract head knowledge.  We need to notice that the Bible does not treat disaster lightly or downplay it as if it really isn’t all that bad.  It treats disaster as disaster. 

In verse 15 Joel uses the locust plague to remind people that “The Day of the Lord” is coming.  The Day of the Lord is a repeated term used in Scripture to refer to the time of God’s intense judgment against sin that will take place at the end of the world.  It will be the time when God stops holding back judgment.

The Bible does not let God off the hook for natural disasters.  For example, consider Psalm 135:6-7 and 2 Chronicles 7:13-14: 

Whatever the LORD pleases, he does,
 in heaven and on earth,
 in the seas and all deeps.
He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
 who makes lightnings for the rain
 and brings forth the wind from his storehouses. –Psalm 135:6-7

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. -2 Chronicles 7:13-14

God is in control, although not in a sense that we can “blame” Him for having done anything wrong.  We live in a fallen world because of man’s sin.  Even in times of disaster, God does not give anyone worse than any of us deserve.  The problem is that because God usually gives us much better than we deserve, we start to think that we deserve the good life.  We do not.  Every day that we are not swallowed up by an earthquake is a day of God’s mercy and grace.

When God permits or ordains disaster, He is doing it for a purpose.  Yet this does not mean that the people of Joplin were any worse sinners than the rest of us.  We need to remember what Jesus taught in Luke 13:2-5:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

Often God uses these disasters to shake us out of our false sense of security.  Like the falling of the tower that Jesus mentions in Luke 13:1-5, disasters can be used by God as a reminder to us of the fate we all would deserve without a Savior.  If that is the case, then we need to learn from these events and not let them go to waste.  With Luke 13:1-5 in mind, James Boice makes a good observation in his commentary on Joel:

When we listen carefully we hear him [Jesus] saying [in Luke 13:2-5] that those who object to tragedies like Lisbon [the earthquake of 1755 that killed 60,000] or the locust plague do so because they are asking the wrong question.  They ask, “Why should disaster fall upon these?  Why should God strike such innocent people?”  But what they should be asking is: “Why haven’t these disasters come on us? Why haven’t they destroyed us?”  Our problem is that we have forgotten how sinful we are.  We have forgotten that it generally takes a disaster of unparalleled proportions to wake us from sin’s lethargy (Minor Prophets, 1:126). 

Mourn with those suffering from tragedy.   At the same time let us be grateful that God gives us time to repent instead of sending all the tornados we deserve. 

May 24, 2011

Whoever Frames the Marriage Debate Will Win

It is said that whoever frames the issue wins the debate.  One of the main reasons why the proponents of same-sex “marriage” are winning the debate in America is because they have been successful in doing this.  The language that is used can determine how people think about an issue. 
For example, even using the term “gay marriage” puts the debate in the favor of those who want to redefine marriage.  In the past, the term would have been considered an oxymoron--like round triangles.  The only way to have round triangles is to redefine “round” or “triangles.”  In the same way, the only way to have gay marriage is to redefine the longstanding meaning of marriage.  Whenever we say "same-sex marriage" we are already redefining marriage just to allow the idea.

Gallup has reported that in 2011, for the first time, a majority of American (53%) believe same-sex marriage should be recognized as valid.  This is up from 44% a year ago.  This certainly shows a rapidly changing attitude in our society concerning marriage.  However, I think that much of this is due to the language that is used and the way the debate is being framed.  Look at the question being asked in this poll:
“Do you think marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages?"
The question itself already redefines marriage in order to allow the idea of same-sex marriage.  It subtly assumes that the union of two same-sex persons already fits within the definition of marriage.  I wonder what the poll results would be if the question being asked was: “Do you believe marriage should be redefined to now include unions besides those of one man and one woman?”  Even though our cultural attitudes are shifting, I think the poll results would be significantly different and the majority would still not be in favor of redefining marriage. 
Wording affects attitudes.  For example, National Organization for Marriage stresses the need to avoid the phrase “ban same-sex marriage” at all costs.  When this phrase is used in polls it gives a ten point advantage to same-sex advocates.  It forces the people who are opposed to this into the negative roll of “denying” or “banning” people from their supposed rights.  No one wants to be the villain.  In addition, I believe it also subtly gives up ground by already viewing same-sex marriage a legitimate concept rather than an oxymoron. 
We need to learn to use language effectively.  We must learn to use short, clear statements that make sense and stick.  For example: “Marriage is about bringing together a man and a woman so that children can have a mother and a father.”  Even a passing statement like this can have a lasting influence.  Most people are not going to read a book on this issue but hundreds of people may read your facebook post or your tweet. 
According to National Organization for Marriage extensive polling shows that the single most effective short message is:
"Gays and Lesbians have a right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us."
They explain that this statement allows people to express tolerance while opposing a redefinition of marriage.  Obviously the first line has to be taken in context since none of us are absolutely free before the state or God.  If you think that the first line may be misunderstood, a modified version could simply be:  “One group does not have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.”
Our cultural concept of marriage is critically important for our country and for our children.  We need to speak the truth with courage and skill.

May 12, 2011

How Do You Resist This?

This is my daughter Zoe singing an impromptu birthday song to me. At times like this I really love my life.

Also see: Is God to Blame for My Daughtor's Birth Defect?

May 9, 2011

Why God But Not Thor? (or, "Pagan gods are Marvel Superheroes")

I was once asked by someone, “What makes your religion more valid than any other one? And also, why [isn’t it] considered myth like the older religions that make the same claims?”

I'd had discussions with this person before, so I could guess a little bit about what was behind his question. He was wondering why Christians will say that the God of the Bible is real but the other gods and goddesses of pagan mythology are not. Since Christianity and pagan religions supposedly all make the same claims, shouldn't we all consider Christianity to be a myth just as easily as we consider the pagan gods to be myths?

Here is part of my reply:

First, this question contains an assumption that I reject. Your question implied Christianity has the same elements, teachings and details as pagan myths. I know that this is a common assertion from some atheists, especially on the internet. People point to supposed parallels between Jesus and other dying and rising gods and suggest Christianity is just borrowing the same themes and therefore isn’t true. If that is what the question meant, then I reject that part of the question because I don’t believe that Christianity actually does make the same claims as pagan mythology. The similarities are very superficial and often forced. Also some of these supposed sources for Christianity actually come after the time of the New Testament. (If there are specific myths and details that you are thinking of, let me know. There are a lot of obscure myths and I can’t guess them in advance to deal with them.) Also, I need to add that even if it were true that Christianity had the same specific details as many older pagan myths, it wouldn’t actually prove that Christianity was false.  If there were movies made in the 20th Century about skyscrapers being destroyed by terrorists, that wouldn’t mean that the destruction of the World Trade Center was false or invented based on these stories.

Now, let me give you one major reason why I believe the pagan gods fail as being valid. Simply, the pagan gods aren’t even “Gods.” Sure, they have power and abilities, but they are limited. They are closer to Marvel superheroes than to the God of the Bible.

The pagan gods don’t actually explain anything. They don’t provide a sufficient reason the explain why the world exists. This is because the pagan gods are not eternal. Apollo is the son of Zeus. Zeus was the son of Cronus, and so on. So, none of these gods ultimately explains anything because each of them needs something else to explain them. On the other hand, the God of the Bible is of an entirely different quality. He is not a Marvel superhero. The God of the Bible is not only omnipotent, and omniscient, but also eternal. Because He is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing) He has the power and wisdom needed to design and create the world. But even more importantly, He is eternal. Since God did not have a beginning, He did not need anything or anyone to create Him. If you’ve always existed, you don’t need to be created. Because the God of the Bible is eternal, He is a “sufficient reason” for everything else. The pagan superhero gods are not.

If you needed someone else to make you, don’t even claim to be a real God. The real God is in an entirely different category.

May 3, 2011

Christian Urban Legend: All Sins are Equal

For some reason this idea has ingrained itself in the thinking of most American Christians. When the topic of sin is brought up, you will quickly hear someone say one of these lines:
"Sin is sin."
"All sins are equal."
"There is no gradation of sin."
or "All sins are the same in God's eyes."
This is said with such confidence and conviction that you would assume there is a clear Bible verse that bluntly states this.  But the truth is, there is not. Now, James 2:8-11 teaches us that any sin makes one a lawbreaker--either we keep the law perfectly, or we do not.  No one should think they can stand before a holy God and claim that they are okay in His sight because they only committed the "ligher" sins.  This passage teaches that all sins have the equal effect of separating us from God, but it is not teaching that all sins are equal in every way. 

The truth is that Jesus Himself taught that not all sins are equal.  Jesus spoke of a "greater sin." 
"Jesus answered him, 'You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.'" -John 19:11
However you interpret this, it cannot mean that Jesus believed that no sins are greater than any other sins.  There are other passages that teach this as well (such as Ezek. 8:6,13,15; Matt. 5:19; 23:23) but I believe this statement by Jesus in John 19:11 is enough to close the case. 

I've had people get very mad at me for even suggesting this.  One person clearly jumped to the conclusion that if you believed this you would immediately start judging everyone around you.  So, if this concept is new to you, please consider all three points I am about to make before passing judgment on me for being a judgmental person.  I believe this because it is what Jesus teaches, not because I like the idea that I am better than everyone else.  In fact, the opposite is true.  I think that many of my sins are far worse than those of many others people because I know full well what I'm doing. 

Let me give a few key points.

1. There is a sense in which all sins are infinitely terrible.

I realize that this goes against what I am arguing, but I believe this is true as well.  Every sin, even those we consider light, are sins against an infinitely holy God.  This means that even the "smallest" sin is infinitely terrible.  Every sin is spitting on God with our heart.  Every sin is saying to God and the world, "God, you are worth less than this other thing I choose instead of you."  Every sin is infinitely worthy of punishment and this is why none of us could ever finish paying off the penalty for even the "smallest" sin.

2. There is another sense in which some sins are greater than others.

Jesus spoke of a "greater sin."  Some sins are judged differently in the Bible.  It also makes sense.  All other things being equal, it is worse to murder a child someone than to speed.  This doesn't mean than either are "okay" but one is obviously worse.   

All sins being equal in weight would lead to ridiculous conclusions.  Is it really better to kill a child than to speed twice?  If all sins were equal in weight, then speeding twice would be worse because it is two sins, while the murder is only one sin.  Come on? 

Points one and two seem like they contradict each other, but here is how I explain it.  In one sense they are the same but in another sense they are different.  All sins are infinitely bad, but some are like an infinitely tall stack of pennies or dimes and others are like an infinitely tall stack of quarters.  Both are infinite, but there is a difference in magnitude.

3. God does not give us the complete formula for judgment.

It is not a good idea to start ranking sins.  God does not give us the formula, or the ability, to calculate the weight of sins.  There is no logarithm in Scripture where we can fill in all the variables and crank out a total adjusted value for each sin.  We have no way of knowing one sin is a 65 but another sin comes out as a 489.  God knows the full weight.  We do not.  Only God can search the heart of each person to take into account their motives and attitudes.  Only He knows how much a person is aware of what they are doing and total circumstances that might mitigate or magnify the rebellion. 

This is incredibly important to grasp.  It means that you and I are not responsible to be the final judges.  It also means that just because someone believes that sins have different weight does not mean that he or she intends to judge everyone else like some sort of spiritual accountant. 

Having said that, there are some things we can know which make some sins heavier than others.  Many of these factors are internal.  Also please note the critical importance of the phrase "all else being equal."
  • All else being equal, a "high handed" sin is greater than a less intentional sin.  (Numbers 15:30)
  • All else being equal, it is a greater sin to sin against greater light than to sin against weaker light.  (See for example Matthew 11:20-24.)  The more we are aware of God and the seriousness of sin, the greater the weight of the sin.  (Yet no one sins in complete darkness.) 
  • All else being equal, the more responsibility and authority being abused, the greater the sin.
  • All else being equal, the greater our influence, the greater the sin.  (See for example James 3:1)
  • All else being equal, a sin that is acted upon is a greater than a sin that is just in the heart.  (Yet both are sin and neither is okay.)
  • All else being equal, a sin with a greater scope of damage is greater than a sin with a lesser scope of damage.
  • All else being equal, a sin that does eternal damage is greater than a sin that only has temporary consequences. 
  • All else being equal, sins of greater unbelief are worse than sins of less unbelief.
  • All else being equal, some sins are greater depending on the mixture of motives.  The list goes on...
Many of the sins we think are small and actually big.  The "small" sins of a mature Christian might be more serious to God than the "bigger" sin of someone else.  Perhaps this is why Paul thought of himself as the chief of all sinners (1 Tim. 1:15-16).  Again, before you try to decide who is worse, the preacher or the prostitute, please remember that only God knows how all of these factors work together. 

Although we can't judge sin perfectly on this earth, Church elders are called upon to use Biblical wisdom in matters of church discipline (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Heb. 13:17).  As Kevin DeYoung has pointed out, we can't let church leadership become paralyzed so that "the elder who battles the temptation to take a second look at the racy section of the Lands’ End catalog shouldn't dare exercise church discipline on the 20-year old fornicating with every co-ed that moves."

Still, the best use of this knowledge is not for others, but for ourselves.  All Christians are a mixed bag.  None of this is meant to excuse any sin, in others or ourselves.  We all need to repent of any known sin, and we need to ask the Spirit to search our hearts to show us the sins hiding in the deep cracks.

Where did this myth come from?

I think there have been good motives and bad motives to see all sins as equal.  Some of this originated in response to the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins.  All sin makes us worth of condemnation apart from Jesus.  In addition, other good motives include the need for humility, the need to avoid wrongheaded judgmentalism, and the need to remember that no sin in the Christian life should be tolerated. 

On the other hand, I believe there are also unhealthy reasons why this belief is so rampant.  Some people want all sins to be equal so that they can think their own sins are less serious than they really are.  "Hey, all sins are equal. Therefore my illicit sex is no worse than speeding."  Others know the skeletons they have in their closets.  And in today's climate, many Christians are petrified at the idea of being thought of as judgmental.  For many, the flattening of all sin makes it much easier to feel good about one's self as a warm and non-judgmental person.

All sin is grievous, and some especially so. God will judge everything perfectly in the end.

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