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January 4, 2016

Posted by michaelnjohns in Uncategorized.
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I sat in church for the first Sunday of the year, yesterday, and feel this so bad it hurts.

THIS!  This is what I want for the new year.  Dear God, please,
“Wake me up inside.”

“…Call my name and save me from the dark
Bid my blood to run
Before I come undone
Save me from the nothing I’ve become

Bring me to life

Frozen inside without Your touch
Without Your love, Darling
Only You are the Life among the dead.”

One of our pastors spoke in his own simple eloquence, about us determining whatever it is God wants us to do and who He wants us to be.  I know the answers to those questions, what I lack is the inner life to do it, to be it, to live it.

I feel dead inside.

I feel frozen inside (no Disney jokes, or songs, PLEASE).  I’ve become less than worthless, I am nothing, I am negative.  I look backward and see chaos, madness, sadness, destruction, sin, loss, debt.  I look forward and see the labor required to dig out, and it’s hopeless.

I admit it.  I did it to myself.  Partly.  I starved myself spiritually, only having the meagerest of snacks maybe every other day, but I knew I was missing out on the banquet.  I did it to myself because I feel kind of abandoned by God.

Say it all you want, if you’re one of those conservatives you’ll believe that if I feel the abandonment, it’s because I abandoned Him.  That may be true.  That the spiritual “snack” was there at all says maybe God was there sustaining me through the spiritual “drought.”  Or maybe like Cain from Genesis, I offered what I thought was the best I had to give, from a heart that was as good as mine could be, and still felt rejected.

I’m going to try something different today.  And maybe, this year will be different.  I’ll let you know, if I live to tell about it.  If He is “the Life,” maybe He’ll share.

On the positive side, I feel “only mostly dead,” which, if you’ve ever seen The Princess Bride, means there’s hope, but “it’ll take a miracle.”

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The Truth in Love: A Dangerous Thing March 10, 2015

Posted by michaelnjohns in homosexuality, sex.
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I wouldn’t have thought this was a really drastic change of position if I hadn’t lived through it.  Swept along by a wave of peers, I missed something.  In large part I agreed with them.  And in part, I was dead wrong for it.  These peers? Well meaning Christ-Followers.  I’ve been processing this still, so if I’m repeating myself, just move along to the next blog you like.  My feelings won’t be hurt, I promise.

I’ve been accused of thinking dangerously, or maybe that my thinking is dangerous, or maybe they weren’t thinking and they thought the fact that I was, was dangerous.  My fellow seminarians joked good-naturedly that they would pray for me even back before I got here.  Some of them would be spinning in their pulpits if they knew what I think now.  Farbeit from me to think I’m special, revolutionary, radical.  I’m no trail-blazer, like a Martin Luther.  I don’t think I could even come up with 95 theses, but I have one:  “the truth in love.”  I’m captivated by the power of the phrase, from Ephesians 4:  15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

What if God’s love is more radical than even Christ-followers give it credit for being?  If we really understood it better, and embraced it more fully, I’ll bet we would reap a few benefits.  I’m only going to share two I believe are available.

Benefit # 1:  We grow and become like Jesus.  This makes us different from a lot of people in the world, and that might just make us dangerous.

I Corinthians 13 extols the virtues of love, and proclaims, “…if I don’t have love, I have nothing.”  “I am a sounding brass, a tinkling cymbal.”  (I used the loudest-sounding translation)  For years I thought nothing of my fellow Christ-followers proclaiming the evil of sin, the final destination of unrepentant sinners.  I saw nothing wrong.  But their focus seemed to change.  I think it became too narrow.  I think it became unloving.  We went back to Jewish legalism, for people who aren’t Jewish, for people who don’t even follow Christ yet, expecting them to live by some hand-picked set of standards out of that Old Testament law code.  Sinners who are well-aware that they are sinners are rightly calling us onto the carpet for it.  It’s not loving.  It’s not gracious.  It’s not Jesus’ method.  And we don’t even live by the letter of the law we’re offering the world.  Well-meaning Christ-followers are blindly falling into it.  It’s wrong.  It’s sin, and some are still ignorant of it, or worse, in denial about it.

I hope you can stay with me, this is going somewhere dramatic.  Trust me.  This is what I’ve been meditating on:

Some Christ-followers are operating under the misconception that sin is a choice.  This has never been true.  The question that came to my mind was, “What is a sinner going to do?”  And obviously, the answer is, “we’re going to sin.” I said “we.”  It’s a radical challenge to what I have heard a lot of well-meaning people trying to teach recently, as if it were the truth. And it’s a drastic change to my prior thought process as well.

Here’s the revelation, if I dare call it that:

Hatred quenches the Spirit of God.  Hatred stops any good from coming out of your part of a situation, no matter how well-intentioned you are.  Your hatred isn’t going to change a single sinner into a not-sinner.  You can tell the truth, without love, and your true words won’t change a single sinner into a not-sinner.  Sometimes the truth alone can quench the Spirit too.  You can love, tolerating and embracing and accepting, and your love won’t change a single sinner into a not-sinner.  Sometimes just expressing love quenches the Spirit as well.  A balance of both is required.  Jesus was “the way, the truth, and the life,” but he was also very loving, which is why the people flocked to him.  Nobody but the mob is flocking to certain churches, because they don’t really “love.” They just “truth.”  And sinners who feel affirmed are flocking to churches that embrace the sin as well as the sinner –  flocking to a place where they can hear what they want to hear, nothing uncomfortable, nothing that demands “Go and sin no more,” but that’s equally wrong.  They just “love,” they don’t really “truth.”  As a Christ follower, my message is empty if I deny the sin, just as empty if I embrace and accept the sin along with the sinner.  As much as I want to teach about your sin, or their sin, I feel compelled to confess first, I’ve got a plank in my eye too.  Christ commands anyone who would follow to first repent, or turn away, from sin, and then take up their own cross and follow Him.  I have a hard time with both of these commands.

In Psalm 51:5, the writer says he was conceived in sin, and born into sin.  In Ecclesiastes 7:20 the writer proclaims “there is not a righteous man on earth, who does what is right and never sins.”  Isaiah 53:6 the writer says we’re “like sheep” and we all want to go our own way, but we’re being led the wrong direction by our selfish motives.  In Jeremiah 17:9-10 the writer says we are all crooked, “desperately wicked,” and ultimately God “rewards” us for what we do.  The story doesn’t change from Old to New Testaments.  Romans 3:23 says we’ve all sinned and none of us can even dream of reaching God’s perfect standard, His “glory.”  So we’re all sinners.  From the first time when you’re a baby and mom says “no,” and you do it anyway, or try to do it anyway, it’s sin.  But if we’re going to live by the letter of the law we should be aware of II Corinthians 3:6- the letter of the law brings death, but the spirit (intention) of the law brings life.  The letter of the law, a slavish obedience to an impossible law code, or disobeying the perfect standards of God, only bring us to eternal death.  The spirit of the law, as distilled by Jesus into just two neat commandments, gives life like in John 10:10 and John 14:6.

Guess what?  Nothing can change a sinner into a not-sinner.  We can only resist, with the power that we have inside ourselves, and that’s only if we know something is a sin and we decide we don’t want to do it any more.  It’s more blinding, more powerful, more seductive than alcohol or tobacco or any other drug.  In the flesh, we are all going to fail, and stumble into sin, even the best Christ-followers.  It’s true that we have a choice, but the choice isn’t whether we’re going to sin.  It’s what kind of sin are we going to choose?   Some well-meaning Christ-followers think sin is a choice, but it’s not.  If you believe the Bible, you should believe that we are all born into sin and we have no power to escape without the grace of God.  And some well-meaning Christ followers preach judgement and condemnation and hellfire and brimstone on certain people’s sins, while ignoring others.  Especially their own.  The only way to escape is through the truth in love, which allows the Holy Spirit of God to work on our hearts.

The pharisees used to do that back in Jesus day.  They held people to that impossible standard of behavior, “the truth,” while at the same time treating others without any regard to mercy, or “love,” which was why Jesus was so upset.  He quoted the Old Testament, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  And he specifically told the pharisees, I paraphrase: “On the outside you look great, all freshly whitewashed, just like a tomb.  But on the inside you’re ugly, full of evil things, corruption and rot.”  (Matthew 23:27)  Those pharisees were ignoring their own sins of hatred and pride, while pointing out other people’s specific sins with all kinds of judgement and condemnation.  Sound familiar?

The more I consider it, the less I think of myself, because personally, I am good at the above, because I suck at love, but I know all about truth.  I can hate all day long, and I can use the truth to defend my stronghold and crush the opposition with words, thrown like stones.  I can judge and condemn, just like everyone else.  It’s easy.  I can get all caught up in my fancy proofs of whatever the thing is that I don’t like, either because it’s not my choice of sin, or because no one knows I’m another definition of “sinner.”  There are plenty of sins to habituate.  I’ve picked mine, you’ve picked yours, they’ve picked theirs and we all point fingers at each other.  I have an audience.  They think I’m so good because of the whitewashed outside.  And from there, the mob mentality is too easy to just join in, grab the big rocks along with everyone else, and start flinging.  Don’t deceive yourself into thinking you should follow me.  I do it wrong, in my own way, all the time.

That woman “caught in the very act of adultery” was a test case for Jesus.  He let the accusers think on their own hearts and decide if they were sinners themselves.  And he said, after they all left, “where are your accusers?  I don’t condemn you either, but go and sin no more.”  She was about to be stoned to death for her “sin.”  Jesus dismissed the mob though, and then quietly talked with her about her choices.  And Jesus said it was “sin.”  It was the sin of adultery, big enough it made God’s top ten list back in Exodus.  What’s “adultery?”  Any kind of sexual relations outside of “marriage.” And what did Jesus say was “marriage?”  Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7 have Jesus quoting Genesis 2:24, validating the text like it’s his own personal stamp of approval. “Marriage,” sorry to say, as defined by God and verified by Jesus, consists of a man and his wife, nothing else.  Anything else is “adultery.”  So I’m not discounting what she did, or what anyone else, including me, does, that God says is wrong, as if that wasn’t sin.  I’m saying we should teach things differently.  We have to dismiss ourselves from the mob mentality, drop our rocks, consider our own thing that we do that’s wrong, and turn away.  I think we lead by example, and who wants to follow a rabid mob that operates based on its’ own standards, judging harshly and without any mercy?

Jesus’ first message to everyone was that we needed to “repent,” which meant to turn away from sin, and go toward God.

I’ll still agree with the mob that sin is evil.  I still agree with the mob that unrepentant sinners go to eternal torment and hopeless separation from God.  But I think we need to shift our message to something different.  Let’s understand, before we preach against one form of sin or another, that we all sin.  That’s the truth, and it makes us more gracious.  It puts the speaker on the same level as the audience.  No denial here:  there is such a thing as “sin.”  Anyone who reads Romans 3:23 will tell you that, and it hasn’t changed from Old Testament Jeremiah 17:9 to Romans 3:23.  The heart is crooked, no one can fix it for themselves.  Only when we get to Romans 6:23 do we realize there’s any hope.  It’s the gift of God, further clarified in Ephesians 2.  We should be teaching that, instead of just the condemnation, the straining of gnats of other people’s small misdeeds, while we pass the camel of our huge self-righteous judgmental hatred.

Romans 9 is quite clear:  Israel’s standards are out of date after Jesus’ sacrifice.  The law isn’t going to save anyone, it’s only going to convict us.  Once we decide to follow Jesus, we can look into what’s important.  I for one don’t want to go back to Israel’s standards.  They had over 600 rules to obey, from clothes to food to how and when to party.  Do I really want to invest the time to figure out how to do, or not do, all of that?  Might be fun to figure out the party schedule.  But I don’t relish the idea of trying to do all the rest.  But until we decide to follow Jesus, there’s no point.  There’s good news from Romans 10:4-13.  Once and for all Jesus paid the price for my past, present, and future sin.  And if I want to follow the teaching of Romans 10:14-15, I should be an ambassador teaching that forgiveness is available through Jesus’ sacrifice.  Not only forgiveness for yesterday, but also the strength to repent, and choose not to sin, for today.  I’m so happy that forgiveness is available, even for a failure like me.  I mess it up every day.  That whitewash I show on the outside is a whitewash.  Ignore it.  It’s nothing.

All you church people, let me challenge you first, like I did myself:  Love first.  Then speak the truth in love.  Don’t leave out either part.  If you do, the audience will miss out.

If I’m nothing without love, I’m nothing without the truth as well.  But with the truth in love, expressed with grace, I bet I’ll see Benefit # 2:  “The power of God  that leads to Salvation” that Paul wrote about in Romans 1:16.  Even he put the love first, before he started talking about what was sin and what to do about it.  And after I decide to follow Jesus, Jesus boils it down to a really simple standard without all the nit-picky laws:  Love God wholeheartedly, and love others as I love myself.  I don’t think you can go wrong with those two rules.  I think if we really followed them, we might see other people deciding to follow Jesus, too.  And we all have to figure out how to love God on our own, although we can encourage each other.  That’s why there’s a church and you should go.  Yes, it’s full of us hypocrites- we’ve all stumbled at some point, on the journey of life, while attempting to follow Jesus.  Me included.  But if you come and encourage us, we all might become better Christ-followers.  A good church is welcoming (love) and challenging (truth).  Maybe you think the church isn’t welcoming.  Maybe your church isn’t challenging.  Maybe you aren’t going to a church at all.  I invite you: come and see.  If the first one isn’t welcoming and challenging, maybe the next one will be.  I hope you find a good one.

II Corinthians 5:

11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin (Jesus Christ) to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Media and The Fall (and Rise?) of Man September 12, 2014

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There’s a great writer and singer I used to listen to a lot named Carman Licciardello, who talked about dealing with temptation.  In a hilarious moment he talked about going to the beach and looking “stupid with [his] big old head stuck in the sand,” and admonished the listener to “keep your eyes on the Creator, man, and not on his creations.”  He’s got a bunch of other great songs demonstrating a brilliant sense of humor with solid teaching.  Give a listen if you feel so inclined.  I’m sure you can dig up dirt on Carman if you look hard enough and want that kind of spin.  I’m not in full-time paid ministry or under tight scrutiny from the press, or you might find my dirt, too.  But please don’t.  Suffice it to say that “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) including me, and including you.  I’m not going to pretend I’m perfect.  And that’s why I’m the perfect person to write about temptation and failure.

The press loves this kind of thing.  Drag someone’s name through the mud, throw it up on the TV screens and magazines and newspapers and “news” blogs for all to see.  And they do it so well.  Sex sells, violence sells, and money sells.  The hype feeds itself until the readers and listeners and voyeurs are all whipped into an orgasm frenzy of hating the person they’re told to hate, or disrespecting the person they’re told to disrespect.  Instead of leading to healthy resolution for anyone, including the audience, the press drops the story right after the fall and never shows the grace that leads to restoration.  We drop them while they’re in the mud, and we leave them there to run after the next salacious tidbit, the next story of someone who did something “bad,” the next disaster.

Doctors who study behavior describe some less dangerous, non-addictive drugs as “Gateway drugs.”  The theory was, experimentation with a gateway drug like alcohol or marijuana might lead to more dangerous drugs like cocaine or heroin or LSD.  I think sex and violence have gateways too.  Turn on your TV (or don’t) and you’ll see the gateways.  Makeup commercials.  Underwear commercials.  Hamburger commercials that look like underwear commercials.  TV shows depicting illicit sexual relationships and questionable predilections, downplaying their dangers and proclaiming their “normalcy.”  And then think about the hypocrisy of people who want to proclaim these as normal human social interactions who drag one person’s “normal” life into the spotlight to say how bad they are for doing what the critic would advocate for another person.

If it’s “sin,” then it’s wrong for people who want to avoid sin, they should steer clear.  There are obvious things that everyone who’s not a sociopath would agree are universally wrong.  We have legislation that says stealing is bad, murder is bad, lying is bad, adultery is bad, assault is bad.  The gateways stab at the wrongness of adultery and throw up the possibility that maybe it’s not bad, or maybe you’ll be the special one who’ll get away with it without facing consequences.  And people fall for that, even people who would normally tell everyone that’s bad.  If it’s universally wrong and you want to stay out of jail, you’ll avoid breaking the law.  If it’s situationally bad, even if it’s not against any laws but you know it’ll possibly have natural consequences you want to avoid, you’ll avoid doing that.

People don’t like to think through their actions to their natural logical consequences, to their bad ends, but they should.  Even when I was younger I tried to think through at least some of the stuff I wanted to do, and chose not to do it because it was risky and might not have had all good rewards even if I “succeeded,” or got away with it.  Kids need to think things through, and stuff is being pushed on us at a younger and younger age.  I think of six and eight year old beauty pageant contestants. Is that really something you want little kids fighting over who’s best, or should we just tell them they’re all beautiful and encourage all of their talents to shine?  People need to think about the messages we’re giving to each other, especially what we’re saying to kids.  And people need to be wiser about their choices, including me.  I don’t always want to think about the consequence, just about what I want to do.  And my temptation leads to my failure, just the same as it does for you.  But what are we dwelling on?  What are we thinking about?  What’s put in front of us all the time, even when we’re not making an effort to think through things?  The more we dwell on something, good or bad, the more we’ll want to do that, or the more we’ll think it’s normal even if it’s bad.

If you say in one breath that certain behaviors are “all right” or “normal for everyone,” you have no right to say that for a certain segment, or worse, a certain individual, of the population, that same behavior is “wrong.”  It’s hypocritical.  Leave the preachers alone.  Leave the celebrities alone.  Stop airing their dirty laundry (or more apparently their lack of it) on the TV and news outlets.  I would rather see the news media burying sins and never reporting on them.  I would rather see stories of people striving to raise themselves to higher standards, and the good that comes of someone making restitution to society, and paying something back, or better still paying something forward.  But the rabid audience demands blood, and if it can’t have blood it wants sex, and if it can’t have sex, it wants scandal, theft or some other kind of mayhem or destruction.  I don’t want to know who’s sleeping with whom, and I wish I didn’t have to change the channel or turn off the TV to avoid hearing about it.  The news wants to tell me that he’s sleeping with her but married to her, or that she’s sleeping with her and they’re getting married.  I don’t want to know.  Some things are personal and should be private.  Stop telling me about other people’s private affairs.  Stop.

I used to like Andy Griffith, and I watched other TV shows as well.  I’m almost embarrassed to say I have enjoyed an adult show at night called “Dexter,” about a serial killer who avenges murders and prevents the killers from killing again.  It’s got a lot of adult themes, but I watch it at night after the wife and kids have gone to bed.  During normal daylight hours, I like to watch cooking shows.  Most of them, at least the ones without the rabid, expletive-shouting chefs who are angry for the sake of anger, are safe for me and my kids to watch.  But anything else on TV, I question.  I like family comedy shows, but frankly they’re gateways because the writers want to put new complications on their characters, which are very different than in the days (before my time) of George and Gracie and Mayberry and Father Knows Best.  We like to push the envelope in every area of life.  Society is being groomed for a world where everything is right and nothing is wrong, which is what Rascal Flatts was singing about- they missed living in a world “where everything is black and white,” meaning we knew what was right to do, and we were encouraged to do the right thing.  Now we’ve got crude animated shows replacing the silliness of Bugs Bunny and Popeye, and crass, highly sexualized TV shows replacing Father Knows Best, and ego-maniacal, profane chefs edging out Julia Childs.

I’d like to see the media outlets stop pushing envelopes that glorify or aggrandize the negative behaviors, with the negative consequences.  I’d like to hear about the farmer whose crops are feeding the hungry.  I’d like to hear about the company that’s hiring people and the politician whose work is genuinely stimulating the economy, not the spun report at re-election time that shows the one good thing they do that’s supposed to atone for all the bad.  I’d like to hear about the ex convict whose ministry helps other ex convicts get good jobs and keeps them on the road toward making a positive contribution to society.  I’d like to hear about the company whose CEO and management helps people get trained to advance toward more responsibility and better wages.  I’d like to hear about the charity that helps feed the hungry and provides a safe, warm place for homeless people.  I’d like to hear about the civic organization’s good work, people who pick up the trash left by others, people who work for a cleaner environment.  I’d like to hear about how people organize to help in recovery efforts after a natural disaster.  We could have a hero of the day, and report nothing but good news.  There’s room for a little sensation in my kind of news report:  Tell the citizens if there’s a rash of burglaries in a given area, so we remember to lock up and set the alarms. Tell us if there’s an assault, and where it happened, just so we know to watch out for ourselves and each other. But please, tell us how to encourage our local heroes- sure, the obvious, the firemen, and policemen, but also other civil servants:  Teachers.  Civic group leaders.  Charitable organizations and leaders.  Even good students who are on a good path.  People who are making the world a better place.

If we raise the standard for what we see on the news and on TV shows in general, maybe we’ll be inspired to avoid temptation and the inevitable fall, and start seeing society making positive progress.  I’m just thinking and hoping out loud.

I’ve had an overflowing earful, far more than enough, of hearing about the evil things that people do.  Let’s tell our kids we love them and we hold out the highest expectations and hopes and dreams for them. Let’s tell our neighbors we really care about them.  And let’s make our society-bettering heroes more well known, and better rewarded, than our criminals.

Paradigm Shifts, and The Changeless God March 5, 2014

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Perceptions of universality
Agreements about what we see
Reality, at least, maybe
Archetypes from history
Direction we think we should go
Influencers of behavior
Gleaned knowledge we think we know
Models, changing as we grow

Be careful what your paradigm is and how tightly you cling to it. The harder you hang on, the more difficult it is to let go. Things change. Our perceptions of things change with the changes. Maybe the truth is we don’t really know anything. Maybe the truth is, everything we think is right is wrong. Or maybe what we think is right is right but we’re looking at it the wrong way.

People have been critical of the Bible as a sacred text, probably more critical than they are of any other text. We don’t question the words of the translated works of the Iliad or the Odyssey, attributed to Homer, written in Greek, according to the experts, somewhere around 750 or 850 BC. We don’t question and debate The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu, who lived somewhere between 490 and 544 BC. Sun Tsu has a certain mythical or legendary quality about him. But the translation of the Chinese text isn’t questioned for its’ meanings, or debated to death. And yet, the New Testament, with all of the manuscripts and copies of the letters, written by its various authors between 50 AD and 150 AD, is questioned by scholars, attacked for its validity, and questioned for its authorship and sources. The Old Testament scrolls were scrupulously copied by scholars who counted words and letters and had several other tests, and if an error was found, the new copy of the old scroll that was made was destroyed.

People don’t question the existences or the messages of Homer or Sun Tzu, or Buddha, or Mohammed, or Shakespeare, but they do question the existence and reality of Jesus, and His teachings. It’s fine and dandy to study the Old and New Testaments and apply them to ones own life, but woe to the preacher who tries to say it applies to everyone’s lives. All the other ancient texts are considered relevant to cultural education, but the Bible is banned from modern American public education. Or it is redacted, watered down, criticized and undermined and called irrelevant.

I cry foul.

Unfair. Why so critical? It is because we don’t like what it teaches us. We don’t like a text that calls us “bad.” We don’t like a text that calls us out and says we should change, or fear God’s judgement. If you can critique away the message, the Author, or any part of either, you can ignore what it says.

I didn’t start out intending to write a defense of the whole thing. I started out intending to write about how we read it. However, the concepts will intertwine shortly.

Consider if you will, the preaching methods of various pastors you’ve heard, and if you haven’t heard, I’ll brief you on a few. Some pastors will take a section of text at a time, take it apart and put it back together, and by the time they are done, they’ve reassembled it correctly AND applied it to everyone logically and correctly. Some pastors will speak on a topic, and by the time they are done, they have hopscotched through the Bible, until the audience is either thoroughly delighted with the connections, or completely confused and lost in the details. Some pastors will take a few texts, remove them completely from their appropriate contexts and original intents, and use them to say what the pastor believes, instead of what they actually say.

I’m trying to say there are a lot of pastors out there, and just like a cross section of humanity, there are good and bad pastors. But Mark Twain was right when he quipped that it wasn’t so much what he didn’t understand about the Bible that bugged him, it was what he did understand that was so irritating. We need to have tender hearts when we approach the Bible, so that we can understand why it bugs us, and pray for God to fix us and forgive us when we realize that His ways are right and ours have been wrong.

I hate my sins. I hate my evil heart and its bad habits. But try as I might to pray them away, God hasn’t seen fit to make me a completely sinless, perfect being. Or maybe in my heart of hearts I really adore my sins and my bad habits and I don’t want to release them. I love that the Bible teaches that God offers grace and forgiveness freely for the asking, and encourages people to just have faith.

And then I hear pastors who teach that maybe the doctrine of eternal salvation isn’t true. Maybe our habits will cost us entrance into heaven. I treasure the doctrine of eternal salvation because, despite my bad habits, I want to love a God of infinite grace and mercy and forgiveness, not a God of judgement. I want a Jesus who is a friend like a brother to the sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes, who comes to find me where I am, deserving a horrific stoning death or a crucifixion, and tells me that he’s not there to judge or kill me, but to ask me to have faith, come follow him, and join him in his mission to rescue people from eternal separation and judgement.

I need it to be true. I’m not willing to stop clinging to eternal security, because I am so very imperfect and because I believe Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient to substitute for me and atone for my sin, and His resurrection really happened. You’ll have to see the article I wrote about Roman soldiers to understand why I believe the resurrection so strongly.

I finally got to it. Matthew 7. I have heard it preached in all manner of ways. Topical, critical, verse by verse, concept by concept, expository, judgemental, grace-filled, textual. People take that thing apart and dissect it and milk it and chop it up into steaks. And mis-takes. If I read it and take it at face value I have to believe Jesus taught it in a sitting, all at once.

I understand the value of taking apart the text. It’s hard to digest it all at once. But if Jesus sat down and gave us all of this at the same time, it means that in the same breaths He taught about judgement and condemned it, and then in the next section He taught how to judge and encouraged it. Or did He?

I used to hate other people’s sins a whole lot more. After all, of pastors Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets.” (v 15) “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (v 16) Does this not instruct us not to trust people, but to inspect their lives to see what they produce? But earlier, “do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (v1) “Take the plank from your own eye and then you will be able to see clearly to help your brother remove the speck from his eye.” (v 5)

And then He talks about true and false disciples. “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (21) It doesn’t matter how good their fruit was, or how real it looked, it matters instead whether He knew the disciple. We all then have to inspect ourselves to see whether He knows us, in order to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)

How do you take that as a unit, addressing the whole text? First we’re commanded not to judge others unless we expect the same treatment. Then we’re told to judge others and figure out whether they are good to follow or not. Then we’re told there are disciples who think they are following but they’re not. To coin an old southern expression, “What is a boy to do?”

If God doesn’t change, how should the text be taught? How is the text to be correctly handled? I like the answer “every possible way,” as long as it encourages and doesn’t contradict anything else in scriptures. What about backward?

Reading it backward, we’re supposed to make sure of our own spiritual standing to make sure He knows us, pick our teachers carefully, and not judge other people for the stuff they’re doing that we think is wrong until we fix our own hearts and make sure they are humble before God. Fixing our own hearts should take long enough we don’t have time to point fingers and shut the doors of the kingdom of Heaven on anyone. If we’re doing it right it does.

It’s not a huge paradigm shift, but I quit calling out other people for their sins. Any more, I just read the text. If anyone gives me the opportunity to teach it, I’ll call them to examine their hearts, sure. I’ll tell them about what God considers sin, sure. I’ll tell them how special behaviors were expected of Israel back in the Old Testament, behaviors that set them apart and made them act and look different. I’ll tell them to love one another, and how in loving one another we draw people to Jesus as He taught us how to love. It’s a part of the text. I’ll tell them to examine their hearts to see whether they know Him and He knows them.

The paradigm shift for me is that I used to care a whole lot more about what other people were doing that was wrong. Slowly and systematically, my contempt for other people’s faults has been eroded, the walls of hatred and separation have been dismantled, and finally shattered completely. I was so tired of it at the end. Now, I don’t care what other people do any more; it’s really liberating. Does it mean God changed? Not at all. He changed me. I don’t care what you do any more. It makes no difference to me. The only thing I care about is that it should be called what it is, not what it isn’t.

Isaiah 5 says,
20 Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight.

I don’t want to be wise any more. I don’t want to be clever any more. I don’t want to hide or justify my sin behind a tricky intricate argument that makes my behavior OK if you look at the text in my double-secret-special way, and accept that I discovered the loophole in the sacred contract. And better still, I don’t want to judge people for their sin any more. That’s God’s job. But when He says it’s a spiritual reality, it’s real whether you can see it, or whether you believe it or not. When He says it’s wrong, and when your conscience says to quit, you should quit. (see John 16:8) And when my seared conscience substitutes, twists words and meanings, and makes up clever arguments defending what I know is wrong, it’s bad. We should call it what it is, not what it is not. Evil is evil, good is good, and no clever arguments will change God’s mind about things. “I the Lord do not change.” Malachi wrote. (3:6) If He said not to do it, that’s bad. If He said it’s your choice, it’s your choice. If He said to do it, it’s good if you do.

What He does, according to C. S. Lewis, if we let Him, is change us. We learn and grow and our perspectives shift. Our paradigms grow in understanding. Or, if we don’t let Him, they don’t. We grow hardened and darkened. We become un-useful, or worse, counterproductive, in the Kingdom of Heaven. Some of us do it and still think we are following Him and doing His will.

I’ve got my own habits and darknesses and evils, like ten foot 2 by 4s in my eyes. I frequently fail to see the way things work in God’s plan. I frequently fail to understand the way God designed me to live. I frequently fail to do what is right. Please, let me worry about that first. Then maybe I can help you with your smaller issues. So for now, I don’t care what you do, as long as you call it what God calls it. Your fine sounding arguments and excuses for what you do, and mine for what I do, make absolutely no difference to God.

There’s an old joke about a doctor’s words of wisdom. The patient says, “Dr., Dr., it hurts when I do this.” The doctor replies, “Then don’t do that.”

I think the test is simple for me: Is it loving? Do that. Is it according to God’s best design for you? Do that. Is it hateful or destructive? Don’t do that. Is it against something clear that you have read in the Bible that bothers your conscience when you pray about it? Don’t do that.

In the end, if He knows me, it’ll be because I am seeking after His heart. And more than that, it’ll be because He is merciful, gracious and forgiving, NOT because my habits or my heart are pure as a pattern.

God, forgive me for judging anyone other than myself. That is Your job, not mine. We all get the call to love one another. We all get an invitation to turn from our sins and follow You. Help me to spread that message, not one of condemnation or hatred. If there’s a heart to be changed, please change my heart first. And help me to simply encourage others, just to seek You honestly, without my agendas, interpretations and expectations, and also, without their agendas, interpretations and expectations. Help me to find Your will for me, and then, help others to find Your will for them.

Amen.