This pandemic is getting old. That’s pretty much been the case since it started, but now that we’ve been living under its shadow for four months, I imagine we’re all very ready to move on, to one degree or another.
As I’ve observed behavior across the country throughout this, and especially as I’ve paid attention to the responses of Christians far and wide, it has struck me that many have developed a spirit of fear. Not all—in fact, most of the Christians I know who fall into the categories of highest risk for death due to the virus have been the most resolutely fearless, most at peace with the prospect of going to see Jesus sooner than expected, and frankly, the most crotchety and irritated with others who don’t see it the same way.
It’s easy to dismiss their attitude as unscientific, misguided, or stuck in the past, but the simple fact is that they’re the ones who bear the greatest burden of risk in this scenario, and the patronizing responses to them have often been downright disrespectful, by young and healthy folks whose lives are not at any elevated risk.
As I’ve watched this and wrestled with facts, interpretations, and most importantly tried to determine God’s will in all of this, the distinction that stands out most in my mind is not between young and old, between, scientific and unscientific, between caring and heartless, between rational and irrational, between humble and arrogant, or any of the other dichotomies we might have expected. It’s simply between those who are fearful, and those who are courageous.
This doesn’t always correlate with general attitudes toward the pandemic—often the fearful ones don’t take it seriously at all, and some courageous ones are convinced they’ll be dead by next Tuesday; but the way we handle these divergent beliefs is the point. It reminds me of Paul’s situation when he wrote the letter to the church at Philippi. Imprisoned and facing a death sentence if convicted, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. (Php 1.20-22)
He isn’t even sure what he wants to happen, continuing on to say, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (v23). Having reasoned through to that conclusion, he expects to be spared, apparently through God’s providence. Yet, as the letter continues, he shows that he’s not entirely confident, in 2.17 entertaining the notion that he may “be poured out as a drink offering,” and saying that he wants to send Timothy with further news, “just as soon as I see how it will go with me” (2.23).
We may sympathize with his plight to some degree since, whatever our tentative conclusions may be with respect to the virus in whose shadow we now live, the possibility that we’re wrong always hangs in the back of our minds, tempting us into ambivalence and vacillation. While we can’t do much at the present time to validate our theories and predictions (apart from simply waiting), we should certainly “join in imitating” Paul, as he encouraged the Philippian Christians to do, so long ago. His was in an unthinkably stressful situation—not a mere 4% maximum death rate, among the less than 1% of the nation’s population that has tested positive for the virus over the past four months, but instead something much closer to a genuine 50-50. Yet, even in his uncertain situation, what was his overall demeanor? What characterized his spirit? “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,” he tells them in 1.12. “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death,” he said in 1.20, as we noted already above. We began to look at 2.17 earlier, but didn’t complete the verse: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” He tells these Christians, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (4.6).
His other letters written during this time (Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon) all display the same resolute courage, that he will defend his Lord before both Caesar and anyone else he has the opportunity to teach; that whatever the outcome of his next few weeks might be, he will “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Php 3.14). We would do well to imitate his brand of strength, in our own uncertain times.
In that instance, Paul’s well-reasoned conclusion proved to be correct, and he was freed, allowing him to continue his fruitful work. However, he wrote a letter to Timothy later on having been imprisoned a second time, and by all indications, he didn’t make it out alive this time. Yet, he didn’t build unnecessary walls, suspend God’s less convenient commandments, or allow these fleshly concerns to take control of his spirit. Instead, he opens up his letter by reminding Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2Ti 1.7). We, too, must remember this fact, and refuse to take on a spirit of fear.
There are a number of puzzling verses in the Bible, sometimes due to the counterintuitive mysteries of God, sometimes because of difficulty and differences in translation, and sometimes because of cultural assumptions that we don’t share in this day and age. But the one that stands out to me as the most glaringly opaque is Ecclesiastes 7.16: “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” That’s right, sandwiched right in the middle of a giant book about how God is righteous and demands that humans be righteous, too, is a cavalier “meh” toward the whole premise. It’s right there, you can take it to the bank, “the Bible says I shouldn’t bee too righteous, so sign me up for a little debauchery…” Obviously, something is amiss, here.
It would be easy, and natural, for someone who wants to hear and believe this message, who’s all about mercy, to take it at face value and turn it into an axiom by which to live—it’s been done many times before with favorite verses, in most cases putting no appreciable burden on the bearer of the holy words, yet conferring immense benefit. Conversely, it’s easy and natural for someone who’s more concerned with justice, to immediately set about gutting the verse in question by pointing out that it’s part of the Old Testament and doesn’t apply to us anymore, that it was written by Solomon, who wasn’t exactly a great role model, or perhaps that consulting my preferred translation will clearly demonstrate that yours is from the devil, placing a burden on each individual that is more than they can carry.
Both these responses are understandable, but neither one is good. They represent extremes—on the one hand a licentious, self-centered hedonist, and on the other a stoic, heartless authoritarian. This example is more overt than most, but it really highlights the same problem that plagues all interpretation of God’s Word, as well as the way we live our lives in general. Why is this one verse taken alone, out of context? You might say that Solomon’s words—and more than that, God’s words!—have been selectively edited to give the wrong impression, and the only way to find the truth is to look at the whole picture.
In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them. (Ecclesiastes 7.15-18)
The problem Solomon is addressing is the fact of undeserved outcomes. The Law of Moses didn’t entirely account for this, and while Christ actually did, he also made it clear that scores wouldn’t all be settled until the physical is completed, and that God expects us to endure some undeserved outcomes in this life. As Peter says, “what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1Pe 2.20). Of course, it’s easy to take that to an extreme as well, one which neglects, among others things, that Jesus said in Luke 22.36, “let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one,” and that Jesus himself violently drove intruders out of his Father’s house. That highlights the need for a balance between the extremes, which, is exactly what Solomon was trying to say in the first place.
He didn’t only say, don’t be too righteous; he followed it up a warning against being too wicked. The inference that some amount of wickedness is acceptable isn’t really accurate, but his method of bouncing back and forth between extremes is the real point. That’s why he says, “take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand” (Ec 7.18)—the identities of “this” and “that” are deliberately vague; they don’t mean anything in particular. The focus is balance.
Of course, the broad context of Ecclesiastes, a search for meaning and fulfillment from an entirely earthly perspective, goes a long way to remind us that all of this is not precept from God, but God’s demonstration of this life’s “vanity” in the absence of something greater; but just as it was important that we consider the context, and guard against leaping to one extreme or the other, it’s important that we not abandon the meaning behind the text—when we leap to either extreme, we bring problems on ourselves. When we focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else, it brings harm to us. When we think ourselves righteous and wise, then we are at great risk of falling.
That’s one of the many reasons why Jesus’ sacrifice is so important. Try as we might—and try we should—to behave righteously, we all fail. Not unavoidably, or it wouldn’t be our fault; not innately, or we wouldn’t be accountable. But fail we do, by our own choice. Jesus, by his own choice, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (He 5.8-9). He has been to the extremes for us, suffering the penalty that should be ours, and gaining the reward that is promised to us, if we trust and obey him.
1 Thessalonians is one of my 66 favorite books of the Bible (a lame joke that I just keep using). It stands alone just fine, as one of comparatively few times Paul wrote a letter to a congregation without really tearing into them. Yet, the deeper we study it, and especially upon comparing it to 2 Thessalonians, which he wrote a very short time after the first letter, the clearer it becomes that he was, in fact, trying to address some pretty significant problems the first time around, but he was being delicate and hoping they’d get the picture without him having to resort to more forceful words. They didn’t, and he did.
At the end of the second letter in question, he gets rather specific in discussing one of the prominent shortcomings among the Christians at Thessalonica:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. (2Thessalonians 3.6-14)
There’s a lot in there, but chiefly I want to focus on the problem of “idleness”—not working for a living. He writes as if he is surprised this came up, since, after all, he and Timothy and Silas had deliberately taken steps above and beyond their own responsibility in order to forestall this eventuality, working for their own living, even though they had a right to be compensated by the church they were serving so diligently. But, their efforts were ignored, or forgotten.
As usually happens, one sin compounded with another, as Paul noted in verse 11 with a slight pun, that some are “not busy at work, but busybodies.” We all know, and most of us have seen firsthand, the damage and destruction that can be wrought by people who just won’t mind their own business, and never seem to have anything more important to do than to meddle in other people’s affairs, usually second-guessing, finding fault, and incessantly pestering someone who’s just trying to do their best and get home to their family. We all know someone like this, and even if we love them, we dread their presence.
Where it starts to get a bit comical is in the following verse, when Paul brings it home: “such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (v12). He hasn’t even directly addressed the busybody problem, instead going for the root and using strong terms to get his point across. The funny thing, though, is that he’d said almost this exact same thing in the previous letter, but there it seemed a lot more gentle, urging them “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1Th 4.11-12).
Well, now that we know what’s coming in the second letter, it’s easy to see how the roots of the problem were already present when he wrote the first one, and instead of drawing attention to the sin, calling out those responsible, he just mentions in passing what ought to be their goal. It’s a clever persuasive technique, but it didn’t work, and so he had to be more aggressive the next time.
There’s something to learn in this about how we correct others, as well as about making sure we don’t become busybodies. It’s a problem endemic to humanity, but right now especially, we’re seeing society at large poking into each other’s affairs, past and present, and then passing sweeping moral judgment based on tenuous standards that seem to shift drastically by the week, if not the day. God’s answer, passed through my “snarky” filter, would be, “don’t you have anything more important to do?”
As I’ve mentioned a number of times lately, we live in interesting times. As a group, we need to be standing up for truth and right; as individuals, we’ll generally avoid most of the problems, as well as avoid becoming problems ourselves, if we take the first encouragement. “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands”—if you’re busy working to take good care of your family (and this does not only mean working to get paid!), you generally don’t have time to cause problems. You generally don’t have time to dig into other people’s lives and flush out, or fabricate, their problems. Ultimately, there’s nothing to be done about most of those problems anyway—we all have created problems—they’re called “sins.” Rather than drawing attention to the specks in each other’s eyes, wouldn’t it be better if we all focused on removing the logs from our own eyes (Mt 7.3-5)? In our daily lives, let’s make sure, first of all, that we aren’t continuing to sin, before we start calling for others to be punished. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another” (Ro 14.4)?
We live in strange times. For my lifetime up to this point, at least, the focus in the church has been on doctrine surrounding worship and salvation. This has been for two reasons—first, those were the main problems the church faced; and second, we pretty much all agreed on the basic standard of right and wrong already. Our nation, taking most of its moral cues from the Bible, mostly agreed, and so we were left to argue over finer points, which are nonetheless important. Who would have thought, a month ago, that there would be widespread questions over whether stealing, for example, was right or wrong? There was theft, of course; but the great majority, in both the church and the world, could easily agree that it was wrong, even if they might have disagreed on precisely why.
I’ve held off talking about this because there were other things more pressing than this to address, and because I wanted to take some time to develop my understanding of worldly events, and to think about God’s Word on the matter. With that done, it’s no longer time to remain silent, and I’m afraid this is becoming a pressing concern that the church should be ready to meet.
We live in a society that no longer agrees on right and wrong. The groundwork for this rift was laid a long time ago, with some maintaining that the things God clearly says are sinful are, well, sinful, and others saying that such attitudes are hateful, intolerant, and directly contrary to God’s Word, or that God’s Word doesn’t matter, or that God doesn’t exist, and we get to make up our own rules. Let’s consider an example of a world without enforcement of any of God’s rules. If you’ve never read the last five chapters of the book of Judges, there’s no better time than now to do so. They are not G-rated, or even PG-13; they paint a grisly picture of life without some enforcement of God’s basic moral rules.
It begins in chapters 17 and 18 with a story of theft within a family, giving way to idolatry and a perversion of the priesthood, after which the author gives a helpful note to explain how events got this ridiculous: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Jdg 17.6). The guy behind all of that nonsense, Micah, ends up being victimized, in turn. What he had built is stolen from him, by a marauding band of fellow Israelites, who then go and murder an entire city for the express purpose of leaving the land God had allotted to them, and taking these poor people’s home for themselves. There’s no one to mourn these “quiet and unsuspecting” people (18.27) as the tribe of Dan sets up its own city, as well as an idolatrous shrine. Lovely.
Shifting gears, we see some more awful behavior in chapter 19, prefaced with a reminder that “there was no king in Israel” at the time (19.1). This time a nameless Levite has a falling out with his concubine (by the way, for some reason he had a concubine rather than a wife…), and then in the course of reconciling, his father-in-law coaxes him into a five-day party, which raises the question, don’t these guys have anything useful to do? The Levite finally sets out on his journey home with his…girl (e.g. v3)…as evening falls, which does not seem like a stupendously responsible decision. They pass the town of Jebus, not wanting to stay there because it’s full of (*shudder*) Gentiles, and eventually reach the Benjaminite town of Gibeah. The Israelites of that town then attempt to force themselves sexually on the nameless Levite, who, in a despicable act of cowardice, throws his concubine to these animals, who proceed to, um, mistreat the poor girl, to such an extent that she dies. How’s that no-enforcement thing looking?
Believe it or not, it gets worse—the Levite (the girl’s “master” according to 19.27) dismembers her body and sends these gruesome postcards to the 12 tribes of Israel. The entire nation is, on the bright side, outraged at this incident, and so after some tribal back-and-forth and escalation, they determine that the logical reaction is to exterminate the tribe of Benjamin, which, call me crazy, seems excessive. In the ensuing war, at least 65,000 men are killed, and that doesn’t take account of the death toll within the towns, of which it is reported, “all the towns that they found they set on fire” (20.48). In the aftermath, someone notices that no one came to help from Jabesh-gilead, in the eastern territory of Manasseh, and so, of course, they slaughter that entire town for the crime of not helping them slaughter several other towns. They do spare the 400 young girls they find there, in order to give them forcibly as wives for the few remaining Benjaminites whose tribe they just finished massacring. This isn’t enough to ensure the tribe doesn’t die out completely, and so “the elders of the congregation” (21.16) settle on a plan of community-sponsored rape. The whole thing leaves me feeling like I could use a shower. Lest we forget, the author helpfully reminds us, as the chapter, and indeed the book, ends: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21.25).
Why anyone would think that some sort of rule-free, communal paradise is a viable option, is beyond me. Humanity tried that once—you can read about it in Genesis 3 and 4. In those sorts of situations, someone always brings evil into it, and it’s not long before Paradise descends into hatred and violence, where the only moral code is to do what you want at others’ expense. That’s not God’s way—“every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Pr 21.2). In fact, we could go farther: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Pr 14.12 & 16.25). Jesus has promised us a return to Paradise. We can see its firstfruits in the church he established, and can glimpse from afar what awaits us after this life. As long as we live in a fleshly world, evil will reign, and we must stand against it. But take courage, and as you stand for God’s Word on what is right, look forward to the day “when all things are subjected to him” (1Co 15.28).
Jesus constantly dealt with hypocrites, most of whom simply didn’t like that he didn’t praise them or uphold them as the paragon of righteousness; and what’s perhaps most infuriating about them is that they’re willing to go to amazing lengths to try to discredit him, focusing in on whatever minuscule breach of etiquette they can pin on him, or even on his followers, in order to delegitimize his authority or righteousness.
One of the standout encounters of this sort is found in chapter seven of Mark’s Gospel, when the Pharisees notice that some of Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating. We’ve all gotten used to life with COVID-19, and so perhaps empathize a bit with their complaint, but of course they’re not concerned about external effects eventuated by lackluster hygiene—they’re just mad that the “tradition of the elders” (v5) is being ignored.
I’ve written about this text before in the last few months, focusing somewhat on the good aspects of these traditions, but this time I’d like to pay more attention to Jesus’ response, and apply that standard to us. He deftly swats down the initial complaint, calling out the hypocrisy, and the fact that tradition is a far lower standard than God’s commandment; but he’s not done there.
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mk 7.14-15)
This would seem like lunacy to his audience of Jewish disciples, because of course their entire system of ritual purity focused on the external, with detailed instructions about how to avoid defilement, and what onerous steps had to be taken in order to be considered “clean” after a defiling event, such as coming into contact with a dead body, becoming infected with various dermatological ailments, eating unclean foods, having a baby, or even simply participating in various required aspects of worship that led to ritual defilement. Even though God acknowledged that many of these acts weren’t avoidable, there’s a general stigma against even taking the action that would lead to becoming ceremonially unclean, which is particularly easy to see with respect to the dietary code in Leviticus 11, where the terms are “clean” and “unclean” just like the rest, but they’re commanded, “You shall not eat” the unclean foods (e.g. Le 11.8).
Yet, here Jesus says the opposite, even to the point that Mark includes a helpful commentary on his teaching, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mk 7.19). Of course, this is because of what Paul says in Colossians:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Co 2.16-17)
Jesus is explaining to them more fully, at the proper time, what the Law was meant to teach them about holiness—that it is delicate, that it is easily tainted, that it must be carefully guarded and deliberately cultivated; and that our everyday actions in even the most mundane situations put us in danger of defiling ourselves.
In, or Out?
However, those shadows were not the substance, and the substance gives us freedom, while simultaneously applying a more stringent standard on us.
And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mk 7.20-23)
If we’re honest, we’ll admit that there is darkness within our hearts, however much we wish it weren’t there, try to eradicate it, or simply pretend it isn’t so. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Je 17.9). Our hearts are complicated, more complicated than we ourselves even understand, and within the labyrinth are corners, walls, and even entire hallways that remain hidden in the shadows ruled by the “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ep 6.12). If left to our own devices, we’d all succumb to that darkness and let it enslave us, while telling ourselves that we are really the ones in charge.
When we repent of sin, as Jesus tells us over and over again that we must do, we are, in a sense, filling another of those dark corners with the light of Christ, exposing their secrets for what they are, and replacing them with truth, love, and God’s glory. It’s all too easy to pin our eternal fate on a single “come to Jesus” moment, and while there is a clear turning point, demonstrated by the many events of baptism and conversion preserved and explained for us in the book of Acts, we must not stop there. This is to be a lifelong process of conforming more and more closely the image of God’s Son (Ro 8.29), constantly examining and testing ourselves (2Co 13.5), never sitting back in satisfaction with our own cleanness. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Pr 4.23).