Iron sharpens iron
The holidays are upon us once again. Perhaps you love this time of year, or perhaps you hate it. More likely, it’s a little bit of both. Most people tend to travel and see family, and to enjoy a few days off work, gathering around a table and digging into a feast with people they love. We envision these occasions as looking something like da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, but with turkey rather than matzah. The reality is often more like Christmas dinner with the Griswolds, where you’d honestly be relieved if the meal had to be cut short due to the house catching fire. We go in hoping for familial harmony, and by the end are pondering Jesus’ words:
Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation… ( in Mark 13.18-19)
Why do we expect something better? It’s because we generally subscribe to the idea of the picture perfect family. We imagine a dad, a mom, and 2.2 kids, driving their minivan to the park, while wearing matching sweaters. In our fairy tales, the prince rescues the princess, and they live happily ever after, by which we mean they get married, have kids, put a downpayment on a new castle, and never have a care in the world afterward.
The ideal family also appears in the Bible. The instructions Paul gives at the end of his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians address, in quick succession, wives, husbands, children, and parents. If everyone were to follow the instructions he gives, it would lead to exactly the kind of peaceful and harmonious family we all desire, even including several generations of extended family. In the Old Testament, the happily-ever-after story of Ruth achieves the ideal—Naomi’s family, previously damaged by uprooting, hardship, death, and abandonment, is rebuilt through her daughter-in-law Ruth, and while there’s more involved beneath the surface, the primary focus in the text is on Ruth finding a good man, getting married, and having a child. After this, the scene fades to black and the credits roll, leaving us to assume this family, restored to perfection, goes on to live in harmony for the rest of their lives.
The ideal isn’t only seen in humans, though. In Job, God portrays his harmonious heavenly family with himself as patriarch, asking Job where he was during creation, “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Jb 38.7). Getting even closer to our ideal picture, Proverbs 8 personifies Wisdom, and she says, “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work” (Pr 8.22), and
“then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.” (Proverbs 8.30-31)
It’s all symbolic, of course, but the suggestion is that Wisdom is, as it were, the wife through whom God brought forth all his creation, and begat mankind, their children. That’s an odd way for us to look at it, but it’s not really all that different from the way God portrays the great story of his redemptive plan to John: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet,” wearing “a crown of twelve stars…gave birth to a male child,” who was “caught up to God and to his throne” (Re 12.1-5). The woman is the people of God, basically the nation of Israel, and their child is the Christ. The rest of the chapter details the harmonious relationship between the parents in the face of a grave external threat, and the rest of the book makes it quite clear that their Son fulfills his duties impeccably, and even finds his own perfect wife, the church, by the end. He rescues her from the clutches of the dragon (Satan) and his minions, and they settle down in the perfect city with perfect walls and perfect streets, to live happily ever after in wedded bliss. It’s the perfect family.
But does the ideal family really exist, where humans are concerned? No sooner are we introduced to the first family in Genesis 2, than they are blaming each other for their own sins, and raising sons who grow up to be the first murderer and victim. The patriarchs are polygamists and adulterers, and they treat their brothers as enemies. Aaron, Miriam, and Moses can’t get along without God stepping in—and they’re all more than 80 years old at this point, by the way, which is a depressing thought for anyone hoping their siblings or children will get along better as they mature. Even Jesus’ earthly family didn’t quite reflect the ideal—Joseph disappears from the story after the incident when they accidentally left Jesus in Jerusalem when he was 12, and as time wore on, Jesus’ brothers aren’t exactly supportive: “For not even his brothers believed in him” (Jn 7.5).
So, what do we do? First of all, expect conflict within your family. Will yours somehow be the one that magically avoids all of the pitfalls and never experiences any strife? It’s doubtful, and if you pretend that’s the case, you’re only setting yourself up for even bigger problems later on, when it all falls down. Expect to be irritated, expect to be slighted, and realize that the family members you complain about (not that you should) are probably complaining about you, too, for reasons just as good as yours.
But you don’t have to give in to the conflict. Be the glue, not the crack, and follow the example of the ones who kept their families together and helped them, regardless of how they were treated for it. Imitate people like Joseph, Judah, Jethro, Jonathan, Jehoiada, and of course Jesus himself. Apparently, it can’t hurt to give one of your kids a name that starts with a J, but these all have something else in common that’s far more important: they all focused first on God’s will, and then behaved as devoted sons of their heavenly Father, which led to good things for their earthly families, too. The heavenly family, which we touched on a few paragraphs ago, is made up of Christ and his Bride, the church, but it is also God the Father, and we, his children, as Paul reminds us in Galatians 4.6: “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” That family has far less conflict, far less frustration, and matches up far better to the ideal we all seek. As Jesus said, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12.50).
I grew up in a town called “Normal.” When I tell people that, they usually come up with a joke to crack, and while most of these spur-of-the-moment offerings aren’t that funny, there is an obvious potential for comedy there, best exploited in a connection with another Illinois town, Oblong, in the 1970’s newspaper headline, “Oblong Man Marries Normal Woman.”
It took me until my late twenties to figure out where Normal got its name—from the “normal” college. That still might not be much help to you, but that’s what they used to call a school for training teachers. It’s still there, now called Illinois State University, and it’s still recognized for its education program. The idea behind the old label was that teachers would be trained in a model classroom complete with children, and that model would both mimic and cement the norms of education. The method gradually shifted away from this, but it’s easy to see that a set of norms are still encouraged and enforced, both in teacher training and in the schools where they instill those norms in their students.
Life in our society has not been normal for some time. With the pandemic, the race riots, the lockdowns, the backlash against lockdowns, the sudden and counterintuitive mandate to, for example, cover your face before going into the bank, and to top it all off, the ridiculous political climate, it’s safe to say that 2020 has been an abnormal year that doesn’t match the models. I heard many predictions that, after Tuesday’s election, everything would go back to normal. Does it look normal now, to you? Really, was normalcy ever a goal worth pursuing? To put it bluntly, our norms stink.
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3.10b-18)
Paul’s point here is that the Jews, who looked at Gentiles as depraved and evil, were just as bad, based on the things God said about them over the ages. He follows this up by saying, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.22b-23). That is normal. The behavior of individuals is normally contrary to God’s will, and leads to judgment.
But it’s not just at the individual level that “normal” doesn’t look so good. God gave Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, a vision of the future. Daniel, in describing the dream, tells him that he saw
a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. (Daniel 2.31-35)
God also gives Daniel the interpretation of this vision, which is that Nebuchadnezzar’s great kingdom (the golden head) would be supplanted by a lesser one (the silver torso). That kingdom would later fall to a still lesser kingdom, and so on down the statue. God showed this to Nebuchadnezzar in order to remind him that, grand though he was, he was not God, and his kingdom would not last forever. In contrast, God’s own kingdom represented by the uncut stone, would be utterly invincible, and fill the whole earth. The rest of Daniel is full of similar dreams and predictions, often getting into more detail of the events to come, to the same effect: kingdoms rise and fall, but God remains in control. Although we’ve been blessed with living in a relatively uneventful time as far as military conquest, let’s not kid ourselves. What Daniel predicted wasn’t unheard of; it was normal. On the scale of lifetimes, nations rise and fall, still, with monotonous regularity.
Is normal what we really want? Of course not! When we pine for the good old days, we’re being silly, if not foolish. “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ec 7.10). The good old days weren’t so good, but we miss them because we wish to undo things that have been done since, and go back to a time before the latest deceiving tongues and venomous lips, without regard for the bloodshed and ruin of those previous times. As rough as 2020 has been, let’s not pretend 2019 was perfect, or the year before. Even then, we wanted things to go back to normal, and we didn’t get quite what we wanted then, either.
What we need is not a return to normal, nor is it to roll over and accept the new normal. Instead, let’s take a cue from Paul, who said,
“one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3.13-14)
That’s all that really matters.
If you read these articles often, you may remember a recent one entitled “Modern Idolatry” (Vol. 1, No. 33, September 13). You may then ask, “what is the difference between idolatry and paganism?” They have a lot in common, but in the simplest terms, idolatry is the worship of a stand-in for God, whereas paganism is the worship of things that are not God. Often, those go hand in hand, but the first case focuses on the substitution, while in the second case worshipping some other object is the whole point.
We live in a society with very little reverence. All around the country, and bleeding into other parts of the world, statues have been torn down at an alarming rate recently. Most of these are historical in nature, but some have also been religious. Whether many of them should ever have been constructed in the first place, is a different matter, but the standards being applied now are laughable. For example, destroying a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the grounds that he held slaves, certainly holds emotional appeal, and the same goes for George Washington. But when one delves into the laws of the times, and the actions of those men both in general and with regard to the their slaves, their destruction becomes less satisfying. It’s even less clear why statues of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass should be torn down, supposedly in the service of the same cause. None of us is perfect, and your worst sins definitely preclude anyone from making a statue in your honor, don’t they? But the statues were never intended as a blanket stamp of approval, to say these individuals were perfectly righteous. If that were the case, no statue could remain, except those representing the one who was perfectly righteous, Jesus.
Oh look, they’re tearing down statues of Jesus, too. One was at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Miami in July, another at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in El Paso in September. Even under the Law of Moses, God made it very clear that he hates idols, even ones intended to represent him, saying, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way” (De 12.4). That hasn’t changed, and we shouldn’t be putting statues of Jesus in a place of worship. But it’s unlikely that was the motivation behind either of these being toppled.
The past few months in this country are hardly the only time statues and monuments were destroyed in the name of righteousness. It’s common enough that we have a technical term for it, iconoclasm. ISIS destroyed ancient relics at Palmyra, Iraqis destroyed the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003, the Russian Revolution destroyed both religious and royal statues, and the Romans destroyed images of the emperor Commodus after he was assassinated, and it happened many other times.
We even see it in the Bible! Moses destroyed the golden calf (Ex 32), Gideon destroyed the altar of Baal (Jdg 6), God himself destroyed the image of Dagon (1Sa 5), Jehu destroyed the temple of Baal (2Ki 10), and Josiah destroyed all the idolatrous images to be found in Judah at the time (2Ki 23). Clearly, sometimes it’s good to destroy the images and statues men have made. Other times, it’s bad—God punished the Babylonians for destroying his temple and its implements.
When people do this, they’re generally trying to tear down an opposing religion. In the cases from the Bible, this is pretty clear, but when we consider the way it’s been done today and through history, we’ll see it’s all the same. There is a legend, myth, and cult around the founding of our nation. Not everyone who likes this country has turned it into a religion, but some have. Others have turned the Confederacy into an object of worship. Still others have devoted their souls to a particular racial identity, or a political ideology, or even an individual, in much the same way that the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Roman emperors were venerated as living gods (right up until they were assassinated, that is).
Everyone worships something. It may not be overt, but everyone has at least one god. Paul makes this point in Romans 6.16:
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
God has narrowed it down to two choices for us: serve him, or serve sin. But within sin are many different options. God specifically warns against some of these. Chapter 13 of Revelation portrays a great, evil beast, who is worshipped by the people of the earth. It’s not a perfect one-to-one matchup, but the beast basically represents the Roman state. It is an idol, and while Rome is long gone as a world power, the beast is alive and well, seen in government and politics around the world today, with strong hints that most of its worshippers are in it for their own personal gain.
He also warns us, “avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (1Ti 6.20-21). The pursuit of knowledge is good; the worship of knowledge is not. The absurd aspect of this religion is the jump from is to ought. Those who worship science have decided that they can extract morals from their understanding of nature, which is already wrong. But worse, they don’t seem to notice or care that their fundamental understanding of nature keeps changing! The moral demands must be coming from somewhere though, and it seems to be from within the worshippers’ own selfish desires. This, too, has replaced God in the hearts of many today, to the extent that we’ve heard serious suggestions from mainstream voices, that hurricanes, wildfires, and pandemics are Mother Earth’s way of punishing us for our sins against her. Funnily enough, the prophets’ prescriptions for averting Gaia’s wrath look strikingly similar to the prophets’ own Christmas wish lists.
There are more, unfortunately, but what they all have in common are the same things the ancient pagan cults had in common: sacrifice, adherence to a code of conduct, and an elaborate ritual that obscures the idol in the center. But when you look past all of the distractions and get a good look at the idol, and especially if you remove its outer shell, you’ll find that the image hidden within it looks an awful lot like you! Paganism boils down to self-worship, self-service. Yet, “it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’” (Lk 4.8).
Postmodern philosophy, with its ridiculous denial of the existence of objective truth, made it common to explain away someone’s accountability by saying that he was “a product of his environment.” As with most destructive ideas, there is a kernel of truth, that has been taken much too far. The environment in which you grew up, and spend most of your time, affects your perspective on the world. It’s not the defining factor, but it’s involved. Driving along the same stretch of road, a civil engineer notices the condition of the road, a builder sees progress at a construction site off to the side, a truck driver notices the height limit at an underpass, and a businessman considers what he’d do with that vacant storefront. It’s not that we’re unable to see outside our wheelhouse, but we usually don’t. We’re not used to looking.
After God gave the Israelites the promised land and they settled in, the generation that had seen God’s miracles and received his help in conquering the land, began to die out.
And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work he had done for Israel. (Judges 2.10)
It’s not fair to say that Israel’s tendency toward idolatry was purely because they hadn’t seen God’s works—that would make them unaccountable for their own actions, and God didn’t see it that way, he punished them as if they were responsible. But not knowing God certainly didn’t help matters!
In the same way, after Joseph ruled as Pharaoh’s second-in-command and saved not only Egypt, but his own people from the famine, a time came when “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Ex 2.8), and he subjugated Israel, resorting to mass infanticide to keep them from posing a threat to his power. It’s debatable whether this was (however morally wrong) a shrewd move politically, but the point remains, Joseph’s Pharaoh would never have done this due to his experience of Joseph’s immense loyalty and service. Yet, someone brought up outside of that environment felt no such connection.
In both of these cases, an objective observer with more knowledge of the full situation can easily see the mistakes these people made. But for the new king, enslaving and murdering made sense. For the Israelites during the time of the Judges, serving idols made sense. They were wrong, and should have known better, but they didn’t realize it. Their environment had rubbed off on them.
In the USA, there’s a great deal of confusion about spiritual matters that stems from cultural assumptions about things like voting and individual rights, which go back to our nation’s founding. By and large, these norms have led to good. In the political realm, for example, people who unjustly try to seize power ought to be challenged. In the spiritual realm, although most people throughout history have viewed their relationship with God through membership in a particular organization, in reality “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Ga 3.7), which is to say, the one-on-one relationship between you and God is where it all starts, regardless of who gave birth to you. These libertarian, individualistic ideals are largely responsible for the religious awakening in the 19th century USA. Several American Revolution fighters later spurred rebellion, this time not against a tyrannical and oppressive British king, but against artificial, man-made religious hierarchy.
That system needed to go—and although it still remains in force to some extent, 200 years later, it has little of the power it once wielded. It is no longer taken very seriously.
But while these cultural assumptions and ideals have led to much good, they also come with problems. For example, while most churches now rightly challenge the authority of any one person to unilaterally bind their own requirements and decisions on even a single congregation, they have often swung in the other direction as far as accepting majority-rule for most decisions, with little or no thought to why we never see that happening in the New Testament. It’s fairly obvious in the abstract sense, that what is wrong can never be voted into being right, but if our environment encourages us to put everything down to a vote, is it any wonder that’s the default?
This sort of mentality is dangerous in all areas of life. For another example, as our society becomes more and more politically divided on fundamental issues, many want God on their side of the debate, and you can see that figuring prominently in elections like the upcoming one. Is God a Democrat, or a Republican? What a silly question. He’s neither. It’s tempting to crack a joke here about a third party, but it’s not really a laughing matter. God is far above any political system, and it’s absurd to attempt to drag him down to this level. He’s the king. Not just a king, but the king. His rules are not up for debate, or down to a vote. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about our politics—a quick browse through the minor prophets or Revelation tells us otherwise. But we should put our values in the proper order and refuse to be simply products of our environment. We’re supposed to be rubbing off on society, not letting society rub off on us. Let’s make sure to be about our Father’s business.
The word paradise is so commonly used that a riverboat casino near my birthplace chose the mildly clever but very tacky name, “Par-A-Dice Casino.” Different people have different ideas, different images in their heads that they associate with this term, but they all point in the same direction—a place of no worries and endless pleasures. Few of those who recklessly sling the word around realize that it originally referred to the Garden of Eden at the beginning of Genesis. The word doesn’t appear there—at least not in most English bibles—but the Jews during the centuries prior to Christ’s birth started to call Eden by this name, borrowed from a Babylonian word meaning, “walled garden."
That’s an inconspicuous origin. Paradise, at least the way it was originally conceived, turns out to be fairly common, it seems. But these Jews had taken to calling the Garden of Eden by this name, and as a result it has become synonymous with any place, real or fictional, that is portrayed as a…well, as a paradise. There are multiple films by this name, popular songs in more than one genre and era, an island in the Bahamas whose original name, Hog Island, may have been more accurate, and many towns that take this name, including an unincorporated community just a few miles from Newburgh, and a town in California that tragically, if somewhat ironically, became a raging inferno of death in late 2018.
What many, perhaps most of these so-called paradises have in common is easy to see in the first example listed—the Par-A-Dice Casino. Its vision of lasting, worry-free satisfaction amounts to the unbridled indulgence of fleshly appetites—food, drink, sex, money, fame, and idleness. That’s not such a surprise, since the few people in our world who have the means to do so, usually set about satisfying those very desires, but it is a very different picture from the actual Paradise they’re trying to replicate.
Moses tells us about four rivers flowing out of Eden:
The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2.11-14)
None of this is relevant to the story, nor does it help to identify the location of the Garden, since two of the rivers are lost, along with the common source within Eden. Why, then, does Moses mention it? It shows that the very river God put there “to water the garden” (v10) became the cradle of civilization, led the way to mineral resources that were thoroughly useless at the time of Adam and Eve but would become very valuable in the distant future, and gave rise both to agriculture in the fertile crescent, and to the great military powers at the time the book was written. These things were unattainable—and unnecessary!—within Paradise itself, but Paradise laid the groundwork for getting to them.
Additionally, God did not allow Adam to spend his days in leisure. He gave him a job: “The Lord God took took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Ge 2.15). He also didn’t allow Adam to indulge every appetite without consequence. Instead, he
commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Ge 2.16-17).
He didn’t give Adam any commandment concerning the fulfillment of sexual appetites, but consider that he only gave him one option: his wife, Eve, whom he made specifically for Adam and united them into “one flesh” (Ge 2.24).
There are elements of the actual Paradise that are preserved in our warped, modern conception of the idea—the lack of worry over tomorrow, the ready availability of basic necessities, and the lasting satisfaction we crave are all deeply embedded within this description, too. But what we have done over the years, is to fashion in our own minds an “improved” Garden of Eden, complete with a full supply of the “sin which clings so closely” to us (He 12.1).
It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it? We aspire to this simple, carefree, satisfying existence, but even our aspirations are tainted by the very same thing that caused Adam and Eve to lose it—our consistent surrender to sinful desires, and rebellion against God. That’s why we don’t have access to Paradise. We blame it on Adam and Eve, and that’s fair enough, but it’s not as if any of us would have done any differently. We all would’ve made the same choice they did, to fail to trust God, and reject his simple instruction.
Blessedly, Jesus offers us a way out—a way to restore our lost innocence. The answer is not to be found in lusting after the tainted, human concept of paradise with its excesses and license to commit all the sins you want. Instead, it’s about striving for something more like what God had in mind from the beginning: a providential relationship with him, an active faith in what he tells us, and consistent obedience to his instructions, finding our lasting satisfaction on this earth in doing the work he laid out for us.