29 January 2016

God doesn’t have a dark side.

Yet too many people think the Almighty suborns evil for his secret purposes.

1 John 1.5-7

As I mentioned last time, a lot of gnostic religions were teaching all sorts of weirdness about Jesus. Some of their ideas had leaked into the first-century church; loads of them are still around. Some are outright heresy, stuff that leads us away from Jesus instead of towards him. John’s letter was meant to preemptively get to Christians before the wrong ideas took serious root.

One of the more popular wrong ideas is that God has a dark side. It’s based on the idea, taught by many philosophers, religions, and many Christians, that once we take everything back to its first cause, that’d be God. It’s called the “unmoved mover” idea, as described by Aristotle of Athens. Problem is, people really do assume God is the first cause of everything—including dark stuff.

Fr’instance God is sovereign: He’s in charge. He created the world, he sustains it, and he rules it. Right? But if God’s in charge, what about sin?—why is evil, chaos, and death still part of our universe if God’s running the show? Well, most Christians conclude God, though almighty and can easily run everything, chooses not to. He may be sovereign, but he’s no micromanager. So his creatures can have free will, he steps back, lets us make choices—good, bad, or evil—and lets us learn from the consequences.

But some Christians insist no, God’d never cede control of any part of his creation like that. (Certainly they never would, if they were God.) But since he hasn’t clamped down on our evil, it has to mean he wants this evil to happen. It’s not just the results of our experiments with decision-making within God’s controlled environment. It’s part of the plan: In the beginning, when God mapped out his plan for the cosmos, he sovereignly decreed our evil would happen so that he could look good in comparison, and rescue us from it. He’d draw good out of it in the long run. But in the short run: Evil, chaos, and death. Because God sovereignly said so.

Okay, I’ve seen this plot in many a bad sitcom: Our protagonist secretly creates a problem, easily solves it, and everyone lauds him as a hero. (And then, ’cause it’s a sitcom, he gets exposed, and everyone rejects him as a fraud.) Except this is what certain Christians claim God did. Just they’d never call him a fraud, ’cause he’s good—according to their freakish new definition of “good,” which means “good in the long run.” And evil in the short.

This was not a new idea in John’s day. A lot of Pharisees believed God was deterministic like this—in his universe, he decides how everything plays out, and we humans only have the illusion of free will: God rigged things so we’d only ever follow the path he lays out for us. A lot of gnostics believed likewise. But John easily refuted it:

1 John 1.5-7 KWL
5 This is the message we heard from him and proclaim to you:
God is light. To him, darkness is nothing.
6 When we say we have a relationship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie; we don’t act in truth.
7 When we walk in the light like him, who’s in light, we have a relationship with one another,
and his son Jesus’s blood cleanses us of every sin.

God’s only the source of all good in the universe. Not bad. Not evil. That gets created by God’s wayward creatures, not him. Blaming God for it, directly or indirectly, may appear to get us off the hook. But since God’s gonna judge us for our own evil behavior, it obviously doesn’t get us off the hook with him.

Redefining darkness.

In ancient Jewish thinking, light and darkness had to do with good and evil. That’s the way John described it: When we walk in light, Jesus’s blood cleanses us of every sin. When we don’t, we lie—to ourselves and to others—and our actions are the product of lies. In the next verses, going back into the light again gets us cleansed of wrongdoing. It’s all about doing good, versus doing wrong.

Thing is, in ancient gentile thinking, light and darkness usually had to do with knowledge and ignorance. The Greeks believed knowledge, truth, and wisdom came from the light. Literally. The gods would trickle it down from the heavens; it’d get into the air, people would breathe it in, and it’d work their way into their “animal spirit,” the immaterial part which made them live, move, and have their being. It’s how, the Greeks believed, people just knew certain truths. It wasn’t traditions and prejudices they picked up from their culture, combined with various wild guesses (which, to be fair, were sometimes pretty insightful). It was divine knowledge.

Since a lot of the early Christians were gentiles, and since 1 John was more than likely written to gentiles, there’s a pretty common assumption John thought like a gentile: Light is a codeword for truth, not goodness. And since gnostics were big on secret truths, and 1 John was written to refute gnostic beliefs, there ya go: It fits the historical context! Light is truth.

Gnostics teach God had loads of secret knowledge. And if you wanna know it, you gotta take their courses. Buy their books. Go to their “prophecy conferences,” where they’ll tell you what all the visions mean, and how the End Times works. Go to their “school of the supernatural,” where they’ll teach you how to do miracles. It’ll cost you a bundle, but what’s that matter? Secret knowledge!

But, as the interpreters point out, God is light. And if truth is light, God is truth. So let’s embrace truth. Let’s get everything out into the open. No more secrets, no more lies, no more half-truths. No more charging fellow Christians an arm and a leg for information which should be the birthright of every child of God.

Okay, I’m not saying this isn’t good advice. I don’t like simony either. It’d be really nice to be able to point this verse at such people, and proclaim, “The LORD rebuke you.” But it’s not what John meant. He wasn’t writing about exposing secret knowledge. He was writing about not sinning.

’Cause God does have some secrets. The book of Revelation is hard to understand, precisely for this reason. God deliberately obscures the details. If we Christians knew precisely how stuff is going down, some of us would try to stop it forever, and others of us would deliberately try to trigger it. But the End will happen when God decides. Not before. It’s not for us to know when. Ac 1.7 It’s only for us to trust him.

Sometimes God’s gonna do stuff, and won’t tell us why. He never told Job why. Some of us aren’t mature enough to handle such knowledge. Witness the destruction wrought by an immature Christian who took an apologetics course, and now feels empowered to correct everybody. Facts without love; the epitome of Paul’s warning:

1 Corinthians 8.1 KWL
Regarding idol-offerings: We know everybody has “knowledge” about this.
Knowledge builds a bounce house. Love builds a real house.

But even though God has details he’s gonna keep to himself, and even though sometimes we Christians need to keep one another’s confidences, God’s generally in the revealing business. Not the obfuscating business. God prefers to tell us what he’s up to. Am 3.7 He keeps secrets only when details will do us more harm than good.

And verse 5 is about good versus evil, not truth versus secrets. God’s secrets are just as true and good as his revealed will. Because God is light. He’s not hiding an evil persona, buried deep beneath any secret plans, where he’s okay with evil, chaos, and death. The KJV puts it, “In him is no darkness at all”—he’s good all the way through. But more than that: God is overwhelmingly more powerful than darkness. His light obliterates it.

Don’t be afraid of the dark!

My former grad school roommate is legally blind. He can see, but not well. The brighter the lights, the better he sees. Our dorm room was dimly lit by 40-watt bulbs, so one day I went to the hardware store and got a 200-watt bulb. You think your halogen torches are bright: This sucker was so bright, when you opened our door it lit up the dorm’s hallway. And the bathroom down the hall. Of course the sun did the very same thing every day, but we were still mighty impressed with this bulb.

God’s the same way. Light wipes out darkness. God beats evil. Gnostics and other religions make it sound like a constant struggle, topped off by a cosmic battle. A Götterdämmrung, to use the German term: The gods fight, the bad gods fall, but the old gods also fall, to be replaced by new gods. In reality there’s no such thing. At the End, the Almighty says, “Kids, we’re done,” and evil stops. It’s no contest. God wins. The end.

But forget about whether heretics or dark Christians fret over evil much too much. Of course they do. Focus on whether we do this: Don’t we sometimes make too much of darkness? Of course we do.

I get paranoid email all the time from Christians who are scared witless of one stupid thing after another. The government’s up to something, the president’s up to something, the media’re up to something, the Europeans or Chinese or Iranians or North Koreans are up to something, the devil’s up to something. There’s so much irrational fear, and it’s completely antithetical to people whose faith is supposed to be in God. That’s because it’s not in God. They may trust him to save them from hell, but nothing else.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t stay up on current events, and try to fight evil in our communities and nation. But Christians really need to stop flinching in panic every single time we hear of sinners being sinners. How else should we expect ’em to behave? And just because they behave like the pagans they are, doesn’t mean evil is winning. Our God is still infinitely more powerful than evil. To him, their darkness is nothing.

If we believed this, we wouldn’t freak out over every dark and scary thing. Or every semi-dark thing. We shouldn’t see the fruitless, scaredy-cat mania I see so frequently among Christians. Being in the light should make it quite clear these worries are unfounded.

A relationship in the light.

Assuming we’re actually in the light. John made a fairly obvious point: If God’s light, and we have a valid relationship with him, we shouldn’t see dark behavior.

1 John 1.6-7 KWL
6 When we say we have a relationship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie; we don’t act in truth.
7 When we walk in the light like him, who’s in light, we have a relationship with one another,
and his son Jesus’s blood cleanses us of every sin.

Gnostics used a lot of twisted logic to justify and cancel out their sins. And Christians do this too. We argue the Old Testament commands no longer count, ’cause we’re under grace. We argue the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t matter, ’cause that’s how life in God’s kingdom works—and the kingdom won’t arrive till Jesus returns. We’ve come up with all sorts of reasons why sins are no longer sins, ’cause grace. Which isn’t logical. Grace means God forgives us. If sins aren’t sins anymore, what’s there to forgive?

Another thing we Christians regularly do ass-backward: We preach sanctification to pagans, and grace to Christians. We tell society to behave ’cause God is anti-sin. Yet at the same time we tell ourselves we have freedom in Christ, so it’s okay when we break God’s commands: God forgives all. It’s supposed to be the other way round: God offers forgiveness to sinners. And now that we’ve been freed of sin, stop being its chump! Ro 6.1-4

John cut through our crap and made it clear: If we claim a relationship with God, yet act like every other pagan, we have no such relationship. Doesn’t matter what we claim to believe. God’s influence should’ve transformed us and borne fruit. If it hasn’t, we don’t have him. Behavior implies salvation. No, we’re not saved by works, but when we lack the works, we have no evidence of salvation. Faith without works is dead. Jm 2.26

Those of us in relationship with God can’t be involved with the dark. We literally can’t: His light wipes it out. Our close proximity to God means any temptation the dark used to hold, isn’t there. Our focus is on God, only God. We see sin through his eyes: It’s small, stupid, unnatural, and foul.

Note how it’s not sin which hinders our relationships with God. It’s us. In order to be tempted by darkness, we had to walk away from light. The light’s still there; God hasn’t gone anywhere, and isn’t leaving. He’s like the friend who still texts you even when you never text back. Even though you’re plotting to do all the things you promised him you’d never. Even after you did a few of ’em.

We need to stop reducing our relationship with God to this contractual “I call you Lord and you get me saved” deal. God doesn’t want a business arrangement. He wants children. He wants a real relationship, not an acquaintanceship with frequent name-dropping, where our testimonies consist of God-trivia instead of something we actually did together. (And not something we did together decades ago, ’cause there’s been nothing since.) That’s no relationship. It’s hardly a relationship worth appealing to at the Last Judgment. Yet many of us will try… and sadly for some it won’t work.