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28 February 2017

Tithing: Enjoying one’s firstfruits with God.

How an ancient Hebrew harvest celebration got turned into giving a tenth of our income to our churches.

Tithe /taɪð/ n., adj. One-tenth.
2. v. Set aside, or give, a tenth.
3. v. Donate [a tenth of one’s income] to one’s church.

Most Christians define tithe as a donation to one’s church. Usually money, but sometimes our time, and sometimes various other items. The amount doesn’t necessarily equal a tenth of anything, which is why Christian preachers so often feel they should remind us “tithe” comes from the Saxon teóða/“tenth”: If you’re giving less than an actual tenth, it’s not really tithing.

This is because they insist it’s important we bring our whole tithe to church. ’Cause it says to in the bible.

Malachi 3.8-12 KWL
8 “Does any human cheat God like all of you cheat me?
You say, ‘How do we cheat you?’ In tithes. In offerings.
9 You’ve cursed yourselves. The whole nation is cheating me.
10 Bring your whole tithe to my treasury: There’s unclean food in my house!
Please test me in this,” says the LORD of War.
See if I don’t open heaven’s floodgates and pour down blessing till you overflow.
11 I rebuke the blight for you: It won’t ruin your crops.
It won’t kill the vines in your field,” says the LORD of War.
12 “Every nation will call you happy,
and consider you a land of delight,” says the LORD of War.

Most of ’em only quote verses 8–10. They don’t bother with verses 11–12. They should; those verses reveal the context of what the LORD actually meant by mahašér/“tithe.” He wasn’t talking about Christians who don’t contribute enough to our churches. He was talking about Hebrews who didn’t contribute enough to their community food closets. There was teréf/“spoil[ed food]” in his house. A fact most bibles tend to mistranslate “that there may be meat in mine house,” as the KJV has it: Teréf or the modern Yiddish word treyf, means unclean food—and God wasn’t asking for unclean food! But he did want food. ’Cause tithing was about food.

I know: You might never have heard this idea before. You’d be surprised how many Christian pastors are totally clueless about this fact. I grew up Christian, yet hadn’t heard any of this stuff till my thirties. But it’s all in your bible, hiding in plain sight.

27 February 2017

Shrovetide, Lenten fasting, and naysayers.

Getting ready for Lent… assuming you do Lent.

LENT /lɛnt/ n. A time before Easter for Christians to fast, abstain, and practice self-control. Usually 40 days, like Christ in the wilderness, starting Ash Wednesday.
[Lenten /'lɛnt.(ə)n/ adj.]
SHROVETIDE /'ʃroʊv.taɪd/ n. The Sunday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, when Christians customarily confess sins (or “shrive”) before Lent.
[Shrove /ʃroʊv/ vt., shrive /ʃraɪv/ v.]

I didn’t grow up with Lent. I grew up Fundamentalist, and Fundies consider Lent a Catholic thing and dead religion. And popular culture’s irreligious shrovetide activities seem to confirm all their suspicions.

In the United States we’ve got Mardi Gras. The term is French for “gross Tuesday,” a translation I like way better than the usual “fat Tuesday,” because while there’s a lot of awesome jazz, there’s also a lot of shameful behavior going on in these festivals. I’ve been to the New Orleans festival once, as a kid. All I remember were floats, beads, and coins which annoyingly wouldn’t work in vending machines. I vaguely remember drunken revelers, but Mom definitely remembers that part of it, and found it so horrifying she sought us refuge in a church building.

In other parts of the world they celebrate Carnaval, Latin for—I kid you not—“flesh party.” The general idea of these parties is you indulge your flesh and get all your vices out of your system. ’Cause during Lent you’re meant to practice self-control… so do your drinking and fighting and fornicating now, while you still can. As if we weren’t supposed to put away that stuff once we started following Jesus. Ga 5.16

See, this behavior is what makes me suspect these festivals were never created by true Christians. More like lapsed Catholics who wanted to have some ironic fun at the expense of the devout. ’Cause you notice who actually goes to these functions: Pagans and irreligious Christians. The devout stay home… unless they’re actually trying to evangelize the revelers, as my brother tried to do one year. (Hey, Jesus loves ’em too.)

Enough about what they’re up to. My point is Fundies, and other Christians who really don’t wanna practice any more self-control than they already do (assuming they practice any at all), use the revelry as their excuse to abstain from abstaining. You think I didn’t catch their underlying bad attitudes? “Look at those people. They sin their brains out, then go to confession. As if that wipes their slate clean.” And yeah, if you’re a bad Catholic that’s how you think: Sin Tuesday, repent Wednesday; cheap grace cures all. But that’s like assuming every drunken Christmas party is a Protestant thing, or shopping mall riots are how we thank God for his blessings every Thanksgiving.

Don’t confuse the secular madness with any actual religious observance. Got that?

…No? You don’t believe me and you’re gonna skip Lent regardless? Well, there’s no convincing some people.

I’ll just say this and be done with it: Most Fundies forego Lent not because it’s Catholic. They’ve no problem with plenty of other customs which originated among the Catholics. Like hymns, sermons, and nativity crêches. It’s because when it comes to fasting, they deprive themselves nothing, then use the excuse, “It’s not explicitly in the bible, so I needn’t do it.” Thus they justify their lives of excess. They presume they’re righteous because they trust God, not tradition; that their doctrines are orthodox. But in truth they sin just as much as any Mardi Gras reveler—just in quieter ways. And rant over.

Okay, let’s set aside the smokescreens and distractions and ask the question: Should we practice Lent? And if so, how?

24 February 2017

The God who stays the course.

Unlike the lights he put in the sky, God doesn’t wobble or change.

James 1.16-18

In verse 15, James used a pregnancy metaphor to describe how one’s own desires conceives and gives birth to sin. In these verses, he kept up the metaphors. God’s like the planets and moon, only unlike them, he doesn’t go through phases and retrogrades. And we’re like the firstfruits, the crops the Hebrews took their tithes from.

James 1.16-18 KWL
16 Don’t be led astray, my beloved fellow Christians: 17 Every good gift,
every perfect present from above, came down from the Father of heavenly lights.
There’s no phase, no seasonal shadows, with him.
18 His will birthed us by his truthful word, for us to be one of the firstfruits of his creation.

“Don’t be led astray” connects with the previous idea: God isn’t the source of temptation and sin. We are. Determinists regularly make that mistake, figuring if they were almighty like God, they’d let nothing out of their control, and project that view upon God. Even though God clearly, regularly objects to sin throughout the bible, and states he had nothing to do with it. Jr 7.31, 19.5, 32.35 But determinists insist he does so have something to do with it, for not even birds fall out of trees without God’s knowledge. Mt 10.29

Since a lot of determinists profess they’re only following John Calvin’s lead, just for fun let’s have Calvin correct ’em.

Do not err. This is an argument from what is opposite; for as God is the author of all good, it is absurd to suppose him to be the author of evil. To do good is what properly belongs to him, and according to his nature; and from him all good things come to us. Then, whatever evil he does, is not agreeable to his nature. But as it sometimes happens, that he who quits himself well through life, yet in some things fails, he meets this doubt by denying that God is mutable like men. But if God is in all things and always like himself, it hence follows that well-doing is his perpetual work. Calvin at James 1.16-18 

By “whatever evil he does,” Calvin explained in his next paragraph: Sometimes God’s gotta punish sinners with acts we might prima facie call “evil,” but aren’t really. It’s not at all in God’s nature to do evil. Not accidentally, not passively, not intentionally, not ever. There’s no dark side to him. 1Jn 1.5 No secret evil plan. What he revealed of himself to us, is who he legitimately is.

And if we wanna compare God with the heavenly lights he created… well, for this interpretation we need to learn a little ancient astronomy.

23 February 2017

God’s grace is sufficient: What we mean, what Paul meant.

We use “sufficient” to mean God’s salvation or provision. Paul meant neither of those things.

2 Corinthians 12.9

One really good example of an out-of-context bible phrase is the idea God’s grace is sufficient. Sometimes phrased, “Your grace is enough for me,” or “His grace is sufficient” or if you wanna put the words in God’s mouth, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” People don’t even quote the entire verse; just the “grace is sufficient” bit.

And when we quote it, we mean one of two things.

Most of the time it’s used to state God’s grace is sufficient for salvation. It’s a reminder we humans can’t save ourselves from sin and death, no matter how many good deeds we do; and that’s fine ’cause God does all the saving. He applies Jesus’s atonement to our sins, takes care of it, forgives us utterly; all we need is God’s grace. It’s sufficient. It does the job.

Great is your faithfulness oh God
You wrestle with the sinner’s heart
You lead us by still waters into mercy
And nothing can keep us apart
So remember your people
Remember your children
Remember your promise, oh God
Your grace is enough
Your grace is enough
Your grace is enough
Your grace is enough for me
—Matt Maher, “Your Grace Is Enough,” 2008

Is this what Paul meant by “grace is sufficient”? Not even close. While the idea we’re entirely saved by God’s grace is entirely true, the basis for this idea isn’t at all the verse where we find the words “grace is sufficient.” It comes from other verses, like “By grace you have been saved,” Ep 2.4, 8 NIV —not good works. There’s more to say about that, but I’ll do that later.

The rest of the time, “grace is sufficient” is used to say God will provide all our needs. ’Cause he’s gracious, generous, watches over us, answers prayers, cures our illnesses, guides our steps: We figure when we have God, we don’t need anything else. A self-sufficient person doesn’t need help, and neither does a God-sufficient person, ’cause God has us covered. Different worship song:

Jehovah Jireh, my provider
His grace is sufficient for me, for me, for me
Jehovah Jireh, my provider
His grace is sufficient for me
My God shall supply all my needs
According to his riches in glory
He will give his angels charge over me
Jehovah Jireh cares for me, for me, for me
Jehovah Jireh cares for me
—Don Moen, “Jehovah Jireh,” 1986

Horrible pronunciation of YHWH-yiréh aside, which I remind you isn’t one of God’s names but a name of an altar, Ge 22.14 the problem is this also has nothing to do with what Paul meant by “grace is sufficient.”

But you know how songs are. Once a catchy one gets in your head, it’s hard to shake the song away… much less the inaccurate bible interpretations which come along with it.

22 February 2017

Revelation: The starting point of theology.

If you wanna know about God, y’ever think about asking him?

Revelation /rɛv.ə'leɪ.ʃən/ n. A previously unknown fact (about God), often surprising or dramatic.
2. (God’s) act of making the unknown known.
3. [capitalized] the last book of the New Testament; Christ Jesus’s apocalypses of the future to John of Patmos.
[Reveal /rə'vil/ v., revelator /'rɛ.vəl.eɪt.ər/ n., revelatory /'rə.vɛl.ə.tɔ.ri/ adj., revelational /rɛv.ə'leɪ.ʃ(ə)n.(ə)l/ adj.]

When I first started teaching theology, I found whenever you talk about revelation, Christians nearly always assume you’re talking about the book of Revelation. And half the time they think it’s Revelations, with an -s. (And half that time, if they write it out, they’re gonna put an apostrophe on the -s for no reason. Don’t get me started about the overuse of apostrophes.)

Revelation, no -s, is anything God reveals to us humans. That’s all it is. If God tells you to put on a sweater ’cause it’s gonna be chilly outside, that’s revelation: God revealed it to you.

Simple, right? Right. We overcomplicate the idea.

We assume, mainly because people overdramatize it, that revelation is a big profound mind-scrambling experience, with lights and visions and seizures and euphoria and Hollywood special effects. That’s why people assume God’s never talked to them, or doesn’t do that sort of thing: They’re still waiting for the light show. They expect to have Isaiah- or Ezekiel- or John-style visions of God’s throne room; or see Jesus in glory like Simon Peter, James, John, Stephen, and Paul did; or at least have some glowing angels or burning bushes or something like that.


Most of the time, revelation is so ordinary-looking, you’d never realize it was God talking till he told you it was him. Kinda like what happened to the prophet Samuel, who kept pestering his guardian, the head priest Eli, like any other little kid who “just wants a drink of water,” i.e. won’t go to sleep.

1 Samuel 3.1-10 KWL
1 The boy Samuel ministered to the LORD before Eli’s face.
The LORD’s word was valuable. In those days, there was no breakthrough vision.
2 In that day Eli laid down in his room.
His eyes had begun to dim, unable to see.
3 Samuel laid down in the LORD’s sanctuary, where God’s ark was, before God’s lamp was put out.
4 The LORD called Samuel, saying, “Look at me.”
5 Samuel ran to Eli, saying, “Look at me; you called me.”
Eli said, “I didn’t call. Go back. Lie down.” Samuel walked back and laid down.
6 The LORD called yet again: “Samuel.”
Samuel stood and walked to Eli, saying, “Look at me; you called me.”
Eli said, “I didn’t call, my son. Go back. Lie down.”
7 Samuel hadn’t yet met the LORD,
who hadn’t yet revealed the LORD’s word to him.
8 The LORD called Samuel again a third time.
Samuel stood and walked to Eli, saying, “Look at me; you called me.”
Eli realized the LORD called the boy, 9 and Eli told Samuel, “Go lie down.
If he happens to call you, say, ‘Speak, LORD: Your slave hears you.’ ”
Samuel walked back and laid down in the LORD’s room.
10 The LORD came, stood there, and did as he did before: “Samuel. Samuel.”
Samuel said, “Speak: Your slave hears you.”

Quite a few stories in the bible consist of God showing up to talk to someone, and their first reaction is, “Wait… is that… God? Holy crap, am I talking to God?” Followed, frequently, by sheer terror, ’cause most people assume if you encounter God, he’s too holy to abide sin, and you’re gonna die. Ge 32.30, Dt 5.24, Jg 13.22 Or you’re already dead.

But no: God wants you to know him, so he’s making contact. Don’t listen to the cessationists: He does this. A lot.

21 February 2017

“Whenever you pray, pray this.”

Jesus expected us to pray it more often than we do.

Luke 11.1-4

The Lord’s Prayer comes up twice in the gospels: Once in Matthew 6, and here in Luke 11. Today I’m gonna zero in on something Jesus taught about it in Luke. You’ll notice the Luke version is a bit shorter than the Matthew and Didache versions.

Luke 11.1-4 KWL
1 It happened while Jesus was praying in a certain place:
Once he finished, one of his students told him, “Master, teach us to pray,
like John the baptist taught his students.”
2 Jesus told them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father!
Sanctify your name. Bring your kingdom. 3 Give us bread for the day, daily.
4 Forgive us of our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who owes us.
Don’t bring us into tribulation!’”

You’ll also notice when Jesus taught it, he prefaced it with, “When you pray, say…” Lk 11.2 Which brings up the rather important question: Does he expect us to say these words every single time we pray? Or is it optional?

Are we to take Jesus literally, as many a literalistic Christian will insist upon? Or are we gonna follow their example?

’Cause maybe you just realized a whole lot of the very same folks who claim, “We need to believe and follow everything in the bible literally, or we’re not truly bible-believing Christians” in fact don’t pray the Lord’s Prayer every single time they pray. They tend to be much bigger fans of extemporaneous prayer. Rote prayers, even rote prayers from the bible, tend to get treated as dead religion. Even this prayer, which Jesus taught his students personally.

Weren’t they supposed to begin every single one of their off-the-cuff prayers with the Lord’s Prayer? Aren’t we all?

Think about that for a few minutes. I’ll wait.

No, seriously. I’ll be back in the next section.

20 February 2017

Christians in private, but reprobate in public.

It’s not that rare a phenomenon.

Whenever people claim to be Christian, but it’s kinda obvious they’re following the Christian crowd instead of Jesus—or at least sucking up to the Christian crowd heavily in order to get votes—I call ’em “Christianist.”

It’s a word I learned from Andrew Sullivan, and it’s a godsend. ’Cause too many people don’t know what to call such people. Fake Christians? Cultural Christians? Christians-in-name-only? I don’t wanna call them false Christians, ’cause they may very well have an actual saving relationship with Jesus. Maybe they just suck at religion. Maybe they’re hiding their light. A lot of partisans claim our current president is a “baby Christian,” and the reason his behavior is as filled with bad fruit as a moldy mock apple pie, is because he hasn’t learned any better… but he does know Jesus. Well, “Christianist” gives him the benefit of the doubt.

But people of course assume by “Christianist” I mean you’re not Christian. So I get rebuked from time to time for using the term. How dare I state certain people aren’t Christian… just because I see no evidence of the Spirit’s fruit in these people’s lives: “You don’t know what’s in their heart.”

Precisely right. I don’t know what’s in their heart.

That’s why I’m not saying they’re not Christian. I don’t know how they are in private. I only know what they do in public. And in public they’re just awful. They’re promiscuous, and sometimes proud of it. They’re unethical. They blatantly worship Mammon, and prioritize it over the needy. They’re filled with fear, hatred, and anger. They get envious, jealous, and partisan. Try to pick fights; try to cause division; try to create enemies. Y’know, stuff which indicates they’re not gonna inherit God’s kingdom, Ga 5.19-21 yet I’m expected to ignore all the bright red flags because I’m “not supposed to judge.” Or I’m not supposed to forget God’s grace can save any a--hole, ’cause hey, God saved me.

And let’s not forget the “fruit” these miscreants regularly point to. Some claim they read the bible; problem is we’ve no evidence they live by what they read from the scriptures. (Being able to quote ’em doesn’t count.) Or they claim they pray; problem is we’ve no evidence they ever heard God talking back. Which is part of prayer, y’know. Granted, they might be cessationists who believe God doesn’t respond, or only speaks to prophets—even if their churches teach otherwise.

Or they go to church! Fr’instance many politicians claim to be Catholic. Problem is, we all know they’re hardly in lockstep with their church’s teachings. The Roman Catholic Church’s views on abortion and the death penalty are widely known: They’re prolife, and consider both acts murder. Yet political conservatives ignore their church on the death penalty, and progressives ignore their church on abortion. Politicians claim it’s ’cause they heed the public will, and won’t foist their church’s teachings upon the public. Problem is, their every action proves their church’s views aren’t theirs: They publicly, loudly, and vigorously defend their contrary view with legislation, speeches, marches, and rallies. If you claim to be a church’s member, yet reject your church’s interpretation of the fifth commandment, stands to reason you likewise ignore their other teachings.

In sum, their public actions declare for all the world to see, “I don’t give a sloppy wet crap what Jesus teaches.” It’s the passive (in some cases passive-aggressive) form of denying Christ before others. Something Jesus kinda sees as important:

Matthew 10.32-33 KWL
32 “Everyone who’ll agree with me before the people: I’ll agree with them before my heavenly Father.
33 Those who’ll refuse me before the people: I’ll refuse them before my heavenly Father.”

I can’t say with absolute certainty they belong to Jesus or not. But they really haven’t given me a lot of evidence in favor of such a relationship.

17 February 2017

Quit the excuses and resist temptation.

’Cause some Christians are nothing but excuses.

James 1.12-15

The letter of James moves from suffering to the related subject of temptation—’cause when we’re suffering, or even threatened with it, it’s easy to fall into temptation.

But when presented with quick ’n dirty ways out, a bothersome number of Christians shrug, and take the immoral and sinful option. Because it’s easier, and because of cheap grace: They figure God forgives all, so God’ll forgive that too. Sin some more, and there’ll be more grace, which’ll take care of it. Ro 6.1 Resisting temptation is just too hard.

Worse: Some of us will get downright fatalistic about it: “I couldn’t see any other way out.” Never mind the apostles telling us God always provides one; 1Co 10.13 they figured our fallen world is so twisted, they’ll find themselves in no-win scenarios, trapped with a tragic moral choice where there’s nothing but sinful decisions. (Pry a little and you’ll find there were moral options, but they just didn’t care for them.) Blame society. Blame biological urges beyond their control. They might even blame God.

Rubbish, James taught:

James 1.12-15 KWL
12 A man who survives temptation is awesome:
Being tested, he’ll get life’s crown, which God promised those who love him.
13 You who are tempted: Never say, “I’m tempted by God.”
God’s not tempted to do evil: He tempts nobody.
14 Each person is tempted, lured away, baited, by their own desires.
15 Then the desire conceives and gives birth to sin; the full-grown sin produces death.

Lots to unpack here.

Starting with the reminder God rewards people who do resist temptation. Some of ’em come in this life; some in the next. 2Ti 4.8, Rv 3.5, 12, 21 His kingdom, fully inaugurated once Jesus returns, is one of those rewards. It’s what we Christians are busy preparing ourselves, and our world, to exist in. Should be, anyway. Crowns, in the first century, meant you won, whether you won a footrace or a battle. If you haven’t personally defeated temptation… well, you may still inherit the kingdom, but you don’t merit any crown.

And possibly won’t inherit the kingdom. Jesus expects those who love him are gonna do as he tells us. Jn 14.15 Those who don’t, who figure Jesus’s instructions are merely nice hypothetical ideals, who deem God’s commands obsolete in the current dispensation, have no evidence, no fruit, of our love for Jesus. We’ve got bad fruit at best; we may not even know Jesus, nor have ever really trusted him to save us. If anything, we inherit outer darkness.

No, I’m not saying fruitlessness sends people to hell. Other way round: People on their way to hell are invariably gonna have rotten fruit, or no fruit. People who never resist temptation, who figure God’s unlimited forgiveness applies even to those who don’t love him at all, are setting themselves up for the worst surprise ever: They won’t receive the kingdom. Ga 5.21 Their whole lifestyle demonstrates otherwise.

As do their usual excuses for this lifestyle:

  • “I can’t be good like that. Nobody can. Total depravity has screwed humanity over. ‘All have sinned,’ and everybody’s just gonna keep right on sinning till Jesus returns and fixes us.”
  • “If God didn’t want me to sin, he should’ve kept that temptation away from me. He knew I’d fall right into it. I can’t help myself.”
  • “We’re not saved by good works anyway!”
  • “I’m not really to blame. The devil is. Society is. Or God—who permitted the devil to run amok, and for society to go astray—is.”

At their core, all these excuses have one thing in common: Determinism, the belief our circumstances are beyond our control, ’cause someone else has rigged the universe so we’ll follow a pre-planned path.

16 February 2017

Sometimes prophecy encourages. Sometimes not.

Too often, wannabe prophets insist prophecy and encouragement are one and the same. They’re not.

When Christians teach about prophecy, one of the more popular verses we throw around is this one:

1 Corinthians 14.3 NIV
But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.

’Cause if prophets are looking for a mission statement, Paul and Sosthenes provided us a convenient one-line description. Prophecy is for the purpose of strengthening, encouraging, and comfort.

Sometimes they tighten it up just a little bit: Which of those three words can encapsulate the other two? So these prophets will see it as their particular mission to strengthen… and less so to encourage or comfort. Others, to comfort… and not so much strengthen and encourage. What I encounter most often are the prophets who wanna encourage. Wanna get Christians all confident and excited about our role in God’s kingdom, and wanna give us nothing but encouraging messages which’ll shove us forward.

Trouble is, there are certain self-proclaimed prophets who claim anyone who encourages Christians—regardless of whether they directly heard from God—is a prophet. It’s ’cause of the cessationists. They don’t believe God talks to anyone anymore; at most he “talks” to them through the words of the bible, and makes us feel really good about what we just read. To them any preacher who teaches on God’s word, who disciples Christians, and who persuades people to give up sin and repent, counts as a prophet. Of course once you redefine “prophet” to mean someone who doesn’t have to hear God, it’s kind of a problem. Not to them, but certainly to everyone else on the planet—who might incorrectly believe prophets only predict the future, but are at least pretty sure prophets gotta hear God.

Anyway, this idea that encouragers are the same as prophets, has trickled into way too many continuationist churches. I’ve visited charismatic churches which no-fooling teach every time we encourage another person, we’re “activating the prophetic.” Supposedly every time we encourage one another, we’ve opened a door for the Holy Spirit to step through, and start giving us revelation and directing our words.

Since God has free will, he’s under no obligation to do any such thing. If he doesn’t care to speak through me—’cause the only reason I’m trying to “activate the prophetic” is so I can show off a little, and God prefers his prophets to be humble—he’s not gonna. Hence all I’ll say are bunch of encouraging-sounding things. They’ll sound nice, but won’t be God. They’ll feel nice, but feelings aren’t God either. At best they’ll be harmless, benign. At worst, they’ll lead people astray, just like they got King Ahab ben Omri killed. 1Ki 22.6, 23

Whereas actual prophecy? Never harmless. Always powerful and mighty and effective, ’cause it’s the word of God. He 4.12 “Benign” is never a word we ought to hear describing God’s prophets. They—we—had better do way more than merely encourage.

15 February 2017

God, Job, and the cost of unexamined theodicy.

Because some really bad stuff happened to Job.

Job 1–2.10, 42.10-17

Since we’re gonna talk theodicy, it’d be all kinds of stupid to not begin with Job. Worse, to ignore it… as so often happens.

The entire book, and entire point of the book, is why bad things happen to good people. The problem? Your average person only reads the beginning and ending, and skips all the discussion in the middle. And the middle is the meat of the book.

I intend to bring up Job a lot in the theodicy articles, so brace yourself. I’m gonna dig into it a bit.

Job is part of the ketuvím/“Writings,” the third section of the Old Testament, collected round the 400s BC. Job was written at some point in the 500s, as we can easily deduce from the Late Biblical Hebrew vocabulary (with lots of Aramaic loanwords) and historical context.

The book’s about iyóv/“Job” of Utz, a land located in Edom. Lm 4.21 Job’s friend Eliphaz of Teman Jb 2.1 had a really obvious Edomite name: The same name as Edom/Esau’s oldest son, 1Ch 1.36 and his city had the same name as Eliphaz ben Esau’s oldest son. 1Ch 1.36

Job was a famous guy in Ezekiel’s time, Ek 14.14, 20 so he must’ve existed before, if not around, the early 500s BC, when Ezekiel was written. Clearly Job was known for his morality, so the author of Job borrowed Job’s story to begin the discussion about theodicy: Here’s a moral man, who nonetheless lost all his kids and property. So what does that say about morality, God, the way God governs the universe, and evil?

Your average Christian hasn’t read Job. Well, they read the beginning two chapters, where Job lost all his stuff; and they read the last chapter, wherein God gives him 10 more kids and all his stuff back, and let him live a really long time. Jb 42.10-17 In skipping the middle part, we also mistakenly skip all the discussions between Job and his friends about theodicy… and figure we needn’t bother, ’cause Job was right and they were wrong, like the LORD said. Jb 42.7 Besides we already know why Job was suffering: The first two chapters were a great big spoiler!

In so doing we also miss the point: What Job’s friends said is exactly what people still say about theodicy. Same bad advice. Same platitudes. Same cold comfort. Read Job, and you’ll quickly begin to notice how many other Christians have never read Job.

(I should also point out: In the churches I grew up in, a number of ’em assumed Job is the oldest book in the bible… because they were young-earth creationists. Because Job lived so tremendously long, and because Job refers to creatures with names we can’t translate precisely—like vehemót/“ox” (KJV “behemoth” Jb 40.15), liweyatán/“crocodile” (KJV “leviathan” Jb 41.1), or reym/“antelope” (KJV “unicorn” Jb 39.9) —various YEC enthusiasts have embraced the idea these creatures are dinosaurs, and that Job took place shortly after Noah’s flood, back when humans were still long-lived. Ge 11.10-32 Edomites notwithstanding.)

14 February 2017

How to pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Don’t know why you’re not practicing prayer with it.

When Jesus’s students wanted to learn to pray, he taught them what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Wanna know how to pray? Here ya go: Practice with that.

Weirdly enough, in most of the Evangelical churches I’ve been to, when new Christians wanna learn to pray, we don’t always point ’em to the Lord’s Prayer. We point them to our prayer groups.

Why’s this? Well, there’s a weird Evangelical stigma about rote prayer. It’s because a lot of Evangelicals grew up in churches which prayed a lot of pre-written, canned material, and it felt like dead religion to them, and they prefer living religion. So, out went the rote prayers. Their only prayers are spontaneous. Sometimes they won’t even pray biblical rote prayers, like the psalms or Lord’s Prayer.

The down side? The only prayer examples they see aren’t from the bible, but from their fellow Christians. Some of whom don’t even read the bible. All their prayer behavior comes from mimicking other Christians, and after enough decades in an echo chamber of babbling pagan hypocrisy… well, you remember Jesus’s wisecrack about tying a millstone round children’s necks and tossing them in the Mediterranean. Mk 9.42 Better they not pray at all, than pray like some of us hypocrites.

What to do? Well, if our bible studies and prayer groups don’t spend any time talking about how to pray more effectively (meaning like God wants), it’s time to fix those groups. Drop the showing off, ditch the mini-sermons in disguise, quit padding and overcomplicating, and get bold. Talk about what really works, and what really doesn’t. Get honest.

And keep pointing back to the Lord’s Prayer.

Jesus taught this rote prayer. He wants us to recite it. Education in Jesus’s day—same as ours—meant memorization. He wanted his students to put this prayer in their brains. (Since the gospels weren’t written down for another three decades after Jesus taught this, obviously his students did as he wanted!) The Lord’s Prayer is the model for how Jesus wants us to pray, and base our own prayers upon. So if we’re gonna learn to pray properly and effectively, we gotta practice with the Lord’s Prayer.

It’s like training wheels. When people first learn to ride a bicycle, and haven’t yet learned to balance the bike upright all the time, a lot of us use training wheels which always hold the bike upright. The Lord’s Prayer isn’t only training wheels. But it definitely does the job of keeping our prayers upright. When in doubt, return to Jesus’s words.

13 February 2017

Valentine’s Day acrostics.

Like I’ve said before: If I grow tired of it, I start mocking it.

Probably the first time I saw one of those John 3.16 Valentine acrostics was back in 2012. It’s where somebody took all the letters in “Valentine,” found ’em within an English translation of the verse, and arranged it so we can “see” John 3.16 is God’s valentine to the world. Like so.
The gospel according to graphic designers. Pinterest

Aww. Now I don’t need syrup for my waffles.

10 February 2017

Point to your humility. Not your wealth.

When persecution comes, only one of these things will help you out.

James 1.9-11

Americans like to believe we’re all equal; that we don’t have classes. We do so. Wealthy people don’t associate with poor people. It makes them uncomfortable.

I’ve been poor; I speak from experience. The wealthy honestly don’t know what to do with the poor. If the wealthy wanna do something, like go out to dinner, go see a movie, go to Paris over the weekend… well, the poor can’t afford to participate, and regretfully decline. Whereupon the wealthy think, “Well, that was rude of me, inviting them to something they can’t afford. Maybe I should foot the bill. …But maybe I shouldn’t, ’cause they’ll feel I’m treating them like a charity case.” (Not if you don’t make a big deal about it.) “They’ll resent my offering to pay for everything.” (Not unless they’re ungrateful jerks.) “I really shouldn’t have to foot the bill for our entire relationship.” (Clearly you’re unfamiliar with dating.) “Maybe it’d be easier all around if I just gradually ease my poor friends out of my life.” (Maybe you’d really just rather hold onto your money, and you’re trying to disguise your guilt as charitability.)

It’s often because of karma. If you’re hospitable to others, you kinda expect to receive something back in return. But if you know you’re getting little in return, ’cause the poor can’t afford much, lots of people figure it’s not worth their time. Even though Jesus taught us to make a point of giving to people who can’t pay us back, Lk 14.12-14 because the Father appreciates and rewards such behavior. But the wealthy often prefer to put their bets on their money, and less so on their Lord.

Wealth’s a constant snare. It’s why the scriptures so often have to warn people to stop fixating on their possessions and focus on God. Like James did so here.

James 1.9-11 KWL
9 Emphasize humility, fellow Christians, when you’re up;
10 wealthy Christians, when you’re down.
11 For wealth will pass away like grassflowers: The sun rose in its heat and dried up the grass.
Its flower fell, its appearance destroyed—likewise the wealthy shrivel up on their life journey.

The wealthy may bellyache and suspect these instructions are some sort class warfare; bash the rich because you envy them and wanna take their property. It’s not that at all. There’s nothing wrong with wealthy people who follow Jesus instead of Mammon. It’s just so many of ’em unwittingly or hypocritically are following Mammon, and the “class warfare” bits of the bible are actually Mammon-warfare. Stop enslaving yourself to money!

Rich American Christians in particular. We’re way more enslaved to money than we’d like to believe. It influences our actions far more than it should. In this bit of James, the focus is on the fact we Christians oughta be humble at all times. For wealthy Christians—who don’t always remember to be humble, ’cause they think their wealth makes them great, or is a gauge of how much God loves them—this is something to remember when they’re down. ’Cause they’re gonna be down. Wealth isn’t dependable. God is.

09 February 2017

The second coming of Christ Jesus.

Yes, he’s coming back.

Acts 1.1-11 KWL
1 Theófilos: In the first work I made about everything Jesus began to do and teach,
2 giving commands to his chosen apostles through the Holy Spirit, till the day he was raptured.
3 Jesus also stood before them, alive, after his suffering,
appearing to them 40 days, speaking about God’s kingdom.
4 While together with them, Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem,
but “wait for the Father’s promise which you heard from me:
5 John baptized with water, and after not too many days,
you’ll all be baptized in the Holy Spirit.”
6 So when they came together, the apostles questioned Jesus:
“Master, is it at this time you’re restoring the Kingdom of Israel?”
7 Jesus told them, “It’s not for you to know times or timing.
That, the Father sets by his own free will.
8 But you’ll all get power: The Holy Spirit is coming upon you.
You’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the world.”
9 Saying this as they watched him, Jesus was raptured. A cloud concealed him from their eyes.
10 While they were watching him go up into the sky, look!—two men in white clothing stood by them.
11 The men said, “Galileans, why’d you stand looking at the sky?
This Jesus, raptured from you into the sky like this, will come back like you saw him go into the sky.”

Hence we Christians expect, once God decides the time is right, Jesus will return to the earth. In person. As the head of an invading army of angels and at least 2 billion newly-resurrected Christians. At that time, it’s to take possession of the earth he created, set up God’s kingdom on earth, and rule it himself as king.

We call this the second coming, or second advent, of Christ. The first, of course, being when he was born, and shared the good news of the kingdom with first-century Israel. (We don’t count any of the other times he visits people on earth, like he did with Paul, Ac 9.3-5 as formal “comings”—formal as they might feel to those people whose lives are hugely changed by seeing him.)

The men in white described Jesus’s return as something like Jesus’s rapture. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy apparently got an update on the details from Jesus, and described it to the Thessalonians as a little bit grander:

1 Thessalonians 4.15-18 KWL
15 We tell you this message from the Master.
We who are still alive at the Master’s second coming don’t go ahead of those who’ve died.
16 With a commanding shout, with the head angel’s voice, with God’s trumpet,
the Master himself will come down from heaven.
The Christian dead will be resurrected first.
17 Then, we who are left, who are still alive,
will be raptured together with them into the clouds,
to meet the Master in the air.
Thus, we’ll be with the Master—always.
18 So encourage one another with these words!

08 February 2017

Baalism: The icky religions we find in ancient Israel.

Why’d the Hebrews keep falling into Baalism? They did it for the nooky.

Baal /bɑ'ʕɑl, commonly mispronounced 'beɪ.(ə)l/ n. The title of various middle eastern gods.
2. Lord, master, sir, husband.
[Baalim /bɑ.ʕɑ, Baalism /ba'al.iz.əm/ n.]

The main competitors to the ancient Hebrew worship of the LORD were various middle eastern gods which tended to be called by their word for “master.” In Hebrew and Aramaic that’d be bahál; in Arabic and Ugaritic bahl, Amharic bal, Akkadian Belu, and in English it takes the form “Baal.”

Most people assume “Baal,” like “God,” is a proper name instead of a title. It’s not. Every major god was called “Baal.” There were multiple Baals in the middle east and ancient Canaan, which is why the bible refers to them as bahalím/“Baals” (KJV “Baalim”). Jg 2.11, 1Sa 7.4, 1Ki 18.18, 2Ch 17.3, Jr 2.23, Ho 2.13 Rather than refer to these gods by their proper names, middle easterners respectfully called them “lord,” much as we do with YHWH. They used the word bahál—and the Hebrews used its synonym adón, arguably because everybody else was using Baal.

In fact it may startle you to discover even the LORD was sometimes called Baal. Seriously. After David ben Jesse became king over all the Israeli tribes, he fought Philistia at Baal Perachím, and the reason the place was called that name was ’cause… well, I’ll just quote the bible.

2 Samuel 5.18-21 KWL
18 Philistines came, and occupied the valley of Refahím/“Shadows.”
19 Asking the LORD, David said, “Do I go out against the Philistines? Do you put them in my hand?”
The LORD told David, “Go out: I put, put the Philistines in your hand.”
20 David went to Baal Perachím. There, David struck them down. He said:
“The LORD broke through my enemies before my face, like water breaks through a levee.”
Hence this place’s name is Baal Perachím/“Lord of Breakthrough.”
21 The Philistines left their carved idols there,
and David and his men took them away.

We all know David was no Baalist. He didn’t name the site for any of the Canaanite or Philistine gods; he meant his God, YHWH. But he used the title Baal to refer to him. I know; it’s weird.

It’s why we find Hebrew place names, even people, whose names have some form of “Baal” in them. They didn’t necessarily mean Canaanite gods; they often meant the One God. Like David’s warrior Behalyáh of Benjamin, 1Ch 12.5 whose name literally means “YHWH is Baal.” Like Saul’s son Ešbahál 1Ch 8.33, 9.39, and Jonathan’s son Meriv-bahál. 1Ch 8.34, 9.40 You might know these men better as King Ishbosheth 2Sa 2.8 and Mephibosheth. 2Sa 4.4 It’s believed the bible’s editors pulled the “Baal” from their names and replaced it with bošet/“shame[ful]”—sorta their mini-commentary about that word.

’Cause after a point, God got really tired of people calling him “Baal.”

Hosea 2.16-17 KWL
16 The LORD reveals: “That day will come when you call me ‘my husband’
and not call me ‘my Baal’ anymore.
17 I pluck the Baals’ names from your mother’s mouth.
Don’t recognize me by that name anymore.”

God wanted the very word removed. And for good reason. If the LORD is simply Baal-YHWH to you, just another one of the interchangeable Baals in the world, it’s way too easy to mix up our good, benevolent, patient, loving LORD with some other god who isn’t always good, is kinda selfish, impatient, unloving, and otherwise unlike the One God. Like that horny reprobate Zeus in Greek mythology, a god whom the ancient Greeks called “good” only because they were sucking up to him.

Which brings up the reason the Baals were so popular. When people read the bible and don’t know its history, they often wonder why on earth the Hebrews kept falling into Baalism. What was it about these gods? The LORD can speak; why’d they regularly keep falling for gods which can’t?

Two words: Ritual sex.

Oh that got your attention, didn’t it? But yep, that’s what hooked the Hebrews. Nu 25.1-3 Ancient pagans quickly discovered if they made sexual activity part of their worship practices, they’d hook dedicated followers. It’s precisely why the LORD and his prophets regularly compared Baalism to adultery and prostitution: Jg 8.33, Ho 2.13 That’s literally what it was.

07 February 2017

Can we really ask God for anything?

Does God put any limits on our prayer requests? Well duh.

Matthew 7.7-11 • Luke 11.9-13 • John 14.13-14, 15.7, 16.24

These passages are found in the middle of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, in a teaching on prayer requests in Luke, and as part of the Last Supper lesson in John. Obviously the Matthew and Luke bits line up neatly, but the John ideas match their idea.

I tend to summarize this idea as “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” If you want something from Jesus, ask. It’s okay for us to do that. He does take prayer requests.

Matthew 7.7-11 KWL
7 “Ask!—it’ll be given you. Look!—you’ll find it. Knock!—it’ll be unlocked for you.
8 For all who ask receive, who seek find, who knock God’ll unlock for.
9 Same as any of you people. Your child will ask you for bread; you won’t give them a cobblestone.
10 Or they’ll ask you for fish; you won’t give them a snake.
11 So if you’re evil, yet knew to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?”
Luke 11.9-13 KWL
9 “And I tell you all: Ask!—it’ll be given you. Look!—you’ll find it. Knock!—it’ll be unlocked for you.
10 For all who ask receive, who seek find, who knock God’ll unlock for.
11 Any parent from among you: Your child will ask for fish,
and instead of fish do you give them a snake?
12 Or they’ll ask for an egg; do you give them a scorpion?
13 So if you evildoers knew to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
John 14.13-14 KWL
13 You can ask whatever in my name. I’ll do it so, in the Son, the Father can be thought well of.
14 When what you ask me is in my name, I’ll do it.”
John 15.7 KWL
“When you stay in me and my words stay in you,
whenever you want, ask! It’ll happen for you.”
John 16.24 KWL
“Till now you’ve never asked anything in my name.
Ask!—and you’ll receive, so your joy can be fulfilled.”

It needs to be said, because some folks really don’t believe it is okay to ask God for stuff.

When I was a kid, I’d ask my parents for stuff, sorta like the kids in Jesus’s examples. They asked for bread, fish, and eggs; I’d ask for a Commodore 64. Sometimes my parents would give me what I asked for. Other times, not so much.

When I got persistent—when I wouldn’t take no for an answer, and kept right on asking, seeking, knocking—they’d respond, “Would you stop asking?” Not just because they said no, and their answer was final. Sometimes it wasn’t no, but they wanted me to get these things myself. Or earn it myself. Or otherwise learn to be independent, and grow up.

And sometimes they’d pull this sort of evil stunt: Say yes, just so I’d suffer the consequences.

Calvin and Hobbes, 25 May 1986. Calvin’s mom teaches him an unnecessary “little lesson.” GoComics

The punchline—“Trusting parents can be hazardous to your health”—is exactly right. Calvin’s mom thought she was teaching him a valuable lesson. She was, but she didn’t do it in a kind way. She did it in a cruel way: She didn’t show him the consequences, and warn him away. She let him suffer them. Hence we sometimes wonder whether asking God for stuff isn’t gonna have the same results: God says yes, and we ironically find out we didn’t want this at all. Meanwhile, up in heaven, he chuckles at our hubris. Ps 2.4

No. God is not a dick. He’s not secretly evil, plotting our downfall for his amusement or entertainment. Read the Prophets: He warns his people away from the consequences. Why suffer when you don’t have to? Ek 33.11 Turn to God and live!

God wants to give good things to his children, Mt 7.11 and for us to experience the joy of getting what we ask for. Jn 16.24 He wants to give us his kingdom. Lk 12.32 Starting with answered prayer requests.

06 February 2017

The Johnson amendment, and preaching the wrong kingdom.

On the tax code rule which rightly keeps politics out of Christ’s pulpits.

In the United States we have a Constitutional right to freedom of religion. Since tax status has been specifically used in the past to interfere with unpopular religions, the U.S. Code makes churches tax-exempt.

Yeah, here’s where the legalese comes in. (Hey, I wanna be thorough.) Most churches fall under what we call a 501(c)(3) organization, named for that specific subsection of Title 26 of the United States Code. For your convenience, here it is.

Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. 26 USC §501(c)(3)

Basically if you’re a nonprofit church, university, charity, society, or promotional group, you needn’t pay taxes. And people who give you money can deduct their donations from their taxes. Nice, huh? But here’s the catches:

  • All your incoming money shouldn’t be controlled by, or benefit, one individual—like the head pastor. Your church shouldn’t be merely a promotional tool to help your pastor get speaking engagements and sell books and videos. Nor should it spend all its money enriching your pastors, but do little to no ministry.
  • The church shouldn’t spend “a substantial part” of its money (and other laws define how big is “substantial”) on pushing its politics: Promoting causes or lobbying government.
  • The church can’t promote a political candidate or campaign.

And of course churches aren’t permitted to break other laws. None of that “We have freedom in Christ; no government can tell us what to do” malarkey like we find in cults. Either prove the law’s unconstitutional, or follow it like a good American. (And for those of you who are paranoid about Islam: This applies to Muslims too. I know you don’t believe me; I can’t help what you refuse to believe.)

Now, why am I spelling all this out? ’Cause last Thursday during the National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump repeated his intent, which he voiced throughout his presidential campaign, to do away with the “Johnson amendment,” the part of 501(c)(3) which forbids churches from promoting candidates and campaigns. There’s currently a bill in Congress, House Resolution 6195, the “Free Speech Fairness Act,” which’ll overturn it.

The Johnson amendment is named after Lyndon Johnson—who was still a senator when he got it passed in 1954. It applies to every 501(c)(3) nonprofit; not just churches. It wasn’t controversial when it was first passed, because back in the ’50s most pastors recognized politics is a dirty business, and didn’t want to soil themselves in it.

But times have changed, and a lot of ’em nowadays roll around in politics like pigs in poo.

03 February 2017

James, and optimistically growing in faith.

Be positive! It’s the only way you’re gonna get through life in Christ.

James 1.1-8

James 1.1 KWL
James, slave of God and of Master Christ Jesus.
To the 12 tribes in the diaspora. Hello.

Who was James? This’d be Jesus’s brother Mt 13.55 Jacob bar Joseph. The Hebrew/Aramaic Yahaqóv got turned into Yákovos in Greek, then Iacomus in Latin, then James in Old French, and here we are. He was the bishop of the Jerusalem church till his martyrdom, around the year 66.

Protestants figure James is the son of Mary and Joseph, Jesus’s mom and adoptive dad.

Roman Catholics, and many Orthodox Christians, don’t care for that idea. They believe Jesus’s mom remained a perpetual virgin; that Mary and Joseph’s “marriage” was more of a guardian/ward deal, so Jesus was her only offspring, and James was either Joseph’s son through a previous marriage, or he was Jesus’s cousin James bar Alphaeus (“the Less,” ’cause he wasn’t Jesus’s other cousin James bar Zebedee) who was one of his Twelve, Mt 10.3 who was only called the Lord’s brother. Ga 1.19

The cousin theory is pretty popular. People even claim the Greek word adelfós/“brother” can also mean cousin. It can now, but nobody was using it that way in the first century. (Actually… nobody was using it that way till Christians started floating the idea Jesus’s siblings Mk 6.3 were really anepsiói/“cousins.”)

Thing is, Paul listed James outside the Twelve, 1Co 15.5-7 ’cause he only came to follow Jesus after his resurrection. Ac 1.14 So he’s not James bar Alphaeus, but James bar Joseph. But regardless of how he’s related to Jesus, Christians agree James is a member of Jesus’s family, and not a minor apostle. After all, he’s got a letter in the New Testament.

He wrote the letter we call James to “the diaspora,” the Jewish communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire and, for that matter, the whole world.

Dispensationalists claim because James was written to Jews, and because it appears to them to teach salvation by works instead of grace, (it absolutely doesn’t; I’ll explain another time) it was written with an Old Testament mindset, and therefore we “New Testament” Christians needn’t follow it any more than the Law. Martin Luther kinda wanted to stick it in the New Testament Apocrypha, if not pull it from the bible entirely, just because he really wasn’t sure how to reconcile sola grazia with James’s talk about good deeds and faith-works.

But James wrote it years after Jesus died for our sins, and wrote it to Jewish Christians—people who followed Jesus, same as he. People saved by God’s grace, same as he. And now that we’re saved by grace, God has some good works for us to do. Ep 2.10 Deleting it from scripture, or skipping it as no longer valid, is more about evading good works than trying to properly understand how the Holy Spirit informed James on the subject.

The apostles’ letters were written to fellow Christians. Unless they’re dealing with individuals and circumstances particular to that specific place, or point in history, they apply to all Christians. Us included. If you wanna weasel out of good works, or embrace cheap grace instead of the real thing, don’t try to disguise it by claiming all the good-works bits of the bible don’t count just because they don’t save.

02 February 2017

Fake guilt, and where grace comes in.

If you can’t shake your guilt, it’s because your conscience is defective.

Guilt /gɪlt/ n. The culpability, and moral responsibility, attached to one who committed a deed. (Usually a misdeed.)
2. A feeling one has committed a misdeed; often regretful or remorseful.
3. v. Make someone feel remorse for wrongdoing.
[Guilty /'gɪlt.i/ adj., guiltless /'gɪlt.lɪs/ adj.]

Guilt is healthy. Fake guilt, not so much.

If I do anything, good or bad, I’m guilty of that action. Most of the time we use “guilt” in a negative sense, like when we’re responsible for sins or crimes. But we can be guilty of good deeds, particularly ones we do in secret. Like if I slipped an extra $20 into the waiter’s tip, or turned in a lost backpack to the lost and found, or deleted all the Nickelback from your iPod. Guilty. You’re welcome.

Being guilty of misdeeds—assuming you were raised with a properly-functioning conscience—tends to come with a negative emotional response. We feel bad about ourselves for what we did. Every time I turn the hose on Christmas carolers, I feel really remorseful about it. Not for long, but you get the idea.

But sometimes we don’t have a properly-functioning conscience. So we feel bad for no good reason. That’d be fake guilt.

Fake guilt is what happens when people try to program or reprogram our consciences so we feel bad over imaginary wrongs. Sometimes by convincing us more things are sins than really are, like legalists do. Sometimes by convincing us our very existence is sin: Supposedly total depravity has made us such filthy sinners, God can’t stand us, and the only reason he doesn’t blow up the earth in rage and hate is ’cause Jesus somehow placated him. (Often this idea of us being filthy sinners is their justification for all the abuse they wanna pile on us.)

The product is a feeling of guilt which lasts all the time. See, proper guilt is supposed to get us to repent, stop sinning, turn to God, get forgiven, apologize to others, maybe make restitution, and generally get on with our lives. Actual guilt goes away. Fake guilt lingers. We repent—but still feel guilt. We make restitution—and still feel guilt. We know (or think we know) God forgives all, and God forgives us, and yet we simply can’t shake this terrible feeling we’re royally screwed. It’s like we’re cursed or something.

If the human brain can’t find a connection between one event and another, but really thinks there oughta be a connection, it’ll frequently invent that connection. (Hence conspiracy theories.) Fake guilt does that too. Christians invent reasons why we inexplicably feel guilty: We must’ve committed the unpardonable sin and didn’t know it. Or there’s some weird generational curse we never properly dealt with, and we’ll continue to suffer it till we exorcise it. Or we got far more grace than we deserve (as if any grace is deserved). Or we feel if we receive grace instead of karma, if we don’t experience that eye for eye and tooth for tooth, Mt 5.38 something’s just plain wrong with the universe—and the universe might seek restitution its own way.

Ultimately there’s no good reason for fake guilt. We, or Christ—it’s usually Christ—dealt with it. So it’s done. Gone. Over.

But we can’t put it away. Like I said, it’s ’cause people have defective consciences. It functions like an autoimmune disease, where our own antibodies attack us for no good reason. It gnaws away at our insides, like a chihuahua who climbed into the Thanksgiving turkey.

01 February 2017

The 13 tribes of Israel. (Yes, 13. I didn’t miscount.)

Hope you’re not triskaidekaphobic. In case you are, the bible usually says 12.

The Hebrews whom the LORD rescued from Egypt during the Exodus, consisted of the descendants of Jacob ben Isaac—whom a man, probably an angel, renamed Israel after their wrestling match. Ge 32.28 Hence they’re regularly called benéi Yišraél/“children of Israel.” Ex 1.1

Since Israel had 12 sons (through four different women), and all the “children of Israel” are descended from the sons, they’re also known as “the 12 tribes of Israel,” each tribe named for each son. In English, the sons are

  • Sons of Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun. Ge 35.23
  • Sons of Rachel: Joseph, Benjamin. Ge 35.24
  • Sons of Bilhah: Dan, Naphtali. Ge 35.25
  • Sons of Zilpah: Gad, Asher. Ge 35.26

They’re listed in various orders, but Reuben tends to come first, ’cause he was firstborn. However, Israel reassigned the birthright, the patriarchal obligations of the eldest son, to his favorite son, Joseph.

Hence Joseph received twice the inheritance of his brothers—and became represented by two tribes, named for Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim. (Manasseh is sometimes referred to as a “half tribe,” Js 13.29 but not because Manasseh was half of Joseph; it’s because half of Manasseh’s land lies east of the Jordan river, and half west.) And since Jacob put the younger son, Ephraim, first, Ge 48.17-20 precedence passed to that tribe. The Prophets regularly refer to northern Israel as “Ephraim” for that reason. Is 7.9, 11.13, Jr 31.20, Ho 5.3, 7.8, Zc 9.13

So… this actually produces 13 tribes (which I’ll list alphabetically): Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Judah, Levi, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun. Not 12. Why aren’t they called 13 tribes? Two reasons.

First and foremost: The writers of the bible, and probably God too, really like the number 12. The ancient Sumerians divided the year into 12 months, marked ’em with the zodiac (whatever constellation is highest in the sky at night), and throughout middle eastern culture this became the number of completeness, fulfillment, unity, and perfection. Thirteen? Not so much. Not that it’s unlucky; that superstition came from the Romans. But they liked 12 way better.

And the LORD turned the entire tribe of Levi into a special priestly caste. He gave them “no inheritance”—that is, no land apart from 48 cities. Js 21 Instead of land, Moses explained, the LORD was their inheritance, Js 13.33 meaning whenever people brought food and animals to the LORD, the Levites, in their capacity as the LORD’s priests, got to eat ’em Dt 18.1 and therefore didn’t really need any land for farming and ranching.

So geographically, there are only 12 tribes: Twelve tracts of land, designated for 12 families descended from Israel. The Levite cities were scattered all over these tribes, and really anybody could live in the cities, not just Levites. (Particularly the larger cities, like Hebron, Shechem, or Ramoth-Gilead.)