Proselytism: Don’t force Jesus upon people!

by K.W. Leslie, 30 January
PROSELYTIZE 'prɑs(.ə).lət.aɪz verb. (Try to) convert someone from one belief to another.
[Proselyte 'prɑs.ə.laɪt noun, proselytism 'prɑs(.ə).lət.ɪz.əm noun.]

From time to time, when we Christians share the good news of Christ Jesus with other people, we get accused of “proselytizing.”

It’s one of those words which, to quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride

Giphy

Properly, to proselytize means as we see in the definition above: You’re trying to convert someone. And you’ve not made it an option: They must become Christian. They will become Christian. You’re gonna try every tactic you can to make it so. You’ll promise outrageous things, you’ll fudge a few details, you’ll threaten ’em with hell. Whatever it takes.

Forced conversions, hard sales pitches, and death threats (and hell threats) are all definitely forms of proselytism. Is that really what we’re doing?

Well… sometimes it is. And it should never be. God’s kingdom runs on grace, and if our presentation of the gospel ever turns into proselytism, it means we took the grace out of it. And a gospel without grace arguably isn’t even the gospel.

I know, I know: Certain dark Christians love to bring up hell. Largely because it terrifies them, so they’re pretty sure everybody needs to be warned about it, and warned away from it: You don’t want to go there! I get that. And it was probably a huge motivator for them, when they first turned to Jesus. But the result is they put it front and center when they preach the gospel, and now their gospel is about hell-avoidance instead of love, joy, grace, forgiveness, and other fruit of the Spirit that we’re gonna find in the kingdom in abundance. Worse, they don’t care about these things: “Get off that lovey-dovey crap and warn people away from hell!” Which just goes to reveal their own fruitlessness—a serious character defect which makes them the very worst people to share the gospel.

Still, when pagans encounter that kind of hostile, negative, fearmongering gospel presentation, in which the good news is very, very bad, they think it’s proselytism: It made ’em feel bad. They define proselytism based on whether it made ’em feel bad. On whether they didn’t like it.

Nope; proselytism is determined by pressure. Was the gospel forced upon you? Then it’s proselytism.

Doesn’t matter whether it was forced upon you in a hostile way or a kind way. I got the kind version: Mom was determined to raise her kids Christian, so church wasn’t optional. I was going, period, whether I wanted to or not. This was never an issue because unless I was sick or exhausted (i.e. valid excuses), I wanted to. In other families it was a huge issue: I had high school friends who absolutely didn’t wanna be there, and left church as soon as they were no longer under their parents’ rules. But parents have every right to raise their kids under their religion; really, they suck at religion if they don’t.

It’s just proselytism has a serious danger built into it: Because it’s not optional, it’s deficient in grace. Which means there’s a very real chance it’ll turn into legalism, or hypocrisy and dead religion. Or, once the kids grow up and leave the dead religion, they may presume all religion is like that… and we wind up with apostasy and nontheism.

So pour on the grace! And when you evangelize, for the love of God don’t proselytize.

Proselytizing Christians.

As I said, it’s okay to proselytize your kids. But if you were proselytized as a kid, or proselytized by an evangelist when you got older, you’re gonna wrongly think it’s okay to proselytize everybody else.

Seriously, everybody else. Certain political conservatives like to imagine the United States is a Christian nation, and as such everybody in it oughta be Christian. So they push Christianity upon everyone. We made “One nation under God” our official national motto (regardless of whether we get under him any), and put it on our money and our pledge of allegiance: If people balk at the motto, we don’t just accuse ’em of being godless, but unpatriotic.

Such people also insist we should be allowed to put up Ten Commandments monuments, crosses, and other religious iconography, in public parks, public schools, or public buildings. Texas even changed the science textbooks so they state God created the universe about 6,000 years ago, and who cares if actual science suggests otherwise.

So when we share Jesus, we don’t ask people whether they’d like to hear about him. Don’t have time for that. We just corner ’em so they can’t go anywhere, and tell ’em—whether they have the time, the curiosity, the interest, the receptivity. Because they need to hear it: They’re going to hell otherwise. Now is their hour of salvation. Now is not the time for kindness, patience, self-control, or grace. Fruit of the Spirit? Only gets in our way.

And instead of fruit, one of our substitutes becomes “evangelism.” You’ve seen these Christians at work: They leave tracts instead of tips for their waiters. They correct us in the workplace break room whenever we do or say something which isn’t Christian enough for them. They who won’t leave our front porches when we insist, “No thank you.” They’re the reason people believe evangelism and proselytism are the same thing.

Jesus doesn’t teach proselytism.

When Jesus first sent his Twelve to practice evangelism on their fellow Jews, he taught ’em to share. Not push. Bless, not condemn. Give, not collect offerings. Do for people, not demand they only receive the gospel from you, ’cause you worry if you give ’em free stuff, they’ll only turn to Jesus for the handouts. (As if the kingdom runs on stinginess, not grace.) You know, like proselytizers don’t do. Like so.

Matthew 10.7-15 KWL
7 “Preach as you go, saying this: ‘Heaven’s kingdom has come near!’
8 Serve the weak. Raise the dead. Cleanse the leprous. Throw out demons.
You received it free. Give it free.
9 Don’t accept gold, silver, or bronze into your moneybelts.
10 No bag on the road. Nor two tunics. Nor sandals. Nor cane.
For the respectable worker merits their provisions.
11 Inspect whatever city or village you enter: Who’s the most respected in it?
Stay with them till you leave, 12 and when you enter the house, bless it.
13 When the house is respectable, your blessing has to go into it.
When it’s not respectable, your blessing has to go back to you.
14 Whoever doesn’t accept you, nor listen to your words:
As you go out of their house or town, shake their dirt off your feet.
15 Amen, I promise you: It’ll be more bearable on Judgment Day
for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than that town.”

Evangelism is about effectively communicating the good news: The kingdom’s near. Jesus is its good and benevolent Lord. He wants us to join his kingdom and be our Lord. Because ultimately he will be Lord, whether we embrace him or not. It’ll be way better if we embrace his rule willingly, than live outside it in misery when he finally takes his throne. Plus there are the many benefits of living under our King early.

True, we want people to come to Jesus. But after we’ve shared him, we’re done. We did our duty. They accept him, or they don’t. And we need to stop thinking it’s our responsibility to keep pushing them to accept him. It’s not. We need to shake that off. It’s why Jesus told his apostles to do so literally: Shake the dirt off your feet when you leave. Leave ’em behind. Not because we don’t care about them anymore, but because we’re done. Hopefully God will give them another chance, as he tends to. But we’re done.

We simply share. Inform. Convey information. That’s all. There’s a place and time for going directly up to people and asking them point-blank, “Do you know Christ Jesus personally?” When our goal is to share good news, to make sure people are informed, and can make rational decisions to follow Jesus, there’s everything right about it. That’s all our job consists of.

Everything beyond that is the Holy Spirit’s job.

  • Quelling nervousness or hesitation: His job.
  • Dealing with objections and concerns: His job.
  • Getting obstacles out of their way: His job.
  • Making sure people come forward at an altar call: His job.
  • Numbers of converts: His job.
  • Making sure the commitment is serious: His job.
  • Finalizing decisions for Christ: His job.

It’s not like we have no job. But as you can see, our job isn’t as big and stressful as your average proselytizer makes it sound.

“But we have to preach the gospel!”

I’ve heard Christians say, “Well, there’s a fine line between proselytism and evangelism.” There is not. Evangelism shares information. Proselytism demands, ignores the Holy Spirit’s timing, and insists the time is now. It takes salvation into our own hands instead of leaving it in God’s. It’s loveless. It’s faithless. It’s wrong.

If a person says no thank you, proselytizers aren’t done. They don’t trust the Holy Spirit enough to leave them in his capable hands. They’re not gonna be patient. They’ll insist on “closing the deal”—on badgering them to say some form of sinner’s prayer, some sort of half-hearted commitment (which usually doesn’t pan out) just so they can put another notch on their belt. Or get another jewel in their crown. Whatever way they keep score.

’Cause that’s what it’s really about: Keeping score. Numbers. Getting converts. Growing their cults. Success rates. Which, because they’re willing to fudge the numbers a bit, tend to be reported as way higher than they really are. But few of their “success stories” are real. Those folks have no plans to follow Jesus in the day-to-day, and were often coerced into making a purely contractual relationship with him: “I said the sinner’s prayer, so I did my part; you just get me into heaven. Okay? Amen.” Don’t have to be religious ’cause they’re under God’s grace. Which means they’re fruitless… which implies they’re not under grace.

Now, had the Holy Spirit actually been involved at all—where he convicts ’em, gets ’em to repent, points ’em to Jesus—you’d see a whole lot more enthusiasm on their part. Without having to manipulate their emotions, play on their fears, promise them things Jesus never would (“Turn to him and all your problems will go away!”) and other sales pitches which spread Christianism instead of God’s kingdom.

Quite often the Spirit will actually lead someone to Jesus despite the sales-pitch tactics. But the fact the Holy Spirit cleans up our messes, is no defense for fruitless, unkind behavior and thinking.

And quite often, the reason a lot of Christians balk at practicing or learning about evangelism, is because of these yutzes and their morally questionable behavior. I don’t blame ’em for being disturbed. They should be. Any form of trickery, misdirection, wordplay, hidden flaws, false arguments, false promises, confusion, anger, hypocrisy, misquoted scriptures, false urgency, bribery, emotional blackmail, threats, temptation, or coercion, has no God in it. Justifying any of this evil, because they might “win souls,” is calling good evil, and evil good. Is 5.20 When people turn to Jesus, when the Spirit has been successful and enters their lives to fix and regenerate them, it’s a miracle. The very last thing Christians should be involved in, is faking miracles.

Some pagans have never met a proper evangelist. Or they have, but they’ve been burned by dark evangelists, and assume all Christians are like that. And to be fair, some pagans are just plain hostile towards Christianity altogether. So they accuse everyone who shares Jesus of proselytism, just to make us go away. All the more reason we need to avoid proselytism. Give them no ammunition.

Fruit doesn’t grow spontaneously.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 January

Fruit of the Spirit is the product of cultivation. If we actively follow the Holy Spirit, if we seek his direction and adopt his attitudes, in short order we’re gonna share his attitudes.

And if we passively just figure, “I’m Christian, so I’m going to heaven, so I’m good,” we’re not cultivating a thing. We’re not producing fruit. We’re the same selfish people we’ve always been. Maybe with a few Christianese labels slapped onto our bad behavior in order to justify it to ourselves, but ’tain’t fooling God any.

Sadly that’s the default in Christianity. Lot of fruitless Christians out there. We figure since we don’t earn our salvation, we don’t need to work for anything. We can just sit on our widening western rear ends, do no heavy lifting whatsoever, and God will do all the work.

  • Instead of resisting temptation and obeying God’s commands, we do cheap grace.
  • Instead of demonstrating we’re Christians by our love, Jn 13.35 we demonstrate it by rattling off our statements of faith.
  • Instead of pursuing a continual, growing relationship with God, we say the sinner’s prayer, and figure that’ll do us till kingdom come.
  • Instead of testimonies about what God’s currently doing in our lives, we tell the same old 30-year-old come-to-Jesus story, and figure that’s the only testimony we’ll ever need.
  • Instead of going to church, and becoming an integral part of that support system, we find a church where the services are only 60 minutes long—if we ever physically go, ’cause they live-stream it on their website!—and that’ll do us for the month.
  • Instead of sharing Jesus, we share Facebook memes.
  • Instead of financially supporting our church, we offer lots of moral support. And hey, there’s more where that came from.
  • Instead of reading our bibles… nah, we don’t offer any substitute. We just don’t read it. We did watch that The Bible miniseries when it was on Netflix, though.

Thanks to these practices, we presume the Spirit’s fruit works the very same way. We have the Spirit within us, and he’s gotta be doing something in there, right? So we figure he’s growing fruit. It’s developing all on its own, with no input nor effort from us. We’ll just magically grow fruity.

Yep, I’ve even heard testimonies about it. “So one day, after I became a Christian, I got into an argument with a co-worker, and he just made me so angry! I was gonna take him out back and punch his lights out. I usedta do that sort of thing all the time before I became Christian; just wailed on people. But for some reason—I really can’t explain it!—I didn’t wanna beat the tar out of him. I just felt this weird, peaceful feeling. I felt love for that guy. I can only think it came from God.”

Now, a lot of fruitless Christians lie about what constitutes “fruit” in their lives, so I won’t put it past ’em to likewise lie about their testimonies. More likely they weren’t angry enough to go curb-stomp their antagonists, and since it wasn’t blind rage, maybe it’s love?—maybe it’s a God-thing? But no, the Spirit’s fruit of love isn’t typified by the fact he keeps us from our rage-induced acts of felony battery. Yes he can do such things if he wants, but there’s a far greater chance we accidentally drank a roofie.

There are red flags aplenty in the testimonies of fruitless Christians. We get love which doesn’t look like love, kindness which isn’t all that kind, joy with just a bit of evil mixed in, and I’ve met pagans with way more patience than many a Christian. Fact is, these “testimonies” describe the one moral victory they experienced within a lifetime of compromise, capitulation, and doing as comes naturally. This isn’t in any way a habitual fruit of the Spirit. They have no such things. That’s why they constructed entire stories about these rare exceptions.

Real fruit isn’t the rare exception. And it doesn’t come naturally. We don’t “just change.” We obey God. That’s the soil the Spirit’s fruit grows in. No soil? No fruit.

We’re commanded to produce fruit.

Whenever I say this, I get pushback from people who insist fruit does so grow spontaneously. Because it’s what all their fellow Christians tell them. It’s all they’ve ever heard. God does all the work, and our own works are as filthy rags: We’re not gonna grow righteous through works!

Except I’m not even talking about righteousness. I’m talking about fruit. They’re not the same thing at all. Fruit doesn’t make us righteous; faith does. Ro 3.22 Fruit only makes us fruity. Which is important too. But righteousness is a whole other deal.

And the reason I say we gotta make an effort to grow fruit, is ’cause the bible tells us we gotta make an effort to grow fruit. In fact we’re ordered to produce the Spirit’s fruit. Why would Jesus order us to do these things if it’s just naturally gonna happen on its own? ’Cause it’s not: We gotta intentionally produce it.

  • LOVE: Gotta love one another, Jn 15.17 love neighbors, Lv 19.18 love enemies, Mt 5.44 and love God. Dt 6.5 Doesn’t really leave anyone out. Basically, love everyone.
  • JOY: Gotta seize every chance to have joy. Jm 1.2 Rejoice in the Lord always. Pp 4.4 Shout for joy. Ps 33.1, 66.1 Rejoice even when persecuted. Mt 5.12
  • PEACE: Don’t be anxious or afraid, but peaceful. Jn 14.27 Pursue peace. Ro 14.19 Live in peace with one another, 2Co 13.11 as much as we can, Ro 12.18 making every effort to do so. He 12.14
  • KINDNESS: Be kind. Ep 4.32 Make it part of your character. Cl 3.12 Especially in leadership and servanthood. 2Ti 2.24
  • GOODNESS: Oh come on. The whole Law is about being good.
  • FAITH: Put your faith in God, Mk 11.22 ’cause you aren’t justified otherwise. Ro 5.2 Stand firm in it; 1Co 16.13 put on its breastplate. 1Th 5.8 And if good works aren’t in any way connected with it, it’s dead faith. Jm 2.17

And so on. Gentleness, self-control, mercy, generosity, humility, truthfulness—we’re commanded to do and uphold these things, and in so doing produce fruit. There’s no command against these things. Ga 5.23 But there are many commands, directions, and exhortations for these things.

This idea we’re supposed to passively wait for the Spirit’s fruit to arise in us? It’s like supposing once we set foot in a dojo, we’ll magically know kung fu. Really, all we’ll know to do is posture, and how to make Bruce-Lee-style chicken noises. Same with fruit of the Spirit: It takes practice. Start obeying God: Start doing ’em.

“But I’ve gotta feel them first. If I don’t feel love, isn’t it hypocrisy?” Sometimes this is a fair question; sometimes it’s a cop-out. Yes, we oughta feel love for others. Despite all those Christians who insist love is only an action, and neither a noun nor a feeling, love’s a feeling too. Jesus felt compassion, Mk 8.2, Lk 7.13 and that’s love. Ideally we should also be compassionate. But love isn’t just a feeling, so if you’re not feeling compassion yet, it’s okay. Don’t fake the feelings; that’s hypocrisy. Just do the actions. Start there. The feelings will come later.

But like I said, the “I gotta feel it” excuse is quite often used as an excuse to do nothing. Partly by Christians who don’t know the difference between spirit and emotion; partly by Christians who believe fruit is spontaneous, and are waiting for the fruit to appear before they act. Which is like waiting for the bandages to appear before we start bleeding: Doesn’t work like that. We act when we see a need. We don’t psyche ourselves up first; it’s not a performance.

It is possible for emotion to lead to fruit. But not always to the right fruit. The emotions of a coward won’t lead to bravery: People are brave because they act despite fear.

Besides, anybody can psyche themselves into feelings. Actors do it all the time. (Liars too.) With a little effort, I could feel warm feelings towards everybody in the world; I don’t even need pharmaceutical enhancement. But regardless of my feelings, if I don’t act in love towards anyone, I have no fruit. Just feelings. Useless, fruitless feelings.

Fruit grows with practice.

The reason we’re ordered to do these fruits in the scriptures, is because they don’t come naturally. Human nature is self-centered. I don’t care what optimistic humanists have told us all our lives: We humans have to learn to think of other people instead of only ourselves, or ourselves first. And when the going gets rough, most of us revert to pure selfishness. It’s our survival instinct. Gone wrong, but still.

Despite the Holy Spirit within us, we Christians still have selfishness as our default mode. It’s not going away just because we’ve attached Christian-sounding labels to all our selfish behaviors. It’s only going away when we follow the Spirit, and do the good works he’s assigned us. Ep 2.10 Time to quit the excuses, quit waiting to feel something first, and obey. Go and do.

I admit: I don’t always feel it when I initially obey. Way more comfortable to ignore my neighbor, and figure, “Hey, at least I don’t hate them,” than actually do for them. Mt 7.12 If I really don’t feel like doing anything for my neighbors, it’s really easy to fall into resentment. (Especially with the devil tempting us to indulge that feeling.) But if I do as James instructed and order myself to feel joy, Jm 1.2 if I call out to God and ask him to get rid of my bad attitude, I’m gonna resist that resentment. Working on that gentleness, y’know.

Nope, erasing our negative feelings isn’t the Holy Spirit’s magic reward for obedience. He doesn’t just pour out endorphins like a pharmacist gone mad. It’s for the purpose of serving him better, and loving others better. If my rotten attitude might interfere with the job, the Spirit helps me shove it aside. When it makes no difference, sometimes the Spirit has me deal with it on my own. Oh, he’s there to encourage and empower me to do the right thing, but I have to defeat my selfishness. I have to resist temptation. I have to stop sinning. That’s the self part of self-control.

Same with you.

Fruit of the Spirit isn’t easily gained, nor easily grown. It’s a struggle sometimes. It gets easier. But not when we passively expect it to just grow, spontaneously, with no help from us. Christians who think this way, either turn into giant hypocrites who try to hide all their awfulness, or turn into those irreligious slacker Christians who shrug and say, “Christians aren’t perfect, y’know. Just forgiven.”

We choose to pursue the Spirit’s fruit. He’ll help; he’s the one making the fruit grow way faster than it really oughta. But we’ve gotta make the effort. So do.

Karma: How we imagine the universe seeks justice.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 January

Matthew 5.38-42, Luke 6.29-31.

KARMA 'kɑr.mə noun. The sum of one’s deeds in this life (and previous lives), used to decide one’s fate in future lives or the afterlife.
2. The sum of one’s deeds in this life, used to decide one’s fate in this life.
3. One’s destiny or fate, seen as the result of one’s deeds.
[Karmic 'kɑr.mɪk adjective.]

Karma is a Hindi word, from the Sanskrit karman, “fate.” Because Hindus and other eastern religions believe in reincarnation, karma has to do with why you’re born into your particular family, class, comfort level, or caste: You deserved it. Not from anything you did in this life; it’s the actions of your previous life, and when you got reborn, the universe assigned you to the place you deserved. If you were good in your previous life, now you’ve been rewarded with a blessed life; if your life sucks, it’s your own fault for being bad in your past lives. Be good now, and maybe next time you’ll be born into a better caste. ’Cause evil means the universe will assign you a worse life. You might even be reborn as some icky creature, like a cockroach or gnat.

When Hindus talk karma, it’s usually in that context: Why they need to be good. Why they deserve to be in the caste they’re in. Why others deserve to be in the castes they are. (And how they justify treating lesser castes like crap, even though proper Hindu teachings frown on treating anyone evilly; it’s bad karma! But just as there are many sucky Christians, there are many sucky Hindus.)

But when westerners speak of karma, most of us aren’t thinking of reincarnation. We’re thinking of the afterlife: Goodness gets you into heaven, and badness puts you into hell. No that’s not how it works, but that’s the popular pagan idea. And when we look into every human culture, we find this idea there: Goodness earns you a good destiny, and evil gets you a bad one.

But we don’t just use this idea to describe the afterlife. Humans believe it applies to this life as well. Be good, and good things will come to you. Be evil, and some day there will be a reckoning. It’s how the universe works, they claim. It’s a natural law. You get what’s coming to you. You reap what you sow. What goes around comes around.

It’s in the bible, isn’t it?

Galatians 6.7-8 KWL
7 Don’t deceive yourselves: God isn’t sneered at.
Whatever a person plants, they’ll harvest.
8 Hence those who plant things in their own flesh will harvest gangrene out of their flesh,
and those who plant things in the Spirit will harvest life in the Spirit in the age to come.

Various Christians who believe in karma insist it certainly appears to be in there. Unlike pagans and nontheists, who figure it’s how the universe naturally works, Christians are kinda divided as to how it works. Some of us think God built it into the universe, and others think God’s personally dispensing the blessings upon good people, and bad stuff upon bad people.

Other Christians figure God’s holding off on these judgments till the End. In the meanwhile, any good things experienced by good people are either coincidences, or the result of people wanting to reward good deeds and punish evil deeds. Because let’s face it: There are a lot of good people who get crapped on, and a lot of evil people who get away with stuff. Life is unfair that way. And yeah, that’s in the bible too.

Ecclesiastes 4.1 KWL
I came back and looked at all the oppressed people under the sun.
Look at the oppressed’s tears!—and no one to rescue them.
Power in their oppressors’ hand—and no one to rescue them.
 
Ecclesiastes 7.15 KWL
I saw it all in my vaporous days:
There’s a righteous man getting destroyed because of his righteousness.
There’s a wrongdoer living large thanks to his wrongdoing.

Much as people wanna believe in karma, believe the universe sorts out good and evil people and gives them what they deserve, we know plenty of cases where that’s not happening; where people live as “exceptions” to this rule of karma. I would argue we mostly know “exceptions”; for some of us, we know nothing but “exceptions.” And I’d also argue most of the reason they remain exceptions is because nobody lifts a finger to bring justice to the situation, ’cause we assume the universe is gonna do it for us. Meanwhile evil people keep right on doing evil, and good people keep suffering.

In fact there are a whole lot of evil people who are counting on the rest of us clinging to karma. Because it’s how they justify their prosperity and wealth. “I’m doing well because I deserve to do well; I’m doing something right, and you’re not.” It’s the very same thing as the Hindus who insist they deserve to be in their castes… and the poor and needy deserve to be ignored and mistreated for the same reason. We may not be Hindus, but we’ve fallen for the same fiction.

God does grace. Not karma.

Whether we call it karma, reciprocity, eye for an eye, Ex 21.24 tit for tat, or balance in the universe, it’s a human idea. It’s how we work.

Well, on our better days. Left to our own devices, humans want satisfaction: We wanna punish evildoers till we feel better. Frequently with a punishment which doesn’t remotely fit the crime. Somebody offends me, so I ruin his life and drive him to despair. Somebody insults my honor, so I duel her and shoot her. Somebody raped Simeon and Levi’s sister, so they murdered the rapist’s entire city. Ge 34 Humans are creatures of extremes, and we take vengeance to extremes too. It’s why the LORD had to mitigate these extremes by telling the Hebrews “eye for an eye”—if you’re truly seeking justice, you don’t go overboard.

But God’s ideal has never been reciprocity. It’s always been grace. It’s what Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 5.38-42 KWL
38 “You heard this said: ‘Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth.’ Ex 21.24, Lv 24.20, Dt 19.21
39 And I tell you: No standing toe-to-toe with evil.
Instead, whoever punches you on the right cheek: Turn the other cheek to them.
40 To those who want you judged, to take your tunic: Forgive them, and give up your clothing.
41 Whoever drafts you to carry their gear one mile, go with them two.
42 Give to one who asks you. Don’t drive off one who wishes to borrow from you.”
 
Luke 6.29-31 KWL
29 “To one who hits you on the cheek, offer the other also.
To one who takes your robe and tunic from you, don’t stop them.
30 Give to everyone who asks you. Don’t demand payback from those who take what’s yours.
31 Just as you want people doing for you, do likewise for them.”

Now, have you ever seen someone turn the other cheek in real life? Probably not. Most of the time, when someone gets socked in the jaw, they don’t get back up and offer the other side of their face. They punch back. Christians included. People simply don’t follow this instruction: They retaliate. It’s human nature. You hit me, I hit you. Bruise for bruise. We’ll justify it by quoting the bible verses which let us return bruise for bruise.

Now, in movies you sometimes see someone turn the other cheek. But the reason they do it actually isn’t because they’re trying to follow Jesus. It’s ’cause they’re trying to intimidate the person striking them, “Look what a badass I am. That was the best you could do? Your mother kisses harder. I could stand to take another punch. Go ahead. Hit me again. I dare you.” Yep, it’s a hostile act.

Ever seen someone have an item taken away from them, and in response they offer to give up something else? Again, they’re not doing this ’cause they’re following Jesus. It’s part of a tantrum: “Oh, so you’re repossessing my car? Well here! Why don’t you take my driver’s license while you’re at it! Take my bike! Take my bus pass! Take every means I have of getting anywhere! Here, you can have my shoes!” Again, it’s not done for any other reason than aggression and a lack of gentleness.

“Hit me again!” or “Go ahead, take it all!” are never done in the spirit Jesus wants of us. ’Cause when we interpret Jesus’s teachings, we primarily have to remember Jesus’s character. He wants us to do these things out of the Spirit’s fruit—out of love, patience, kindness, gentleness. Not rage. Not pique.

Μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ/Mi antistíne to poniró, “Don’t stand up to the evil,” tends to be interpreted, “Do not resist an evil person.” (NIV). But that contradicts “Resist the devil.” Jm 4.7 We’re meant to resist evil, not kowtow to it. There’s your sign we’re dealing with a bad interpretation. Do resist evil. But the way we resist evil varies, and sometimes the best way to do it is not to stand up to it. It’s not to face off, be self-righteous or passive-aggressive (or even full-on aggressive). It’s to be like Jesus, and overcome evil with good. Ro 12.21

So I interpret Jesus’s statement as “No standing toe-to-toe with evil.” Don’t adopt evil’s tactics. Don’t reciprocate with violence or vengeance. Don’t give in to the temptation to help karma along. Be gracious like our heavenly Father is gracious.

I’ve heard preachers point out more than once: A right-handed opponent is likely to hit the left side of your face. The only way they’d hit your right cheek is if they backhand you. For some reason, preachers assume this is worse than getting hit or punched any other way. More degrading; more insulting. But the fact is, people tend to be outraged when they’re hit in the face, no matter how they’re hit. And Jesus’s instruction tells us to stifle that outrage, our dignity, our vengeance… and expect more.

As for suing your tunic off: Jesus is actually using hyperbole. He didn’t mean someone who was literally suing you to get your tunic; he meant someone who was suing you for every cent you had, and if you had no money, they’d supposedly take the shirt off your back. But if you gave ’em your robe too… well, they actually couldn’t accept that. Because the Law required creditors to give back one’s robe every night at sundown, so people could at least have something to sleep in. Dt 24.12-13 Giving “thy cloke also,” (KJV) was therefore also hyperbole: If creditors wanna take everything, stop fighting and give ’em everything.

Why do people assume Jesus means giving people more than what they ask for? ’Cause of verse 41, going the extra mile:

Matthew 5.41 KWL
“Whoever drafts you to carry their gear one mile, go with them two.”

Under Roman law, a Roman soldier had the right to draft non-Romans to carry their gear for 1,000 paces. (Mille/“thousand” is where we get mile—even though it’s now more than 1,000 feet.) Problem is, Romans would cheat. They’d miscount the paces. Or, once you did your thousand and put down their gear, they’d immediately draft you again for another mile.

But rather than embrace the hurt feelings and outrage—“Hey, I’m done with my service!”—Jesus instructs us to quit thinking, “What’s the least I have to do before I’m done?” and just fulfill the whole obligation. If you have to carry a burden a few more steps, don’t pile a grudge on top of it. You’ll be carrying the grudge long after you put down the other burden.

Anyway, Christians read that extra-obligation idea back into the previous verses. And they don’t necessarily belong there. If someone sues your pants off, you do owe the money, so accept your circumstances. If someone punches your jaw, don’t escalate things; again, accept your circumstances. If a Roman makes you walk 1,300 paces, that’s annoying, but don’t let it eat you up inside; accept your circumstances.

None of this is about inviting extra abuse upon ourselves. It’s about the fact life will sometimes suck. Stop looking to balance the score. Stop seeking karma or reciprocity, whether it’s merited or not. Accept the circumstances, embrace serenity, and get on with your life.

Fairness, justice, and grace.

I’ve heard this preached many times: “The word ‘fairness’ isn’t in the bible. Go ahead and look. You won’t find it.”

Well no, not in the KJV or NKJV. But better not give ’em an ESV or NASB (appears twice), or the GNT (four times), or NLT (seven times), or NET (14 times). See, it all depends on the translation. The specific word might not be found in your bible. The concept is definitely there. It tends to be translated “justice.” You did know “fair” and “just” are synonyms, right?

But like karma, westerners redefine justice so that it no longer means “fair or reciprocal behavior”—like eye for eye, tooth for tooth. When people say they “want justice,” what they now mean is they wanna see people get what they deserve… in the negative sense. Someone did ’em wrong, and they want the wrongdoer punished. More accurately they want revenge. Since revenge isn’t allowed under our laws, they’ll settle for the next best thing: “Justice.” Meaning a great big fine, prison, or the death penalty. Given the option, they’d prefer the death penalty. But that’s what “justice” has become in our culture: Fair punishment.

Justice means more than that in the scriptures. ’Cause God wants us to be fair with one another. When we see things going wrong, he wants us to make things right. He’s more pleased with that, than when we offer him sacrifices. Pr 21.3 What more does he want of us than to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God? Mc 6.8

I bring up justice and fairness ’cause I’m trying to explain the cultural baseline which Jesus was starting from. Our culture does karma, which is kinda like justice. But unlike the scriptures, we expect the universe to make things right. We expect God to punish evildoers, reward the righteous, or help the needy. Not us; that’s not our job. We’re fellow recipients of karmic payouts.

Just goes to show how disconnected we are from God.

Meanwhile Jesus is trying to teach grace. If someone punches you, don’t punch back. If someone penalizes you, don’t try to get out of it. If someone obligates you, don’t perform the bare minimum. If people ask your help, don’t drive ’em off. You know, like Moses said in the Law:

Deuteronomy 15.7-11 KWL
7 “If there’s a needy person among you—one of your brothers, at one of your gates
in your land which your LORD God gives you,
don’t close your mind. Don’t shut your hand to your needy brother.
8 Open, open your hand to him. Promise, promise whatever he needs, whatever he lacks.
9 Watch yourself, lest there’s this useless thought in your mind,
saying, “Sabbath year is near—the year debts are canceled,”
and you eye your needy brother warily, and won’t give to him.
He’ll call to the LORD against you. It’s a sin for you.
10 Give, give to him. Don’t do evil in your mind in giving to him.
For this reason, your LORD God blesses all your work, all your hand creates.
11 There will never stop being needy people in the land. Therefore I command you,
saying: Open, open your hand to your brother, to your poor, to your needy, in your land.”

This attitude flies in the face of popular culture. Including popular Christian culture. Plenty of Christians will likewise insist we should offer the needy “a hand up, not a handout.” Plenty of people—both in Jesus’s day and now—take advantage of generosity, and accept handouts regardless of their own ability to provide for themselves. They milk the system. Jesus knows this. Knew this when he taught us to give to those who ask of us. Yeah, they might scam us. Even so. Fight your tendency to want to get your own back. Put others first. Do for them. Be generous. Even if it’s “unfair.”

It’s a hard command for a lot of Christians. One we tend to ignore: Look at all the Christians who are insistent, even proud, that we stand up for our rights, and stop people from taking advantage of us. In American culture it’s considered shameful to let someone have the advantage over us. Yet Jesus orders us to let ’em.

Yes, we have rights. No, it’s not fair when others exploit us, or take from us. Karma fans expect when we’re mistreated this way, the universe will step in and rectify things. When they’re Christians, they’ll even preach it: “Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek because, at the End, that cheek-slapper will get his. Jesus’ll see to it.” In fact Jesus said no such thing. In fact Jesus wants the opposite: He wants that cheek-slapper to repent, turn to him, be saved, and beg forgiveness. Jesus wants that cheek-slapper to get away with it, and enter his kingdom.

Same as you. And me. And everyone. How many cheeks—literal or figurative—have we slapped? And Jesus wants us all to get away with it. That’s what grace means.

Jesus wants his followers to demonstrate this grace. Yeah, we can try to make things equitable, balance things out, or get even. Might feel really good about ourselves for doing so. Might feel great satisfaction. But he wants us to be bigger people than that. Let it go. Forgive, in favor of people who need saving. Be merciful instead of “fair.” Seek to help the needy instead of seeking “justice.” Show ’em grace instead of righteous anger.

It’s why Jesus caps off this teaching, in Luke, with the “golden rule”: Do as you’d like done to you. Lk 6.31 You want God to show you grace and mercy when Jesus takes his glorious throne? Show grace and mercy to others. You want people to give you the benefit of the doubt? Go and do likewise.

Be generous. Not because they’ll then owe you, but because it’s how our Father works. It’s how his kingdom works—and you wanna be ready for it, right?

Revelation: The starting point of theology.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 January
REVELATION rɛv.ə'leɪ.ʃən noun. 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, given to John of Patmos.
[Reveal rə'vil verb, revelator 'rɛ.vəl.eɪt.ər noun, revelatory 'rə.vɛl.ə.tɔ.ri adjective, revelational rɛv.ə'leɪ.ʃ(ə)n.(ə)l adjective.]

When I first taught theology, I found whenever I talk about revelation, Christians nearly always assume I’m talking about the book. (And half the time they think it’s Revelations, with an -s. And half that time, when they write it out, they 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 a sweater on ’cause it’s gonna be chilly outside, that’s revelation. God revealed it to you. Simple, right?

And of course we humans overcomplicate the idea. We assume revelation is always a big profound mind-scrambling experience. With lights, visions, seizures, euphoria, and Hollywood-style special effects. This is why people assume God’s never given ’em a revelation, or doesn’t do this sort of thing anymore: 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.

Nah. Most of the time, revelation is so ordinary-looking, you’d never realize it’s God talking till he tells you it’s him. Kinda like what happened to the prophet Samuel. He 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 began 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, “Heed me.”
5 Samuel ran to Eli, saying, “Heed 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?” Frequently followed 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.

He has to. How else are we gonna get to know him?

The reason cessationists, and other anti-supernaturalists, balk at the idea of God talking to people or otherwise revealing himself to people, is because their concepts of God (or their lack of belief in him) can’t permit the idea. God’s too different. Or too holy. Or just doesn’t work like that. Or doesn’t work like that anymore; he used to, but chose a cut-off point where he no longer will, so we’re on our own.

If God doesn’t talk, then how on earth are we expected to find out about him? Well, here these folks present us with all sorts of unsatisfactory, problematic answers.

  • We’re never gonna find out. We’ll die wondering.
  • Back in ancient times when God did talk, holy scriptures were recorded, and we’re gonna have to make do with them. Good luck figuring out which of them are valid. We Christians point to our bible, but we still debate how many books are in it, or or which translation’s best, and these things tend to alienate people who are obsessive-compulsive about their scriptures, or bore people who don’t read. Plus the Jews say we Christians have one testament too many, the Mormons say one testament too few, the Muslims say ditch it in favor of the Quran, and the Hindus and Buddhists also have their own scriptures.
  • We might finally make contact with God in the afterlife. Till then, all our questions are gonna have to wait till we’re dead. (And maybe we can make contact with ghosts. They might know something. Bust out that Ouija board!)
  • There are other spirits. Like angels, or beings on other celestial planes, or nature gods, or spirit animals. Talk to them.
  • If we look at nature, or study science, maybe we can deduce God, or figure out what he’s like. Fr’instance, animals in our biosphere fight each other for supremacy and survival, and nature is unforgiving and harsh. Maybe that’s what God’s like, right? He doesn’t want us to work together in peace and harmony; he’s a war God who wants us to fight to the death and come out on top in this cold, cruel world.
  • Various gurus think they have God figured out. Which one do we wanna follow? How about that church in Hollywood all the celebrities are into? …Too expensive and cultlike? Okay, how about that temple all the other celebrities are into? Maybe the church whose beliefs already match ours; that’d be convenient, ’cause we won’t have to change our lives much, if at all.
  • Turn off our doubts and our brains, and just cling to happiness as best we can.

These are the many problems with trying to learn what God is like, without ever actually talking to the Big Guy himself. We gotta deal with a whole lot of guesses. Doesn’t matter how educated these guesses are: If God is in fact significantly different than we are (and it turns out he is!) the very best of these guesses, pitched by the very smartest of our people, is gonna be riddled with flaws. Speaking for myself, I think Siddhartha Gautama came up with a downright clever philosophy, and is probably the very best we can do apart from God’s revelation.

But with God’s revelation, you’re gonna make contact with God himself. And if that’s a real option, it’d be downright stupid of us to ignore it.

Of course, there’s no shortage of stupid on earth. But I would encourage you to ignore all that and ask God for revelation. He invites you to.

Luke 11.9-10 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.”
 
Acts 17.26-28 KWL
26 “Out of one human, God made every human ethnicity dwelling upon all the face of the earth,
marking out placements, times, and borders of their nation,
27 to get them to seek God: Perhaps they’d sense him, and find him.
Really, he exists not far from every one of us.
28 ‘We live, move, and exist in him,’ Epimenides, Kritiká as one of your poets even said.
‘We’re his descendants too.’ ” Aratus, Fainómena
 
Hebrews 11.5-6 KWL
5 In faith Enoch was transformed:
He didn’t see death, and wasn’t found because God transformed him.
Before his transformation, he’d testified to God,
pleasing him, 6 and without faith one can’t please God:
One has to have faith—come to God because he exists, and earnestly search for him.
He becomes the one who pays your salary.

Special revelation.

There are all sorts of things we humans call revelation, but when theologians wanna talk about God revealing himself to us, we use the term special revelation: God specially telling us about himself.

I find people tend to assume special revelation only consists of God directly telling us about himself. But God indirectly telling us about himself, through prophets and bible, tends to get included in “special revelation” as well. These other sources count. They’re definitely important too: They help confirm all the stuff we get directly. Don’t dismiss them!

We reduce special revelation to five types. They are:

  1. GOD-APPEARANCES. Where Jesus (or God in some other representational form) makes a personal appearance in some visible form. No, not as a toasted pattern on a tortilla, or a neat cloud formation; it’s not an inert appearance. He’ll talk, or otherwise do stuff.
  2. MIRACLES. Stuff which can only happen if the Holy Spirit did or empowered it, ’cause there’s no other reasonable explanation. Not that skeptics won’t struggle to find one.
  3. PRAYER. When we talk with God; namely the part where he talks back.
  4. PROPHECY. When another person legitimately hears from God, and shares that message.
  5. SCRIPTURE. The writings of ancient prophets and apostles who recorded their God-experiences and special revelations.

Some Christians claim there’s a sixth type, general revelation, humanity’s built-in knowledge that God exists. I discuss that topic in more detail elsewhere, but I’ll briefly say this: It doesn’t provide us enough useful information to count as special revelation.

Pretty much every form of God revealing himself you can think of, falls under these five types. The Old and New Testaments count as scripture. Meditation is a form of prayer. So’s speaking in tongues, most of the time. Dreams and visions are forms of prophecy.

And yeah, some of these types overlap. If you have the ability to supernaturally translate one language into another, it’s both a miracle (it can only be done by the Holy Spirit’s power) and a form of prophecy (God wanted this message shared). Really, all of these types are kinda miraculous.

True, two of them can appear to not be miracles. If you’re one of those Christians who believe prayer only communicates in one direction, you’re barely gonna get any revelation out of it. If you figure the bible is just an old thick book, and don’t figure God teaches you anything out of it, same problem.

Each of these types of revelation merits a whole article—and I wrote ’em, so click on the appropriate links for more info.

Wisdom: Use your head!

by K.W. Leslie, 24 January
WISDOM 'wɪz.dəm noun. Having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. Being wise.
2. The biblical genre which explains and teaches how to think and practice good judgment.

In the Old Testament, חָכְמָה/khokhmáh, “wisdom,” basically means the ability to think. To have a working brain. To use the sense God gave us, instead of passively letting stuff happen to us, and then blaming all the bad stuff on the government or the Republicans or the devil.

You know all those Christian ninnies whose lives are an utter mess, who complain all the time about Satan trying to steal their victory, and try to ward it off with incantations by claiming their blessings? Yeah, that’s not the devil; that’s them. Their own lack of wisdom will create all that chaos just fine without Satan lifting a finger.

Khokhmáh is the ability to understand cause and effect: When you do this, it produces that; when you don’t do this, it produces something else. You’ll notice a lot of biblical proverbs follow that format.

Proverbs 10.4-5 KWL
4 You create poverty with slack hands. Diligent hands create wealth.
5 The wise child gathers in summer. The embarrassing child sleeps through harvest.

The authors were trying to teach good sense: Human psychology, ethical behavior, clever planning, and all the stuff our culture typically associates with wise people. Actions have consequences, and all things being equal, these are the consequences, so bear them in mind. (And, because wisdom covers its bases, Ecclesiastes points out sometimes all things aren’t equal, and there are exceptions to these rules. Because life isn’t fair. Not that we should therefore be a dick about it and refuse to be fair either.)

Various bible commentators figure khokhmáh doesn’t just refer to good sense, but smarts of all sorts. For their proof text they point to when the LORD singled out Bechalel ben Uri and Oholiav ben Akhisamakh as the craftsmen who’d design all the stuff for his tabernacle. He told Moses he filled the both of ’em with khokhmáh, with wisdom. Ex 31.1-6 So these commentators figure, “Oh, wisdom also means skills and talents.” Nah. Wisdom is still wisdom. God gave Bechalel and Oholiav ability, but they needed the wisdom to use their ability well.

  • They needed time management. Israel needed these things built as soon as possible.
  • They needed people skills: They had to work with other artists, who built other things. And they’d have to deal with nitpicking people who thought they knew better what the tabernacle might need.
  • They needed the good sense to not obsess about getting their stuff “perfect”—as people do when they have a really important client to impress, and who’s more important than God?
  • Conversely they needed to not be so fixated on what they were doing, they forgot their work was meant to facilitate worship. Unlike certain music pastors… but let’s not go there today.
  • They needed to be appropriate: “Come on guys, don’t put penises on the cherubs!”

Artistry itself isn’t wisdom. But artists definitely need wisdom! Same as everyone.

However. There are plenty of folks, Christians included, who don’t care to be wise. Usually it’s because we figure we already know everything we need to know, and needn’t add any “useless trivia” to it. We figure we know best. Or that the laws of cause and effect don’t apply to us, ’cause “I claimed my victory.” Or we don’t like what someone’s saying, and figure it therefore can’t be true—as if truth is only gonna be what we like. (I run into this attitude all the time. Occasionally people claim it’s a recent trend, but it’s really not. Wishful thinking has always been hardwired into humanity.)

The writers of the scriptures have a lot of choice words for such people.

  • אֱוִיל/evýl, “silly” or “twisted.”
  • כָּסַל/kasál, “dense.” Literally “fat,” in reference to one’s heart (which they imagined we thought with), which they figured was too surrounded by fatty tissue for anyone to get through to.
  • נָבָל/navál, “empty.” Like a wineskin, deflated ’cause there’s nothing in it. Or like an empty brain, which is why Hebrew-speakers used it to indicate a moron.

Translators kindly render these words as “foolish” and “folly.” But let’s not sugar-coat things: The proper term for this thinking is stupid.

When I use the word “stupid,” a lot of young people flinch. A lot of ’em, unless they were raised by awful parents, were taught “stupid” is a bad word; that you never call somebody stupid. Because they assume (again, as they were taught) stupidity is a condition you can’t change. Some people were born without smarts, without intelligence, without the ability to use their commonsense. And can’t help it if they’re stupid. Likewise if you call someone stupid you’re sorta cursing them, and they’ll think they are stupid, and give up hope of ever doing better.

But anyone can do better. Stupidity is a choice. So’s wisdom.

That’s why the scriptures describe fools as getting punished for their stupidity:

Proverbs 26.3 KWL
You take a whip to a horse, a bridle to a donkey, and a cane to an idiot’s backside.

Because they choose to shun wisdom. They deliberately make bad choices and refuse to listen to reason or sense. It’s not just because they’re deficient, or because life is unfair. Stupid is a decision.

Throughout the bible’s wisdom writings, wisdom gets compared to stupidity. The scriptures teach it’s far better to be wise than dumb. Far better to know how the world works, than passively let things just happen, or to guess wrong and come to ruin. We see examples of this all the time: If you don’t care about gravity, your poorly-built house may cave in on you. If you don’t care about fairness, your neighbors and coworkers will avenge themselves upon you when they feel you’ve wronged them.

Wisdom is found all over the bible. Most of it is concentrated in the wisdom literature, and found in the form of proverbs, brief wisdom sayings which are usually true.

Usually true?

Proverbs and biblical wisdom regularly gets misinterpreted: People assume if something’s in the bible, it’s always true, never fails, works in every situation. These, they claim, are God’s promises.

Let’s be clear: The scriptures are infallible. But that’s when we use them correctly. When we misinterpret them of course they’re not gonna work the way we claim. If you think Psalm 91 means we can jump off tall buildings and angels will catch you, man are you stupid. The devil’s temptation of Jesus would’ve totally worked on you, and it’s gonna have a lot of fun tripping you up. But obviously that’s not what that psalm’s about! As Jesus knew when Satan misquoted it. Lk 4.9-12

When the LORD commands something, when Jesus teaches something, when the apostles give their interpretations, these are absolute statements. They’re always true; circumstances don’t change ’em; take ’em to the bank. And in the case of prophecies these are conditional statements: If you meet the conditions, they’ll happen, otherwise not. If Jerusalem stops sinning, God’ll bless them; if Jerusalem keeps sinning, God won’t. Prophecies have catches, and they’re based on how we humans respond to the prophecies. God stays consistent, but we’re the variable. Fill in the correct variables, get the correct answers.

And proverbs are circumstantial statements: For them to be true, the circumstances have to be right. Circumstances change things. Generally God permits the wise and righteous to prosper, and the foolish and lawless to come to ruin. But not always. There are, like Ecclesiastes points out, cases where that’s not so. The proverbs are what tend to be true, all things being equal. But life and nature aren’t consistent. Circumstances change things.

How can I claim proverbs aren’t absolute statements? Simple: Some proverbs contradict one another. Deliberately so. I like to use this pair of proverbs on answering a fool as an example:

Proverbs 26.4-5 KWL
4 Don’t respond to a fool’s stupidity, lest you be compared to them.
5 Respond to a fool’s stupidity, lest they become wise in their own eyes.

If you were raised to believe the bible never, ever contradicts itself, are you in for a rude awakening. It’s much of the reason Christians tend to ignore Ecclesiastes. In Proverbs we’re taught wisdom pays off and stupidity doesn’t; in Ecclesiastes we’re taught the stupid might prosper, the wise might go without, and none of this means a thing. Those who love to quote Proverbs with impunity, absolutely hate how Ecclesiastes undermines it. So they either pretend Jesus undoes Ecclesiastes, or imply Solomon wrote it after he started to dabble in idolatry. Or otherwise illegitimately impugn its wisdom.

And yet we see a contradiction smack dab in mid-Proverbs. Its editor intentionally put 26.4-5 next to one another. Both proverbs are credited to Solomon. And both were composed to fit different circumstances. With some fools, follow verse 4, ’cause they’re too stupid to take correction. With other fools, correct ’em as verse 5 instructs, ’cause they’re still able to receive it. Sometimes verse 4 is true, sometimes verse 5.

Same with every other contradictory proverb. Like these.

COMME ÇICOMME ÇA
Wisdom will make you happy. Pr 3.13 Wisdom will make you miserable. Ec 1.18
Discipline is wasted on fools. Pr 16.22 Discipline fools. Pr 19.29
The godly have food and the wicked go hungry. Pr 13.25 The godly have treasure and the wicked have trouble. Pr 15.6 Sometimes the wise go hungry. Sometimes the skillful aren’t rich. Ec 9.11
The wise inherit honor. Pr 3.35 Qohelet watched wicked people get buried with honor. Ec 8.10

How do you sort out which one applies to your circumstances? Duh: Wisdom.

You need wisdom to study wisdom.

I know. There are Christians who teach, “If the bible ever contradicts itself, we’ll have to throw the entire thing out, because we can’t trust it anymore.” The Fundamentalists who taught my childhood Sunday school classes never tired of saying this.

And they’d be fools. Because anybody who seriously studies the wisdom portions of the bible knows there are contradictions in there. That’s what happens when you teach ethics! Life is messy and complicated, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to some problems—as Ecclesiastes regularly points out. Sometimes you gotta answer fools in their folly, and sometimes you’re the fool if you don’t keep your mouth shut.

So those who wanna turn off their brains and just quote Proverbs in every situation, are being the very sort of fools Proverbs warns against. We’re not to read the bible’s wisdom so we can stop thinking and quote proof texts. We’re to read it so we can learn: Okay, in these circumstances it’s best to think like so. In other circumstances it’s best to think another way. In life there’s a time for this, and a time for that. Ec 3.1 So we gotta judge which circumstance we’re in. We gotta think. It’s why God gave us our brains.

True, our motives are corrupted by our selfishness. This doesn’t mean, as many brain-dead Christians presume, we can’t be trusted, so stop thinking and just quote bible. We humans might be flawed, but we’re learning better, and growing good fruit. We’re learning to recognize our biases and undo them. It’s why we’re encouraged to pray for wisdom. Jm 1.5 It’s why we’re instructed to judge righteously. Jn 7.24 Grow wisdom.

Honestly, some Christians don’t wanna do this. They’re really bugged by the idea we get to deduce right and wrong; humans aren’t trustworthy! They don’t trust themselves to do it right. They certainly don’t trust others. It’s way more comfortable to not think at all, and follow blind basic instructions from the bible.

Which is why such people tend to treat Proverbs as if it’s not just situational guidelines, but biblical commands. Which is why they invent “biblical principles” based on Proverbs, and foolishly treat the wisdom as if one size does fit all. In so doing they utterly miss wisdom. We’re to grapple with wise sayings, not just swallow ’em whole. Pr 1.5-6 We’re to understand, not just accept. We’re to see beyond the proverbs, and grow to understand the God who inspired them.

This is why foolish Christians misquote proverbs as if they’re commands or promises. Whereas wise Christians recognize ordinarily the race is to the swift, and the battle to the strong. But sometimes it’s not. Ec 9.11 It’s stupid to treat proverbs as always, universally true. (And particularly stupid to quote certain friends of Job, considering how the LORD stated nothing they said about him was correct. Jb 42.7 Context, folks.)

So… do you know Jesus?

by K.W. Leslie, 23 January

I know better than to assume everyone who browses TXAB is Christian.

I learned better on other blogs I’ve done. ’Cause nonchristians piped up. There’s a certain personality type—the class clown, the noisy guy in the theater, the guy in the nightclub who wears way too much musk, the Facebook friend who over-comments on everything (which, I gotta admit, is sometimes me) —who can’t go anywhere without making their presence known. If you prefer to go unnoticed, these are the people you never wanna befriend; they’ll always embarrass you. And on blogs, they’re the sort who wanna make sure the blogger (i.e. me) knew they visited. Sometimes with a polite note, and sometimes by flinging poo like a chimpanzee.

On blogs, sometimes they’re the troll who comments, in case any Christians are reading, “You suckers do realize all this religious stuff is [synonym for dooky]: Jesus is dead, the bible is science fiction, and churches are scams to separate the feeble-minded from their money.” Or the guy who emails me 10 pages of out-of-context or non-sequitur “corrections” to the article I posted. Or the pagan who instant-messages me about how she’s struggling to reconcile my statements with the superficial Buddhism which she’s convinced she can practice alongside Christianity.

I get all sorts. If they’re truly interested in Jesus, I’m not gonna drive ’em away. On the contrary: I’m always gonna try to drive ’em towards. Namely towards Jesus.

Years ago I participated in a multifaith synchroblog. (A synchroblog is where a bunch of bloggers write on the same topic. Then most of us read each other’s pieces to see their take on the topic. Or not; some of us only want more people to read our blogs, and are using it to get clicks.) In my piece I stated upfront I was trying to introduce my pagan visitors to Jesus. I didn’t want any of ’em thinking I had a hidden, ulterior motive; plenty enough Christian phonies out there already. My motives are gonna be nice and obvious.

Still are. If you don’t know Jesus, let me introduce you.

Good news, everybody!

Sometimes it’s called the gospel; sometimes the evangel. Both words mean “good news”—either in ancient English or ancient Greek. ’Cause you should consider it good news. If you don’t, either we Christians did a crappy job of presenting it to you, or we taught you some other thing’s the gospel. Or you don’t believe us. Or all three.

The good news, according to Christ Jesus, is God’s kingdom has come near. Mk 1.15

What’s God’s kingdom? (Or heaven’s kingdom?—the terms are interchangeable.) In short, God wants to be our king. He wants a personal, individual relationship with every person on the planet. He wants us to be his people, and he our God. Ex 6.7 He wants us to be his children, and he our father. Yep, exactly like he’s Jesus’s father: He wants to be tight with us, same as Jesus is tight with him.

Most of us humans seriously doubt we can have any such relationship with God. Mostly ’cause we figure God’s so cosmic and alien. He’s an almighty spirit, the creator of the universe, and so absolutely good—most of us figure if we actually encountered God’s power and goodness, it’d blow us up like a hamster in a microwave. Jg 13.22 And y’know, it actually might. Ex 33.20 So we assume we’re too unworthy to interact with him, and go through a whole bunch of convolutions to get ourselves righteous before we dare approach him. Before we pray, we do a bunch of acts of penance. Or we promise a ton of good deeds. Or we vow togive up bad habits, or give up beloved things, or otherwise try to appease God first. We believe we just can’t go to him as-is. We’re too messed up.

So when Jesus tells us the kingdom has come near, what he means is we actually don’t have to bridge the gap between God and us. God already did that. He became human—namely Jesus—and lived among us humans. Jn 1.14 And they didn’t die!

Nope, God’s not distant from us. He’s right here. If you want him, here he is.

“But we’re not worthy!” Not a problem. God forgave you.

Yeah, our evildoing, our sins, mean we owe him big time: He’s had to clean up our messes, and put right what we’ve bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated. We oughta make up for our sins—and we’ve racked up so many. Really, we deserve death, for sin kills. Ro 6.23 But actually, God took care of that. After becoming human, he got killed. (Seems people couldn’t handle how he kept acting as if he’s God or something.) So—in a way we Christians still don’t entirely understand, and debate about—he applies his death to our sin, and considers our debt paid. We might still have to make things right with one another, but with God… we’re good. Having a relationship with him no longer has any hurdles.

Seriously. And it’s a fact that’s hard for lots of people to accept. Including Christians. Across the board, humanity believes in karma, the idea we only receive good (or only should receive good) if we’ve merited it with our good deeds; otherwise the universe is out of whack, and will eventually balance things out. Christians believe in karma too, and some of us still try to make ourselves worthy of God… as if that’s even possible. After a lifetime of buggering up, we’re gonna amend things with God? Not remotely possible.

That’s why we need God to do it for us. It’s where faith comes in: We gotta trust Jesus when he says God really, truly wants relationship with us. If we don’t trust Jesus, it’s our own fault when our relationships with God suck: He’s not the one with the hangups. That’d be us.

So since we can have relationships with God, he can empower us to live productive, fruitful lives. Not materially fruitful, i.e. rich, although in certain cases that’s a side effect. But spiritually fruitful: We become better people. We sin less. We’re more loving, more kind, more patient, more joyful. We can tap God’s supernatural power and perform miracles. No, really. Hang out with the right Christians and I guarantee you’ll see some.

What’s more, by taking out sin, Jesus also took out death. He proved this by himself coming back from the dead: He’s alive. Temporarily in heaven, there’s gonna be a day Jesus comes back to earth, to rule God’s kingdom in person. Not metaphorically; for real. And the day he does, every Christian, every God-follower throughout history, is getting raised from the dead just like Jesus was. 1Co 6.14 And we’re not dying again: This is eternal life.

This is the good news.

Hard to believe? Okay.

Yeah, in order to believe the gospel, there are certain things we gotta believe in the first place. Like God’s very existence: If you don’t believe in any such being, the rest will be pure myth. It’s the world’s nicest bedtime story, with the world’s biggest happy ending, but you won’t believe a word of it.

Likewise resurrection. This was the ancient Greeks’ hangup: Their philosophy, which they were steeped in since childhood, taught ’em matter is bad (it decays, y’know) and spirit is good. So when you die, you become pure spirit—and that’s good. You wanna be pure spirit. You wanna live in Elysium (the good Greek afterlife) forever. And plenty of people nowadays believe the very same thing: When you die, you go to heaven and live with God and the angels. Maybe even become an angel yourself. (Actually you don’t; they’re another species. It’s like imagining you go to heaven and become ponies. I know; now you wanna become a pony. Stop that.) But the last thing people want is to get put back in a body—it sounds so limiting.

Likewise in Jesus being God. Most people easily accept the idea of Jesus being a great man, or moral teacher. Some are okay with him being divine—but only if it’s true we can become divine just like he did. Actually we can become perfect like him, and that’s one of God’s goals. But Jesus didn’t become God; he was God long before he ever became human. Jn 1.1 But if we can’t believe this, it’s hard to accept the rest.

This is where faith comes in. Faith is simply another word for trust: We trust Jesus. We take his word for it that everything he teaches is true. We figure, “I’m not sure I believe all of this. Or any of it. But I’m gonna try it and see what happens. If there’s anything to it, stuff’s gonna happen. I’ll hear God talk to me. I’ll see him do miracles. If there’s not, if it’s all rubbish, nothing will happen, nothing’ll change; it’ll fall apart. So here goes nothing.” And we take the leap.

And stuff happens. Try it. You’ll see.

Faking the Spirit’s fruit.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 January

So you know we Christians need to be fruity. If we’re following the Holy Spirit’s lead, his character’s gonna overflow into the rest of our lives, and out pours his fruit.

And you probably know lots of Christians who claim they’re producing this sort of fruit. And yet… there’s something just a bit off-putting about the sort of “fruit” they crank out.

The love? Not all that loving. Their joy is either too manic, or has a lot of sadness and resignation mixed in there. The patience feels like despair. The kindness is artificial—and skin-deep; turn your back and they’ll say some really awful things about the people they were just kind to a moment ago, and you can only imagine what they have to say about you.

Peace seems to only come about after an awful lot of strife. Forgiveness has tons of strings attached. Grace is only extended to popular people, not everyone.

What’s going on? Duh; fruitless Christians redefining fruit. If you don’t have any real fruit, substitute fakes. Paint those road apples red, claim they’re real apples, and see whether anyone takes a bite. See if anyone notices—and if everybody’s faking it, nobody ever will.

Because fake fruit is easier. It doesn’t require real change. It means we can look good enough for church, but outside the church building we can be the same [rhymes with “gas tolls”] we’ve always been. Hypocrisy is always the easier, more popular path, found among just about every Christianist.

No, it’s not a perfect simulation. When we aren’t practicing the real thing, there are plenty of cracks in the veneer. You should be able to identify the frauds… and if you can’t, here’s this article.

Gotta pretend to love.

Take a Christian who doesn’t have love. Paul and Sosthenes described love like so.

1 Corinthians 13.4-8 KWL
4 Love has patience. Love behaves kindly.
It’s not emotion out of control. It doesn’t draw attention to how great it is. It doesn’t exaggerate.
5 It doesn’t ignore others’ considerations. It doesn’t look out for itself. It doesn’t provoke behavior.
It doesn’t plot evil. 6 It doesn’t delight in doing wrong: It delights in truth.
7 It puts up with everything, puts trust in everything, puts hope in everything,
survives everything. 8A Love never falls down.

Naturally, fake love—the way ancient Corinth defined love, and the way popular culture misdefines it—lacks these characteristics entirely. Fake love behaves impatiently and unkindly. It’s wild, self-promoting, exaggerated, dismissive of anyone or anything else as lesser, provocative, scheming and conniving, willing and ready to shatter existing relationships and break every law. Over time, sometimes very little time, it fades away, and doesn’t persevere. Fake love rarely lasts without a strong helping of denial. Or liquor.

Among hypocrites, the absence of actual love produces people who don’t look at our fellow human beings as creatures to love. Just resources to tap. We’ll care about our friends and family, and be very loyal to them (although not always), but that’s largely because we think of them as extensions of ourselves, or possessions. But we won’t give a crap about strangers or neighbors. Depending on our politics, either the poor are nothing but a societal burden, or the rich are nothing but societal parasites. Either way, other people are inconvenient… till we need something from them.

Works the same way in relationships. We don’t date or marry people because we wanna self-sacrificially care for them. Oh, we’ll do that to a point. But we have ulterior motives: We want to bang them. We like the comfort and security of knowing they (or their wallets) will be there for us… even though we don’t guarantee we’ll be there in return. If we do stuff for them, they’ll owe us, and we can extract payment in all sorts of fun ways. And every time they object, we’ll claim, “But I love you”—and that makes everything all right, doesn’t it?… till we fall out of love, or find someone else to tap, and bail on them altogether.

Works the same way with parents or kids. If they do for us, we love ’em. If not—if the “but I’m your kid, and I love you” con won’t work anymore; we disown them. Maybe not in words, but we’ll just never be around any longer.

We won’t care to know the other people in our churches. At best it’ll be on a superficial level, and at worst the same parasitic relationship we have with our significant others. Always take, take, take. If someone in the church is too poor, too needy, has too many problems, we’ll unfriend ’em, and use the excuse, “He just can’t get his life together; it’s gotta be because of sin, and I can’t be around that.” That usually works. Successful people must be good Christians, right?—and they’re the only people worth knowing, so we’ll stick to those cliques.

Quite often you’ll see hatred. Hypocrites hate sin—so we claim. So we hate anything which has any whiff of sin to it—and that’s pretty much everything. Everything’s tainted. Anything other people enjoy, anything popular in the secular world? We’ll find something wrong with it. Anything popular in the Christian culture? We’ll find something wrong with that too. There’s nothing good under the sun, nothing. Especially when it outrages us personally. Depending on our politics, we’ll hate liberals and Democrats, or we’ll hate social Darwinists and Republicans. We’ll complain way too much about our least favorite sinners, and absolutely hate Satan. (What, you thought true Christians get to make an exception for the devil? No. Any hate corrodes the hater.)

Redefine every fruit.

INSTEAD OF JOY. Joy is actual happiness and optimism and hope. Those who fake joy will instead be unhappy, pessimistic (or “just being realistic,” we’ll claim), and hopeless.

We’ll claim it’s okay we’re joyless: Apparently joy in the bible doesn’t really mean joy. It means being content, despite our rotten circumstances. It means tolerance. I have joy because I put up with you and all your crap. Isn’t that magnanimous of me?

If the joyless have any sense of humor, it’s bent; it’s all about mocking and slamming others. Our so-called realism cynically dismisses any of the good in the world, as we only fixate on evil. We’re quick to find problems—in our families, churches, jobs, in the government, in society. We nitpick, not because we care, or are trying to improve things, but because that’s just what we do. We never expect anything, including our own lives, to get any better. Any Christians who do, we mock as naïve or idealistic—or of loving the world too much.

INSTEAD OF PEACE. Ever notice how many paranoid Christians there are? They constantly worry about what the devil’s up to. Not to mention its minions in the media, big business, the press, the government, other religions… We’re especially fond of conspiracy theories and End Times stuff. Any sign can mean the great tribulation is coming. So we’re fret about gun control, our constitutional rights, our personal data existing in any computer anywhere, or about other groups gaining on us. We’re scared.

And we make trouble: We like to create drama around us. Hey, life is boring when people aren’t fighting. So we’ll hang around fights, or pick one. We like to debate. We love apologetics and politics. If there’s an issue we can either fight over or forgive, we’ll never, ever pick forgiveness.

What about peace? Oh, we doubt it exists. Any time someone tries to make peace, we’re pretty sure that’s what’s fake.

INSTEAD OF PATIENCE. Impatience. We’ll complain whenever a worship chorus gets sung more than three times. We’ll give dirty looks to a parent who has a crying child in the service. We’ll get really angry when the pastor doesn’t get to the point, and the service cuts into lunchtime. We prefer quick fixes, easily summed-up theology, ideas easy to grasp, and people who don’t waste our time. We take it as a personal insult when people violate any of these things. We offer little grace. We don’t forgive or forget.

INSTEAD OF KINDNESS. Rudeness. There are two kinds of rude: Those who treat others like scum are obvious enough. Then there are those who are politely rude—the folks who don’t really care what people have to say, and just impose ourselves. These’d be the brainiacs in the bible studies, who never catch the leader’s hints to shut up and give someone else a turn. These’d be the people who drag people forward for prayer, without asking if they want or need prayer—or, just as bad, they ask, but never wait for an answer.

INSTEAD OF GOODNESS. Some Christians won’t even try to be good, but take full advantage of God’s grace. And full advantage of the Christians who extend us grace. We justify all our evil: We undertip and blame the waiter, or a society which expects us to tip all the time. We steal office supplies and blame the boss for underpaying us. We’re undependable, untrustworthy, unsympathetic, uninterested, ungenerous… we’re irreligious, and unchristian.

INSTEAD OF GENTLENESS. Out-of-control emotion. When we’re happy, upset, anxious, ecstatic, sad, whatever, you’re gonna know it. We don’t contain ourselves. We claim we can’t—“It’s just the way I am,” or “That’s just my personality,” or “That’s just my behavior quirk.” No, it’s not because we’re suffering from serious psychological problems, and we’re wandering the streets instead of being institutionalized or heavily medicated: We’re trying to rework the emotional environment around us in order to suit our mood swings. And because people don’t understand psychology (or what “gentleness” even means) they let us get away with it.

INSTEAD OF SELF-CONTROL. No control. Our lives are a mess and we don’t lift a finger to sort them out. We won’t grow as Christians because we refuse to give up sinful habits and minor idols. We figure one day we’ll magically wake up all better. Or since all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, Ro 3.23 it’s too late to seek improvement—so we’ll try to not commit any of the mortal sins. But there’s grace, right?

Perhaps we oughta follow the Spirit.

Where’d I get these descriptions? Simple: My own misbehavior. I used to be an awful hypocrite. Now I’m concentrating on being fruity. I still have a way to go. As do we all. Once we recognize these failings in ourselves, we can concentrate on letting the Holy Spirit get rid of them.

What I find works best is confession. I admit my past misbehavior—like the things I listed above. I talk about my less-than-noble motives for doing such things. I tell people it was sinful. I condemn it. And I ask ’em to call me on it if I repeat these old habits.

What if they’re practicing these things, ’cause they’re trying to fake the Spirit’s fruit instead of legitimately producing it? Well, some of ’em get convicted, and repent. And some of ’em pretend they would never, and praise me for being so transparent… and strive all the harder to hide their misbehaviors, ’cause they realize I’m on to them.

Every so often, a Christian has taken me aside and rebuked me for confessing. No, really. “You need to be careful who you confess this stuff to. You realize people might use it against you.” Um… how? I’ve already told on myself. It’s impossible to blackmail someone who’s publicly confessed the crime! The pure paranoid irrationality of their concern, exposes it for what it really is: They have sins to confess, and are terrified if they do, it’ll ruin them. So I need to stop it, lest my example ever become the norm. Darkness hates light.

If other people are doing the same things, and happen to be personally convicted because of my confession, that’s fine. I don’t try to figure out what sins other people are committing, nor customize my confessions to convict them. (I don’t bother with passive-aggressive behavior; I just go straight to aggressive.) I talk about myself, call a spade a spade, and confess I was self-centered instead of Jesus-focused. If they repent, great. If not, oh well; it’s between them and the Spirit.

But as for me, I’m gonna grow the Spirit’s fruit. I’m not gonna swap it for vastly inferior knock-offs.