Praying for stupid things.

by K.W. Leslie, 31 March

I realize the title of this piece is gonna bug some people: “There’s no such thing as praying for stupid things! People can pray for anything and everything! People should pray for anything and everything! Stop discouraging Christians from prayer!” And so on.

I don’t wanna discourage Christians from prayer. We should all pray, and we should all pray more; most of us honestly don’t pray enough.

But yes there are stupid prayer requests. Come on.

No I don’t mean praying for ordinary stuff, like for the traffic light to change, or for the spaghetti to not overboil, or for your basketball team to do their best. God’s cool with such prayers. They may seem small and petty and irrelevant to pagans, but only because they don’t care about the little things in our daily lives. God does.

No; it’s more like when you’re praying for your basketball team, you happen to pray for the violent death of their rivals. Now we’re getting stupid.

Stupid is a synonym for foolish. When we’re being stupid, we’re clearly not thinking, not using our brains, not being wise, not even pursuing wisdom. We’re following our guts, or following the crowd, or following our flesh. If “Your will be done” is in any way part of this prayer (as it should be), it’ll immediately cancel out our stupid prayer request. ’Cause God’s obviously gonna tell us no.

But often we don’t know God well enough to realize this. So we’ll keep right on making these stupid prayer requests… and wonder why our prayers never seem to work. Well duh.

James 4.3 KWL
You ask, yet don’t receive because you ask for evil!—so you might spend it on your hedonism.

If we’re continually getting “No” answers from God, often this is exactly why. We’re asking for stuff that we think will satisfy us, or comfort us, or make us happy. They won’t. They might harm us or others. God knows this. So he’s kindly telling us no.

But like a child who can’t fathom why Mommy won’t allow her to eat her own bodyweight in cookies, we’re confused and frustrated: Didn’t Jesus promise us God would give us anything we want? So what’s the holdup?Gimme cookie!

The holdup is we’re still praying for stupid things. We need to grow up.

Obvious stupidity, and subtle stupidity.

We all pray for stupid things from time to time. Yep, I do it too. It’s because I too am not using my head; I’m irritated, so I’m rattling off some angry prayer and probably saying a few things I shouldn’t. For those things, God is rightly, wisely denying my requests. And rebuking me a little.

Luke 9.54-55 KWL
54 Seeing this, the students James and John said, “Master, with your permission,
can we call fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
55 Jesus turned round to rebuke them.

’Cause sometimes I’m no wiser than his immature students in the gospels.

But I do know better than to expect God to smite my enemies like James and John wanted. He wants to save my enemies; he wants me to love my enemies; I know all this stuff already, and need to snap out of it and be like Jesus. We all have low points where we know better, and need to adjust our attitudes or change our behavior. That’s what I mean by obvious stupidity: We know we’re not being wise, and not praying right. Let’s do better.

The subtle stuff is when we think we are doing better… but if we stopped a second to think things through, we’d realize no we’re not.

Most imprecatory prayers are wholly inappropriate: We need to pray for evil to stop, but we mistakenly attack individuals. Most prayers for wealth and prosperity are because deep down we trust riches to be our safety net, not so much God. Often we need to pray for causes instead of effects: Yeah, we want God’s blessings on ourselves and our land, but how we arrive at those blessings needs to come through moral, ethical means; not by cutting government programs for the needy, raising taxes, raiding companies, nor exploiting workers.

Most prayers for our life and circumstances to change might be valid requests, but there’s an awful lot we can do to change these things, and if we used commonsense instead of trying to wish things into being, we’d actually get somewhere. No, I’m not saying “God helps those who help themselves”: God helps those who follow him, and any activity on our part needs to submit to his will. But often God’s “no” is really “I’m not gonna do that, you are.” Followed by our usual Moses-style or Gideon-style whining that we can’t… but yeah, we totally can. Especially when God’s empowering us.

Too often, prayers are emotional experiences instead of thoughtful experiences. We’re meant to love God with all our minds as well, so let’s stop slobbering all over God and deal with him as the rational, thinking being he is. Get serious about those prayer requests. Ask wisely.

The faith statement. (And mine too.)

by K.W. Leslie, 30 March

Typically when Christians talk about what’s orthodox Christianity and what’s heresy, we usually mean what we consider orthodox and heretic. Not what Christianity as a whole considers orthodox and heretic. We don’t think about the whole; honestly, too many of us suspect most of our fellow Christians aren’t real Christians.

But when you talk to individual Christians, we tend to not have all our Christian essentials, our “mere Christianity,” sorted out all that well. What’s the minimum requirements for Christianity?—well, for a lot of us it’s usually these.

  • Gotta believe in Jesus: That he’s real, was literally born, literally died, literally rose from the dead, and is literally coming back—to do what, varies. And his teachings are important… though how well we literally follow him also varies.
  • Gotta believe in the trinity. Though whether we actually understand trinity well enough, also varies. (Too many Christians don’t really understand what the Holy Spirit does, so they’ve largely replaced him with the Holy Bible.)
  • Gotta believe in the bible. Sometimes so much so, they make sure to prioritize bible before believing in Jesus. (Which they rationalize by saying, “Well, everything we believe about Jesus comes from the bible, so if you don’t believe in bible, you don’t really believe in Jesus.” But this only proves they don’t personally know Jesus; they’ve only read about him.) Also gotta interpret the bible literally… when convenient.
  • Gotta pray. Whether they recognize God talks back, varies.
  • Gotta go to church. Not necessarily so the church can be your support system; largely it’s just a demonstration of public piety, regardless of whether you follow Jesus the rest of the week. You know, hypocrisy; though they don’t always realize this is what they’ve demanded. Oh, it’s also gotta be a church much like theirs. And you should tithe.
  • Gotta believe as they do about water baptism and holy communion. Exactly as they do. Christians have killed one another over this, y’know, and it’s still not something most of us are willing to be gracious about.
  • Gotta be ready, at any given moment, to publicly declare you’re Christian. Because if you don’t, Jesus won’t recognize you as his, Lk 12.9 and you’re going to hell. We should probably be sharing the gospel with other people too.
  • Must’ve said the sinner’s prayer at some point. Or confessed with our mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts God raised him from the dead. Ro 10.9 Or some other introductory act which guarantees we’re born again.
  • Gotta share their politics. Not produce the Spirit’s fruit; you can fake that. Vote like they do, and support the same candidates and causes. Till you do, you’re suspect.

Whether they’ve actually sat down and sorted things through, or loosely glom onto these beliefs, that’s what most Christians have as their personal definition of Christianity. Some have more. Certain doctrinaires have tons of requirements. I know a number of Calvinists who are entirely convinced if you don’t believe in their six points as they do, you’re not Christian. Likewise a number of Roman Catholics who think if you’ve never been baptized into their church, you’re doomed.

Whereas if you asked these Calvinists and Catholics what their church’s official beliefs are… well, they don’t entirely know. Some of ’em will insist, “I believe what my church believes,” or “My church believes what I do.” But then you go check out the Roman Catholic Catechism, or their Calvinist church’s faith statement on their website… and you find out no, they really don’t. In fact sometimes they believe entirely different things.

The statement of faith, or faith statement, is a church or Christian organization’s official stance on Christianity. Often it’s loosely based on the ancient Christian creeds, like the Apostles Creed, plus a statement about believing the bible thrown in. Unlike the individual Christian, they have thought it through, and decided this is what they’ll declare to the world: “Here is what we believe. Here’s where we stand.”

Churches construct faith statements for various reasons; some valid, some not.

  • They’re just repeating their denomination’s official faith statement. They want it clear they’re on the same page as the other churches in their network.
  • They’ve read the creeds, and like some parts, and don’t like other parts. So they’ve rewritten things to suit themselves.
  • They don’t know the creeds at all; they’re suspicious of them because they fear the creeds are “too Catholic.” So they’ve reinvented the wheel. (Religious bigotry aside, if they wind up matching the creeds, they’re likely following the same Holy Spirit as the other churches, so relax.)
  • There was a massive disagreement in their church at one point, and leaders no longer felt Christians were free to disagree on this one, so they got specific and put it in their faith statement. The more legalistic the church, the more of these issues they’ll include. Some control-freak churches have huge faith statements for this very reason.
  • They’ve had to deal with a lot of suspicious visitors who demand to know what they believe. So their faith statement is more of a frequently-asked questions page: “Q. What do you believe about the trinity? A. One God, three persons.”

I once applied for a job whose faith statement insisted the millennial reign of Christ Jesus is a literal thousand years, and all prospective employees must believe that. Now, this was a soup kitchen: Exactly why do you need to take this stance if all you’re gonna do is hand out sandwiches? Well, the leaders used their particular view of the End Times to scare the needy into turning to Jesus. So if I wound up speaking to one of those folks and telling them any alternate view of the End (like the one I hold), I’d undo all their hard work.

And this is why we gotta check out people’s faith statements. Sometimes they’re big red warning flags relevant.

What does your church believe?

Do you know your own church’s faith statement? Didn’t think so. Unless you’re in leadership (and sometimes not even then), most Christians won’t.

You’d better read it then. Hop on their website and look it up. It’ll be on their “About us” page, or attached to a link on it. They’ll title it “Doctrinal statement” or “What we believe” or “Truths which define us” or some other synonym.

Didja read it? Good. Do you agree with it?

’Cause it’s gonna come up. Always does. Every time I formally joined a church, and went to their membership class, the leaders sat all us prospective members down and gave us the skinny:

  • A little history of the church. And its denomination.
  • How they govern it.
  • Their mission, their goals, what they’re doing in your city.
  • What they expect of their members (i.e. cooperation, participation, and financial support).
  • Their statement of faith.

We were asked to accept the whole package, sign a paper, and we’re members.

Here’s the problem: Sometimes Christians don’t agree with the whole package. Yet they sign the paper anyway, ’cause they want in. Invariably this leads to trouble: Their real beliefs are gonna butt heads with the church’s official beliefs. They always do.

Some of these new members don’t care about theology, and just figure, “Yeah sure, I guess I believe this stuff. Well, I have my doubts about this bit here. But I guess I can sign it.” What’re the chances “this bit here” which they doubt, is gonna become a major issue? Better than average. Especially when they want to get into positions of church leadership… and either hypocritically pretend they believe it, or privately admit they don’t to anyone who’ll listen, and in so doing undermine the leadership.

And often this comes up because God brings it up. See, when you sign a paper, you’ve basically made an oath before God, and he holds us to our oaths. Especially when we didn’t really mean it.

So if you can’t agree with your church’s faith statement, don’t join! Don’t sign anything. You’re not ready. Either you still have some things to learn (as we all do)… or you probably shouldn’t be in that church, ’cause they believe some inappropriate things. Either way, work out your differences before you commit.

TXAB’s faith statement.

So what do I believe? Well, the ancient Christian creeds. So I refer you to them.

APOSTLES’ CREED. I believe in God, the almighty Father, creator of heaven and earth. And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our master. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was born from the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate. He was crucified. He died and was buried. He descended to the afterlife. The third day, he was resurrected from the dead. He ascended to heaven. He sits at the almighty Father’s right hand. From there he will come; he is judging the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, communion of saints, forgiveness of sins, bodily resurrection, and eternal life. Amen.

NICENE/CONSTANTINOPOLITAN CREED. I believe in one God, the almighty Father, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. I believe in one master, Christ Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us humans and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate from the virgin Mary, and became human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son), who with the Father and Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The historic ancient creeds define Christian orthodoxy. Period. Nothing else does.

Every other Christian belief, whether I believe it or not, whether you believe it or not, is debatable. I may totally disagree with you on every single one of those secondary things. But if we agree on the creeds, I can’t legitimately call you heretic. I may call you wrong (and it’s certainly not impossible I’m the one who’s wrong) but not heretic.

Now, as for the debatable stuff I also hold to:

PROTESTANTISM. (Which is not anti-Catholicism.) Salvation isn’t based on church membership or good karma, but is entirely based on God’s grace. Justification isn’t based on good deeds, but is entirely based on faith in God through Jesus. And Jesus only has one body, and therefore founded and established only one church—but no single earthly institution comprises that one church, no matter what they claim. Not the Orthodox, not the Catholics, not the Fundamentalists; none of ’em. The body of Christ transcends our organizations. Granted, Jesus wants us Christians to be one, so we have to work together and iron out our differences—without compromising the scriptures nor the creeds.

EVANGELICALISM. Though Jesus died for all of humanity, it’s the individual, not the group, who turns to Jesus and is saved. Individuals must be encouraged to come to Jesus and declare him Lord. We must also hold to the authority of the scriptures (all of which were inspired by God and teach of Christ), and live as Jesus would have us live.

ARMINIANISM. God is almighty and sovereign, but because self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and the Spirit’s fruit reflects God’s character, God is self-controlled: Jesus’s atonement applies to everyone, and God’s grace is available for everyone. But because we humans are totally depraved and self-willed, we can reject his salvation, resist his will, refuse his free gift of eternal life, and even quit Jesus if we don’t want his grace anymore. I don’t reject his grace, and definitely recommend you don’t. But still: Arminians reject the Calvinist idea God needs, and therefore practices, no self-control; that sovereignty means he controls everything and everyone in the universe… which therefore makes God the secret mastermind behind sin, evil, and death. (Not the cause, they insist, but they gotta do some serious wordplay explaining in order to absolve God of suborning evil, at least.)

PENTECOSTALISM. Miracles, prophecy, tongues, and healing, have happened throughout Christian history, and still do. Every Christian is entitled to the Father’s promise of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. It’s what the ancient Christians normally experienced, and with it comes the power to serve others and grow in Christian maturity. It’s not the same as salvation; it can take place at the same time, but might not. It’s marked by the physical sign of speaking in tongues. All empowered believers, Jew and gentile alike, men and women alike, can minister.

There’s lots more I believe, as you can tell from the many, many other things I’ve written on this blog. But that’ll give you the gist of it.

What passes for love among Christians.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 March

In C.S. Lewis’s 1960 book The Four Loves, he wrote about four ancient Greek words which English-speakers consistently translate “love.” They aren’t the only four. I found a fifth when I was poking through my bible software’s Greek dictionary. I’ve found others since. But here’s that fifth love:

ΞΕΝΊΑ (xenía) zɛ'ni.ɑ noun, fem. Welcoming attitude towards a guest; receptiveness, hospitality, love for strangers.
2. A guestroom. Ac 28.23, Pm 1.22

Ever heard the myth of Philemon and Bauçis? They were a old married couple, and one day two strangers visited their farm. They showed their guests such hospitality—such love—the strangers later rewarded them for it by rescuing them from a flood. Turned out the strangers were the gods Zeus and Hermes. The Greeks loved to tell this story as an example of how we need to be hospitable to everyone—for you might be entertaining gods unawares. Or as the author of Hebrews reworded it, angels. He 13.2 KJV In any event, this story is exactly why the people of Lystra started worshiping Barnabas and Paul Ac 14.8-18 —they thought it was happening again.

The reason why xenía, or “hospitality,” isn’t straight-up ἀγάπη/aghápi, “charity”—the sort of love we Christians oughta practice—is because of the motive for reciprocity. It’s not unconditional. You don’t do it, expecting nothing in return. Exactly the opposite: You do expect something in return. Gratitude at the least, extremely generous remuneration at the most. Children’s fairy tales always have some tiny act of kindness getting repaid with vast fortunes, kingdoms, or you get to marry a prince. Be hospitable, and the universe owes you one. Yep, it’s all about karma.

And if your hospitality isn’t received with at the very least a “Thank you” …well, those people are jerks. Bad karma on them. Rate ’em zero stars.

Yep, hospitality isn’t unconditional love. It’s entirely conditional. And because humanity believes in karma, xenía is what we see among people instead of aghápi. Including what we see among Christians, who haven’t always learned our expectation of compensation is not real love. Love doesn’t demand love in return. Love doesn’t look out for itself. 1Co 13.5

It’s what the world calls charity.

Here’s a passage which tends to confuse Christians.

1 John 4.7-10 KWL
7 Beloved, we can love one another
only because love is something which comes from God.
Everyone who loves has been produced by, and knows, God.
8 Everyone who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, because God is love.
9 God’s love for us was revealed like this:
God sent his one and only Son into the universe, so we could live through him.
10 Love is like this: Not because we loved God,
but because he loved us, and sent his Son to cover over our sins.

Why it confuses us is because John matter-of-factly wrote: If people love, it’s ’cause they know God.

Problem is, we know an awful lot of pagans who really do appear to love! They love their families, they love their friends; some of ’em even love strangers and do grand acts of charity. In fact, some of ’em are way more charitable and kind than our fellow Christians. So what’s up with John?

Simple. The love these folks have for one another isn’t aghápi. It’s xenía.

They legitimately do love their family and friends and strangers… as we English-speakers define the word “love.” But they don’t love ’em selflessly. They don’t love ’em unconditionally. There are strings attached. All sorts of strings.

THEY LOVE THEIR KIDS. Because these kids are their kids: They’re an extension of themselves. They made these kids, and raised ’em to make ’em proud, or at least not bring shame on them. Now, wait till the kids do bring shame on ’em, and you’ll discover just how much love they actually have for their kids.

THEY LOVE THEIR FRIENDS. It’s because these are valuable, beneficial, entertaining, helpful people. These friends make their lives better. Do they keep, as friends, people who don’t make their lives better? Usually no; they unfriend ’em right away. Anybody who keeps ill-behaved friends are considered either people of low character, or emotionally and mentally unhealthy.

Our culture—and even our churches!—regularly teach us it’s okay to divest ourselves of difficult people. If someone’s falling apart, and we see no hope for their situation, it’s okay to just give up on them, and let ’em hit rock bottom. It’s “tough love.” It’s what they need.

THEY LOVE THE NEEDY. But only when they recognize these people as the deserving needy. When needy people are rude, greedy, choosy, or appear to be needy because they’ve made evil choices, they certainly don’t wanna help them—“Don’t give that guy $100; he’s only gonna spend it on booze!” But when needy people appear to be good people who just happen to be suffering, it offends people’s sense of reciprocity: Why, these people deserve help. Karma owes them big-time. No problem; we’ll fix things. We’ll help the universe out.

Plus it looks good. Plus tax deductions. Plus good karma: Someone might remember our act of generosity, and help us when we’re in a bind. At some point this karmic investment is gonna pay off… unless we can’t see how it could, and don’t bother.

In fact, thanks to karma, certain individuals are fine if they get nothing back. They get a perverse pleasure from feeling like a put-upon, under-appreciated martyr. And they expect God may grant them some form of heavenly consolation prize at the End. I mean, they earned it, didn’t they? ’Cause you know, martyrdom.

These expectations of reciprocity pervade our culture. We see it every Christmas: People expect the presents they receive will be more or less equal to the ones they’ve given. Whenever we get something beneath our expectations, they feel wronged. When we get something far, far above our expectations, we’re delighted… unless it’s too generous, “too much,” something we now feel obligated to match, ’cause we don’t wanna be in anyone’s karmic debt!

We see this every time someone refuses charity: They can’t afford to give back, so they’d rather do without the gift. We see this every time a politician refuses a contribution to their campaign: They know people expect to get something back, and don’t wanna be (or look) beholden to that contributor. We see this every time a date refuses an expensive gift that’s “too much”—they don’t wanna be beholden to their suitor. We see it in America’s divorces: When one partner slacks on the marriage, the other feels shortchanged, decides to end the relationship, and get theirs back—in dollars and cents.

Hospitality is never done selflessly. There’s always meant to be some reward. Forget to offer a simple thank-you, and people will be irritated for weeks thereafter: “What is wrong with people? Doesn’t anyone practice courtesy anymore?” Courtesy’s not actually the issue: Someone was practicing hospitality, not love, and wasn’t repaid. Because xenía looks out for itself.

Aghápi doesn’t.

Christians do it too.

So. Scratch the surface of any pagan which practices what they call “love,” and I guarantee you’ll find hospitality. Heck, scratch the surface of many a Christian.

Most of us Christians are practicing hospitality instead of charity, and can’t tell the difference. After all, hospitality appears to be all the things Paul described love as. 1Co 13.4-8 It’s patient, kind, gentle, humble, others-focused, good, truthful, faithful, hopeful, and consistent. Looks exactly like charity!

But frequently the patience runs out. The hospitable person throws up their hands and shouts, “Y’know, I’m all these things to everybody else. And just once I’d like someone to give me a little bit back!” Payback is overdue.

When “love” expects compensation, it’s not charity. Charity keeps no balance sheet. 1Co 13.5 Love gives, and doesn’t expect back. You know, like God does. We can’t possibly repay him for the gift of his Son, much less his kingdom. And he doesn’t expect payback anyway. If he did, man alive would he be bitter.

There’s our guideline for how we know whether we’re actually practicing the charitable sort of love God is, 1Jn 4.8, 16 versus the hospitable self-seeking love the world does. We look to God’s example. The Spirit’s fruit is nothing more than God’s own character traits, overflowing into us. Our ability to love is entirely based on God’s activity among us. If our love doesn’t look like God’s love, we’re doing it wrong.

How do we know what God’s love looks like? Read your bible. Read the gospels. Follow Jesus’s example. And when you find his example practiced among our fellow Christians, watch that too. (It’s not gonna be infallible like the bible stuff, but it’s concrete, so it definitely helps.)

Bible? Sure I’ll quote some bible. More from John:

1 John 4.10-21 KWL
10 Love is like this: Not because we loved God,
but because he loved us, and sent his Son to cover over our sins.
11 Beloved, this is how much God loved us.
We’re obligated to love one another.
12 No one’s ever seen God, yet when we love one another, God’s with us.
His love’s been expressed in us, 13 so this is how we get to know we’re with him and he’s with us.
He’s given us his Spirit.
14 We’ve seen, we’ve witnessed, how the Father sent the Son to save the world.
15 When anyone agrees Jesus is the Son of God, God’s in them and they’re in God.
16 The love God has is in us. We’ve known and believed it. God is love.
Those who stay in love, stay in God, and God stays in them.
17 Love is expressed this way among us, so we can be confident on Judgment Day:
In this world, we can be like he is.
18 There’s no fear in love. Total love throws fear out,
because fear focuses only on hellfire. The fearful don’t express love.
19 We love because God loved us first.
20 When anyone says they love God, yet hates their fellow Christian, they lie:
Those who hate their fellow Christian, whom they can see, can’t love God, whom they can’t.
21 Plus we have this command from him: If you love God, love your fellow Christian.

God obviously doesn’t expect payback. He loved us first—when we were in no position to pay him back, when we were (and are) totally unworthy of his love. He sent his Son to sort us out, and make us worthy.

True, God expects us to love him, and commands it. But it’s not to pay him back; our level of love can’t possibly. We’re ordered to love because really, it’s the only healthy thing for us. In fact, his instructions are to pay his love forward: Because he loves us, we’re to love one another. We’re to love as he does: Generously, self-sacrificially.

We’re spurred to do this because God’s in us. He’s not just observing from the outside, from some lofty position outside of time and space, cheering us from the stands as we run the race of life. He’s here, empowering us, making us able to love. He corrects us when we don’t, supplies us when our love is deficient. He drives out our fears so we learn to love from pure motives—not because we’re worried about hellfire, about the consequences of displeasing God. He drives out our desire for reciprocity, for compensation, for getting something back.

People who don’t know God, totally don’t understand this. How on earth can we Christians love people so utterly selflessly? How can we forgive murderers? How can we give charity to the unworthy, to people who won’t even say thank you, to people who exploit us and try to take more than their fair share?

They assume we must be doing it because we expect divine reciprocity: Some heavenly reward for all our good deeds, some pie in the sky when we die, by and by. They’re offended when we create charities which do this stuff, and they’re outraged when those charities can access government grants. (Worse, when government programs act charitably too.) ’Cause that’s their tax dollars, which they only want spent on killing terrorists with drones.

This outrage is our tip-off that we’re dealing with someone who doesn’t know the difference between charity and hospitality. When we see pure, selfless aghápi coming from a person—and we likewise have God’s love coming out of us—we can immediately identify them as someone who actually knows God. They might not call themselves Christian, but it makes no difference: They know God. You can’t love like God unless you live in God.

And, at the same time, you can’t live in God unless you love like God.

No, it’s not a formula. It’s a relationship.

So that’s the way we maintain the proper godly sort of love: Stay in God. Don’t so much concentrate on making sure the love we practice fits precisely with Paul’s definition. Don’t get legalistic about love; that’ll really warp it. Instead, concentrate on the relationship with God. Let him make sure we stick to Paul’s definition. As we live in him, we exhibit true, pure, charitable love. As well as all the other fruits of the Spirit.

Did this coronavirus originate with God?

by K.W. Leslie, 25 March

As I write this in March 2020, the world is going through a pandemic of coronavirus, specifically COVID-19. We don’t have a vaccine yet—and plenty of fools will refuse it anyway once it’s developed and available—so meanwhile we’re largely under quarantine. I live in California, and people here are expected to stay home. It’s not illegal to leave home, and hopefully never comes to that… so long that people wisely stick to our leaders’ wishes instead of being defiantly libertarian. The thinking is if we all stay apart, the virus won’t spread, and we can spare some of the people who might be hit hardest by it. So for the most part we can only interact via internet, and can go out only for supplies—or if we have essential jobs. (I do, and have been working a lot of overtime.)

And yeah, since I’m posting this on the internet, you knew this already. I’m explaining ’cause people may read this article years from now, and know nothing about it, or have forgotten most of it.

Naturally people wanna know God’s role in all this. And naturally plenty of people think they already have answers to that question, and are happy to share them with anyone who asks. Even people who don’t ask. None of TXAB’s readers asked me what I think about it. Which is fine; I wrote this article preemptively. It’ll come in handy in the event of future viruses.

So as I wrote in my first article on theodicy, humans have five typical answers to “Where’s God?” based on how they imagine him. And there’s a lot of projection involved in these answers. By default, we humans fill in the gaps of our knowledge with ourselves and our motives. If we like to imagine we’re nice, kind, good people, we extrapolate these motives onto God: He’s a nice, kind, good God. If we’re self-centered and not so kind, we imagine God’s kind of a dick too. So the answers to “Where’s God?” run the gamut:

  • “God created this virus long ago; probably to kill bats. We unleashed it on ourselves. Shouldn’ta messed with nature.”
  • “God doesn’t create viruses, so don’t pin this on him. Humanity created it. Probably the government.”
  • “This is God’s wrath. His punishment towards a world full of dirty sinners. ’Cause it’s long past time the Baby Boomers reaped the consequences for their wanton ways. Repent!”
  • “God’s fighting this virus right along with us. He’s inspiring scientists to invent cures. He’s strengthening nurses to care for the sick. And I can sell you some essential oils, or silver-embedded tchotchkes, which’ll cure you too! I take Venmo.”
  • “God unleashed this plague so humanity would put aside all our petty differences and fight a common enemy—the virus.” (I like to call this theory “the Watchmen scenario,” based on the graphic novel where—spoilers—that’s what happens. But y’notice diehard partisans never actually do put petty differences aside. For anything or anyone. Bitterness can run mighty deep.)
  • “God had nothing to do with the virus, good or bad. Stop talking religion and go wash your hands.”

And variations thereof. Which one’s correct? I myself lean in the fighting-it-with-us direction, but let’s get closer to right, shall we?

Karma and natural disasters.

Most of our problem begins because people try to apply the rules of karma to plagues. Very few of us are comfortable with the idea this sort of thing just happens, randomly, and has no meaning. After all, the human brain was created to solve problems, to find meanings—even where there aren’t any. So we try ”connecting the dots,” if we think we can find any.

If you wanna analyze the average human’s quick-’n-dirty thought process in more detail, it loosely goes like this: Viruses cause suffering; suffering must happen for a reason; the reason must be that people deserve to suffer. Usually because they did something evil. The universe is punishing them. They racked up some bad karma.

Too much karmic thinking has wormed its way into Christianity, and the result are far too many Christians who think God uses viruses, and other forms of suffering, to punish the wicked. Like Jesus’s students asked him before he cured a blind man, “Rabbi, between this man or his parents, who sinned so he’d be born blind?” Jn 9.2 KWL Somebody had to have sinned. It simply didn’t occur to the kids this man’s blindness might have no meaning behind it at all. That the only way it has any meaning is if Jesus gives it one—by becoming its cure. Jn 9.3-5

And if this idea ever does occur to people, they put it out of their heads right away. They don’t wanna live in a random universe, where bad things can happen to just anyone for no reason. They want to know, no matter what, everything happens for a reason; everything’s going according to a divine plan; the universe is gonna sort everything out; all things are working together for our good. Chaos terrifies them. So they gotta have determinism: God has his hand on absolutely everything that ever happened or will happen. There are no accidents.

And if there are no accidents, disasters therefore have a purpose. Chaos has a cause; it’s not simply the way things naturally are before God starts to sort things out. Ge 1.2 Suffering has a meaning—namely, that somebody sinned. Doesn’t have to be you that sinned, ’cause Jesus didn’t, and clearly suffered because others sinned. But it’s gotta be somebody’s sin behind our suffering. Like Adam’s original sin or something: We’ll blame Adam, at least, for the fallen world we live in, and the occasional virus which gives us anything from sniffles to violent death.

But is a deterministic universe what the scriptures describe? Nope. Read Ecclesiastes again. Time and chance happen to everyone. Ec 9.11 Accidents, disorder, mayhem, illness, and disaster can strike for no reason, kill for no reason, and ruin one’s life for no reason. If you don’t wanna live in a universe like this: Tough beans. You do.

Could God control absolutely everything in it, if he wanted to? Of course; he’s easily that powerful. But does he? Nope. He created a universe where bad things might and do happen. It’s risky, and many of us would really rather he not take such a risk. But I remind you, God is so almighty, it’s not really a risk to him. He knows precisely how everything’s gonna turn out, regardless. (Being unlimited by time, God already exists way beyond the point he sorted everything out; he sees exactly how good it’ll be.) So if we’re his kids, we’re gonna be better than fine in the long run. If we’re not… well, don’t choose that option!

In the short run, we gotta put up with the chaos. Which includes dealing with accidents, disorder, mayhem, illness, and disaster. And recognizing that sometimes they mean nothing. They just happen. It’s the universe we live in. God’s not behind them; God’s not smiting us with them; God’s not manipulatively using them to build character. They happen.

Karma is what people believe in, and cling to, when they can’t handle this idea. And karma is never based on grace. It’s always gonna be harshly judgmental: We’ll take little, minor things—stuff which had little to no consequences; stuff which God forgave long ago, and Jesus’s blood entirely wiped out—and we’ll blow them up into the entire reasons for our suffering. Like “The reason you got cancer was because you gossiped that one time.” As if little sins throw God into a crazy homicidal rage… but then again, when people don’t know God, they’ll believe he’s that kind of psycho. (Even teach it in church!)

So if we’re gonna talk about what God does or doesn’t do through natural disasters, we first gotta shove aside any of this determinism nonsense, or this karma nonsense. Both these things will simply mess us up, and make us think God’s behind all the evil in the universe. No he’s not. Bad stuff happens. But God is good.

God isn’t behind every disease.

When the LORD permitted Satan to take a dump all over his faithful follower Job of Utz, Satan gave Job boils. Not the LORD; Satan. Job’s plague didn’t originate from God; it came from Satan. Says so in the bible and everything.

Job 2.7-8 KWL
7 Satan went forth from the LORD’s face.
It struck Job with evil boils, from the sole of his foot to his scalp.
8 Job got himself a pottery shard to scratch himself with.
He sat in the middle of the garbage fire ashes.

Doesn’t say whether the boils were the result of a massive allergic reaction, a bacterium, or a virus. All we know is they didn’t come from God.

Where’d this disease come from? Duh; Satan. But certain Christians are gonna insist God’s the only creator, so therefore Satan can’t have engineered a disease; it must’ve borrowed an old disease, like the plague of boils God used on the Egyptians. Ex 9.9 Thing is, if humans can do it, I don’t see why the devil can’t; and since humans have learned know how to edit gene sequences, clearly this is an ability not limited to the Creator alone. I don’t rule out the possibility an evil spirit stole some DNA and repurposed it to kill and destroy; that’s exactly the sort of thing Satan does. Jn 10.10 I also don’t rule out the likelihood a beneficial bacterium or virus devolved into something destructive and deadly; chaos happens too.

Determinists are gonna insist every disease has a divine reason, a divine cause, and a divine origin: God created ’em, causes them, and has his reasons. Even when the devil makes someone sick, or some terrorist nation tries a little biological warfare, determinists are gonna insist God’s hiding behind the scenes, allowing disease—again, for divine reasons. They’re mighty insistent on pinning the blame for every disease upon God. ’Cause if he isn’t behind every single disaster, it implies in their minds he’s lost control of his universe; we’re boned.

On the contrary: If God’s behind every disease, yet Jesus cures people of disease and actively fights disease, we are so boned. Because all of Jesus’s compassion for sick people would be an act. Would be hypocrisy. He set everything up, endangered people’s lives, all so he can look like the hero, but it’s entirely for show—and he’s only pretending that hypocrisy annoys him more than anything. He’s a fraud; you can’t trust him… and if we can’t trust Jesus, like I said, we’re boned. Christianity falls apart, and we’ve no idea whether we’re even saved. So yeah, determinism isn’t quite as comforting as you’d imagine. No matter how you struggle to explain it, determinism always turns God into a secretly-evil schemer.

Yes God has used plagues and disease to punish people in the past. He used boils on the Egyptians, hemorrhoids on the Philistines, 1Sa 5.6 leprosy on Miriam Nu 12.10 and Uzziah 2Ch 26.19 and Gehazi. 2Ki 5.27 It’s not like viruses are outside of his toolbox, if he’s gotta get people’s attention, and sometimes even punish them. It’s just when he does smite people with disease, he makes it abundantly clear that’s what he’s up to. Has he done likewise with our current plague? Nope.

Some natural disasters have nothing to do with God, 1Ki 19.11-12 and this is one of them. He’s not the cause. He can be the cure, when we turn to him; same as every disease. And he can also answer no, if he chooses. But let’s not start with a disastrous initial mistake, and automatically presume he’s the cause.

When two or three gather in Jesus’s name.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 March

Matthew 18.20.

Matthew 18.20 KJV
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

We Christians quote this verse for all sorts of reasons.

  • To point out the importance of group prayer: When two or three of us pray together, Jesus is there, so he must therefore hear our prayers. (Though getting him to answer “Yes” is another thing.)
  • To point out the importance of small groups. Same reason: Two or three of us are together, so Jesus is there, and supposedly his presence blesses our meeting.
  • To avoid church. “You don’t have to go to Sunday morning worship; you just have to gather with two or three fellow Christians and talk Jesus for a few minutes. That counts.” It doesn’t, but I’ll get to that.

But in context it refers to church discipline.

Matthew 18.15-20 KWL
15 “When your fellow Christian sins against you,
take them aside and reprove them—just you and them alone.
When they hear you, you’ve helped your fellow Christian.
16 When they don’t hear you: Take one or two others with you.
Thus ‘by the mouth of two witnesses or three, every word can stand.’ Dt 19.15
17 When they refuse to hear you, tell the church.
When they also refuse to hear the church: To you, they’re like a pagan and taxman.
18 Amen, I promise you whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven.
Whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.
19 Amen again, I tell you when two of you agree amongst yourselves on earth about any activity,
when you ask your heavenly Father about it, it’ll happen to it.
20 For I’m there in the middle of it wherever two or three come together in my name.”

It’s not about when we come together for any old reason, like prayer or worship. It’s when we’re trying to deal with a serious matter, where relationships may have to be suspended or end. It’s about the direction of the church; not about whether our little prayer breakfasts counts the same as Sunday morning worship.

There aren’t separate “earthly” and “heavenly” areas in God’s kingdom.

Whenever Jesus began a teaching with “Amen” (KJV “verily”), he did so ’cause he was teaching something important. Stuff his students had better remember, ’cause it reflected God’s kingdom way better than their popular culture. Stuff they’d initially be inclined not to believe, ’cause Jesus was stretching them. Heck, these amen statements still stretch us.

“Amen” is an oath. In saying it, Jesus promised these things are true. Not ’cause he wasn’t truthful the rest of the time; he doesn’t do degrees of truthfulness. He wanted us to believe him, not take him for granted. Or take him out of context.

Here, Jesus instructed us how to deal with fellow Christians (Greek ἀδελφός/adelfós “sibling,” which in context meant a fellow believer) when they sin. Εἰς σὲ/Eis se, “against you,” is a textual variant, found in copies of Matthew after the fourth century, so Jesus means any sin: If your fellow Christian robs banks, but not your bank, you aren’t off the hook. First deal with them privately; Mt 18.15 next bring one or two witnesses; Mt 18.16 then stage your intervention. Mt 18.17 As you know, your average American lacks the patience to follow any of these steps, and leaps straight to the intervention. Or petitions. Or public shaming. Or whatever the fastest method of resolution will be.

But whatever the church decides, Jesus promises he’ll back us up. Whatever binding agreements we make Mt 18.18 aren’t just a local, earthly, temporal thing—but no longer counts after the defendant dies, or once the Son of Man returns. They count. If you sin, won’t repent, and the church says you’re out, you’re out.

It might only feel binding when they’re the only Christian community in town. (As still is the case when the churches in town talk to one another, like we’re supposed to.) But most of the time you can do as many a kicked-out sinner has: You can go find another church which knows nothing about your sins. Hide ’em from this new church even better than you did from the old one. Stay there the next 40 years with them none the wiser. But that original decree of you’re out? Stands till you repent.

Yeah, the idea God backs up our decrees is an awesome thing.

Yeah, it also means it’s an ability heavily abused. Many a cult has made plenary declarations over Christians, pagans, the nation, their enemies, anyone and everyone. All because they figure God empowered ’em to do it. But they do it for all sorts of ungodly reasons.

So does God consider those churches’ decrees valid? Nah.

’Cause these churches are in the wrong. Remember, decrees are only valid when they’re done in Jesus’s name. Mt 18.20 But we can’t invoke his name when we don’t legitimately know him, and we can’t get anything done in his name if we ask for all the wrong reasons. Jm 4.3 When churches go wrong it’s obviously because they don’t know Jesus. He doesn’t know them either. So their “binding” and “loosing” never counts. Don’t worry about them. (Seriously, don’t. They can’t curse you.)

But if a church does legitimately know God, and if you are legitimately sinning—against God, against your neighbors, against them, against anyone—when they make any formal declaration over you, no matter how formal or informal it sounds, it’s binding. ’Cause Jesus said it is.

If you wanna imagine it only applies within that church, and only that church, you probably haven’t realized every single church, no matter the denomination, belongs to Jesus. Totally applies. So if you leave and go hide in a new church, they belong to Jesus too, and if they’re listening to the Holy Spirit, it’s only a matter of time before he outs you.

Yeah, your best hiding place is a church which doesn’t listen to the Spirit. Conveniently for you (but sadly for them) there are lots of those. But when you one day stand before Jesus, you still gotta answer for what your original church has against you.

Yeah, you’re gonna need better proof texts.

If the reason you’re misquoting Matthew 18.20 is because you’re hoping to make the case we Christians need to pray together, sorry: It’s not your best proof text. Prayer groups can be good things, but God never made group prayer mandatory, and actually doesn’t care whether we hold prayer groups or pray en masse. It’s nice when an entire nation of believers agree in prayer, but really God prefers we as individuals pray—and mean it, instead of hypocritically pretending there’s consensus.

Neither does God promise group prayer is more effective than solitary prayer. ’Cause it’s actually not. You wanna be heard? You pray righteously. Jm 5.16 He’s not more apt to hear us when we’re in bunches; he’s more apt to hear us when we strive for a proper understanding and relationship with him. When we take him for granted—especially when we assume we’ll be heard because of our greater numbers, as if God can be swayed by mobs—he’s far more likely to not be there, and have nothing to do with our sinful, self-serving prayer groups.

No I’m not knocking prayer groups. They’re great at teaching us to pray better, pray in public better, confirm the Holy Spirit is answering us, or confirm we’re on the right track. Go join one. But don’t assume just because two or three are gathered in Jesus’s name for prayer, you’re gonna get what you pray for because Jesus is listening. God’s always listening. Now give him something worth listening to.

Likewise with those Christians who think their kaffeeklatsch counts as church because Jesus is in their midst. He isn’t necessarily, ’cause it doesn’t necessarily.

It’s not a valid church if you can’t worship freely. If the coffeeshop manager has to tell you to stop singing ’cause it’s bothering the other customers; if you can’t do sacraments like, say, hold a baptism; if you simply don’t have the room to bring in new people; if you don’t meet regularly and frequently: You’re not a church. Now yeah, if you do practice these things in your small groups, fine, you’re a church. But most small groups never get that organized, and the justification, “I don’t need church; I got my group” is usually a rubbish attempt to avoid accountability.

Just go to church, wouldya? Jesus doesn’t wanna hang with rebels and phonies.

Anyway, you can see how our ideas of God go askew when we take this verse out of context. So let’s not.

The Judean senate.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 March
The Judean senate.

Something Americans need to be reminded of, from time to time: Ancient Israel was never a democracy.

  • Originally it was a patriarchy, run by the male heads of the Hebrew families: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and their descendants. That is, till the Egyptians took over and enslaved ’em.
  • Then the LORD rescued Israel’s descendants from Egypt. So Israel became a theocracy, where God and his commands ruled Israel… with Moses and the judges serving as the LORD’s deputies.
  • Of course, since the judges weren’t proper kings, Israelis fell back on patriarchy, ruled as they pleased, didn’t obey God, and triggered the cycle time and again. Read Judges. It’s a mess.
  • Then monarchy, the rule of kings. The people wanted the stability of human kings (such as it is), so the LORD gave ’em kings. In theory these kings were to function the same as judges, with the LORD really in charge. In practice they ruled as they pleased, same as the patriarchs.
  • Then foreign kings: The Babylonian emperors, Persian emperors, Greek emperors, Egyptian kings, Seleucid kings. Each of ’em put governors, like Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, over Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee.
  • Back to local kings: The Maccabees (who were head priests) overthrew the Seleucids and took charge. They accepted the title “king” and ruled till Herod 1 toppled them.
  • And back to foreign kings: Augustus Caesar took over from the Herods, and the Romans ruled till the caliphs conquered Jerusalem in 638. And so we move into the middle ages and Crusades.

So in Jesus’s day, the Caesars were Israel’s kings. First Augustus Caesar, then Tiberius.

The Caesars appointed governors—military prefects like Pontius Pilatus, puppet kings like the Herods, and procurators. These guys represented Rome’s interests, and made sure the locals didn’t do anything which’d interfere with taxes and “peace”—as the Romans defined peace. Everything else was left in the hands of the upper-class locals: The head priests, the leaders of the older and wealthier families, the “elders” of Israel.

In Latin, “elder” is senex, and that’s where they got the word for their council of elders, senatus. Unlike our senates, it wasn’t an elected body. It consisted of Roman nobles; those who had the most to lose if the fortunes of Rome changed. The Roman Republic was an oligarchy, run by the upper class. And when the emperors took over, and commandeered many of the senate’s powers, they still sought the senate’s advice and consent.

Judea had a similar senate. After the Persians permitted Jewish exiles to return and rebuild Jerusalem, Persian governors organized the elders into a governing council, loosely based on the 70 elders of Israel in Moses’s day. Ex 24.1 By the first century this συνέδριον/synédrion (Greek for “seated together,” which the Mishnah translated סנהדריןsanhédrin) consisted of 71 people: Seventy elders of Judea, supposedly representing the great Judean families; and the head priest, its נָשִׂיא/naši, “chief,” nowadays translated “president.”

This is the group which ran Judea in the New Testament… under the suspicious eye of the Romans.

A “judicial body.” (No, not really.)

Roman governors didn’t care about the day-to-day lives of the people. But the senate did. The governors had the power to overrule its decisions, and only they could legally put people to death. Jn 18.31 (Yes, Stephen was stoned to death by what look like senators, Ac 7.57-60 but the Romans would’ve considered that illegal. Hey, nobody’s saying the system wasn’t broken.) But that’s largely all the Romans did: Kill insurgents, collect taxes, and enforce Roman peace. The senate ran everything else.

Today’s senates are legislatures. The Roman senate likewise wrote and passed laws. But the Judean senate didn’t do that. Technically couldn’t: The Law had been handed down to Moses by the LORD, and they were forbidden from adding to it or subtracting from it. Dt 12.32 Law-making was absolutely off the table.

Well… officially off the table, but unofficially what the senate did was issue binding rulings on how the Law was to be interpreted: Here’s what they figured the LORD meant about this command or that, and here’s how they were gonna enforce it.

Sometimes, as Christ Jesus objected, their interpretations bent and broke the Law. Mk 7.13 But this was how they got round Deuteronomy’s prohibition against any new commands. They weren’t writing laws; they were interpreting the Law. Much as the United States Supreme Court does… and arguably goes too far in some of its interpretations.

In any event Christian historians tend to refer to the senate as a court, not a legislature. But as Judea’s only branch of government, the senate also recorded its rulings like a legislature, and commanded police like an executive. All power, unless the Romans overruled them, was in the senate’s hands. And they considered their rulings binding over not just the land and people of Judea: All Israel, All Jews, arguably into the Galilee Mk 3.22 and Damascus. Ac 9.1-2

Whenever people needed an executive decision, or a definitive opinion on the Law, they typically sought out an elder who was in the senate, i.e. a senator. If it had to be an official ruling, the Mishnah indicates it required the agreement of three or five senators. If it involved the death penalty, 23 senators. And if they were to censure a whole tribe or city, deal with a false prophet or head priests, go to war, expand Jerusalem or the temple, or establish a lesser council for a Jewish community, it had to be a unanimous 71. Mishnah, Sanhedrin 1.5

The Mishnah includes a lot of details about how the senate was to run. But bear in mind the Mishnah wasn’t written in the first century, by people who saw the senate in action. It was compiled centuries later by Pharisees, and described how third-century Pharisees ran their senates. It’s why the Mishnah contradicts the New Testament in some parts. (It’s also why various Christian commentators insist Jesus’s trial was illegal—because it violated the Mishnah’s procedures. But that’s like claiming Abraham broke the Ten Commandments—which weren’t handed down till 6 centuries after Abraham died.)

Political parties.

In Jesus’s day, Pharisees didn’t run the senate. That’d be the other major Jewish party, the Sadduccees. The head priest and his family were all Sadducee.

Technically Pharisees and Sadducees were denominations of the Hebrew religion. But back then there was no such thing as separation of church and state, so in senate they functioned as political parties. Yep, with all the corruption and politicking you’ll find in today’s parties.

Most devout Judeans were Pharisees, and Pharisees dominated the senate till the second century BC. Then John Hyrcanus (ruled 135–05BC), king and head priest, grew sick and tired of the Pharisees treating him like their lapdog. He quit the Pharisees, joined the Sadducees, and kicked the Pharisees out of the senate. His daughter-in-law, Queen Alexandria (ruled 76–67BC) let ’em back in, but the head priest’s family remained Sadducee from then on, and that faction dominated the senate.

Well, probably dominated the senate. Y’see, the Romans wiped out the Sadducees in the year 70. So our history was written by the survivors… the Pharisees. Arguably re-written. Pharisees retroactively inserted a ton of Pharisees into earlier senate history. According to Pharisee rabbis, the head priest didn’t lead the senate; the naší was a Pharisee, and apparently had been Pharisee ever since the senate gave King Onias bar Simon a vote of no confidence in 191BC.

But rabbinic history contradicts both the gospels and Flavius Josephus. Those records describe the head priests, not some imaginary Pharisee naší, running the senate. Mt 62.3-4, Mk 14.60-64, Jn 11.47-53 Plus it contradicts commonsense: Why would the smaller religious party get to hold the senate presidency?—and overrule the head priest?

Most likely the rabbis’ list of senate presidents, from 191BC onward, were just leaders of the Pharisee opposition. Pharisees rewrote history to make themselves look more prominent. As people do.

There was no third party. Other denominations, like Essenes, the Qumran sect, Samaritans, and Zealots, were shut out. They held no senate seats, and did their own thing; the Samaritans even had their own senate. For the most part, these other denominations figured the Judean senate and priests were corrupt “sons of darkness” whom God and his Messiah would someday overthrow.

Senate leadership.

Like I said, the head priest was the senate president. Once Herod 1 took power—and as an Idumean, not a Jew, couldn’t become head priest—he claimed power to appoint the head priest, and switched up head priests many times. So did the Roman governors who followed him.

In Jesus’s day, the head priests came from the family of the former head priest Annas bar Sethi (ruled 7–15CE). His five sons, and son-in-law Joseph Kahiáfa (KJV “Caiaphas”), succeeded him. Joseph was officially head priest at the time Jesus was executed, but Judeans arguably considered Annas the real head priest, Ac 4.6 regardless of whom the Romans appointed.

Other officers of the senate were the סָגָן/sagán, “ruler,” the head priest’s second-in-command, a job which was considered a prerequisite for head priest; and treasurers and secretaries. Pharisee traditions also include an av beth din/“father of a house of judgment,” the most senior senator. Typically he’s described as the Pharisee everyone listened to, like when Gamaliel got up to speak at the apostles’ trial. Ac 5.34 (The writers of the Mishnah tended to claim these guys were president, as they did with Gamaliel.)

Both Pharisees and Sadducees had among them scribes (KJV “lawyers”) who were bible experts who knew the Law backwards and forwards. The scribes were the folks you consulted whenever you needed proof texts for your decisions. Although some scribes played really fast and loose with the text—as Jesus was known to complain.

After the New Testament.

After Jerusalem was destroyed, the Pharisees reconvened the senate in Yavneh, and moved to the Galilee in the year 80. Since there was no more head priest, the most venerable Pharisee became president. The Pharisees rewrote the rules to suit their traditions, and that’s what we have in the Mishnah. It continued to exist until emperor Theodosius 1 outlawed it around the year 358.

Since then there’ve been several attempts to start another senate. Problem is, just like Christians, there are way too many denominations of Jews—and not all of ’em are gonna recognize the authority of any “Sanhedrin” where they lack power.

The current group, which was founded in October 2004, wants to become the State of Israel’s senate, with the Knesset as its lower house. They also wanna become Israel’s supreme court on all things biblical—including the power to veto any of the Knesset’s laws which they consider unbiblical.

Understandably, this bothers a lot of people who don’t trust these guys’ interpretations of the scriptures. Particularly Israelis who want their nation to be more secular, and separate synagogue from state—lest, as usual, the politics of the state corrupt the teachings of the synagogue. (Something we Americans also need to bear in mind.)

Why does bad stuff happen in a good God’s universe?

by K.W. Leslie, 18 March
THEODICY θi'ɑd.ə.si noun. Explanation or argument for how God can be good, despite the existence or activity of evil.
[Theodicean θi'ɑd.ə.si.ən adjective.]

Disaster strikes our world on a daily basis.

Might be a huge natural disaster, like an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, or plague. Might be a “man-made” disaster, like a war, famine, mass shooting, or some terrorist activity. Might be a small disaster: One person unexpectedly dies. Or it’s a wholly expected death; a long illness, and we knew that person wasn’t gonna recover, despite doctors and treatments and prayers.

Every time these disasters strike, people wanna know why God didn’t prevent it.

’Cause that’s his job, they insist. He’s almighty, right? He could totally stop it. But he didn’t. Why the [angry expletive] not? What’s his problem? Doesn’t he care? Does he want evil to happen? Maybe he’s not really almighty. Maybe he’s not really there.

These questions and accusations come out of suffering and loss and rage. They’re totally natural. Most of us wonder ’em from time to time: If God’s almighty, why doesn’t he intervene? ’Cause we’d intervene. If we were God, we totally would step in and put a stop to the suffering. We’d rescue everyone. Or at least the good people. I mean, if a tornado’s gonna smite a trailer park full of child molesters, meth cooks, and white supremacists, that’s fine; they’re getting what’s coming to them. But good people oughta live!

Anyway, whenever people have these questions, out come the Christian apologists, who take it upon themselves to answer the questions, instead of just letting emotional people vent for a bit. Because they’re afraid these people will get so angry with God, they’ll quit. They’ll turn apostate. They’ll spread doubt and nontheism and unbelief, and we’ll be in an even bigger mess than before. We gotta defend God. So they do.

This particular field of apologetics—defending God from people who aren’t so sure he’s good or almighty—is called theodicy. And no, it’s not an abbreviation for “theological idiocy,” though some of its arguments sure make it feel like that. It’s a compound of the Greek words Theós/“God” and díki/“behavior”—it’s an attempt to explain God’s behavior. Or absence of it.

“Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” is the usual way it’s phrased. And when it gets right down to it, there are about five typical answers.

  1. God’s not there. Nobody’s there to stop evil from happening. It’s up to us.
  2. God is there… but doesn’t get involved. Again, up to us.
  3. God’s there, does get involved, and this was him getting involved: He’s behind the disaster. (For reasons. Bigger picture, secret sins, you name it.)
  4. God’s there, involved… but isn’t God as you imagine him. (He’s not almighty, doesn’t actually know the future, isn’t actually good, has some special arrangement with Satan, etc.)
  5. God’s limited himself, and won’t always intervene. (For reasons.)

And—no surprise—those who’ve just suffered a loss, don’t like any of these answers. Because they’re not actually looking for reasons. They just want the disaster undone, and defending what we think God is actually up to, isn’t helping.

Know your audience.

There’s a time and place to talk theodicy. It’s not after a disaster just happened.

Yet a lot of Christians assume it’s the perfect time to talk about it. ’Cause hey, people are thinking about God! Yeah, they’re royally pissed at him, but they’re thinking about him, so here’s our opportunity!

Trouble is, we use the opportunity to misrepresent him. Which pisses people off at God (and us) even more; and in some cases alienate ’em for life. As happens whenever Calvinist pastor John Piper gets it into his head to declare what he believes about God. That’d namely be theory #3, where God’s there, fully involved… and occasionally smitey.

Back in 2013, right after a tornado killed 24 and injured 377 in Moore, Oklahoma, Piper tweeted this:


Piper has since taken this tweet down—but not after offending a lot of people. Paul Wilkinson

What the heck is wrong with Piper? Believe it or not, he finds comfort in such verses.

No, seriously. To him, they mean God’s in control! And in the long run, God’s gonna make everything all good, and restored, and better; God’s gonna let Piper into his kingdom, happy and whole and living forever. Therefore it’s totally okay if Piper’s miserable, broken, and dying in this age; the next one’s gonna be awesome, and makes up for all the misery of today.

Piper’s had a lot of years to reconcile himself to the idea of God as a destroyer, a shatterer of worlds. So if God were sic a tornado on his house, and lay waste to his entire family, of course Piper wouldn’t be happy about it… but it’s precisely the sort of behavior he expects of God. To his mind, sometimes we get good from God, and sometimes evil. Jb 2.10 It feels kinda arbitrary and random from our end, but it all makes sense to God; it’s sorted out within his secret will. Sometimes God keeps us under his hedge of protection, Jn 1.9-12 and sometimes he lets Satan use us as its toilet paper. Whatever. God knows best.

Whereas your average pagan—heck, your average Christian—isn’t used to this idea, and finds it atrocious. And any God who runs the cosmos by it is just as atrocious.

Anyway, someone finally clued Piper in on how he was being perceived. So he took down this tweet, and another Job quote like it. One of his associates explained this doesn’t mean Piper retracted his beliefs; he still totally believes God is the first cause of every plague. It’s just for the sake of Christian charity, he realized now’s the time to be kind to those who mourn. God definitely slew their family, but the news has to be broken to people gently.

That’s advice the rest of us would do well to remember. Even if you believe, as Piper does, God’s actively or passively behind every disaster: If you present the news like a thoughtless a--hole, people will immediately assume your God is likewise a thoughtless a--hole. Hey, it’s the fruit you’re bearing. Take that into consideration for once.

But hopefully you realize this description of God makes God sound… well, awful. Even after you justify all the awfulness, most people’s response is still gonna be, “Good Lord, is that who you believe God is?” And even if they’re pretty sure you’re wrong about God, they’re gonna have all sorts of doubts about your level of compassion.

But more often they’re gonna confuse your dark Christianity for the real thing, your bad news for the good news… and want nothing to do with it.

That said…

I’m gonna write more than one theodicy piece, ’cause it’s a complicated discussion.

And I’ll admit up front my own beliefs. I begin with the premise God is good. Not “God sovereignly determines all,” which is usually what leads people in John Piper’s direction. Because the way they define sovereignty, they can’t reconcile God’s micromanagement of the universe with the character of a good God. There’s so much evil in the universe. If it’s all a necessary part of God’s plan, it’s bluntly an evil plan. You can’t reasonably call it anything else. This insistence on determinism inevitably makes Christians redefine “good” till it’s not goodness anymore, and God’s turned into a cosmic hypocrite who only pretends he’s good. I’m absolutely not going there. God is authentically good.

Hence my beliefs hover round theory #5, God’s self-limitation. But regardless of my beliefs, hopefully we Christians all accept that in the long run, God is gonna restore the universe to the way he originally intended it. Everything will be definitely good.

Meanwhile, when people are hurting, we can’t only think about the short run. Yes, we want God to fix things. Mend our hurts, save lives, repair buildings, restore health, provide jobs, put our finances back. Thing is, for most people, after God fixes things… we kinda want him to leave us alone from now on. We wanna go back to the life we had where he wasn’t involved. Which isn’t at all what he wants. But we aren’t thinking about his feelings.

God doesn’t wanna fix just one thing. He intends to fix everything. Including stuff we were kinda hoping God would never, ever touch. God’s in the process of eradicating sin. Some of us really don’t want him to interfere with our sins.

Picture a rich man who’s only used to spending his wealth selfishly. Say he invests with a con man and loses everything. He’s gonna want God to restore his fortune, right? But God’s gonna want to restore him, to righteousness. But all the rich man really wants is his money.

Picture a poor woman who’s awful to her neighbors. Say she gets injured, and desperately wants her health back. You do realize God wants her, once restored, to make nice with the neighbors. Again, all she really wants is to be well. But God isn’t content to only fix us in part. He wants us whole. He wants to heal everything. That’s his goal.

We only want God to return everything to status quo ante, then go away. So of course we don’t understand him. And of course we don’t like the answers which suggest God’s trying to bring about his endgame—his kingdom here on earth—as part of his restoration process. We don’t want that. (Or we do, we claim… but we want it way, way in the future, or after we’re dead, or someplace where it won’t interfere with our plans.) When that’s the way we think, our beliefs about God are swiftly gonna tilt in every other direction. God’s gonna be judgey and vengeful. Or passive and absent. Or have a secret evil plan kinda like we have secret evil plans. Or in any other way… not actually good.

Yep, theodicy’s a minefield. It’s gonna make these articles an interesting little dance.

Jesus’s crucifixion.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 March

Ever bang your funny bone? That’s the ulnar nerve. The equivalent in the leg is the tibial nerve.

About 26 to 24 centuries ago, humans in the middle east figured out the most painful way to kill someone: Take four nails. Put one through each of these nerves. Then hang a victim, by these nails, from whatever—a wall, a tree, a pole, a cross.

If you stretch out their limbs, it’ll squeeze their lungs. They’ll find it extremely hard to breathe. Can’t inhale unless they actually push themselves up by their pierced ankles, and pull themselves up by their pierced wrists. And each pull feels like they’ve taken these nerves and crushed them with a hammer, all over again.

Leave ’em like that, to die slowly, by asphyxiation. It might take all day. Multiple days, if the person has a strong enough will to live. But they’ll die eventually, in agony. There’s no real way to stop the constant pain. It’s so intense, Latin-speakers had invented a new word to describe it: Excruciare, from which we get our word excruciating.


Crucifixion (Распятие), by Nikolai Ge, 1892. Note the victims on either side of the center guy, pulling themselves up to breathe. Pretty nasty. Gallerix

The earliest records we have of crucifixion, Persians were doing it. Haman in Esther, fr’instance: He built a 50-cubit עֵץ֮/ech, “wood” or “tree,” probably a pole, to crucify Mordecai upon. Es 7.9 The KJV calls it a gallows, but that’s ’cause its translators thought crucifixion was a Roman thing. Nope. In fact crucifixion probably predates even the Persians.

But Romans were definitely known for crucifixion. Not just because of Jesus: The Romans made crucifixion their thing. It’s so nasty, Romans forbade it to be used on their own citizens—but exactly like Americans’ attitudes about torture, the Romans figured foreigners were fair game: Mess with the Roman Empire and you’ll suffer the very worst form of death possible. But as usual, terrifying people doesn’t actually deter insurrection and crime, ’cause insurgents and criminals never expect to get caught. All crucifixion actually did was horrify the law-abiding subjects under Roman rule—“What kind of sick animals do this kind of thing to other people?”—and make ’em hate Romans all the more. (Americans, pay attention.)

Christian art has stylized and toned down crucifixion a lot. The average crucifix isn’t historically accurate at all, and not just ’cause Jesus isn’t white. Because present-day people have never seen an actual Roman-style crucifixion; they’ve seen Jesus movies and passion plays. (Maybe they’ve seen terrorists on the news crucify Christians, but the terrorists do it wrong too.) So Jesus is depicted with nails through the palms of his hands, with one nail spiking through the top of both feet, usually into a little platform.

“But wait, isn’t that how Luke describes Jesus—with nail-scars in his hands and feet?” Lk 24.39-40 Yeah, when you interpret Luke too literally. Jesus’s χεῖράς/heirás, “hands,” and πόδας/pódas, “feet,” refer to the general areas of his hands and feet, which include his wrists and ankles.

Because had they nailed Jesus by his hands and feet, the nails wouldn’t have held up a body. The weight of the body would rip right through his hands and feet. That’s why so many Jesus movies add ropes; the thinking is the ropes held him up while the nails were there for extra torment. Sometimes the thieves crucified with Jesus are depicted as only tied by ropes—no nails for them—so Jesus suffers worse than they. But ropes would defeat the purpose of crucifixion: Now the victim’s weight would rest on the ropes, not the nails, and they’d suffer less, and wouldn’t struggle to breathe. Archaeology doesn’t match the ropes idea either.

Likewise Christian art tends to put Jesus in a loincloth, for modesty’s sake. But loincloths were impractical: Victims would soil themselves quickly. Crucifixion hurts so bad, you don’t care about other bodily functions. Even if you did, they weren’t taking you down for bathroom breaks. So for practical reasons, victims were crucified buck naked. Not to humiliate them; Romans, and most pagans, didn’t mind nudity. You’ve seen their statues.

A horrible way to go.

Since God has ultimate control of history—including the place, time, and death of the Son—you gotta wonder why he was willing to involve crucifixion. Of all the ways to go, it’s the worst we humans have ever invented. Why was Jesus willing to die that way?

Most of us Christians figure God chose crucifixion because it’s so awful. Sin and death needed to be destroyed, and deserved to be destroyed in the worst way possible. Well, that’d be crucifixion.

It also makes a big statement of how much grace God offers the world. We killed Jesus in the nastiest way, yet he forgives us. If God’s grace can overcome such an unjust, horrible death, surely it can overcome anything.

More than that: Because Jesus died by crucifixion, it spurred us humans to finally stop crucifying one another. (Well, not finally. Antichrists, when they wanna terrorize Christians, find it amusing to crucify us. But other than making sick statements against our religion, other societies don’t use it.) We finally saw how terrible it is, by virtue of our Lord, his apostles, and many of his followers dying that way. We realized we mustn’t do that to one another, no matter how much a person might deserve death.

And loads of us have also applied that to the death penalty in general. Many Christian countries got rid of it altogether (though it sure took ’em long enough). In countries which still permit it, like the United States, we try to make our executions humane, as painless as possible. Despite all the vengeance-minded folks outside who’d love to watch the convicts suffer, and who wouldn’t mind at all if we brought crucifixion back.

Lastly, in dying a slow death, Jesus had time to demonstrate for us how to die as a martyr. Not passively: Jesus actively refused the nasty stuff they offered him to drink. (Mark calls it wine and myrrh, meant to be medicinal; Matthew wine and bile, meant to make you puke; Luke and John wine vinegar, or really old wine.) But the gospels describe him speaking to various people from the cross, to offer them grace, forgiveness, and comfort. Not wrath, not cursing and damning his killers and persecutors, threatening them with destruction as soon as he was back from the dead, or took possession of his kingdom. We’d do that. Jesus wouldn’t, and didn’t.

Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the torture, Jesus bore it with as much peace and self-control as he could muster. His was a noble death. And if we must ever go through anything like it—’cause you never know—may we be Christlike.

“Believing for God” and viruses.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 March

As I write this, the United States is dealing with an outbreak of coronavirus; specifically COVID-19. It’s as communicable as flu, and a little more fatal, so people are encouraged to wash their hands, avoid touching their faces, and stay away from one another.

And since humans are creatures of extremes, this also means they’re stockpiling supplies, “just in case.” This is why the grocery stores are running out of hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and certain types of food. (The average American diet being as lousy as it is, y’notice the stores aren’t really running out of fresh fruits and vegetables though. Just saying.) Likewise a lot of major events, like sports and concerts—any venue where they’ll pack a lot of people in the audience—are getting canceled, just in case someone with coronavirus is there, and infects everyone else. Better safe than sorry.

I live in California. Our governor encouraged everyone to cancel any large gatherings: Any events with 250 or more people should be canceled, or postponed till the end of the month. He didn’t make it an executive order; he’s trusting people “to do the right thing.”

Some will. Some have. My church, fr’instance, is moving our services to the internet. We don’t have 250 people, but it’s a lot of people in a small space, and again: Better safe than sorry.

My mom’s church, on the other hand, has more than 250 people in regular attendance. Last I heard (and this might change), they’re meeting Sunday as usual. Because “we’re believing for God.”

Believing for God to what? Did he promise them anything? Did he specifically tell them he was gonna do something? Because he didn’t tell Christians in general any such thing in the bible.

Jesus did say we can pick up snakes Mk 16.18 in a textual variant; it’s a passage which we oughta interpret as God’s divine protection during something which could potentially happen in the course of ministry. Ac 27.3-6 Unfortunately there are such Christians as snake-handlers, who’ve turned this into a sacrament—if you really trust God, let’s play with the snakes! Like I said, humans are creatures of extremes.

But in that variant, Jesus didn’t say, “These signs accompany believers: They will interact with people who have communicable diseases, and won’t get them.” He certainly has the power to make such a declaration—and contrary to the name-it-and-claim-it crowd, we don’t. But Jesus didn’t grant us any such thing, because he doesn’t want his followers to foolhardily assume we’re immune to everything, and step into situations which’ll kill us.

And that’s precisely what’s going on when churches choose to ignore basic precautions, and do as we do regardless. It’s not an act of faith: God’s given us no promises to put our faith in! It’s an act of wishful thinking. We hope God’ll spare us this plague, even though he gave us no preventative measures we can do as acts of faith (i.e. look at the snake on the pole, Nu 21.6-9 or paint the doorposts with blood Ex 12.13).

…Although God did give us public officials, Ro 13.1 who offer us these preventative guidelines because they’re trying to prevent worse. When we ignore them because “we’re believing for God,” we’d better have a darned good, biblical reason for expecting God to act. Not just wishful thinking or “I know better” libertarianism.

Nor carnal thinking.

I mentioned the governor’s precautions to someone a few days ago. His response? A dismissive, “Oh, the governor.” He doesn’t respect the governor. Mostly because he’s Republican and the governor’s Democrat: If they’re in the opposition party, they must be bereft of all commonsense, so you can ignore everything they tell you. Even in this instance, when they’re simply repeating the advice of medical professionals.

And yeah, no doubt a number of Christians feel they’re entirely free to do likewise. Honor our civic leaders. Honor the president. Pray for them and follow their advice. That is, until they’re in the opposition party; then mock them, dismiss them, and ignore them. If our governor were Republican they’d be quick to limit their meeting sizes and close their buildings; it’d be their patriotic duty! But he’s Democrat, so f--- him; they trust God.

So this whole “believing for God” deal? I’m not saying Mom’s church has adopted it because they’re led by Republicans; I’m entirely sure they’d do the same thing if our governor were Republican. But plenty of people in her church will easily adopt the “we believe God” mantra because he’s not Republican. It’s their own small, petty way of sticking it to the governor: “We’re meeting anyway. In your face, you liberal wiener.”

Likewise there are too many Christians who don’t believe in science. So when nurses and physicians assistants and doctors tell ’em, “Here’s what you oughta do,” their response is likewise, “Oh you don’t know what you’re talking about,” and do as they’re gonna do anyway.

Or fall for any “wellness” scam which supports their biases. I have friends who seriously think oregano oil will cure coronavirus—hey, it killed a different coronavirus in a lab test, years ago!—so they’re gonna buy that. So I actually read the lab report which they think proves their claim: It might win a grade school science fair, but it proves nothing. It poured oregano oil directly onto the virus—which is fine if you’re using it as a household cleaner, but these folks are talking about it as if you eat it and it cures you, and that’s an entirely different, and unproven, deal. It didn’t compare oregano oil to the results of what a placebo, like saline, might do—and I betcha saline would kill coronavirus faster. Since there was no placebo, of course there was no double-blind study; we’ve no idea whether oregano oil honestly works better than alternatives. Honestly, it might! But it might not: It wasn’t tested properly, so we don’t know. All we really know is people are selling oregano oil, and I betcha it costs way more than bleach.

Both these problems are examples of carnal thinking. It’s people who follow their biases, not the facts; believe what they choose to believe, rather than what’s been tested and proven, whether they like the results or not; believe whom they choose to believe, because the people they trust tell ’em everything they want to hear.

In some cases it’s obvious carnality; it’s pure arrogance. This one pastor I know of, who plans to open his church no matter what, hasn’t even bothered to consult God: He’s entirely sure God would want the churches to be open, because we Christians can pray for the sick to be cured… and of course because he doesn’t trust the government. He’s entirely sure he knows God’s mind, and that he’s right; so why ask? This pastor’s kind of a dick, so his behavior doesn’t surprise me any.

Trusting your gut instead of wisdom: That’s not faith in God! That’s pride: That’s faith in your own gut. That’s faith in your flesh. Those who follow the flesh are actually opposed to the Spirit, Ga 5.17 and are following themselves to their own detriment; Paul even says it’s death. Ro 8.6 We must never confound the desires of our own minds with God’s will, or project our wishes upon him. We must only pursue what he actually wants, what he truly promises.

And, if he’s promised nothing, use your heads. Use your commonsense. Follow the advice of experts, of scholars, of wiser people than us. And yeah, sometimes the advice of public officials in the wrong political party.

God’s gotta actually say something.

God never stopped talking to his kids, despite what some doubters might imagine… the better to ignore what he’s currently telling them, although that’s a whole other article. So when we’re talking with God, if we ask him, “Hey, should our church meet this Sunday?” and he says, “Sure; don’t worry about this virus thingy; I got you,” now we have something we can put our faith in. Now we have something we can trust.

We still need to get this confirmed though. We absolutely do. For three reasons.

SUPER HIGH HEALTH RISK. If all the other churches are staying home, you’re gonna get visitors. The bigger the church, the greater chance strangers might attend… and the greater chance one of ’em is infected. In fact if you’re a church which believes in faith healing, and people intentionally visit you to get cured, there’s a really good chance you’ll get an infected visitor.

All sorts of people attend church, but the gospel is particularly for the weak and ill… and as a result our churches have a lot of weak and ill people in ’em. People with chronic conditions, the elderly, the young… and all of these are people whom flus and coronaviruses will particularly affect. These viruses are deadly enough as it is, but if you’re already sick, or your immune system is already compromised (i.e. you’ve got AIDS or lupus, or you received an organ transplant), it’s likely to kill you. Churches in particular need to be cautious about disease!

And, frankly, we’re not. Because too many of us “believe for God” instead of taking basic precautions.

Plus churches aren’t all that sanitary anyway. Churches can seldom afford to hire professionals to clean the bathrooms, much less the seats, so things can go years without disinfection. Too many Christians wear their best clothes, not their cleanest like the bible mandates, and some of their “Sunday best” hasn’t been washed in a while. Too many of us like to greet one another with hugging and kisses and warm handshakes, and of course don’t use sanitizer. Churches are meant to be family, so we let our guards down just like they’re family—and you know how fast a virus can spread within a family.

So God had better say, “I got you.” Otherwise the virus will.

WE DON’T WANNA CLOSE. Unless we don’t really wanna go to church anyway, we wanna follow the scriptures’ admonition to keep meeting regularly. He 10.25 Christians need our support system; newbies especially. There’d better be a really, really good reason to skip a week. Heck, we’re entirely sure God wants us to meet, no matter what! Viruses and hurricanes and other plagues? Pshaw; isn’t God mightier than all those things combined?

Plus if you don’t personally know anyone who’s fallen ill, you might not think the situation is all that dire anyway. Shutting down all the sporting events, concerts, and conferences feels like overkill; like living in fear, and we’re certainly not afraid. Perfect love casts out fear 1Jn 4.18 and all that.

So if we pray and that voice in our head says, “Nah dude; open as usual,” of course you’re gonna hope that voice belongs to God. But this is a classic case of confirmation bias: The voice is telling us what we want to hear. It’s tapping our desires. Even righteous-looking desires, like the desire to have church services as usual.

But God doesn’t need to instruct us to do what we’re already gonna do.

Yep. The Holy Spirit is far more likely to correct us than confirm us. He confirms us when we have doubts—“No no, stay the course”—but otherwise he doesn’t have to confirm us; we’re doing fine! It’s only when we start veering off course that he’s gotta drop us a new message—“Come on, child, you know better”—or when an unexpected obstacle is coming—“Later today you’re gonna have to do something out of the ordinary.” (And sometimes he tells us why… but often he doesn’t, ’cause he’s trying to grow faith in us.) In every circumstance the Spirit speaks as necessary—and no, this doesn’t mean he speaks rarely; we need a lot of guidance! But telling us to do as we’re doing, usually isn’t necessary at all.

So if the Spirit tells us to ignore our elected officials—and especially if he tells us to ignore the laws!—we’d better darned well be sure the Spirit told us so. Test that voice; make sure it’s his voice and definitely not our own, or the devil’s. Viruses are a life-and-death thing, and we especially don’t wanna be wrong about that.

POTENTIAL TERRIBLE TESTIMONY. When we’re “believing for God” to keep our churches virus-free despite the obvious health risk, he’d absolutely better come through for us. Because if he doesn’t, and we become the epicenter of an outbreak, we’re boned.

And not just us. Christianity as a whole. You think pagans care about the differences between one church and another? Between one denomination and another? They don’t care about our differences. (Neither does Christ Jesus; pagans have that correct, at least.) So if one church, fr’instance, harbors pedophiles, pagans treat it like every church harbors pedophiles. If one church thinks science is hogwash, pagans think every church dismisses science.

So one church’s reckless behavior is gonna affect the whole of Christendom. Same as usual. Not good.

And it gives antichrists more ammunition to bash Jesus, bash people who depend on Jesus, discourage those who might be considering Jesus: In general it makes our work harder. All because one pastor didn’t bother to double-check his gut feelings, and now his church is Plague Central.

Our faith is only properly placed in God and what he’s no-fooling, in-context said. Accept no substitutes. Doubt yourself; trust him. And be wise.