Can we really ask God for anything we want?

by K.W. Leslie, 31 January

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

These passages are found in the middle of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, in Jesus’s teaching on prayer requests in Luke, and as part of Jesus’s Last Supper lesson in John. Obviously the Matthew and Luke bits line up more neatly than the John bits, but the same idea is found in the John verses.

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

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

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

When I was a kid, I’d ask my parents for stuff, sorta like the kids in Jesus’s examples. Except those kids asked for bread, fish, and eggs; and I’d ask for a Commodore 64. Sometimes my parents gave me what I asked for. Other times, not so much. Computers weren’t cheap.

When I got persistent—when I wouldn’t take no for an answer, and kept right on asking, seeking, knocking—they’d respond, “Would you stop asking?” Not just because they didn’t want me to have these things: Sometimes they did, but they wanted me to learn to do it myself, or earn money and buy ’em myself. Or otherwise learn to be independent, and grow up.

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


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

The punchline—“Trusting parents can be hazardous to your health”—is exactly right. Calvin’s mom thought she was teaching him a valuable lesson. She was, but she didn’t do it in a kind way. She did it in a cruel way: She didn’t warn him away from the consequences. She let him suffer them, and suffer ’em even more by surprise. And because humans do this, sometimes we wonder whether God’ll do likewise: God says yes, and we ironically find out we didn’t want this at all. Meanwhile, up in heaven, he chuckles at our hubris. Ps 2.4

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

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

But seriously, anything we ask?

There are a number of “name it and claim it” Christians who take these and similar verses, and teach, “It’s how prayer works! Name everything you want, claim ’em in the name of Jesus, believe you will have them, and God’ll give ’em to you. If you don’t get ’em, it’s only because you didn’t have enough faith. You gotta believe. Believe harder.”

Any of that true? Nope. Because it’s based on imaginary faith, not the real stuff. It’s based on wishing things into being. True, these folks don’t claim they’re doing it under their own power, but God’s. Because once you start claiming you have the power to wish things into being, you’ve crossed the line from wishful thinking to magic.

And no fooling, some Christians do believe in magic. They claim when God made humans in his image, he gave us the power to create like he does, and speak things into existence same as he does. The Christian Science church really took this idea and ran with it: They claim reality is a construct of the mind, and all you gotta do is believe really hard, and you can alter reality. Abracadabra!

In real life, experience has demonstrated we don’t always get what we request. Sometimes God tells us no. We’ll ask things for selfish reasons, fleshly reasons, fearful reasons, dark reasons. Not godly ones. Jm 4.3

We got lots of examples in the bible. The apostles James and John wanted to call down fire on a city full of innocent Samaritans. Lk 9.54 Paul wanted an ailment taken away—understandably, but God felt it was better he suffer from it. 1Co 12.7-9 Even Jesus asked to not be crucified. Mk 14.36 That’s right, Jesus asked for something, in his own name, and of all the people in the cosmos to get a “yes” answer, you’d think it’d be him! But he acknowledged that in his mission to earth, the Father’s will took priority over his own. Mk 14.36 And in our missions in his kingdom, God’s will must take priority over ours.

It sometimes appears God has granted a wrong-headed request. And wrong-headed Christians may claim it’s because God grants our requests no matter what. Really it’s because God wants to do these things for his own independent reasons; not because of our warped motives. A selfish evangelist may want a roomful of people saved so he can brag about how many he led to Jesus, but God wants ’em saved because he loves them. Jn 3.16

Hence getting what we ask is only guaranteed to those of us who truly follow Jesus. Jn 15.7 It’s only guaranteed to those who trust God with the results—not those who wanna second-guess him, or nitpick whatever we get, as James warned his readers when it comes to asking for wisdom. Jm 1.6-7 God’s looking for the right attitude in his petitioners: Obedience and repentance, not pride, stubbornness, rebellion, and greed. Not that he can’t be gracious and patient with people who are trying to overcome those bad attitudes, Ro 9.18 but remember, we don’t tend to get favors from people when we’re doing what we know annoys them.

Motive’s important. Attitude’s important. Humility’s important. Don’t pray without ’em.

God wants to give good gifts.

Matthew 7.11 KWL
“So if you’re evil, yet knew to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?”

The Greek word in question is ἀγαθὰ/ayathá, “good.” (Nice to know bible translators are on their game, huh?)

In other words not bad gifts. Not gifts which, though we consider ’em the most awesome things ever, and solve our problems perfectly, turn out to backfire and wreck us like a Twilight Zone episode. God doesn’t fulfill our requests so, like Calvin’s mom, he can teach us an ironic lesson. He’s a good God, not a passive-aggressive one.

When I chide parents for pulling such stunts, it tends to rub ’em the wrong way. Some of ’em think aversion therapy is the very best way to teach kids. It’s the “school of hard knocks.” Toughens ’em up. Teaches ’em life’s lessons the hard way. Burn your hand, and you’ll never touch a hot stove again. Get scratched, and you’ll never pull the cat’s tail again. Puke heavily, then suffer a raging hangover, and you’ll never get drunk again. As if that ever stopped teenagers.

Frankly, that’s careless, reckless, evil parenting. Fr’instance, imagine Calvin asked his mom if he could play with Grandpa’s handgun, and she answered just as cavalierly: “Sure; just do it outside.” Crank up the volume on the circumstances, and now we can recognize the evil in it.

Whereas God’s parenting style is not to teach us the hard way. It may appear that way to people who superficially read the Old Testament. They read Judges and assume every time the Hebrews sinned, the LORD sicced their enemies on them. Nuh-uh. Read those passages again. These people sinned for years, even decades—with plenty of warnings from angels, prophets, priests, judges, and the bible, to repent and turn back to God. They didn’t listen, so God let the next step in the cycle happen. He’s patient, y’know. We’re not, and claiming God’s as impatient as we are, is simply projecting our evil values upon our loving Father.

God’s a good Father. He doesn’t parent us by tossing us into the woods, Spartan-style, with nothing but a pointed stick and a compass, demanding we claw our way into his kingdom despite the horrors of the forest. He warns us away from such things. Explicitly. Read your bible.

So if your 5-year-old daughter is hungry, you don’t figure, “Time to teach her to fend for herself,” and make her hunt pigeons in the backyard. You might tell her to go get some breakfast cereal from the pantry, but you stocked the pantry. Nor will you surprise her with poisonous food: Bread full of grit, Mt 7.9 or scorpion eggs. Lk 11.12 Unless you’re a sick, abusive parent, you’re gonna feed your kids. Why not give ’em bread or eggs, if you have ’em?

Pride and prayer requests.

From time to time, I come across Christians who look at prayer requests as a major hurdle. Y’see, they were raised to be independent. They’re quite proud of their independence and resourcefulness. To them, asking God for stuff—begging God for stuff—bugs them greatly. They don’t like the idea of being dependent on anyone. Not even their heavenly Father.

I know a lot of libertarians who hate the very idea of dependence. It offends them. They’re outraged when people get something without working for it. (You know, grace.) They don’t want charity or aid or freebies; if they fail, they’re okay with suffering the deprivation, and if others fail, they’re okay with them starving to death or dying. Survival of the fittest is nature’s way, after all.

Yep, it’s a pride thing. Precisely the sort of pride God opposes. Jm 4.6 The reason God tends to answer few of their prayers, is because they don’t ask for stuff when they pray. They only praise him, or acknowledge him, but they never ask for stuff. Some of ’em were even raised to think it’s wrong to; that “God helps those who help themselves.” They put their trust their own ability. Not God. And once they’re unable to do for themselves, strangely enough, they begin to lose faith in God—as if the only way he provides is through their own ability. But the sad thing is he never did provide for them; they never called on him!

It’s not a new attitude. Jesus instructed his own students:

John 16.24 KWL
“Till now you’ve never asked anything in my name.
Ask!—and you’ll receive, so your joy can be fulfilled.”

The kids didn’t really know they could ask and receive. They’d seen Jesus ask and receive, but they assumed he was successful ’cause he was extra-special, ’cause he’s Jesus. A lot of us Christians think the very same way: Jesus could do it, but we can’t. Well, Jesus wanted it made clear we can so. Ask in Jesus’s name, and you’ll get as Jesus got. You’ll get answered like Jesus was answered. Because you know Jesus—and because you’re asking for stuff with the very same attitude, motive, and faith.

God wants to help. It’s “so your joy can be fulfilled,” Jn 16.24 —so God can make us happy! So our prayer requests produce prayer results, and we can rejoice in our generous God, and share those stories with people who wonder whether God’s even out there. It’s so “the Father can be thought well of.” Jn 14.13 People definitely aren’t gonna be impressed by a Father who blesses selfish jerks, so we’d better correct our attitudes before we ask him for stuff.

So let’s work on that. Get rid of that pride. Remember he only wants our best. And ask.

The widow’s mite, and ancient money’s value.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 January

Mark 12.41-44, Luke 21.1-4.

On the temple grounds there’s a room called the treasury; Greek γαζοφυλάκιον/yadzofylákion, a “guarded vault.” Thing is, the treasury’s in a place inaccessible to women. And since there’s a woman in this story, throwing an offering in, it simply can’t be what the writers of these gospels meant by “treasury.” It has to be in some other place.

Hence most commentators are pretty sure yadzofylákion actually refers to the lockboxes which the priests set in the Women’s Court. Each of these boxes were at the end of a big metal funnel—which looked like a shofar, a ram’s-horn trumpet, and may very well have been what Jesus was thinking of when he talked about trumpeting your charitable giving. Mt 6.2 Because throwing metal into a big metal funnel made a loud noise. And throwing lots of metal—like a big pile of bronze coins, as opposed to, say, far fewer silver or gold coins—made a big ol’ noise.

Probably too noisy to teach! Yet that’s what the gospels describe Jesus trying to do by these funnels.

Mark 12.41-44 KWL
41 As he was seated facing the offering boxes,
Jesus watched how the crowds threw bronze coins into the boxes.
Many plutocrats threw many coins,
42 and one poor widow who came, threw two lepta, i.e. a quadrans. [8¢]
43 Calling his students, Jesus told them, “Amen, I promise you:
This poor widow threw more into the box than all who threw in.
44 For all the others threw out of their abundance, and she her need:
Everything she threw in, was all her life.”
 
Luke 21.1-4 KWL
1 Looking up, Jesus saw plutocrats throwing their gifts into the offering boxes.
2 Jesus also saw a certain poor widow throwing in two lepta. [8¢]
3 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you: This poor widow threw in more than everyone.
4 For all these people threw in their gifts out of their abundance,
and she from her poverty threw in everything she had in her life.”

The widow donated two λεπτὰ/leptá, which the KJV calls a “mite,” meaning the lowest-denomination coin there is. A penny would be the United States’ cheapest coin; that’s our mite. It might not have been familiar with everyone in the Roman Empire, so Mark states it’s worth a quadrans, the Roman quarter. Worth about 8 cents back then, though money went much further. She could probably buy lunch with it. A small lunch.

No seriously. Start giving.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 January

Too many Christians falsely believe the Spirit’s fruit grows spontaneously. Since it’s the Spirit’s fruit, he grows it, just like in Jesus’s Independent Fruit Story where wheat grows without the planter realizing how. Mk 4.26-29 That parable, by the way, is about God’s kingdom, not the Spirit’s fruit—but hey, if it means we get freebies and don’t have to lift a finger, people are perfectly happy to receive freebies.

So the assumption is if we’re truly following Jesus, fruit happens. Obviously we’ve not thought this idea through: Exactly how are we following Jesus when we’re not deliberately behaving in ways that’ll grow fruit? Passively? Is anyone meant to follow Jesus passively? (Spoiler: No.)

If we’re gonna grow in love, we gotta love others, particularly unloveable people. If we’re gonna develop patience, we gotta be patient despite suffering in minor or major ways. (Which is why I hate developing patience.) And if we’re gonna develop generosity, we have to give.

And since Americans are so very very Mammonist, generosity is probably the hardest fruit to develop. We’ve made so many concessions to greed. We consider ourselves clever, not stingy, when we find ways to avoid giving. We’ve justified so many practices because we want wealth, not poverty. And I get not wanting poverty. I’ve been poor; it sucks! But even when I was poor I could give. That woman throwing small copper coins into the treasury Mk 12.41-44, Lk 21.1-4 could give; so can we. So can anyone.

But stinginess is a work of the flesh, a sign we’re not fit for God’s kingdom. Like Paul wrote:

Ephesians 5.5-7 KJV
5 For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. 7 Be not ye therefore partakers with them.

Coveting wealth means you’ve made an idol of it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. God’s gonna judge those who were covetous instead of generous; don’t lump yourself in with them. The stakes really are that high.

So like I said, the way we develop generosity is to give. Let’s get started.

Generosity.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 January

Generosity is a form of kindness. It’s about helping the needy, being an aid and comfort to them, being gracious regardless of whether they deserve our help, and fighting our fleshly urges to hoard and covet.

Those fleshly urges definitely do get in the way of generosity. Sometimes we’ll only give because it’ll profit us. We’ll feel proud of ourselves for being wealthy enough to fund good deeds. Or we’ll feel this paid off our karmic debts—we may have done some evil before, but this totally makes up for it, and this means we’re good people. Or we’ll expect to be compensated: “I’m doing this for you now, but someday later I expect you to pay me back, or pay it forward to society.” Or we have an ulterior motive; we want to look like benevolent people while we’re hypocritically hiding our sins.

This is why there are a lot of “generous” people out there, but they’re doing it for self-interest, not goodness. This is why a number of Christians will tell me, “Generosity is found in Paul’s list in Galatians, so it’s not really a fruit of the Spirit; besides, look at all the ‘generous people’ in this world who are actually evil.” Yeah, I hear you. It’s why we gotta make the distinction between true generosity and just throwing money around.

And it’s also why we gotta bring up the fact we Christians aren’t always so generous, and use worldly “generosity” as our cop-out. Too many Christians get mighty stingy, and justify this behavior by calling it “good stewardship.” I challenge you to look at all the instances of stewardship in the bible and show me where “good stewardship” means we never take risks, never give to the needy, and lay up reserves “just in case.” Reserves are always stockpiled with a goal in mind, like building a temple… or providing a large sum for the needy. When there’s no purpose for our savings accounts other than to feel comfortable about our financial cushion, we’re not depending on God anymore for our comfort. We’re depending on Mammon.

Wealthy Christians are nowhere near as kind as we oughta be, and this includes generosity: We’re nowhere near as generous as we oughta be. We begrudge every nickel taken from us, begged of us, or taxed from us and given to welfare programs. When we give to fund our churches, our checks are calculated to be precisely 10 percent of our paychecks, down to the cent—’cause it’s our obligation, not our donation.

And when it’s time to tip the waiter, we likewise calculate the gratuity down to the cent. When we’re asked to give to charity, we limit ourselves to a small obligatory amount, like a dollar, which we’ll contribute, but no more. When we find it’s time to tighten the budget, the first thing to go are the charities—not the cable TV, even though it’s a far bigger bill and the least necessary of all of them.

As C.S. Lewis put it,

If our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them. […] For many of us the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear—fear of insecurity. This must often be recognised as a temptation.

Mere Christianity, “Social Morality.”

Or as St. Paul put it,

Ephesians 5.5 KJV
For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Greed destroys. Generosity is a fruit of the Spirit.

How the apostles approached the Thessalonians.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 January

1 Thessalonians 2.1-12.

When a salesman shows up to pitch something, how do they usually look? Most of the time—unless they’re trying out a clever new tactic—they try to look successful. They try to give off the vibe that what they’re selling made them a success, and if you buy it you’ll be a success. They figure successful-looking people are attractive… and they’re not wrong. So they dress nice. They try to appear classy and stylish. They bring in plenty of resources, plenty of helpers. They look like a big deal.

Contrast that with how Paul and Silas first appeared in Thessaloniki, Macedon. It was right after they left Macedon’s biggest city, Philippi—right after having been been arrested, caned, jailed, then thrown out of town. Ac 16.12-40 They didn’t look successful; just the opposite. Even if they had a miraculous getting-out-of-jail story, they sure didn’t look like success stories.

That’s the condition the Thessalonians found ’em in, and how they appeared when the Thessalonians first heard the gospel. If you assume, as many Americans do, that one God’s on your side it’s Easy Street from now on, these guys were not poster children for that theology. They looked beaten and broken.

So the apostles chose a different tack: They played the sympathy card. They didn’t come to butter up the Thessalonians, or sell them a gospel of “Come to Jesus and he’ll erase all your worries.” Nor did they play the victim, and beg to be cared for, instead of doing for themselves. They were honest and frank with the Thessalonians—and won ’em over with thoughtfulness and truth.

1 Thessalonians 2.1-12 KWL
1 For you fellow Christians have known when we came to you, it wasn’t for nothing.
2 Instead we had suffered and were treated badly, as you know.
In Philippi we bluntly spoke of our God, speaking of God’s gospel with you in every meeting.
3 For our encouragement wasn’t delusional, nor unclean, nor deceptive,
4 but we speak as those who were disciplined by God to believe the gospel.
Not to please people, but to please God, who disciplines our thinking.
5 For we never once came to you with a flattering message, as you know.
Nor ever with a greedy motive, as God is our witness.
6 Nor seeking glory from people, neither from you nor from anyone.
7 We apostles of Christ are able to be such a burden,
but we became like innocent babies in your midst,
like when a nursing mother cuddles her own child.
8 Thus we were happy to long for you, to share with you, not just God’s gospel
but our own souls as well, because we fell in love with you.
9 For you remember, fellow Christians, our pains and toil:
Night and day, working at not being an expense to any of you,
we proclaimed God’s gospel to you.
10 You and God are witness to how sacredly, fairly,
and faultlessly we behaved towards you believers.
11 As you know, like every one of you, like a father to his own child,
12 we were urging you, encouraging, and testifying
for you to walk rightly with God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

Deaf ears aren’t opportunities.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 January

Matthew 7.6, Luke 13.6-9.

Back in college I was at my home-away-from-dorm, a popular Capitola coffeehouse called Mr. Toots. (Figured I’d throw ’em a free plug.) I got to talking to some UC Santa Cruz students, ’cause they quickly figured out I was a fellow student and wanted to know which school I went to. Once they realized I was a biblical studies major—a “God expert” (in training, anyway)—they wanted to talk God.

A lot of pagans go through a phase when they head off to school where they question their faith—and rightly so, ’cause they need to question everything, and get rid of those things in their religions which aren’t growing their relationships with God any. But a lot of ’em ditch their faith altogether, assuming they ever had any. Some of ’em dabble in other religions; some of ’em even invent their own. And some of ’em flirt with nontheism—either because they really think there might be no God, or because they’re jerks and just wanna outrage theists.

That’s what our conversation quickly turned into. These guys wanted to try out their newly-learned anti-God arguments on the religious guy. Kinda like a kid who just learned a new judo hold, wants to fight everybody with it, and foolishly picks a fight with the taekwondo black belt. Not that I was any black belt; more like red. I did have a decade of Christian apologetics on these guys. So it wasn’t at all hard to slap their commonplace arguments down.

But the arguing grew tiresome after a while. I realized the debate was never gonna go anywhere: These guys weren’t at all curious about God: They didn’t wanna learn anything new about him, listen, repent, and become Christian. This was purely an intellectual exercise for them. They were just killing time at the coffeehouse.

Pearls to pigs, I realized. Yep, just like in the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 7.6 KWL
“Don’t give holy things to the dogs, nor throw your pearls before the pigs.
Otherwise they’ll trample them under their feet, and they might turn and attack you.”

So I called truce. “Wanna talk about something different?” I said. “I mean, to you this is just light conversation. But to me this is something I take very seriously and personally. I’m having trouble not taking all your God-bashing personally. Wouldn’t you rather talk politics?”

“Yeah, okay.” So we talked politics. And after a bit, they left.

Which bible translation’s the best?

by K.W. Leslie, 21 January
HE. “So lemme ask: Which version of the bible do you use? Which one’s the best?”
ME. “None of ’em. Learn Hebrew and Greek.”

As soon as someone finds out I know the bible’s original languages, that’s nearly always the question they ask me. Sometimes because they earnestly wanna know, and figure I’m more an expert than they are. Sometimes because they already have a favorite, and want some affirmation. Sometimes because they already think their favorite is best, so they’re testing me.

Well, this question has a long answer. It’s the rest of this article! But I found when you being with the long answer, their eyes roll back in their heads; they don’t wanna deal with the complexities of bible translations. They only wanted a quick ’n dirty answer. Tell ’em the best bible version, so they can go get that version and use it forevermore. Or judge you. Whatever.

So I start with my joke answer: “None. Learn original languages.”

Sometimes, but rarely, they realize I’m kidding. The rest of the time, a look of horror and despair comes upon their faces: “What, learn ancient languages? That’ll take years!

Yes it will. It took me years. But that’s the scary alternative. Now for my much nicer—though admittedly long—response.

As for which version of the bible I use, it depends on why I need it.

  • BIBLE STUDY. I go with the original languages. Always. I have Accordance on all my devices, ’cause it’s inconvenient to carry around a print copy of the original-language bibles. I got the Biblia Hebraica for the Old Testament, the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (and the United Bible Societies’ GNT, the Tyndale House GNT, the Textus Receptus, and the Codex Sinaiticus for comparison).
  • TEACHING. When I work with new believers and kids, New Living Translation; it’s easy to understand. When adults—as y’might notice from reading this blog—my own translation, frequently with the King James Version for comparison, although if they have a favorite translation, I don’t mind switching over for their convenience. Having a bible app makes this easy.
  • AUDIO BIBLES. I have several. Including original-language audio bibles. (Yes they exist.) On my iPhone is my fave, The Bible Experience in the now-defunct Today’s NIV.
  • CASUAL READING. English is my first language after all, and Accordance comes with English translations, like the ESV and KJV. Either I read one of them, or another translation from Bible Gateway, or I have an ESV pocket-sized bible which I bought about 20 years ago at a now-defunct Christian bookstore. (The cover’s thrashed, so I re-covered it in black duct tape. Hey, it works.)

And of course my bookshelf has lots of other “analog bibles” (y’know, books which don’t require charging). Some are what I call big-ass bibles; others were the result of the years before I went digital, when I collected bible translations. Yeah, they get dusty: I read my phone, Kindle, tablet, and computer.

But lemme go back to the NLT: I encourage people to read that one because it’s easy to understand. That’s the most valuable asset of any bible translation. When any bible is hard to understand, it means the translators did a poor job, and their number one job is to remove the language barrier. Too many translators forget to do that.

  • They’re trying too hard to follow the original text “literally” and word-by-word.
  • Or it’s not even about translation; they were commissioned to update another popular translation, like when the NIV comes out with another edition. They’re expected to fix it, but not change it too much.
  • Or (as with many a bible paraphrase) they’re trying too hard to be clever, and make it sound different from all the other versions… and there’s nothing wrong with the way the other versions translated it.

Basically if your interpretation needs an interpretation, you suck as an interpreter.

Now, which one’s the best translation? Um… whichever one gets you to read your bible.

Do you know your bible quotes?

by K.W. Leslie, 20 January

Generally if you’re gonna call yourself biblically literate, you oughta at least know these quotes from the bible. Probably already do; you just didn’t realize they were from the bible.

ALL HAVE SINNED AND FALL SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD. Or “come short” in the KJV. Comes from Romans 3.23; means nobody measures up to God’s standard of perfection, but God graciously forgives us and grants eternal life. Ro 6.23

ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE. Or “all men” (KJV): Paul’s claim he adapted his circumstances so he can find common ground with everyone, and share Christ with them. 1Co 9.22 Y’know, “when in Rome.” Certain Christians are quick to point out Paul didn’t compromise his beliefs or behavior in so doing.

ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD. In context, “to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” Ro 8.28 Various Christians pull it out of context and claim everything always turns out for the best. I remind ’em to read Ecclesiastes sometime.

ALL WE, LIKE SHEEP, HAVE GONE ASTRAY. Isaiah’s warning to his people: They turned away from God, like sheep who disregard their shepherd. Is 53.6

AM I MY BROTHER’S KEEPER? Cain’s excuse to God for not knowing where Abel was, Ge 4.9 though in fact he just murdered him. The phrase gets used to claim we’re not responsible for one other. In reality we often are.

ASK AND IT’LL BE GIVEN YOU. Jesus’s teaching that the Father wants to give good gifts to his kids. Mt 7.7

BE FRUITFUL AND MULTIPLY. God’s directives to his animals after creating them. Ge 1.22 Including to the humans. Ge 1.28

BE SURE YOUR SIN WILL FIND YOU OUT. Moses’s warning to two tribes who promised they’d fight with the other ten; that if they broke their promise they’d get caught. Nu 32.23 Christians sometimes use this verse to claim every sin eventually gets found out. And many do… but some don’t.

BEAT THEIR SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES. A prophecy about future peace—or not—found in multiple books of the prophets. Is 2.4, Mc 4.3, Jl 3.10

The bible, in chronological order. (More or less.)

by K.W. Leslie, 19 January

Some of TXAB’s readers intend to read the bible in a month—or in four weeks, anyway—and have expressed curiosity about reading the bible in chronological order. It’s not enough that the creation of the cosmos comes first in Genesis, and the beginning of New Earth last in Revelation: They want everything sorted out by date.

Okay, fine.

But I will point out this order is debatable. ’Cause of course it is. Since when aren’t Christians gonna debate about who came first, Job or Abraham? (It’s Abraham. Job’s an Edomite; Edom/Esau is Abraham’s grandson.) Or which letter did Paul write first 1 Thessalonians or Galatians? (My money’s on Galatians.) Other chronological-order lists are gonna have a slightly different order, although Genesis is usually first and Revelation last.

Here, for your convenience, is the bible in chronological order. Not always the order it was written, but the order of the events which took place in the books. Print it out and check ’em off as you read ’em.

The Thessalonians’ reputation. And ours.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 January

1 Thessalonians 1.6-10.

In a few of the apostles’ other letters, the churches they were writing to had gone wrong, so they seriously needed to correct ’em. (I’m looking at you, 1 Corinthians and Revelation.) In the letters to Thessaloniki, Macedon, the locals needed a few pointers and minor corrections, but for the most part they were good. Better than good: They had a reputation for being amazing Christians. Not just in cranking out the good works, good fruit, and miracles: They were known for being a bunch of reformed pagans who eagerly pursued Jesus. And that’s a reputation you want. Certainly the reputation I want; certainly the reputation we all should have.

Paul, Silas, and Timothy continue to recap their experiences with the Thessalonians:

1 Thessalonians 1.6-10 KWL
6 You became imitators of both us and the Master,
accepting the message in great persecution, yet joy in the Holy Spirit.
7 Thus you became an example to all the believers in Macedon and Achaea:
8 The Master’s message echoed out from you.
Not only into Macedon and Achaea,
but your faith in God has gone out everywhere.
Hence we’ve no need to speak of it:
9 Other people proclaim to us what impact we had upon you:
How you turned away from the idols you were enslaved to,
back to the true and living God,
10 to await his Son from the skies, whom he raised from the dead,
Jesus, our rescuer from the coming wrath.

When revival breaks out in a church, you’re gonna see some responses. That’s a given. There’s definitely gonna be an outpouring of emotion—turning from darkness to light is a really emotional experience! Plus when the Holy Spirit really starts to do stuff, it tends to freak people out. Y’know how you might think you’re in a room by yourself, and it turns out someone else is in there, and they move or make a noise or otherwise make themselves known, and you jump? “Whoa!—I didn’t know you were there.” When God does this, multiply this minor freakout by a thousand. Because he’s always here. Always been here.

And yeah, we’re gonna see some negative stuff. We’ll see hypocrisy from Christians who think they oughta pretend to have the same level of zeal as the newbies. We’ll see profiteers trying to manipulate the newbies for their own gain. We’ll see naysayers, ’cause they’ll jealously insist the Spirit only behaves the way they claim he does, or that he only endorses their group. Y’know, like we saw in Acts when the Thessalonian synagogue leaders were outraged at how people were more interested in Jesus than in them. Ac 17.1-10

But let’s set aside the emotion, the fear, the noise, the distractions, the weirdos, the weepy, and the outraged. Look for the Spirit’s fruit. Can you find any? If it’s there, so’s the Holy Spirit.

Double standards.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 January

Mark 4.24, Matthew 7.1-5, Luke 6.37-38, 41-42.

“Judge not, lest ye be judged” is a really popular verse for people who don’t wanna condemn anyone. But I already wrote an article about how people take it out of context. People use it to avoid making judgment statements, or to rebuke those who do… and it’s not at all what Jesus means.

So today I get to what Jesus means. This bit of his Sermon on the Mount comes right after Jesus taught us about worry. Which is appropriate: Don’t prejudge circumstances indiscriminately, and don’t prejudge people unfairly.

Matthew 7.1-2 KWL
1 “Don’t criticize. Thus you won’t be criticized.
2 For you’ll be critiqued by the very criticism you criticize with.
The measurement you measure with, will measure you.”
 
Luke 6.37 KWL
“Don’t criticize, and you won’t be criticized.
Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged.
Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven.”

Obviously I translate κρίνετε/krínetë, “criticize,” differently than the KJV’s “judge.” ’Cause our English word judge includes a few senses the Greek doesn’t. Really, this lesson is about decision-making, not condemnation. There’s another word for judgment and condemnation, which Luke uses in verse 37: Κατεδικάσατε/katedikásatë, “pass sentence.” That word is what we nowadays mean by judging. Krínetë is really just about holding things up to our personal standards, and finding ’em acceptable… or not.

Which we all do. As we should. Everyone evaluates stuff, daily, as part of our decision-making processes. We decide which shoes to wear, which breakfast cereals to eat, which coffee blend to drink, which movies to watch, whether to read TXAB on a daily basis… Life is choices. Every choice involves weighing our options, and critiquing them.

Jesus expects this, which is why he follows up “Don’t critique” with “You’ll be critiqued by the very criticism you criticize with.” It’s a warning that if we apply this criticism to other people, to serious issues… we’re gonna get held up to that very same standard.

Human nature is to consider ourselves the exception to the rule. When we critique others, we decide whether their behaviors meet with our approval or not. But when we do the very same things, our standards suddenly change to favor ourselves. When another person tells a lame joke, it means they have no sense of humor; when we tell the very same joke, we’re having ironic fun. When others discriminate against people of color, it’s prejudicial racism; when we do it, it’s because they fit a profile. When others cheat on their spouses it’s awful; when we do it… oh you just don’t understand the circumstances; we’re in love. And so on. We get a free pass; others don’t.

But Jesus makes it clear we don’t get a free pass. If we ordinarily recognize a behavior is offensive or wrong, it’s just as wrong when we do it. We’re not beyond similar criticism. Are we doing right? Because we’ve no business setting ourselves as above criticism, as on a higher level than anyone else. We aren’t exempt. Especially when we fall short of our own judgment.

Whereas Jesus said it in Luke: “Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven.” If people are gonna judge us by our own behavior, and our behavior reflects the fruit of the Spirit more so than yet another self-righteous a--hole, we’re gonna go a whole lot further.

Apostolic succession.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 January
APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION æp.ə'stɑ.lɪk sək'sɛ.ʃən noun. The action, process, or sequence of inheriting a title and office in church leadership, founded by one of Christ Jesus’s first apostles.

Jesus sends his apostles on various missions, and in so doing, many times these apostles start ministries. Sometimes a church or denomination. Sometimes hospitals and hospices, schools and universities, shelters, charities, or whatever Jesus tells ’em to start.

Sometimes the apostle’s job is to only start this ministry, then move along to the next task; Paul of Tarsus obviously did that with churches and schools. But a lot of times it’s to run the ministry for the rest of their lives. Or until they reach a point where they can’t physically do it anymore, and have to retire. Does this mean the ministry is over? Occasionally yes; the apostle kinda was the ministry, and without that apostle it becomes a shell of itself. (Or worse, a mockery.) But if Jesus wants it to keep going, he’ll send other people to keep it going. Ideally he sends another apostle: Someone he instructs to pick up where the last apostle left off, maybe with a vision to take the ministry even further.

But Jesus doesn’t always have to do this. Because many an organization is built to keep running, even after its founders are gone. True of governments; true of businesses and schools; true of ministries. If its director steps down, one of the assistants—who’s often been doing the bulk of the director’s work anyway—can step in and keep things going, and hire people to do the assistant’s old jobs. Or the organization’s trustees hire a competent successor. Might be an outsider; might be the founder’s spouse or child. Regardless, this person succeeds the original leader, and the organization keeps right on ticking.

With anything Christian, of course people feel we have to have some veneer of spirituality attached to everything we do. It can’t just be us hiring a successor; it has to be God’s idea. Even if it wasn’t really. Even if the ministry was only supposed to last as long as the apostle did, and God’s ready to do something else… but the people on the apostle’s team don’t want things to end, and the next best thing to propping up the apostle’s corpse and tricking people into thinking she’s alive, is to prop up the ministry and do the very same thing. Why, God clearly wants it to continue! Look, the successor has the anointing!

Anyway. The way apostolic succession is meant to work, is where Jesus sends an apostle to start a ministry, then sends another apostle to succeed that first apostle. The apostle Apollos probably started the church of Ephesus; the apostle Paul found it, then spent two years training the new Christians; Ac 19.1-10 he left the apostle Timothy behind to lead this church for a few years; 1Ti 1.3-4 and after Timothy, the apostle John led it for a few years himself. If Jesus wants a ministry to keep going, he’s gonna personally appoint people to run it. He’s not gonna let the ministry’s internal machinery keep it going; he keeps it going.

And those churches which believe in apostolic succession, believe that’s kinda what happens. Not just anybody gets tapped to lead their ministries: Again, it’s gotta be God’s idea, and his appointed successor.

But we’ve seen plenty of cases where an incompetent, unqualified, corrupt, godless, foolish individual gets put in charge of one ministry or another. Something in the system broke down. And it certainly wasn’t Jesus.

There’s a certain amount of prestige to a ministry when it’s founded by a well-known apostle. Simon Peter, Francis of Assisi, John Knox, John Wesley… all these guys were definitely chosen by God, and people recognize the ministries and churches they founded are definitely part of God’s will. But for this reason, there’s a great deal of glory given their successors. If you’re the current pastor of a church founded by a great saint, surely there must be something special about you. (One would hope!)

So if you’re the president of a school founded by D.L. Moody, or the bishop of a church founded by Barnabas and Paul themselves, or the head of a denomination founded by Martin Luther, you must either be worthy of their greatness, or some of their greatness musta rubbed off on you. In churches who are really big on apostolic succession, they believe this in quite a literal way: Their first apostles blessed, laid hands on, and commissioned their successors to continue their work. In so doing, they passed down the charge Jesus originally gave them—in a long, unbroken chain to the present-day office-holders. Ergo Pope Francis has the very same commission Jesus gave Simon Peter to oversee the church of Rome. (And of course all the other churches connected with it.)

What does Jesus send apostles to do?

by K.W. Leslie, 13 January

When people investigate what an apostle is, mainly they wanna know whether Jesus still makes them, or whether they’re just a first-century, back-in-bible-times phenomenon. Especially when they don’t want there to be any more apostles, ’cause they don’t like the idea of Jesus designating leaders himself, with no input from them. (I already discussed this in my article on apostles.)

The rest of the time they’re usually looking for a job description. ’Cause some Christian has claimed, “This is what an apostle does,” and they wanna know whether that’s true. Do the scriptures tell us that’s what an apostle does? Or is this person all wet, and claiming some heretic weirdness instead of something truly biblical?

Here’s the thing: The bible doesn’t spell out an apostle’s job description. Because it’s not actually a particular job. It’s a person.

The word ἀπόστολος/apóstolos means “one whom [God] sent.” That’s a person. An individual. A woman or man to whom Jesus appears, or to whom the Holy Spirit speaks, and is given a mission to go and do. Which mission? It varies.

Yep, there’s not just one vocation, one mission, one job, for all apostles everywhere, to do. Like the military, there are hundreds of missions. The overall goal is to grow God’s kingdom, and the individual mission is gonna contribute to that. (Well, it’d better. Otherwise it may not actually be Jesus who sent this person. Just saying.)

So those Christians who claim, “Here’s what the apostolic office consists of”: Nope. This may be what they do, or their pastor or boss does—and it may be exactly what Jesus wants them and their pastor and boss to do. But is it what Jesus wants every apostle to do? Of course not. There is no single apostolic job description. There are just apostles: Individuals Jesus ἀποστέλλω/apostéllo, “sends out,” with a mission—and missions vary.

Evidence from the bible? No problem; there’s lots. Here, Jesus straight-up declares he sends people with a bunch of different vocations.

Matthew 23.34 KJV
Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city…

Yeah, I don’t like how they end up either. Them’s the risks when you follow Jesus. But set that aside a minute and notice Jesus lists three different types of vocations, whom he apostéllo/“sends out.” Prophets to share with people whatever God tells them; sages to share wise advice, help plan stuff, or judge fairly; and scholars who know their bible, can teach it to others, and can confirm the prophets and sages.

And no these aren’t the only people Jesus sends on missions. I’m not making a comprehensive list here. The bible doesn’t make one either.

Jesus designated the Twelve to apprentice with him, so he could train ’em to proclaim his gospel, cure the sick, and exorcise devils. I should point out that was their initial mission.

Mark 3.14-15 KJV
14 And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, 15 and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils…

Later he sent ’em to evangelize.

Luke 9.2 KJV
And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.

Much later, when the Twelve found themselves running Jesus’s relatively brand-new church of thousands of people, they decided their primary mission was to pray and teach.

Acts 6.2-4 KJV
2 Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. 3 Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. 4 But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.

As our Lord, Jesus has every right to change our mission on us! ’Cause not every mission is open-ended, and we oughta expect to do it for the rest of our lives. Sometimes we actually complete our missions! The Holy Spirit sent Philip to go to a particular Ethiopian; Ac 8.29 Philip did it, shared the gospel with him, and was done. He wasn’t sent to Ethiopia to preach the gospel; the Ethiopian did that, and that’s why Ethiopia is to this day full of Christians. As for Philip, he went off to preach in other cities, Ac 8.40 and apparently stayed in Caesarea and raised his daughters to be prophets. Ac 21.8-9 Missions change—but apostles remain the people Jesus sends on missions. So like I said: Apostles are individuals. Not vocations.

Yeah, sometimes he sends us on big, grand projects. Sometimes he has us found a church, and run it the rest of our lives. And other times, he sends us to go get him dinner.

Luke 22.8 KJV
And he sent Peter and John, saying, Go and prepare us the passover, that we may eat.

If you’re under the delusion that an apostolic job is a big exalted thing with a mighty biblical mandate, and that apostles are huge important people, you may not be aware how leadership works in God’s kingdom. He once had to correct his apostles about that particular false idea:

Matthew 20.25-27 KJV
25 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. 26 But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; 27 and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: 28 Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

You wanna become an apostle? Then get it out of your head that it’s a big important office. It’s a person, who’s willing to obey and follow Jesus. Become such a person. Start following Jesus. Start serving others. He’ll give you a mission.

Apostles: Those whom Jesus sends out to do his work.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 January
APOSTLE ə'pɑs.əl noun. Person commissioned by Christ Jesus to perform a leadership role.
[Apostolic æ.pə'stɑl.ɪk adjective, apostleship ə'pɑs.əl.ʃɪp noun]

Jesus didn’t just have the 12 students. The actual number fluctuated, as some joined the group, Mk 10.52 and others quit in frustration. Jn 6.66 Jesus had loads of student-followers. But he designated the Twelve in particular as ἀπόστολοι/apóstoli, “sent ones.” Lk 6.13 Eleven of ’em—including another student named Matthias whom they promoted apostle Ac 1.26 —became the core leaders of his newly-created church.

And apostle still designates anyone whom Jesus, or the Holy Spirit on Jesus’s behalf, sends forth to do his work.

Well… in some traditions. Y’see, various Christians insist the only apostles in human history are Jesus’s original 12 guys.

Well… okay, they concede Judas Iscariot turned traitor and died, Ac 1.16-20 and Matthias replaced him, so Judas is out and Matthias is in. And okay, Paul of Tarsus counts as aposstle, ’cause he calls himself that a few times; maybe Jesus wanted him to be the twelfth apostle instead of Matthias.

Well… maybe a few more first-century church leaders. Scripture does after all identify Barnabas as an apostle, Ac 14.14 and Jesus’s brother James, Ga 1.19 and Paul’s relatives Andronicus and Junia. Ro 16.7 And probably Jesus’s brother Jude, ’cause he did write a book of the bible. But otherwise that’s all.

Two reasons these Christians insist Jesus stopped commissioning apostles after the first century:

  1. CESSATIONISM. They believe Jesus quit making apostles, and that the Spirit stopped making prophets. (Although evangelists, pastors, and teachers are still around.) The only reason Jesus designated apostles in the first place was to get his church started and the bible written. That done, the apostles died out, and are no more.
  2. APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION: They believe the apostles were given a specific job; namely the supervision of specific churches and ministries. It’s the jobs, the offices which are meant to be passed down from person to person. It’s not so much that any one person is an apostle; it’s the mission, which continues till Jesus returns and ends or upgrades it. So the only real apostles are the people in these particular positions: The bishops, patriarchs, and popes who run certain branches of Jesus’s church. Jesus doesn’t need, and therefore doesn’t create, any more apostles than that.

Either way, these folks claim the apostolic age is over. I don’t agree with ’em, mainly ’cause that’s not how the bible describes the first apostles.

The Spirit’s power in a new church.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 January

1 Thessalonians 1.1-5.

This letter, which we traditionally call 1 Thessalonians, was a team effort. Most commentators, myself included, usually talk about it as if Paul of Tarsus did all the writing, and gave co-authorship to his team members out of courtesy. Timothy gets a mention in 1 Thessalonians 3.6, and since he’s spoken of in third person whereas Paul is always “I,” y’gotta wonder how much authoring Timothy really did.

But the giant run-on Greek sentences are a dead giveaway: This letter, same as probably all Paul’s letters, was dictated, spoken aloud to a scribe. Probably Paul doing most of the talking; possibly the other guys added a sentence or two. We don’t know the level of their contributions. We do know they’re listed as co-authors, so it wasn’t nothing.

Still, for convenience, I’ll refer to 1 Thessalonians’s authors as “Paul.” Here they go.

1 Thessalonians 1.1-5 KWL
1 Paul and Silas and Timothy. To the Thessalonian church, in Father God and Master Christ Jesus: Greetings. Shalom.
2 We always praise God for our every memory of you,
mentioning you in our prayers,
unceasingly 3 remembering your faith-works, love-labors,
and enduring hope in our master Christ Jesus, before God our Father.
4 We know, beloved fellow Christians, you were selected by God:
5 Our gospel didn’t come only to you in words but in power,
in the Holy Sprit, and in absolute certainty—
just like we demonstrated to you, when you saw us among you.

Paul and Silas were the apostles who helped found the church of Thessaloniki, the capital of Macedon (a Greco-Roman province which is not the same as present-day Macedonia). They first proclaimed Jesus in a Thessalonian synagogue, Ac 17.1-4 but the local Jews “became jealous” of their following and rioted, eventually hauling Paul’s relative Jason before the city leaders. Ac 17.6-9

Because the story in Acts is so brief, we don’t know how long Paul and Silas spent there developing the church. Obviously it was long enough to really get to know the people, and see what sort of Christians they became. Seems the Thessalonians made an impact on the apostles. Paul listed three things he particularly noticed in them: Faith-works, love-labors, and hope in Jesus. I could make a three-point sermon of it, but nah. I’ll leave that to the amateur preachers.

Don’t you worry ’bout a thing.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 January

Matthew 6.25-34, Luke 12.22-32.

Right after Jesus taught we can’t make masters of both God and Mammon, he got to the core reason why we humans tend to slide away from trusting God, and instead put our trust in money: When it comes to basic daily needs, we don’t look to God first. We look to our wallets. Can we afford it? If not, then we might call out to God… but too often we don’t.

This is a much harder lesson to learn for rich Christians than poor ones. In rich countries, we have crazy standards for what denotes “basic daily needs.” It’s not just food, drink, and clothing, as Jesus addresses in the following teaching. It’s having a roof over your head. A bed. Electricity and gas, for the central heat and air conditioning. Oh, and since you have electricity: A refrigerator to keep the food in. Internet and wifi. A phone. An email address. A television—’cause you can’t expect us to watch all our TV on our phones. And probably a car, ’cause you can’t expect us to walk everywhere.

Food and drink is no longer just grains, vegetables, and water: We’ve gotta have meat and dairy. If we’ve learned about some special diet we really oughta be on—whether our doctors tell us so or not—we want that accommodated too: Gluten-free grains, keto-friendly vegetables, vegan dairy products. Oh, and we gotta have coffee and beer and candy and salty snacks. We expect a variety of good foods. And sometimes enough money to go out to eat sometimes.

Clothing is no longer a single loincloth, tunic, robe, and sandals, with maybe an extra just in case: We gotta have at least two weeks’ worth of outfits. And they gotta be fashionable, so we don’t just fit in, but stand out as especially good-looking. Plus an extra-nice outfit for important occasions, like church or parties.

If you only have the basics and no more, in a rich country you’d be considered poor. Not comfortable; not okay; poor. But in a poor country, like ancient Judea… wealthy.

That’s something to keep in mind whenever Jesus talks about not having enough. Judea, where he lived, would be what we’d nowadays call a third-world country. Or a “less developed country,” or what Donald Trump would call a s---hole country. It was poor. The largest part of the population survived on less than $2 a day. The families who ran the Judean senate had money, but that was old-family wealth, or they got it by collaborating with the Romans like the taxmen. The rest of them were subsistence farmers, or day laborers like Jesus’s dad and later Jesus himself: Scratching to get by. Legitimately concerned about daily needs.

The folks Jesus preached to? They had way less than we who live in rich countries. They’d be what we consider destitute. Near-homeless. They didn’t imagine themselves so, but hey: Different countries, different millennia, different standards.

And yet in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told ’em to stop worrying. Because worry wasn’t getting them anywhere.

Matthew 6.25 KWL
“This is why I tell you: Stop worrying!
Stop worrying about what your soul would eat or drink, or what your body would wear.
Isn’t your soul more than food? your body more than clothes?”
 
Luke 12.22-23 KWL
22 Jesus told his students, “This is why I tell you: Stop worrying!
Stop worrying about what your soul would eat, or what your body would wear.
23 The soul is more than food. The body more than clothes.”

Try to wrap your brain around this idea: One set of clothing. Maybe three days’ worth of food in the pantry. Water comes from the creek. No electricity nor gasoline. No money; you gotta barter for everything. This isn’t because there’s a dire recession: This is life. This has always been life, as far as you or your parents or grandparents knew. Every day’s a struggle. And here Jesus is, telling you to stop worrying about food or clothing, because God has your back.

The typical American response to this? “Are you nuts, Jesus? I’m poor!

Yeah, you are. Poor in faith. That’s why it’s easier to shove camels through needles than get rich Christians into God’s kingdom. Mk 10.25 We just aren’t always aware Jesus was making that statement about us.

Ulterior motives for being religious.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 January

Two years ago Trevin Wax wrote “Routine bible reading can change your life.” Another site changed the title to the clickbaity, “Why so many Christians start, but don’t finish a bible reading plan.” ’Cause that’s what it’s about: Why so many Christians start, yet don’t finish… you know.

Got my attention because at the turn of the year, I usually urge folks to start a bible reading plan. I plug mine, but any will do. I encourage people to do it in a month, in part because I’m convinced longer programs are needlessly so, and you’re more likely to give up on them because they’re longer. You gotta rigidly stick to it for so long—and you’re not gonna get as much out of a bible snippet as you will a whole book.

Wax gave another reason Christians quit on these plans, and it’s quite insightful for a lot of reasons. I’ll quote him—but yeah, I edited out all his capitalizations.

One reason may be that we have too high of an expectation of what we will feel every day when we read. We know this is God’s word and that he speaks to us through this book, and yet so many times, when we’re reading the assigned portion of scripture for the day, it all feels so, well, ordinary. We read a story, note a couple of interesting things, don’t see how it applies to our lives today, and then move on. By the time we near the end of the first books of the bible, we’ve gone through extensive instructions on how to build the tabernacle, or how the sacrificial system is to be implemented, or a book of Numbers that is aptly titled. We read the daily portion of scripture, put down our pencil or highlighter and wonder, “Why don’t I feel like my life is changing?”

I sympathize with Christians who feel this way. We’re right to approach the bible with anticipation, to expect to hear from God in a powerful and personal way. But the way the bible does its work on our hearts is often not through the lightning bolt, but through the gentle and quiet rhythms of daily submission, of opening up our lives before this open book and asking God to change us. Change doesn’t always happen overnight. Growth doesn’t happen in an instant. Instead, it happens over time, as we eat and drink and exercise. The same is true of scripture reading. Not every meal is at a steakhouse. Not every meal is memorable. Can you remember what you had for dinner, say, two weeks ago? Probably not. But that meal sustained you, didn’t it? In the same way, we come to feast on God’s word, recognizing that it’s the daily rhythm of submitting ourselves to God and bringing our plans and hopes and fears to him that makes the difference.

If you’re the “too long, didn’t read” sort… well first of all, what’re you doing on TXAB? I write yards of articles. But in summary, Wax correctly points out people read bible because we’re hoping it’ll transform us for the better. And it does! But we want it to change us now. Not gradually, not over the course of the year we take to read it, not as an effect of reading and following it for years: Right bloody now. And if we don’t see immediate results, we’re gonna ditch it like we did cardio. Seems the bible’s just another thing that’ll make us sweaty, tired, hungry, achey, and frustrated.

We already know Christians lack the patience to stick with bible reading plans; again, it’s why I encourage short little one-month plans. But like Wax said, some of this impatience comes from what we expected to get out of reading the bible, and what we want, what we really want, are powerful spiritual experiences. We want every daily bible reading to be an epiphany: “Great Thundering Moses, I can’t believe I never realized that before. Why, that upends everything I ever believed. Now I have the secrets of the universe! I… have… the POWER…” and now you’re quoting He-Man instead of bible, ’cause you expect to be glowing like Prince Adam when he transforms into a guy who looks exactly the same, only shirtless and more tan.

That’s why too many Christians read bible: We want secrets. We want revelations. We want visions. We wanna grow a brain full of profound truths which make us wise and infallible, and know God better than the smartest bible scholars. We wanna infallibly know God’s will, and use that knowledge to have the best possible life in the best possible timeline. The bible is our magic lamp, so start rubbing!

Of course none of this is why we oughta read bible, and all of this betrays many of the reasons people think we need to follow Jesus. We’re not following him because we love him and want to grow closer to him. We’re following him because he’s rich and powerful, and whenever he throws us a bone, it’ll be a golden bone.

What is religion?

by K.W. Leslie, 03 January

Over the past four decades, Christians in the conservative Evangelical movement have come to consider “religion” a bad word. Even an offensive word. In fact we’ll get downright snotty about it: “I don’t have a religion,” we’ll scoff; “I have a relationship.” By which we mean a relationship with Christ Jesus.

To the conservative Evangelical, “religion” means ritual. Namely the rituals of people who lack this relationship with Christ Jesus. And for the most part, they’re thinking of people who aren’t conservative Evangelicals like them. They figure progressive Evangelicals are more focused on social justice and works righteousness. They figure non-Evangelicals are more focused on sacraments, on getting saved because they do the rituals—which is just another form of works righteousness.

If they grew up in such churches, the way they remember them was based on how these churches introduced ’em (or, let’s be fair, didn’t properly introduce them) to Jesus: How they were told they gotta behave themselves, gotta follow the rules, gotta practice the rituals, and so forth. These churches might’ve taught their adults about having a personal relationship with Jesus, but all they ever seem to have taught their kids was, “Goddamnit, behave yourselves.” Consequently they felt like hotbeds of legalism, and the kids had to leave those churches before they could adequately, properly hear the gospel.

Assuming they ever heard the proper gospel—that Jesus is inaugurating God’s kingdom. More often they just figure God forgives all, so regardless of the evil crap they still do, they go to heaven when they die. Good old-fashioned cheap grace. Which is great news for people who don’t care to change their lifestyles at all, and remain the same old a--holes they were before they turned to Jesus. But no, that’s not the gospel. As new citizens of Jesus’s new kingdom, we likewise have to be made new.

Hence, religion.

Conservative Evangelicals insist they have a relationship, not a religion. But here’s the thing: We do have rituals. We do practice various faith-based things on the regular, in order to further our relationship with God. ’Cause when we don’t, our relationship with God is really gonna suck. So we pray. We go to church on a regular basis; maybe not every week, but certainly more than Easter and Christmas. We read, and quote, our bibles. We behave ourselves, more or less; we cut back on the cussing (at least when church people are around), and rein in some of our evil… well, the evil we can’t justify to ourselves any more.

But that’s religion. Might be disciplined; more often it’s extremely undisciplined. Still religion.

And whenever we conservative Evangelicals tell a pagan, “Oh, I’m not religious,” the pagan immediately notices:

  • We name-drop God an awful lot for someone who’s “not religious.”
  • We rail against sin an awful lot for someone who’s “not religious.”
  • We keep up to date with our bibles an awful lot, for someone who’s “not religious.”
  • We pray way more often than any not-religious person would.
  • We use a lot more religion-based vocabulary than any not-religious person would.
  • Wait, we go to church? Voluntarily?

Pagans know we absolutely are so religions. Because they’re not religious. So what other conclusion can they come to?—they think we’re trying to pull a fast one. “You’re ‘not religious’? Oh, what a hypocrite; you are so.” And they’re exactly right.

So, if you’re using the word “religious” wrong, this is why you need to cut it out.