Formal prayer: How to get distant with God.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 April

Let’s get right to it: The purpose of formality is distance. It’s to measure off a “proper,” unapproachable space between you and the person you’re being solemn with. Because decorum considers closeness and informality to be inappropriate.

I know; a lot of people insist that’s not at all why they’re formal with God. They do it out of respect. Like the way you respect your boss, a judge, an important official, royalty, or even your parents: You show your respect by treating ’em formally.

Well that’s rubbish. And parents are a perfect example of why it’s rubbish. I respect my mom—and I don’t treat her formally at all. If I did, she’d think I was angry with her for some reason. Because again: Formality is about distance. People who treat their parents formally are not close with them. And parents who raise their kids to treat them formally, who demand decorum from them because they feel it means respect, always wind up with emotionally distant kids. Sometimes they wonder why they aren’t close, and can’t figure out why their relationship is so dysfunctional. Well duh.

So if you’re formal with God, but you can’t fathom why you’re not as close with God as other Christians: Well duh.

I respect God. Of course. But we’re not formal. We were never meant to be. God went out of his way to deliberately bridge every gap which might exist between himself and humanity. Sin?—defeated and forgiven. Death?—getting undone. Distance?—he’s everywhere! Karmic debt?—he doesn’t even do karma.

So why do Christians treat God formally? Either because, like kids whose parents foolishly raised them to be distant, it’s what we were taught. Our churches are led by dysfunctional Christians who are distant from God, and they’re getting us to repeat their behavior, and likewise be distant from God.

Or worse: They like being distant from God. A present God is uncomfortable. They feel unworthy, or convicted of sin, or judged. (Whether these feelings are legitimate is another discussion.) They prefer there be some space between them and the Almighty. Formality is the perfect way to maintain the illusion: He’s a holy, holy God, far removed from his sinful creatures… and so he leaves ’em alone.

So if you wanna be distant from God, formality’s the way to go. And I would hope you’re as repulsed by the very idea as I am.

Goodness, and lawless Christians.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 April

If you know Jesus—really and truly know Jesus, not just know of him—you’re gonna want to follow him. You’re gonna want to do as he teaches, and actually try to obey his commands instead of shrugging them off with, “Well, they’re nice ideals, but they’re not gonna be practical.” You’re gonna want to be good.

Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit. A rather obvious one: God is good, so shouldn’t those who have the Holy Spirit in us be likewise good? Shouldn’t he encourage us to be good, empower us to do good deeds, be gracious to us when we drop the ball and help us return to goodness? Shouldn’t he point us in the direction of sanctification, of living holy lives, unique from the rest of the world—where goodness is a huge factor in why we’re unique?

Likewise if you don’t wanna be good, not only do you lack the Spirit’s fruit: You’re probably not even Christian. And yes, bluntly saying so has a tendency to really offend people: “Goodness doesn’t make you Christian! That’s legalism. How could you say that?” Well I didn’t say that. I said you have to want to be good. You have to make the effort. You’re gonna suck at it in the beginning; everybody does; it gets easier with practice. And I didn’t say goodness makes you Christian; only the Holy Spirit does that. But the lack of goodness, or substituting it with hypocrisy and hoping no one will notice, indicates the Holy Spirit isn’t in your life—and if he’s not there, you’re not Christian. Period.

Let’s not be naïve. “Obey Jesus” is a hard lifestyle choice. The world is against us. Christianists have gone to a lot of trouble to swap real obedience with their cheap knockoff, and sometimes they’ll fight goodness just as hard as Satan itself. They’ll claim Jesus’s commands were nullified by a new dispensation, or they’re only meant to describe God’s kingdom after Jesus returnsnot before. They’ll claim our resistance to evil is really works righteousness and legalism; that trying to be better is another form of pride; that our commonsense interpretation of God’s commands is extremism, whereas the proper way to interpret them is to water ’em down till they’re nothing but water.

Plus our own selfish tendencies are gonna fight us. And yes, the devil might fight us too… but you’ll find the devil’s far easier to beat than your own flesh. We start off with a lot of ingrained bad habits, and conquering ourselves has to be done first. Which a lot of people never bother to do. Most of us simply relabel all our bad behaviors with Christianese names, and presto-changeo, we’re fixed now! But widespread popular hypocrisy is still hypocrisy.

Still, if we have the Holy Spirit in us, we’ll want to do better. And we’ve got to trust him to help us out with this. We absolutely can’t do it alone. God offers us power to live for him. Grab it with both hands. You accepted his salvation. Now accept his sanctification.

Jesus takes out the Law’s curse.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 April

Galatians 3.10-20.

So the legalists among the Galatians (and legalists today) thought of the Law as how we get right with God: We obey his commands, and because we’ve racked up all that good karma, we’re righteous and God owes us heaven. Problem is, God works by grace, and if we were hoping to be justified by merit, the Law indicates we have no such merit. We’ve broken the Law repeatedly. We got nothing. We’re cursed.

But we weren’t meant to be righteous by obeying the Law. Righteousness comes through faith in God. Through trusting Jesus’s self-sacrifice. Through the good news that God’s kingdom has come near.

God promised Abraham he’d bless the world—both Abraham’s “seed,” his descendants; and the gentiles, all the non-Hebrews not descended from Abraham—through Abraham. Ge 12.3, 18.18, 22.18, Ga 3.8 Pharisees presumed God’s 613 commandments was this blessing: If only the world would follow the Law, they could be blessed! But Paul recognized this makes no logical sense. Because Abraham was blessed—yet he didn’t have the Law. The LORD hadn’t yet handed it down. Wouldn’t even be a Law for another four centuries.

Now Paul wasn’t the first Pharisee to notice this problem. Plenty of Pharisees had. So they invented stories where the LORD actually did hand down the Law prior to Moses. Pharisee fanfiction took that weird little story about the Nefilim and claimed the “sons of God” Ge 6.2 were heavenly watchers, sent to the Adamites to teach ‘em Law. They claimed Noah somehow had a copy of the Law, somehow handed it down through his descendants to Abraham, so Abraham knew it. And Abraham’s descendants lost it in Egypt, which is why the LORD had to give it to Moses—again, apparently.

If Paul believed any of these stories he wouldn’t bother with this line of reasoning. But he knew better. Abraham’s relationship with God wasn’t defined by any Law, but entirely by Abraham trusting God. Abraham didn’t know the Law, couldn’t possibly be justified by the Law, and God promised him blessings regardless. Abraham’s trust in God is what justified him. And Abraham’s spiritual descendants are likewise those who trust God—and are likewise justified by our faith.

Whereas not only does the Law not justify us, nor anyone; it actually curses us. And kinda hinders any promise God made to Abraham, because it exposes deficiencies in our relationship with God. Deficiencies our trust in Jesus can overcome—if only we’d trust him.

Galatians 3.10-12 KWL
10 Whoever works the Law is under its curse, for this is written:
“Everyone who doesn’t persevere in doing all this book of the Law’s writings, is cursed.” Dt 27.26
11 Clearly no one’s justified under the Law: “The righteous will live by faith.” Ha 2.4
12 And the Law isn’t based on faith, but “One who does them must live by them.” Lv 18.5
13 Christ Jesus frees us from the Law’s curse by becoming a curse for us,
for it’s written that anyone who’s been hanged from wood is cursed. Dt 21.23
14 Thus Abraham’s blessings might come through Christ Jesus to the gentiles;
thus the Spirit’s promise might be received through faith in Christ.

Verse 12 tends to get translated like the KJV’s “Cursed [is] every one that hangeth on a tree,” though ξύλου/sýlu properly means “wood.” It’s because the Deuteronomy passage Paul was thinking of, refers to a tree.

Deuteronomy 21.22-23 KWL
22 When it happens that a person’s sin is judged worthy of death, and you hang them to death on a tree,
23 don’t leave their corpse on the tree overnight, but bury, bury them that day. For God’s curse is on the hanged.
Don’t defile your ground which your LORD God gave you as an inheritance.

A cross isn’t a literal tree, but when the Persians first invented crucifixion they used trees—and crosses became a substitute ’cause there weren’t always enough trees. Applying the Deuteronomy passage to Jesus is a little bit of a stretch—isn’t God’s curse more about the convict’s sins than the hanging itself? But Jesus, who had no sins of his own, He 4.15 took away our sins like a sacrificial ram, Jn 1.29 so that’s how he freed us from the Law’s curse.

And in so doing, also give us free access to Abraham’s promise. Legalism is wholly unnecessary: We don’t have to be good to inherit Abraham’s promise. We’re good. Jesus took care of it.

God doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 April

Back in seminary my theology professor introduced us to the concept of the tragic moral choice. Ancient Greek playwrights invented it for their tragedies: One god ordered the hero to do one thing, and another god ordered him to do the opposite. Obeying one god meant sinning against the other god. And like us, the ancient Greeks recognized sin has dire consequences… and wanna bet their plays would show the consequences?

Now, we Christians don’t have multiple gods with conflicting wills. We only have the One God. Yes he’s in three persons, but all three one the same thing, so God’s not the problem. We are. We sin, and we live in a sin-plagued world.

So in the Christian version of the tragic moral choice, we’re thrust into a scenario where all the possible outcomes are gonna be bad. The only choices we make are gonna be sinful ones. We can’t win. That’s just the world we live in.

Fr’instance. Say it’s World War 2 and you’re hiding Jews from the Nazis. Suddenly the Nazis come knocking. What do you do?

  • Duh; lie and say there are no Jews there. Except lying is sin. Yeah, it’s a really minor sin compared to Jews getting killed—and if the Nazis find out you’re lying, you’re getting killed. Still, this is the option most people are unthinkingly gonna take, as the best-case scenario. Still, lying is sin.
  • Give them up and let them be murdered by evildoers, just to save your own skin. True, you didn’t lie, but you did passively permit evil to happen, so that’s sin.
  • Try not to literally lie, and hope the Nazis misinterpret your statements and go away. Since God doesn’t do loopholes, that’s lying by omission, no matter what you might tell yourself to salve your conscience. Still sin.

Basically you’re picking the least-evil option. But don’t kid yourself: They’re all evil. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Tragic moral choices make a really good intellectual problem, and great drama. But they’re really bad theology. ’Cause unlike the Greek gods, who’d mess with humans and watch us squirm for fun, God loves his kids and doesn‘t abandon us to such tragedies. Says so in the scriptures.

1 Corinthians 10.12-13 KWL
12 So if you hope to stand firm, watch out. You might not fall.
13 Temptations (unless they’re common to humanity), haven’t overcome you.
God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted with more than you can defeat.
Instead he’ll work an escape route into the temptation. You’ll be able to endure.

Christians commonly misinterpret this to mean, “God will never give you more than you can bear,” which isn’t so. He regularly gives us more than we can bear—because he’s meant to bear that for us, and we need to stop striving and start trusting. But when it comes to temptation, he wants us to win. And there is always a winning option. In every temptation.

Y’see, God doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario. Even though we might.

Courtship: Dating… but no sex.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 April

Years ago I worked at a Christian camp. For the summer program we’d hire college students to be counselors. Some of them grew up Christian; some of them had only been Christian a short time; some of them had only claimed to be Christian on their applications, but didn’t know Jesus from Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Actually they may have known a lot more about Obi-Wan than Jesus.)

Once, while hanging out, one of the longtime Christians mentioned her brother was “courting” a certain girl. The Christian newbie in our group got a confused look on her face—she wasn’t familiar with the term.

“Courting,” I explained, “is dating. But no sex.”

The newbie nodded, understandingly. Some of the group grinned.

The girl who introduced the term “courting” objected.

SHE. “That’s not what it means.”
HE. “Does he bring chaperones to the dates?”
SHE. “No…”
HE. “No kissing? No hand-holding? No touching of any kind?”
SHE. “No.”
HE. “They go off and do things together, by themselves? But not sex.” [As far as she knew.]
SHE. “Yes.”
HE. “The rest of the planet calls that ‘dating’.”

’Cause to be fair, many Christians do add extra expectations to what they’ll call “courting.” When Christians use that term, it can range from my basic definition (dating, but no sex) to an arranged marriage—I’m not kidding—where the parents interview their children’s prospective spouses, approve them, and supervise every single interaction between the kids till they’re wed. Even listen in on phone calls and read their texts.

However, I should also bring up a couple I knew in college who called what they were doing “courting”—and yep, they were having sex too. They just wanted to use the Christianese word.

The whole point of having a unique Christian word for dating, is because nowadays “dating” can pretty much mean anything. And because self-control is a fruit of the Spirit—and promiscuity isn’t—Christians usually don’t equate dating and sex… and pagans totally do. “I’m dating” means “I’m sexually active.” If they “wanna go out with you,” it’s ’cause they hope to have sex with you. If they “had a date last night,” they had sex.

Yep, it’s a jungle out there. So “courtship” implies civilization. It suggests a couple aren’t simply trying to get into one another’s pants, but want to really get to know one another. Want to develop a friendly, loving relationship—the kind of solid basis for a marriage.

But I should point out: Courtship doesn’t come from the bible. Isn’t found in the bible at all. Seriously.

Quit praying to Satan!

by K.W. Leslie, 23 April

There’s an traditional African folk song called “What a Mighty God We Serve.” If you grew up Christian, maybe you heard it in Sunday school. Sometimes adults sing it too. Goes like so.

What a mighty God we serve
What a mighty God we serve
Angels bow before him
Heaven and earth adore him
What a mighty God we serve

Years later I found out it had some more lyrics—words my children’s and youth pastors never bothered to have us sing. Maybe you can guess why.

I command you Satan in the name of the Lord
To take up your weapons and flee
For the Lord has given me authority
To walk all over thee

There are variations. There’s “put down your weapons” in the second line (which makes way more sense); there’s “stomp all over thee” in the fourth, along with stomping movements.

Anyway. Lots of churches tend to give these lines a miss, so lots of Christians aren’t aware of ’em. I particularly remember one summer youth camp: The pastor got all the kids to sing along with the first part, but when she broke into the second part, the kids sat there confused—why’s she singing to the devil? Anyway, because they didn’t sing along, she concluded, “I guess you don’t know that part,” and went right back to the “What a mighty God we serve” bit they did know.

As to why churches don’t teach it: Well you are singing to the devil. And shouldn’t. Don’t do that.

Likewise there are a number of Christians who pray to the devil. You may have seen it happen. Someone gets up to pray, and in the middle of all their other praises and petitions to God, they put him on pause, and get Satan in on this conference call.

“And Satan, we rebuke you. We bind you. We cast you out. You have no authority here. You have no business in this place. You get out of here, Satan. You’re under our feet.”

And so on. You get the idea.

Again: Don’t do that.

I know. Your pastors do it. Your prayer leaders do it. Christians you greatly respect do it. Loads of people do it. And they shouldn’t do it either.

Jesus is put in his sepulcher.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 April

Mark 15.42-47, Matthew 27.57-61, Luke 23.50-56, John 19.38-42.

On the afternoon of Good Friday, after a flogging and crucifixion, Jesus died. Roman custom was to just leave the corpse on the cross for the birds to pick at, but Jewish custom was to bury people immediately. On the very same day they died, if possible. And since the next day was Sabbath—and in the year 33, also Passover—they especially needed to get everybody off the crosses and buried posthaste.

Now in previous generations, “buried” means buried: Dig a hole in the ground deep enough for animals to not get at the corpse, put the body in, fill the hole back in. In Jesus’s day, Jewish custom had changed. Now what they did was wrap the body in moist linen strips, and put it on a stone slab in a sepulcher. This way the body would rot quickly—and after a year or so, there’d be nothing left but bones, which were then collected and put into an ossuary. (They figured in the resurrection, all God needed was the bones—same as in Ezekiel’s vision.)

So whenever people make a big deal about Jesus’s empty tomb… well frankly, at one point or another, every Judean sepulcher would be empty. ’Cause they’d take the bones away.

So that’s what happened after Jesus died. Joseph of Ramah (Greek Ἀριμαθαίας/Arimathaías, Hebrew רָמָתַ֛יִם צוֹפִ֖ים/Ramataym-Chofím, KJV Ramathaimzophim), a senator who hadn’t agreed with the vote to condemn Jesus, Lk 23.51 took it upon himself to take care of Jesus’s body. All the gospels give him his due credit.

Mark 15.42-47 KWL
42 When evening came—because it was Preparation, the day before Sabbath—
43 respected senator Joseph from Ramah, who was also awaiting God’s kingdom, came.
Daring to enter Pontius Pilate’s house, he asked for Jesus’s body.
44 Pilate was surprised Jesus was already dead.
Calling the centurion, he asked him if Jesus was already dead,
45 and learning it from the centurion, Pilate gave the corpse to Joseph.
46 Buying linen, taking Jesus down, Joseph wrapped him in linen.
He put the corpse in a sepulcher hewn from rock, and rolled a stone over the sepulcher’s door.
47 Mary the Magdalene and Mary mother of Joses saw where the corpse was put.
Matthew 27.57-61 KWL
57 Come evening came a wealthy man from Ramah named Joseph, who himself was a student of Jesus.
58 This Joseph went to Pontius Pilate to ask for Jesus’s body. Then Pilate commanded it be given.
59 Taking Jesus’s body, Joseph wrapped it in pure linen
60 and put it in Joseph’s own new sepulcher, cut from rock,
rolled a large stone against the sepucher’s door, and went away.
61 Mary the Magdalene and another Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
Luke 23.50-56 KWL
50 Look, a man named Joseph, using his position as a senator—
a good and righteous man; 51 this Joseph hadn’t agreed with the senate and its action—
from Ramah, Judea, who awaited God’s kingdom—
52 this Joseph went to Pontius Pilate to ask for Jesus’s body.
53 Taking the corpse down, he wrapped it in linen
and put it in a stonecut sepulcher in which no one had yet laid.
54 It was Preparation Day, and Sabbath was beginning.
55 The women who had come together with Jesus from the Galilee, followed Joseph.
They saw the sepulcher and how Joseph arranged Jesus’s body.
56 On returning, they prepared spices and myrrh,
and once it was actually Sabbath, rested according to the command.
John 19.38-42 KWL
38 After these things Joseph from Ramah, who was Jesus’s student (secretly, for fear of the Judeans),
asked Pontius Pilate that he might take Jesus’s body.
Pilate allowed it, so Joseph came and took Jesus’s body.
39 Nikodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night, also came
bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloe vera weighing 100 Roman pounds [72.5 English pounds, 32.9 kilos].
40 So they took Jesus’s body and tied the spices to it with strips, as is the Judean burial custom.
41 A garden was in the place where Jesus was crucified,
and in the garden, a new sepulcher in which no one had yet laid.
42 So there, on the Judean Preparation Day,
because it was near the sepulcher, they arranged Jesus’s body.

“My God, why have you forsaken me?”

by K.W. Leslie, 18 April

Mark 15.33-36, Matthew 27.45-49.

Before he died, Jesus shouted out something in a language his bystanders didn’t recognize. And a lot of present-day commentators don’t recognize it either. We know it was Psalm 22.1, but some of us say Jesus quoted it in Aramaic; some say Hebrew. Which was it?

The reason for the confusion is that Mark and Matthew don’t match. Both of ’em recorded Jesus’s words as best they could—but they did so in the Greek alphabet, which doesn’t correspond neatly to Hebrew and Aramaic sounds. So here’s what we got. (And if your web browser reads Unicode, you might actually see the original-language characters.)

VERSEORIGINALTRANSLITERATION
Ps 22.1, Hebrew אֵלִ֣י אֵלִ֣י לָמָ֣ה עֲזַבְתָּ֑נִי Elí Elí, lamá azavettáni?
Ps 22.1, Aramaic (Syriac) ܐܠܗ ܐܠܗܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢ Elahí Elahí, lamaná šavaqtaní?
Mk 15.34, Greekἐλωΐ ἐλωΐ, λεμᾶ σαβαχθανί;Elo’í Elo’í, lemá savahthaní?
(or σαβακτανεί/savaktaneí in the Codex Sinaiticus.)
Mt 27.46, Greekἠλί ἠλί, λεμὰ σαβαχθανί;Ilí ilí, lemá savahthaní?

Just based on how the gospels’ authors wrote the word for “my God,” Elí in Hebrew or Elahí in Aramaic, it kinda looks like Mark was quoting an Aramaic translation of the psalms, and Matthew the Hebrew original.

But it seems to me the most likely Jesus would quote bible in Hebrew. For three reasons:

  1. That is the language King David wrote his psalm in.
  2. It’d explain why the people who heard Jesus quote it, didn’t understand him. Judeans and Galileans spoke Aramaic; that’s what the New Testament meant by Ἑβραϊστί/Evrahistí and Ἑβραΐδι/Evra’ídi, “Hebraic.” Jn 5.2, Ac 22.2, 26.14, Rv 9.11 In the first century Hebrew was a dead language, only spoken by scribes like Jesus.
  3. It’s way easier to confuse Elí with Ἡλίας/Ilías, the Greek version of אֵלִיָּה/Eliyyáhu, “Elijah,” than it is Elahí.

Regardless, in my translation the words in Jesus’s mouth are Aramaic in Mark, and Hebrew in Matthew. ’Cause that’s what the authors were apparently going for.

Mark 15.33-36 KWL
33 When the sixth hour since sunrise—noon—came,
darkness came over all the land till the ninth hour.
34 At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, Elahí Elahí, lamaná šavaqtáni?
which is translated, “My God my God, for what reason have you left me behind?” Ps 22.1
35 Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “Look: He calls Elijah.”
36 One of the runners, filling a sponge of vinegar, putting it on a reed, gave Jesus a drink,
saying, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him.”
Matthew 27.45-49 KWL
45 From the sixth hour since sunrise—noon—
darkness came over all the land until the ninth hour.
46 Around the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, Elí Elí, lamáh azavettáni?
That is, “My God my God, why did you leave me behind?” Ps 22.1
47 Some of the bystanders who heard it said this: “This man calls Elijah.”
48 One runner quickly left them: Taking a sponge full of vinegar, putting it on a reed, he gave Jesus a drink.
49 The others said, “Let’s see if Elijah comes, and will save him.”

Awright, now that we have the language sorta squared away, let’s get to what was going on here.

When Jesus made John responsible for his mother.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 April

John 19.25-27.

Only John has this story. Which has caused no end of speculation about Jesus’s family situation.

John 19.25-27 KWL
25 Standing by Jesus’s cross were his mother, his mother’s sister Salomé,
Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary the Magdalene.
26 So Jesus, seeing his mother and the student he loved standing by,
told his mother, “Ma’am, look: Your son.”
27 Then Jesus told the student, “Look: Your mother.”
From that hour on, Jesus’s student took her as his own.

John’s list of the women who watched Jesus die is the same as the other gospels, with the addition of Jesus’s mom and himself. He never referred to Jesus’s mom as “Mary,” because he was trying to refer to as few Marys as possible, so as not to confuse everybody with how common the name “Mary” was. (Same as his own name; notice in his gospel the only “John” in it is John the baptist.)

Anyway. All these people at the cross, save Mary the Magdalene, were family. Salomé was Mary the Nazarene’s sister; Mary “of Clopas” was Joseph the Nazarene’s sister-in-law; John himself was Salomé’s son and Jesus’s first cousin. For various reasons Christian figure John was the youngest of Jesus’s students—maybe 16 or even younger at the time of Jesus’s death—and his youth might’ve been why he was able to get to the places he did, and be a firsthand witness to Jesus’s trial and death. Who’d suspect a kid?

But y’notice despite all this family around, Jesus’s siblings weren’t there.

And there’s no reason they wouldn’t be. Jesus was killed the day before Passover. Jn 19.30-31 We know Jesus’s siblings regularly went to Jerusalem for the feasts, Jn 7.1-10 as required by the Law. Dt 16.16 So they weren’t all the way back in Nazareth; they were in Jerusalem. In fact Luke notes they were still in Jerusalem 50 days later. Ac 1.14 No doubt they knew the Romans were killing their brother. And they weren’t there.

Only their mother, their aunts, and their cousin John had the guts to be there for Jesus. They did not.

So as the only male family member present, who was there for Jesus to call upon? Right: His beloved student.

The “unbelieving” thief.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 April

Mark 15.27, 32, Matthew 27.38, 44, Luke 23.32-33, 39.

Okay. Did the believing thief, now the unbelieving thief.

The gospels state two thieves were crucified with Jesus—

Mark 15.27 KWL
They crucified two thieves with Jesus: One on the right, one at his left.
 
Matthew 27.38 KWL
38 Then two thieves were crucified with Jesus, one at right and one at left.
 
Luke 23.32-33 KWL
32 They brought two others with Jesus, evildoers to be done away with.
33 When they came to the place called Skull, there they crucified Jesus and the evildoers,
who were at right and at left.

—but they never did identify them, so Christian tradition named ’em Dismas and Gesmas. Never did say which one was on the right, and which was on the left. All we know was at first, both were railing at Jesus—

Mark 15.32 KWL
“Messiah, king of Israel, has to come down from the cross now, so we can see and believe him.”
And those crucified with Jesus insulted him.
 
Matthew 27.44 KWL
Likewise the thieves crucified with Jesus insulted him.

—and then Dismas had a change of heart, asked Jesus to remember him, and Jesus offered him paradise.

Whereas all Gestas has gone down in history for doing is saying this:

Luke 23.39 KWL
One of the hanging evildoers was slandering Jesus, saying,
“Aren’t you Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

Popularly this is interpreted as Gestas’s unbelief. Because he was slandering Jesus: He was calling him things he’s not. Most folks misinterpret ἐβλασφήμει/evlasfímei as “hurled insults,” like the NIV has it. (It’s similar to the KJV’s “railed.”) But the proper translation is to blaspheme, or slander. Gestas wasn’t simply cussing Jesus out. He was saying stuff he deep-down knew wasn’t so. He knew Jesus is Messiah—but was too angry, too much in pain, to confess it.

Same as a lot of antichrists. They know who Jesus is. They realize he’s not exaggerating; his followers haven’t just taken an obscure Galilean rabbi and made up stuff about him; Jesus is on the level, and he’s Lord. But they don’t wanna follow him. Don’t wanna repent. Don’t wanna submit. Don’t wanna let go of their rage and bitterness. They’d rather die first. As Gestas literally did.

“Why isn’t God granting my wishes?”

Part of the reason Gestas was furious with Jesus is in his demand, “Save yourself and us!” He was nailed to a cross, same as Jesus. Not just tied to it, like the movies and art depict, as if only Jesus got the worst of it; nailed. Four spikes through the wrists and ankles, through the most sensitive nerves in the body, guaranteed to be non-stop agony till he died—sometimes days later. (Although because Sabbath was at sundown, the Romans “mercifully” killed the victims later that day—by breaking their legs so they could no longer pull themselves up to breathe.) Every minute was suffering.

Gestas didn’t want to end his suffering by dying, but by getting rescued. And here right next to him… was Messiah! The anointed king of Israel. The guy who’d rescue Israel from Rome, if Pharisees were to be believed. So if he’s really Messiah, shouldn’t his followers come rescue him so he could achieve the Pharisee End Times prophecies? Since Jesus was widely known for his miracles—curing the sick, multiplying food, throwing out devils—shouldn’t he have access to God’s supernatural might in this situation too? Why on earth was he permitting the Romans to kill him?—he should be able to speak a word and end his own pain! What was wrong with him?

See, very few of us have the patience to tolerate a moment of what Jesus did. If we could put a stop to it, we absolutely would. If we could put a stop to others’ pain, we absolutely will. We’ll give them the very best painkillers there are. We’ll give ’em morphine, heroin, whatever. We’ll even kill them, and justify it by saying it was out of mercy.

So Gestas was in agony—and wanted to know why Jesus, who had the power to immediately stop it, wouldn’t. It’s basic theodicy: Why does a good God put up with such evil things in his universe?

But when people are in great pain, they don’t truly want an explanation. They only want the pain to stop. Gestas didn’t care what Jesus’s thinking or plan was. Didn’t care that, as the thief on the other cross pointed out, they totally deserved crucifixion. He wanted off the cross. Jesus could get him off the cross, but wouldn’t. So to Gestas’s mind, Jesus sucked.

And how often do other people, Christians included, think the very same way? When we’re suffering—even when the suffering is our own fault, the natural or legal consequence of our own sin or stupidity—we don’t care God tried to warn us away from it, never promised us a suffering-free life, frequently lets things naturally unfold, or is even gonna make something redemptive out of what we’re going through. We don’t care about God’s will. We want our will to be done.

Gestas isn’t any different than most of humanity. Let’s not judge him as if we’re any better than he. If we were in his shoes—or on his cross—we’d likewise be screaming for Jesus to get us out of there. Really, we’d be nuts if we didn’t.

But the fact we’d even be screaming at Jesus means, to some tiny degree, we do believe. Otherwise we wouldn’t waste our breath. (Especially considering how painful it was to even get a breath when you’re being crucified!) We believe enough… to be majorly disappointed in God.

Of course we oughta have more faith than that. Enough to trust God regardless. So we’d better pray. Because, God forbid, we may one day find ourselves in Gestas’s type of situation, where things look terrible and we’re furious at God for not giving us an obvious escape. We’d better pray for the faith strong enough to overcome even that. ’Cause we never do know when we’ll need it.