The transfiguration of Jesus.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 February

Mark 9.2-8, Matthew 17.1-8, Luke 9.28-36.

Jesus’s transfiguration refers to the day he took three of his students up a hill for prayer, and started glowing like a space alien, two Old Testament prophets showed up to chat with him, and the Father Almighty ordered the kids to listen to him—freaking them out, as it would pretty much anyone who saw such a thing.

It’s a story which confuses a lot of Christians. We teach Jesus is totally God, yet at the same time totally human. Problem is, Christians read this story and ditch all the ideas about him being totally human. I’ve even heard one pastor call this story “When Jesus took off his human suit”—as if his humanity is just a costume Jesus could unzip and climb out of, like aliens in certain Doctor Who episodes, or the devil in this one extremely stupid End Times movie.

Theologians call it “God incognito.” It’s not just a Latin word; we have incognito in English too. When you’re incognito, you’re going by a secret identity, like when Batman disguises himself as Bruce Wayne and pretends to be a silly billionaire so criminals won’t bother him in the daytime. (What, you thought Batman was the pretense?) And according to these Christians, Jesus was secretly God: He looked human, acted human, but underneath his human façade is the infinite Almighty God, whose face no one can see and live. Ex 33.20 They don’t believe Jesus really emptied himself to become human Pp 2.6-7 —because they certainly never would. He only feigned weakness, like a hypocrite, and kept his power secret.

Most of the reason they believe this, is because they wrongly equate divinity with power. If God’s no longer almighty, they figure he’s no longer God. They define him by his abilities. Which is a dangerous way to think. If God’s defined by his abilities, then of course we humans should be defined by our abilities… so what if we’re in any way disabled? What if we’re sick, infirm, born with birth defects, developmentally disabled? Well, that’d make us less than human… and make it easier for evil people to justify mistreating or euthanizing us.

God describes himself as almighty, but defines himself by his character. God is who he is, Ex 3.14 which reflects his personality, sinlessness, truth, love, joy, peace, patience, and so forth. His power is an optional trait, one he voluntarily set aside to become one of us. Still God though.

So no, Jesus’s transfiguration isn’t about taking a break from his human act. It means something very different—and its interpretation is based on Jesus’s statement right before the transfiguration story in each of the synoptic gospels:

Mark 9.1 KWL
Jesus told them, “Amen! I promise you some who stood here shouldn’t taste death
till they might see God’s kingdom has come in power.”
 
Matthew 16.28 KWL
“Amen! I promise you some who stood here shouldn’t taste death
till they might see the Son of Man come into his kingdom.”
 
Luke 9.27 KWL
“I truly tell you: Some of those standing here shouldn’t taste death
till they might see God’s kingdom.”

The authors of the gospels deliberately put this statement before the transfiguration story, because that’s what the transfiguration is about: Seeing a glimpse of God’s kingdom in power.

The story.

Mark 9.2-8 KWL
2 Six days later, Jesus took Simon Peter, James, and John,
and brought them up a high hill on their own—and transformed before them.
3 Jesus’s clothes became a brilliant, intense white, like no launderer on earth could whiten.
4 They perceived Elijah and Moses were with them, and they were speaking to Jesus.
5 In reply, Peter told Jesus, “Rabbi, how good it is we’re here!
We can make three tents! One for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…!”
6 For he didn’t know what else to say; they were terrified.
7 A cloud began to overshadow them, and a voice came from the cloud:
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
8 And unexpectedly, they saw nothing and no one as they looked around,
but Jesus alone with them.
 
Matthew 17.1-8 KWL
1 Six days later, Jesus took Simon Peter, James, and John his brother,
and brought them up a high hill on their own.
2 Jesus transformed before them, and his face shone like the sun.
His clothes became white like a light.
3 And look, they perceived Elijah and Moses were with them, speaking with Jesus.
4 In reply, Peter told Jesus, “Master, how good it is we’re here!
If you want, we’ll make three tents here! One for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…!”
5 As Peter was speaking, look: A bright cloud overshadowed them, and look: a voice from the cloud saying,
“This is my beloved Son. I rejoice at him. Listen to him.”
6 On hearing this, the students fell on their faces in violent fear.
7 Jesus came and, touching them, said, “Get up. No fear.”
8 Lifting up their eyes, the students saw nothing but him—Jesus alone.
 
Luke 9.28-36 KWL
28 It happened eight days after these sayings,
Jesus took Simon Peter, James, and John, and went up a hill to pray.
29 During his prayer, the form of Jesus’s face became another,
and his clothes became a radiant white.
30 Look, two men were speaking with Jesus
who were Moses and Elijah, 31 seen in glory,
speaking of Jesus’s departure, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.
32 Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep, but now they were awake,
and saw Jesus’s glory, and the two men standing with him.
33 It happened as the prophets were leaving Jesus,
Peter told Jesus, “General, how good it is we’re here!
We can make three tents! One for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah!”—not knowing what he said.
34 As Peter said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them.
The students were afraid as they entered the cloud.
35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my chosen Son. Listen to him.”
36 As the voice came, the students found Jesus alone.
They were silent, and in those days, reported nothing they saw to anyone.

Like most traumatic experiences (i.e. Easter), the stories don’t line up perfectly, and don’t have to. If you insist the bible has no errors, you can easily find commentators with complex explanations as to how these discrepancies aren’t real, but I won’t waste your time: Discrepancies aren’t relevant. This happened, and the gospels all agree about the basics: Jesus took his three best students up a hill, transformed, spoke with Moses and Elijah, and the Father told the students to listen to Jesus.

A revelation of the future.

Now, why’d Jesus show his students this? To show them the kingdom in its power. It’s not Jesus with his humanity burnt off; it’s a flash-forward.

In their near future, Jesus got killed. He warned ’em it was coming—and Simon Peter freaked out at the idea, and Jesus had to call him Satan to snap him out of it. Mk 8.33, Mt 16.23 But after killed, resurrected. Jesus’s previous human body was destroyed, and his new human body—which he still has, and each of us will likewise get a new body once we’re resurrected—sorta looks like our current human bodies, and sorta doesn’t.

Jesus, fr’instance, can glow. When he appeared to John in Revelation, his appearance there sounds a lot like his appearance at his transfiguration.

Revelation 1.12-16 KWL
12 I turned round to see the voice speaking with me,
and in so doing I saw seven gold lampstands;
13 in the middle of the lampstands, one like the Son of Man,
clad in a full-length robe with a gold belt wrapped round his chest.
14 His head and hair: White, like white wool, like snow. His eyes like fiery flames.
15 His feet the same: White bronze, refined in a furnace. His voice: Like the sound of many waters.
16 He had seven stars in his right hand. From his mouth came a sharp, double-edged saber.
His face: Like the sun, shining in its power.

John could identify this vision as Jesus because he’d seen him look like this before. Apparently he keeled over both times. Mt 17.6, Rv 1.17

Next we have Moses and Elijah. Interpreters are a little bit flummoxed by this: We understand Elijah never died, because God had him ascend to heaven in a whirlwind. 2Ki 2.11 Moses however did die, Dt 34.5-7 and if this isn’t a vision of the future, it means Jesus was talking to Moses’s ghost. Which is, as most Christians understand it, a really problematic idea: We’re not to consult the spirits of the dead. Lv 19.31 Even if you believe, as Roman Catholics do, that the saints are already resurrected and alive in heaven, they teach this resurrection of the saints didn’t happen till after Jesus died… which means Moses would still be a ghost. Elijah was still alive, so no problem there; Moses was dead, so big honking problem. Historically Christians have either tried to ignore this problem, or weasel around it by pointing out it’s Jesus, so this must be a special case. But if we’re to truly say Jesus never sinned, 2Co 5.21 we can’t go having him violate his own Law. Not even in “special cases.”

Back in the first century there was a popular Jewish novel called The Assumption of Moses. In it, God resurrected Moses before the End, just like he did Jesus. But Satan claimed Moses for its kingdom, pointing out how Moses had once murdered an Egyptian. Michael, the head angel, claimed Moses for God’s kingdom. Jesus’s brother Jude actually refers to this scene to make a point. Ju 9 And some Christians imagine Jude’s reference means The Assumption of Moses literally happened—Moses was raised from the dead, and was as alive as Elijah. So, problem solved! Except this defies common sense. When I refer to Doctor Who, as I did earlier in this article, I know the Doctor is a fictional character; in no way am I claiming he’s not. And I don’t presume to claim Jude believed Satan and Michael really did fight over Moses, and Moses really was resurrected.

But he will be resurrected. At the End, when we all are. And that’s what Jesus’s students saw: Moses, after the resurrection, in God’s kingdom. Moses of the future. Which is why Elijah and Moses, like Jesus, were also glorified. Lk 9.31 Elijah, though he hadn’t died, will be resurrected while still alive, same as we will be if we’re still alive when Jesus returns. 1Co 15.51-52 That’s why the three of them could talk about what Jesus was about to do in Jerusalem. For them, it had already happened.

Peter’s crazy reaction.

Let’s be kind to Simon Peter. Very few of us would have said anything reasonable when we’re suddenly confronted with a vision which seems to defy reason.

More than likely, Peter thought the End had come. (And about time, too!) He suddenly got to see Jesus come into his kingdom, and be glorified, and famous Old Testament prophets had come to hang out with him. And Peter got to hang out with all of them! What’ll we do first? Well, if you guys are gonna be here a while, we’ll need shelter. Let’s build tents!

Mark points out Peter didn’t know what to say, and Luke said he didn’t know what he was saying. The kids were all scared to death. After all, it looked like the End had come. And while plenty of Christians claim we’re totally ready for Jesus to return—we’re all prayed up, and trust Jesus to get us through it—the reality is when it happens, a lot of people, Christians included, will be soiling our shorts in fear. All this stuff we’ve only been talking about, discussing academically, discussing hypothetically, will be real. It’s one thing to talk about heavenly armies invading the earth. It’s another to find yourself in the middle of one.

Peter often gets mocked here for being foolhardy. I say he was being brave: He assumed whatever was gonna happen, even though he was on the verge of falling over in fear, he was gonna contribute to it. He, at least, was willing to build tents. Good for him. Totally wrong interpretation of what was happening, but right attitude. We need to adopt Peter’s attitude. We might want learn from Peter’s mistake, and sit on our interpretations a bit until God weighs in, but this willingness to help out in whatever God’s doing: Spot on.

But—unless we really are talking about the End—all good things must end, and God decided to end this vision. A cloud shadowed it, God told the students to listen to his Son, and when the cloud lifted there was no one but Jesus. And Jesus told them to be quiet about what they saw.

So. Why’d he show this to them? Encouragement, of course. He wanted them to see what they were working towards. Most of us have been working all our lives in one thing or another, and never yet got to see the fruits of our labor. I’ve worked with kids, and in some cases I got to see them grow up and make something of themselves. And in other cases, they made more of a mess than anything else. But that was years later. At the time I was working with them, it would’ve been nice to have a hint my hard work was gonna pay off. And sometimes, God was kind and gave me such hints. So that’s how I see Jesus’s transfiguration: Rough times were coming, but this would be the conclusion.

So how often did Peter, James, and John cling to this memory in order to get them through the rough times? Don’t know. Hopefully it was often. When God gives me hints, I cling to them a lot. I’ve known other Christians who were, so they claim, given similar hints—but I saw no evidence that they believed or trusted them, for they were still gloomy and pessimistic and joyless. That’s why I wonder whether they really did hear from God. You’d expect the fruit of such a vision to be joy and peace, right? Or perhaps they did hear from him, but don’t know how to trust him, and so their lack of spiritual fruit has turned God’s spiritual blessings into useless trivia. 1Co 13.1-3 How sad for us when that’s us.

Well, Jesus wanted things kept quiet until he was resurrected—until people could see one of the things in this vision had been fulfilled, and that Jesus could shine brighter than the best-bleached clothing. Nope, it’s not a vision of Jesus with his mask off. It’s of Jesus in the glory which he intends to share with his followers.

Orthodoxy: Getting our theological ducks in a row.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 February
ORTHODOX 'ɔr.θə.dɑks adjective. Correct; conforms to what’s commonly or traditionally believed true; generally accepted as right.
2. Usual, conventional, normal, customary.
3. [capitalized] Of the ancient churches originating in the eastern Roman Empire, which formally split from the Roman Catholics in 1054.
[Orthodoxy 'ɔr.θə.dɑks.i noun.]

Christianity is primarily about trusting and following Christ Jesus. We read what he taught, agree with him, and do as he said; we join his kingdom, with him as our king.

An important secondary thing (and you just know people miss the point and turn it into the primary thing) is what we believe about Jesus. How we understand him, and who we understand him to be, are mighty important things. ’Cause when we misunderstand who Jesus is, we follow him wrong. Aren’t even following him at all, in many cases: We’re following an imaginary Jesus who looks a lot more like us, and our biases and prejudices… or who looks more like the cult leaders who got us to believe in their imaginary Jesuses.

Obviously people had wrong ideas about Jesus while he was still walking the earth. Definitely didn’t stop after he left: There were Pharisees who were pretty sure his kingdom couldn’t include gentiles, or Greeks who were pretty sure Jesus can’t have come to earth in a physical body, ’cause animal matter is icky and gross. There were Egyptians who objected to the idea Jesus is God, and said he’s gotta be a lesser god, not the God. Don’t forget all the con artists inventing new religions, who decided to throw bits and pieces of this new middle eastern religion into their mixtures to make themselves sound more exotic. (Nope, it’s not a new practice. Humans have always been doing that.)

So… what’s correct and what isn’t?

Who decides orthodoxy?

Well, here’s where things get tricky. How do we determine which Christians, and Christian beliefs, are orthodox, and which of ’em are wrong, heretic, or even evil? How do we sort the wheat from the weeds, the good from the dumb, the gold from fool’s gold, the kosher hot dogs from the pure pink slime?

Well, every church in Christendom claims they have the solution: They’re orthodox. Believe ye in their doctrines, and ye shall be saved. Believe ye not in their doctrines, and out you go. Either they’ll kindly ask you to go elsewhere, or they’ll formally excommunicate you, and hand you over to Satan, 1Ti 1.20 ’cause they’re pretty sure God won’t have you.

I agree every church’s leadership has the ability to decide for themselves what they believe, and how firm they’re gonna emphasize those beliefs. Fr’instance one of my previous churches believed Christians shouldn’t drink. No, the bible mandates no such thing; it only recommends we don’t get drunk. Ep 5.18 But that church ministered to a lot of alcoholics, and the leaders felt those who could drink might mislead those who can’t. So it’s more important to protect weaker believers. Ro 14 Makes sense, right? But is this a make-or-break issue, where you’re going to hell if you drink? Absolutely not.

…Except one of the church’s leaders believed strongly and vocally that if you drank, you probably were going to hell. Drinking meant you thought so little of your fellow Christians, you were so selfish as to do your own thing without taking other people into consideration, that you were essentially an antichrist. He doubted thoughtless people like that were even saved. To his mind, people whom God truly saved people would never, ever do that. To him this was a make-or-break issue. Drink, and you’re heretic.

Now who died and made him God?

But that’s how it works when individuals get to decide what’s orthodox and what’s not. All of us have our favorite beliefs, and most of us will turn ’em into priorities and absolutes—and not just for us personally, but for everyone. Every Christian has to think and believe as we do.

Or we’ll go the opposite extreme: We’ll dismiss and permit all sorts of things. We’ll call it “generous orthodoxy.” But our liberalism will allow things we really shouldn’t. Paul had to rebuke the church of Corinth for not just including a guy who was banging his stepmother, but for being proud of how inclusive they were. 1Co 5 Look, we gotta be gracious and embrace sinners, and forgive them everything, same as God forgives us. But Jesus expects us to turn from such sins, and stop doing ’em, not make accommodations. A church which doesn’t teach likewise isn’t following Jesus.

So while churches are free to set a standard—and really oughta—do they set a universal standard, true for every Christian everywhere? Well, some of us think we do. Fundamentalists in particular. Disagree with their doctrines and they’ll insist you’re not a real Christian. In fact some of ’em are mighty sure they’re the only real Christians, and when the rapture happens the only ones we’ll find in heaven are Fundies, the first apostles, and Ronald Reagan.

But realistically though: Who sets the ultimate standard? Who gets the final word?

I say Christ Jesus. Should be Jesus, right? I mean, why’re we calling ourselves “Christians” otherwise? If we’re gonna be judged in the End by him, obviously he determines what’s correct and what isn’t. That’s the whole point of his teaching, “You’ve heard it said… but I tell you” Mt 5.38-39he defines Christianity. Not me. Nor my favorite Christians. Nor my favorite church. Nor my favorite beliefs, faith statements, creeds, or anything else. We don’t get to the Father except through Jesus, Jn 14.6 and that’s true of our beliefs as well: We don’t “get” God unless Jesus interprets him for us. He sets the standard—and he forgives us when we fall short of it, as we will.

Beyond Jesus, we got the ancient creeds. And this part gets controversial for Fundamentalists, who insist they get to define orthodoxy; not some ancient “Catholics.” (Even though the creeds were written long before the Roman Catholic Church came into existence.) Whenever heresy became a serious issue in the Roman Empire, the emperor would call a council of every leading Christian and have ’em sort it out. I believe their conclusions are consistent with the scriptures, and so has nearly every Christian since. Their conclusions aren’t comprehensive—there are still a lot of wrong ideas they never got round to addressing!—but they got to all the important ones, all the Christianity-defining ones. So they defined orthodoxy too.

Misusing orthodoxy.

Two common mistakes Christians make about orthodoxy.

First, faith righteousness: Many Christians think we’re only saved when we believe all the right things. That if we get any of our beliefs wrong, Jesus’ll say, “Whoops, you didn’t pass the orthodoxy test,” and it’s off to hell. This is what they mean by “saved by faith”: If you put your faith in the wrong beliefs, it doesn’t save! It condemns.

It’s absolutely wrong, of course. We’re saved by God’s grace alone. The Protestant slogan sola fide, “faith alone,” refers to how we’re justified, not how we’re saved. We trust Jesus, Ga 2.16 the one whom the Father sent us, Jn 6.29 and it’s through this faith God grants us grace. Ep 2.8 Not through our individual orthodox beliefs; it’s through trusting Jesus.

The reason Christians teach faith righteousness is pretty simple: They don’t understand grace. As we can tell by how utterly graceless they get, and how quick they are to condemn. Much as they correctly point out we’re not saved by works, they somehow wanna slip into the mix, without anyone really noticing, the hard work of sorting out our beliefs and becoming orthodox Christians. And convince us if we don’t do it, we’re not really saved—because they don’t believe, can’t believe, God might extend his grace to heretics. They’re not gracious, so they wanna remake God so he’s ungracious too.

Second, the idea since orthodoxy doesn’t save, it’s not important. Or not that important. Hence many a Christian figures we can believe as we like, since all roads lead to God anyway, and God’ll forgive everything and sort us all out.

Look, the reason God saves us is so we can do good works. Ep 2.10 Not so we can sit on our growing behinds and bask in his salvation. Now that we’re saved, we got work to do! And just so we get cracking on the stuff God actually wants us to do, instead of the busywork our Christianist culture does instead, it just makes sense to get to know the actual God, instead of the Christianist interpretations which con us into doing anything and everything else—preferably things which get their candidates elected. Stand back and look at what they expect us to do. Now, if Jesus is just gonna overthrow all these works once he returns, stands to reason it’s a colossal waste of our time, effort, money, and passion.

If we want a growing relationship with God—heck, if we want a relationship with him period, instead of just taking him for granted—it only makes sense we’ll try to get to know him as he really is, and not just embrace whichever interpretation of him is most convenient. We’ll trust him enough to actually tackle the things he tells us to do, instead of preemptively assuming they’re impossible, unfathomable, too righteous for unrighteous humans to approach (sola fide notwithstanding), too perfect for imperfect humans to do without ruining everything. We’ll embrace God instead of embracing cop-outs.

After all, Jesus came to earth to reveal God to us. Jn 1.18 Dismissing Jesus’s mission as irrelevant doesn’t strike you as the most Christian of behaviors, does it?

Evangelism… in a “Christian nation.”

by K.W. Leslie, 06 February

There’s a myth going round the United States that we Christians are a tiny, oppressed minority, shrinking all the time thanks to the insidious forces of paganism and nontheism in our secular culture.

It’s rubbish. And I know; Christians don’t wanna believe it’s rubbish. A lot of us are deeply invested in the idea the world’s only getting worse… and they believe Jesus will intervene once it’s the worst it can be. (Whereas I don’t believe he’s forced to wait for us to get depraved enough; he’ll return whenever he wants.) But statistics don’t confirm their deeply-held beliefs. True, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian is going down. The Pew Research Center pegged it at 65 percent in 2019. But that’s just pagans who believed themselves Christian, recognizing they’re really not. They’re coming out of the closet.

As for me, I share Jesus with people, like every Christian should. Most often by chatting with strangers in coffeehouses, but sometimes I’ve gone door to door. You wanna find out how truly secular your community is, try tabulating them like a census worker: Go from house to house, and meet ’em where they live. What you’ll find out is Christians are hardly a minority. We’re the vast, overwhelming majority.

Some towns are more pagan than others. In more devout towns, 99 out of 100 figure they’re Christian. In more pagan cities (i.e. San Francisco or Portland), it’s still more than half. On average I’ve found two out of three identify as Christian… so yeah, about the same as the Pew Center’s findings.

So when you go forth and share Jesus with people, you’re largely gonna find they know him already. Or at least think they do.

Those who think they do.

’Cause a lot of self-described Christians aren’t all that Christian. They don’t go to church, and don’t figure they have to. They can’t tell you the last time they read a bible. They say grace on Thanksgiving, but otherwise don’t pray unless they really want something. They might do something religious on Easter or Christmas. That’s about it. They’re the I-got-baptized-and-that-counts kind of Christians.

So if you’ve ever wondered why American culture looks so pagan, despite all our professed Christians: We’re more Christianist. Our so-called Christians are irreligious and apathetic.

Yeah, when you put their backs to the wall (as dark Christians imagine will happen to us all someday), they’ll probably declare Christ. If they were gonna quit Jesus entirely and become something else, they would’ve done so by now. They didn’t. They choose a comatose sort of Christianity, but it’s still technically Christianity, and still something the Holy Spirit can work with.

This being the case, sharing Jesus within the United States is quite different than sharing him in non-Christian countries. Our job isn’t so much to introduce him to people. It’s to shake ’em awake. It’s to correct their distorted views of the gospel. It’s to get people to stop taking Jesus for granted.

That’s what I bear in mind when I do evangelism. A lot of folks will say, “I’m a Christian,” and I respond, “Good! Where do you go to church?… And how often do you go? weekly, monthly, twice a year?—does your pastor know you?”

Which some of them will take offense at, and say I’m prying. (Which is precisely what I’m doing.) Really they don’t go to church; they’re just telling me they do. They hope by identifying a church that’s “theirs,” I’ll assume they’re practicing, churchgoing Christians, and move along. But I make no such assumptions, and now I’m asking questions which might expose their hypocrisy—and that’s why they’re offended.

I also respond, “Do you pray?… How regularly?” And “Do you read your bible?” And “Has God ever done a miracle for you?” I’m trying to gauge just how Christian they are: Do they have a living, active relationship with Christ, or are they just Christianist? And again, some take offense at this. “I just told you I’m a Christian,” one annoyed man once told me. “I know,” I told him. “But you know how Christ said ‘By their fruits you’ll know them’? Mt 7.20 I’m bobbing for fruit.”

Yeah, sometimes people are bugged by my questions because they’ve encountered evangelists from the faith-righteousness camp: Like independent Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, they think we’re saved by correct theology, not grace. Evangelists from those churches always wanna submit people to an orthodoxy test, and make sure people are saved before they move on. They’re not looking for fruit though. In fact a lot of ’em lack fruit themselves. So they tend to come across as jerks. My not-all-that-probing questions might remind people of their questions, and it may make ’em worry I’m another one of those jerks.

But more often it’s because they feel guilty. I’m trying to see how Christian they are, and they know they’re not Christian at all. I’m not trying to convict them, but their own consciences are making ’em squirm.

We’re here to help!

We need to accept Christ Jesus as our lord and savior, and start following him. That’s the usual spiel most evangelists make. It’s absolutely true… for pagans. You wanna be Christian, that’s what you do. But when we’re evangelizing Americans who figure they’re Christian already, they don’t need to re-accept Jesus: They need to follow him!

And they suck at doing it alone. They need help in following him. So that’s our mission: We gotta help.

They suck at prayer. Fine; help them pray. Invite them to your prayer group. Ask ’em what they need, and pray for it. Demonstrate good prayer practices. Encourage. Remind. And so on.

They suck at bible-reading. Fine; invite ’em to your bible study. Go through the bible together. Talk about it. Share. Discuss.

They don’t know any fellow Christians. Fine; invite them to your small group. (Not your church’s worship services; that’s how you worship together, not how you meet people. They should go to that too, but meet their expressed needs first.) Invite them to various interactive Christian functions. Or you can get to know ’em, you know—there’s always you.

They haven’t seen miracles. Fine; show them yours. Share your testimonies. Pray for them, and once God does stuff for them they’ll have their own testimonies.

They struggle with being Christian in this godless world. Well, who doesn’t? Show them they’re far from alone. Like I said, most Americans are Christian—but they’re not sharing that fact, and most Americans will be stunned to discover just how many of their neighbors, coworkers, fellow gym members, fellow coffeehouse frequenters, even random folks they run into at the supermarket, are Christian. The world isn’t as godless as they assume. Once they get to know some of their fellow Christians, they’ll see this.

Our mission is to get our fellow Christians out of their comas, and have them realize they can follow Jesus, can have his abundant life. It’s much harder than starting from the very beginning as a brand-new baby Christian. These folks are more like the moody teenagers who don’t wanna have anything to do with their parents—they’re that kind of Christian. Takes a lot of patience to get through to them. But it’s doable… and these are the neighbors God gave us to love.

There’s not just one list of the Spirit’s fruit!

by K.W. Leslie, 05 February

When we Christians wanna list the Spirit’s fruit, most of the time we go off the Paul’s list in Galatians.

Galatians 5.22-24 KWL
22 The Spirit’s fruit is: Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness.
Goodness. Faith. 23 Gentleness. Self-governance.
The Law isn’t contrary to any such thing.
24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus, crucify our flesh with its impulses and desires.

We might go with alternate translations of some of these words, like longsuffering and temperance and faithfulness (which is a really inaccurate interpretation of πίστις/pístis, “faith”). But generally yeah, that’s the proof text we memorize, wear T-shirts of, tattoo on our wrists… and don’t follow ’cause we think fruit grows spontaneously.

But I gotta keep reminding people it’s not a comprehensive list. The Spirit produces more fruit in us than that. And elsewhere in the bible, you’re gonna find other lists of his fruit.

Colossians 3.12-15 KWL
12 So like God’s chosen and beloved children, put on:
Compassionate mercy. Kindness. Humility. Gentleness. Patience.
13 Supporting one another and forgiving our own,
when one of us might have a disagreement with another:
Like the Master forgives us, you forgive too.
14 Over all these things, love, which joins the whole together.
15 Have Christ’s peace, into which you were called as one body, govern your minds. Be thankful!

Because Paul and Timothy didn’t bluntly say this was a list of the Spirit’s fruit, Christians quibble about whether it really is. And of course the reason we wanna dismiss it… is because we don’t care to do it. Bad enough we struggle to show any evidence of the list from Galatians; now there are four more behaviors—mercy, humility, forgiveness, and thankfulness—we gotta fake!

And of course there’s the command the apostles used at the top of the list: Ἐνδύσασθε/endýsasthe, “put on.” The NIV renders it “clothe yourselves,” ’cause yeah, the ancient Greeks used this word to describe putting on clothing. So these traits don’t automatically come from within, as Jesus pointed out. Not unless we, with the Spirit’s help, first put ’em there.

But we’d rather imagine humans are inherently good, or that the Holy Spirit within us has fixed all our selfish impulses—and therefore we need do nothing but sit back and let the goodness flow out of us. And of course it’s rubbish, but it’s popular rubbish, and why so many Christians produce no fruit, and instead highlight any substitutes for fruitfulness we can imagine.

References to individual fruits.

The Spirit’s fruit is God’s character. It describes his personality. It describes Jesus’s motives: This is what he thinks of us, and how he behaves towards us. And if we’re following Jesus, and are letting the Spirit guide us, this is how we’re gonna come to think and behave. We’re gonna adopt God’s attitudes. Our character is gonna become his.

So that’s how we define fruit—and how we immediately recognize when the scriptures refer to the Spirit’s fruit. We don’t need the Colossians list to state, “This is the Spirit’s fruit”—we know it’s the Spirit’s fruit, because we know these traits are part of who he is. We recognize him. We realize, “I gotta be this way too”—not “Aw crap, more stuff to do.”

And we can easily identify when other bible verses refer to fruit. Like this one.

1 John 3.17 KWL
Whoever might have worldly wealth, and might see their fellow Christian in need,
and closes off their sympathy for them: How is God’s love abiding in them?

God’s gonna be sympathetic to his needy kids; therefore we need to be sympathetic towards his needy kids. That’s his fruit. Lacking it suggests we lack other fruit, if not the Holy Spirit himself.

God’s gonna be gracious. Fair. Forgiving to a level we’re just not gonna see in many humans. Generous to a level we’re especially not gonna see in many humans. Honest and truthful; he may not tell us everything, but he’s never gonna lie. Jesus demonstrated how much he hates hypocrisy, so integrity’s a fruit too.

Face it: The list of fruit is pretty darned near unlimited. God has all sorts of great character traits, and there’s no reason his kids can’t share them! Our list of his fruit certainly isn’t limited to Paul’s list in Galatians. Anyone who claims so, is obviously trying to evade their own character development.

And yeah, there are lots of those people in the world. I’ve seen ’em be mighty proud of it on social media. “This is me; this is who I am; I’m not gonna change; take it or leave it.” You notice it’s never the kind people who post such things; it’s always the a--holes. Those memes are their fruit.

God calls us to far, far better. We gotta be like Jesus. 1Jn 2.6 We might start working on that with our actions, but what’s really gonna bring about permanent, transformative change is our character. So we gotta get cracking on that, and get fruity.

How often ought we pray?

by K.W. Leslie, 04 February

Ask any Christian, and we’ll likely admit we don’t pray as often as we ought.

Well, nuns, monks, and the people who staff prayer rooms, might be exceptions. Yet even some of them will admit they oughta pray more. Why is this? Well, some of it is because it’s true: We could pray more than we do.

For a lot of folks, other than saying grace, they don’t pray daily. Or they pray maybe two or three minutes a day… then beat themselves up for not praying 10 minutes a day. Or 30. Or an hour. Or even longer.

Okay. For a moment, let’s stop doing that and seriously think: How long does God reasonably expect us to talk with him?

Why should every Christian prayer become as long as the longest phone conversations you could possibly have with your friends? (And considering how much of these conversations consist of really dumb, frivolous, irrelevant stuff, should our prayers ever become that dumb?)

Much of the reason a lot of Christians have this idea of prayer as a marathon race, comes from this simple little two-word verse—

1 Thessalonians 5.17 THGNT
ἀδιαλείπτως προσεύχεσθε·

—and if you don’t know ancient Greek, that’s adialeíptos proséfhesthe, “unstoppingly pray.” Or as the KJV puts it, “Pray without ceasing.” Or the NLT, “Never stop praying.”

Never stop? Never ever stop? Is that even possible?

How do we physically do that? Don’t we need to take the odd break for, say, sleep? Should we band together in some prayer organization, like a “prayer watch” or monastery, which makes certain every day, 24 hours a day, someone is talking with God?

See, this is the traditional way “pray without ceasing” has been interpreted: Constant, unrelenting, unending prayer. We got the idea no matter how much we do pray, God isn’t satisfied. He’s like a helicopter mom who won’t be satisfied till we get a phone surgically implanted in our head so she can talk at us 24/7. Because God loves us so much, he wants us to talk to him all day long. Hence all the prayer centers and monasteries.

Is this what God meant by “Pray without ceasing”? Of course not.

You might recall the Genesis story of Eden, where the LORD used to personally hang out with the first humans. Was he with them all day long? Clearly not, ’cause the humans apparently had enough free time to go talk to serpents, and get talked into sinning. If chatting with us all day long was God’s original plan for humanity, we should see some of that in the Eden story, wouldn’t you think? Same as when Jesus more fully explained God to his students: Did he instruct them to have nonstop prayer gatherings?

Certainly there are times for nonstop prayer meetings. Like when the first Christians met to pray for the Holy Spirit to come to them. Ac 1.13-14 Sometimes we expect the Spirit to do something big, so we pray for that. The rest of the time, we pray as usual. And that’s what the apostles were instructing the Thessalonians to do in 1 Thessalonians: Pray as usual. And don’t quit praying as usual.

Dialíptos means “[one who] falls down, takes a break, drops the ball, skips, slacks.” It doesn’t mean “[one who] stops.” It’s an instruction to keep up our prayer life. Don’t take a break from it. Don’t skip it. Don’t slack on it. Don’t quit your regular practice. Keep it up.

When the apostles wrote to Thessaloniki, their readers were Christians who were overly concerned about the End Times. (Sound like anyone you know?) The Thessalonians were so fixated on End Times paranoia, they dropped the ball on various things we Christians oughta do. Like care for the needy. Like obey God’s commands. ’Cause why follow commands when the End is near? Start digging out that End Times bunker!

Likewise they slacked on their prayers. And that’s never gonna help. If you don’t stay in regular contact with God, you’re gonna go heretic on him.

So no, it doesn’t mean to constantly, never-endingly pray. Talk to God as long as you talk to God. If you need to speak with him more, do. If you don’t… well, pray the Lord’s Prayer at least. Check in with him. Keep an ear open in case God has anything to tell you. You’re not the only one who talks during prayer, y’know.

Don’t feel so guilty about not praying as much as other Christians. Honestly, you’re probably praying more. No, I’m not kidding. A lot of the people who talk a lot about their strong, devout prayer lives are giant hypocrites. And a lot aren’t—but it’s not your duty to play “Spot the Hypocrtite.” Just concentrate on yourself, and pray without slacking.

Those who do pray without ceasing.

However, some Christians are called to pray a ton. No, not everybody. Ignore those folks who insist it’s everybody.

Certain women and men dedicate their lives to prayer and good deeds, and function as professional prayer teams. In older churches they’re called monastics, or individually, nuns and monks. And prayer is their job. Yeah, they do other things, but those other things are side duties: Prayer is their job. Several times a day (and once in the middle of the night, ’cause they believe prayer is more important than sleep) they drop what they’re currently doing, and go pray together. They frequently live together in a prayer community, called an abbey, cloister, convent, friary, nunnery, priory, or monastery. But that’s not all of them; many groups live in their own homes, and only get together for prayer.

No, these monastics aren’t just not found in older, liturgical churches. Newer charismatic churches have rediscovered the idea, but don’t call themselves monastics, and put their own spin on what their prayer teams look like. Many of them have day jobs. Their prayer sites are either at churches, or special prayer centers, houses, rooms, or towers. They pray the very same things monastics do, but in a more contemporary style. More recent worship music, fr’instance.

All these groups pray several times, even 24 hours, a day. They pray formal prayers or off the top of their head; they pray the psalms and other scriptures; they pray for all the requests they have, or the requests others make of them. Anything and everything.

It’s a lot of prayer. And that’s not counting all the other prayer functions we Christians get involved in: Prayer-based small groups, the church’s prayer teams and prayer chains, vigils, and watches. Sometimes five times a day, sometimes more. Some of us Christians pray a lot.

And God might want you to pray just as often, and devote your life to prayer. That’s fine. But it’s not a ministry for everyone. Like I said, ignore those folks who insist everybody must pray that often. Pray as you can, when you can.

If you don’t pray five times a day, relax. God doesn’t require you to. It’s a nice habit to aim for, but first we need to start by praying once a day. Don’t run marathons when you’re winded after jogging round the block once. Start with once a day. Don’t push yourself beyond that till you feel ready.

Bad theology: When it’s not based on revelation.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 February

The starting point of theology is revelation, the stuff God reveals to us.

Problem is, not everybody agrees. They think the starting point is us: We have questions about God, the universe, whether we can have a relationship with God (or at least get stuff out of him), death and the afterlife, good and evil and karma, and salvation. And people figure theology is when we seek answers to these questions, and get wise-sounding answers from the smartest gurus. Or even become a guru ourselves, ’cause guruing doesn’t look all that hard.

Yep, even Christians do it. Years ago, at another church, my pastors began to invite a lot of clever guest speakers to come preach to us. These guys would regularly tell us what they think they’ve figured out about God. Some ideas were based on actual personal experiences with God—which I’m not knocking, but I wanna remind you our God-experiences need to be confirmed long before we start developing ’em into theology. These guys were not so scrupulous. They felt these God-experiences were so profound, so emotional, they didn’t bother to ask the usual questions we oughta pose when such things happen. “God showed me,” they figured; they believed it, and that settles it.

Me, I know enough bible to seriously doubt God showed them a thing.

Problem is, most Christians don’t. And when they have their own God-experiences, they do the same thing as these preachers: They never have ’em properly confirmed. They’re so sure their personal insights are revelations; they certainly feel like revelations! And when someone else stands up, claims to have an insight, and present ’em with something which feels right to them… well, they had religion questions, here’s someone who purports to have answers, and the answers sound like stuff they oughta believe. Stuff they wanna believe. So they do.

But is this because the Holy Spirit tells ’em, “Yep, that came from me,” or because their flesh tells ’em, “Oh that sounds so much easier than holiness”? And should we really trust our inner impulses, urges, and desires when it comes to theological ideas? Most of us are pretty darned selfish, and that’s the deciding factor in our lives, not the Spirit. That’s what makes us feel these ideas are correct, not a lifestyle of actively following Jesus. We might imagine it’s the Spirit, but we still don’t know the difference between him, and the way the surprise ending of a clever mystery novel makes us feel.

So that’s how we practice bad theology: We’re not getting it from revelation, and therefore not getting it from God.

Not just bad ideas. Nor heresy.

Now yeah, some folks define bad theology as bad ideas: When we come to selfish and evil conclusions. Like sexists, who claim the bible is the entire basis for turning women into second-class Christians, not to mention second-class citizens. Like racists who do the same thing, or Mammonists. True, these are terrible ideas, evil practices, and bad theology. But they’re not bad theology because they produce bad fruit; we might have totally valid beliefs, properly deduced from bible, but in the hands of a fruitless person all their goodness can be nullified, 1Co 13.2 or even twisted into evil.

Nope, they’re bad theology ’cause the process by which we come to these conclusions was wrong from the get-go. Sexists didn’t begin with bible; they began as sexists already. They wanted to justify their sexism with bible verses, so they found some passages where ancient Hebrews were being sexist, and claim, “This proves it’s a biblical principle.” Or they found passages which mean one thing, distort ’em to mean what they wish, and teach that. Their starting point isn’t revelation. It’s their own evil, disguised as revelation.

And a lot of us start theology with our own biases. I confess: I do it too. “I think [harebrained idea] is so. Isn’t it taught in the bible?” So I’ll go a-looking. But I know better than to trust myself: I’m wrong. Jesus is right. So I’ll look for what Jesus, his prophets, or his apostles actually teach on the subject, and not just presume Jesus agrees with me. Often he doesn’t! But I follow him, not the other way round. So when I find we disagree, I gotta change my opinion to his. Not bend his opinion till it sounds like mine, then claim we think alike. Not project my beliefs upon him. That’s bad theology.

Loads of Christians also figure bad theology and heresy are the same thing. Nope. Bad theology can certainly result in heresy, but doesn’t always. Most of the time bad theology only produces bad ideas and false teachings, like the claims God doesn’t wanna save everybody, or everything happens for a reason. These aren’t harmless ideas; they can seriously mess with our understanding of God, and the ways we treat our fellow humans and Christians. But they’re not heresy.

Yeah, there are Christians who insist every wrong idea is heresy. That’s because they think they get to define what heresy is. They don’t. Properly heresy is an idea contrary to historically orthodox Christian beliefs, as defined by ancient Christians in our creeds. They deal with core Christian beliefs about God and salvation, and the grave errors which cropped up almost immediately after Jesus was raptured. You get these beliefs wrong, and you’re clearly not listening to the Spirit’s corrections. In fact there’s a better than average chance you’re not following God at all, and your salvation’s in serious doubt. Heresy’s a big deal.

And heresy’s definitely the product of bad theology. Ancient heretics imagined Jesus isn’t properly God, and obviously this idea didn’t come from bible; it came from people who felt trinity sounds too much like polytheism for their comfort. Today’s heretics think the very same thing, and make the very same error. But trinity is how the scriptures describe God. It’s how he legitimately revealed himself to be. It’s valid, orthodox theology. If you don’t like it, or wanna redefine it, because it’s too weird or mysterious and you think you’ve come up with a better way to describe him, that’s your hangup, your bad theology, and eventually your heresy.

More often, bad theology simply produces bad ideas. Like looking for other proofs of Christianity than good fruit. Like legalism, sexism, racism, various forms of dark Christianity, and various cults which lost sight of the Spirit’s fruit long ago.

And those who practice bad theology, love coming up with bad ideas. Because they’re not so much looking for truth, for a better understanding of who God is, nor a closer relationship with Jesus. They’re looking to become gurus. They wanna be the wise dispenser of brilliant proverbs, and for people to listen to these sayings and say, “Amen, pastor.” They want followers. They covet worship.

The appeal of bad theology.

Humans tend to be a little paranoid: We think we have a right to truth and power, but other people are greedily hiding it or keeping it from us. And yeah, in many cases that’s true; politics is an obvious example. In Christianity it’s also true, ’cause our churches are run by humans, and some of us haven’t entirely got rid of our dysfunctional behavior when we were put in charge. (Hopefully we’re working on it!) But the all-too-common assumption is our churches are keeping the real truths of the bible from us. So, certain Christians go on a search for the “real truths”—and because they’ve not learned how to properly do theology, of course they dive right into the bad stuff.

Humans also like new things. Not old. (It’s why we regularly misinterpret Jesus’s teaching on new wine in old skins.) True, a number of people love antiques, but that’s only because these antiques are new to them—and while they might have a house full of antiques, they’re still mighty jazzed when they acquire a new find. Humans like novelty. So sometimes it’s simply not enough for Christians to describe ancient ideas in new ways: Some of us covet entirely new ideas, same as the rest of the world. (Even though many of these “new ideas” are likewise very, very old.)

Hence you’ll find bad theology everywhere in Christendom. Out of context scriptures, obviously. Connect-the-dots reasoning, instead of logic. Meditation on the people of the bible, including Jesus, which turns ’em into sock puppets. Tons of projection, as we imagine God shares our biases, and Jesus thinks exactly like we do. None of it comes from revelation. But it sounds good, so Christians spread it widely, like rats do plague.

How do we resist it? Good theology, obviously. Make sure our ideas originate with God. Confirm ’em. Be skeptical of anything new we hear: Does that really come from God?—can we think of scriptures which confirm it, or scriptures which counter it? Is it consistent with God’s character, or does it more resemble or justify our own fruitless behavior? What fruit is it likely to produce?

It’s become my habitual response to anything I hear. And yeah, self-anointed gurus get really annoyed with me about this: Why do I have to be so contrary? Why can’t I just swallow their eggs of wisdom whole, like all their other followers do? Well, because I wanna know whether their eggs are actually rotten, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on the metaphorical toilet. I’m trying to follow Jesus, not them. I would hope they want the same thing. Some of ’em actually do! But too many really, honestly, don’t.

Candlemas: Remembering when Jesus got presented in temple.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 February

In Leviticus the LORD told Moses the following.

Leviticus 12.1-8 KWL
1 The LORD told Moses, 2 “When you speak to Israel’s children, say,
This is about a woman who conceives and bears a male.
She’s ritually unclean seven days, just like she’s unclean during the days of her period.
3 On the eighth day, circumcise the flesh of the baby’s foreskin.
4 Have the mother sit 33 days, for purification from blood.
She mustn’t touch anything holy, can’t come to sanctuary, till her purification days are full.
5 If she bears a female, she’s unclean two weeks, like her period;
have her sit 66 days, for purification from blood.
6 When the mother’s purification days are full, for a son or daughter,
she must bring a lamb, born that year, for a burnt offering,
and a pigeon chick, or dove, for a sin offering.
Bring them to the meeting tent’s door, to the priest.
7 The priest offers it to the LORD’s face, to cover the mother.
She’s now ritually clean from her bloodflow.
This law is for any woman who begets male or female.
8 If the mother can’t find enough at hand for a lamb, bring two doves or pigeon chicks;
one for burnt offering, and one for sin offering.
The priest covers her, and she’s ritually clean.”

2 February marks 39 days after Christmas—representing the week after Jesus’s birth, then the 33rd day after that. This’d be the day Mary finished her ritual purification after giving birth, so off she and Joseph went to temple.

Luke 2.22-24 KWL
22 Once the days were fulfilled for Mary’s purification, according to Moses’s Law,
they took Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord,
23 just as it’s written in the Lord’s Law:
“Every male who opens a womb will be called holy to the Lord.” Ex 13.2, 12
24 And giving a sacrifice, according to the saying in the Lord’s Law:
“A pair of doves, or two young pigeons.” Lv 12.8

So that’d make today Candlemas, the Christian holiday which remembers Jesus’s presentation in temple. It’s called Candlemas because traditionally, Christians bring certain candles to church to have ’em blessed, then use these sacred candles the rest of the year for various customs, rituals, and religious practices. The candles are a reminder Jesus is the world’s light—and when we follow him, so are we.

In some countries, Christmas decorations don’t come down till Candlemas. (I know; plenty of western Christians put ’em away before New Year’s Day.) Because now the Christmas and Epiphany season is over. Tomorrow we go back to regular time—the period between Christmas and Easter, or Easter and Christmas. (Which, in 2020, ain’t long. Ash Wednesday is on 26 February.)

Churching new mothers.

Childbirth is a dangerous time. Our survival rate nowadays is really good… but in prescientific days, this wasn’t the case. Any complication would turn fatal, for either the mother, or child, or both.

So a lot of cultures developed the custom of celebrating new mothers. Believe it or not, this includes the 39 to 72 days the LORD set aside for ritual purification. During the time women were ritually unclean, they were expected to stay home—to not interact with anyone else, lest they make others ritually unclean. But most importantly, they didn’t have to perform any tasks outside the house, didn’t have to go back to work, and weren’t obligated to go to temple or synagogue: They could stay with their newborn baby, and concentrate on their little one. Or, if childbirth didn’t go so well, they could otherwise recover. Or mourn.

Since Christians don’t really bother with ritual cleanliness anymore (the Holy Spirit indwells us, so when are we ever ritually unclean for worship?) it often meant the end of this rest time for Christian women after childbirth. But various Christian leaders recognized the need for some form of maternity leave, and this evolved into the custom of churching new mothers: Forty days after giving birth, the mother was expected to come to church and be publicly blessed.

But till then, she wasn’t expected to come to church. She could stay home and recuperate. (And Irish folk tradition added if she didn’t stay home, the fairies might get her. Disney movies have really sanitized how people imagine fairies; in folklore they’re evil spirits, so… not good.)

Some churches mixed together some of their churching traditions with their Candlemas traditions, so new mothers might bring candles and get ’em blessed. Other churches might have the new mothers take 40 days off, but not hold a blessing for them till Candlemas itself, and then bless all the new mothers at once. And if churches believed in baptizing babies, sometimes they’d do that too.

Of course, churches which aren’t liturgical don’t always hold special times of blessing for new mothers. Which is a shame. New babies are a big deal! Motherhood should be recognized. So if it’s not a formal part of your church, see if you can get something started.

Proselytism: Don’t force Jesus upon people!

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

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

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

Giphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proselytizing Christians.

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus doesn’t teach proselytism.

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

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

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

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

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

Everything beyond that is the Holy Spirit’s job.

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

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

“But we have to preach the gospel!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruit doesn’t grow spontaneously.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re commanded to produce fruit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruit grows with practice.

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

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

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

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

Same with you.

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

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

Karma: How we imagine the universe seeks justice.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 January

Matthew 5.38-42, Luke 6.29-31.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s in the bible, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

God does grace. Not karma.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairness, justice, and grace.

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

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

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

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

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

Just goes to show how disconnected we are from God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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