The eight loves.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 March

One of my previous pastors likes to use Foreigner’s 1984 song, “I Want to Know What Love Is,” as an example of how our wider American culture really doesn’t know what love is. (Plus he likes the song itself.)

He’s not wrong. When we hear English-speakers talk about love—whether in our movies, songs, talk shows, books, even academically—they’re using about eight different definitions of love. Only one of these definitions is the one Paul and Sosthenes used in 1 Corinthians. The rest comes from the culture. Other languages, other cultures, might have even more than eight.

I mention eight different definitions to people, and they usually nod their heads: Yep, we define “love” at least that many different ways. But every once in a while some Christian wants to correct me, and tell me there are four loves, not eight. ’Cause they’ve read (or at least heard about) C.S. Lewis’s 1960 book The Four Loves, so there y’go: There are four loves. Where’d I come up with another four?

Um… from a dictionary. You know how dictionaries have definitions in them?

Why’d Lewis say there were only four? Well he didn’t. His book’s about four words in ancient Greek, which English-speakers translate “love”: Στοργή/storghí, φίλος/fílos, ἔρος/éros, and ἀγάπη/aghápi. (Only two of ’em are used in the New Testament.) There are other ancient Greek words which get translated “love,” like ἐραστεύω/erastévo, πόθος/póthos, and ξενία/xenía; and of course all the words used as metaphors. Lewis wasn’t trying to be comprehensive. He simply used the four words as a jumping-off point to analyze his personal thoughts about love… and frankly, Lewis was a rather bookish introvert who’d read more poetry than gone on dates. I expect his book would’ve been way different after he married.

The dictionary I used, actually listed more than eight concepts. But some of them were mighty similar, so I condensed ’em to eight.

  1. AFFECTION (storgí). The “natural love” we feel towards familiar people: How people feel towards relatives, childhood friends feel for one another, people feel towards friendly neighbors and coworkers, owners feel towards pets.
  2. FRIENDSHIP (fílos). The “love” we feel for people who share common interests with us. We like doing certain things with them, and like them because of it.
  3. ROMANCE (éros). “Being in love”: The intense pleasure taken in another person. Ranges from harmless crushes, to the extreme cases of lust and obsession—which see #8.
  4. CHARITY (aghápi). Unconditional, benevolent, self-sacrificing, gracious love. The sort of love God is, 1Jn 4.8, 16 the sort of love the Spirit grows in us, Ga 5.22 the love Paul describes. 1Co 13.4-8 “Biblical love.”
  5. HOSPITALITY (xenía). Conditional love. Looks exactly like charity, but it expects to be reciprocal, and compensated—with gratitude at the least, profit at the most.
  6. FAVORITISM. Our love for favorite things: Beloved foods, clothes, TV shows, cities we visit, sports, songs, musicians, politicians, etc.
  7. NARCISSISM. The love we have for ourselves, which comes from our self-preservation instinct. Can be used as a helpful gauge for how much we oughta love others, Lv 19.18 but more often than not turns into pure selfishness.
  8. INFATUATION. Lust or obsessive love. Whenever any of the above escalates into the jealous desire to possess the one they love. By this point outsiders, disturbed by how it looks, try to call this anything but love, but the infatuated person insists it’s love.

Your own dictionary and thesaurus will no doubt list more than these eight. You may even look at my categories and figure I could’ve lumped them together even more. (Or less.) That’s fair. There’s lots of overlap. Debate it all you like. My point is to show you the many things we English-speakers mean by “love.”

Defining aghápi.

When Christians talk about love, we refer to aghápi (KJV “charity”), which most of us spell “agape,” and sometimes mispronounce. That, we insist, is godly love.

Same as our culture, ancient Greek speakers had multiple definitions of the word. They used it all sorts of ways, and used many of the same eight definitions we do. Every once in a while you’ll hear some Christian claim aghápi and fílos are two entirely different kinds of love… but to your average ancient Greek speaker, no they weren’t; they were interchangeable synonyms.

The Corinthians had a bunch of definitions for aghápi. And they were entirely sure they knew what it meant. Corinth was the location of the biggest temple of Aphrodite, the Greek god of love. Corinthians presumed they, of all people, oughta know what aghápi is.

Hence Paul had to write out his definition in order to show ’em no, they really didn’t.

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

In most translations this passage is rendered, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,” etc. 1Co 13.4-5 NRSV That’s not a bad translation, but using all these adjectives gives people the idea Paul described what love is. He didn’t; he used verbs. This is about what love does. Or doesn’t.

English lacks a single word for the verb μακροθυμεῖ/makrothymeí, “has patience”; or the verb χρηστεύεται/hristévete/“behaves kindly.” Hence all the English adjectives. Consequently we get the wrong idea that love is something, and not so much that it does something. Love is active, not passive.

Paul’s definition was corrective, ’cause the Corinthians, same as our culture, had the usual wrong ideas of love.

  • “Love has patience”—whereas our culture can’t wait. It’s now or never.
  • “Love behaves kindly”—we’ll do all sorts of rude and crude and thoughtless things in love’s name, and insist love means never having to say you’re sorry. And don’t get me started on “tough love.”
  • “Love doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion”—love is nothing but out-of-control emotion, wild and unstable, here today and gone tomorrow.
  • “Love doesn’t draw attention to how great it is”—whereas just about every single one of our pop songs extols the greatness and glory of love.
  • “Love doesn’t exaggerate”—whereas lovers offer to climb the highest mountains, swim the deadliest seas, and sacrifice their futures for love. And never really do.
  • “Love doesn’t ignore others’ considerations”—whereas people in love will ignore all their friends, and sacrifice those relationships for their beloved.
  • “Love doesn’t look out for itself”—of course it does.
  • “Love doesn’t provoke behavior”—we’ll lie, cheat, and steal for it.
  • “Love doesn’t plot evil”—we’ll ruin other people’s relationships and marriages for it.
  • “Love doesn’t delight in doing wrong”—but “if loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.”
  • “Love delights in truth”—whereas people will tell their loved ones all sorts of lies, just to protect their feelings, just to keep the romance going.
  • “Love puts up with everything”—until it doesn’t.
  • “Love puts trust in everything”—until you realize your lover is a lying weasel, and you decide you can’t forgive ’em anymore.
  • “Love puts hope in everything”—until reality sets in.
  • “Love survives everything”—tell that to our divorce rate.
  • “Love never falls down”—it wears off after a few years, and people end things because there’s just no hope of getting it back once it’s gone.

You see how our culture has love completely backwards? Corinth was no different. When you read the myths about Aphrodite, you discover she was flighty and unstable. She demanded ridiculous things for “love,” and her emotions turned on a dime. All throughout history, love’s been depicted the very same way. Even today. Watch any present-day romantic comedy.

And none of that is what Paul, or the scriptures, or God, means by love. God is love, and we define love by God’s character: Love isn’t temporary or unstable, because God isn’t temporary or unstable. Love has patience, behaves kindly, acts hopeful and faithful, because God has patience, behaves kindly, and acts hopeful and faithful. The reason true Christians produce the fruit of love is because God’s own character overflows into our lives, and produces the very same behavior.

Stick with Paul’s definition.

I’ve heard a lot of loopy sermons based on the idea of overlaying our culture’s ideas of love onto bible verses. Fr’instance one preacher claimed “Love your neighbor” Lv 19.18 means we need to pursue a close, intimate friendship with every single one of the people in our apartment buildings or housing developments. We should all be the bestest of best friends. With everyone.

Frankly this is nuts. We should love them—be patient with them, kind to them, look out for them—but develop close personal relationships with everyone on the block? Can’t be done. Even if we had that much time and put in that much effort: Some of them are self-centered jerks, and are never gonna do any more with us than use and abuse. They’re not trustworthy. They’re not safe. Don’t befriend them.

Yeah, Jesus befriended sinners. Lk 15.2 But he wasn’t close with them, for he knew what sort of people they were. Jn 2.24-25 We need to exercise the same sort of wisdom when it comes to certain people. It’s far easier for sinners to lead us astray, than for us to lead sinners aright.

“Love your enemy” Lk 6.35 exposes just how dumb this instruction is. Then we see the foolishness of trying to have warm fuzzy feelings towards them. (Although some have tried. Like I said, I’ve heard the sermons.)

So how do we love our neighbors, our enemies—basically everybody? Stick with Paul’s definition. Behave like love does. Impatient? That’s not love; don’t do that. Jealous? That’s not love; don’t do that. Overwhelmed by passion? That’s not love; don’t do that. Shouting from the rooftops? That’s not love; don’t do that.

What’s more, don’t justify such behavior, like pagans will: “But I’m doing it out of love.” That’s not love. Love is self-controlled. Love isn’t possessive. Love doesn’t demand undue attention or outrageous devotion. When you see these non-loving behaviors, recognize ’em for the carnal desires they are. Ask the Holy Spirit for help in weeding them out of your life.

I realize for some folks, they’ll have to do a complete 360-degree turn in their mindset about love. It won’t be easy. But once you get the hang of actual love, the other fruits of the Spirit come much, much faster. Paul likely listed love first Ga 5.22 because the other fruits are so dependent upon it. When we’re deficient in love, of course we’ll be deficient in the others. So make it a priority.

Looking for God. But not there.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 March

Some years ago I was listening to a radio host talk about his doubts. He used to be a pastor, but more recently he’d come to doubt God even exists. Mainly—and understandably!—because of his utter lack of God-experiences. If God exists, shouldn’t his kids have God-experiences?

And he’s absolutely right. We should! But he hadn’t. More accurately, he’s entirely sure he hadn’t; whatever he’d seen thus far, hadn’t convinced him. He’d been Christian for years, yet was pretty sure he’d never heard God’s voice, never seen a legitimate miracle, never had any supernatural event in his life. And, he claimed, he wants these experiences, but thus far, nada.

It was a call-in type of show, so a caller responded, “What about the Pentecostals? They claim they have God-experiences all the time. Why not go there and see what happens?”

Oh no,” said the host. “I’m not going there. I don’t wanna get into that whole scene.”

Lemme pause a moment and make clear: I’m Pentecostal, but no I’m not trying to rope you into visiting a Pentecostal church. Or visiting any particular church. You can experience God anywhere.

My point is how the radio host’s knee-jerk reaction was, “I’m not going there.” He claims he wants a God-experience; this caller said, “Here’s a place where Christians have God-experiences on the regular,” and the host’s reply was, “No, not there.” It’s about when people don‘t actually want God that badly.

There are pop songs where the singer claims he’d do all sorts of crazy things of his beloved. (Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” comes to mind…although it sounds less like risking his life for her, and more like violently killing himself over her. But enough about problematic pop songs.) Singers are willing to climb high mountains, swim deep seas, cross dry deserts, and battle legions of horny suitors for their beloved. But what’ll Christians do for salvation? Anything!… well, anything but go to that church.

Anything but go outside our comfort zones.

For pagans, that’d be us Christians.

I’ve met various pagans who were curious about God, although some admit they aren’t looking all that hard for him. Others claim they’re very interested, and are learning whatever they can about him. Others don’t care at all. It’s a spectrum.

I ask the curious and the interested whether they’ve ever had an actual God-experience. Some of ’em claim they have, and point to some profound “spiritual experience.” (Turns out nearly all of them are emotional experiences, ’cause they don’t know the difference between spiritual and emotional. But that was not the time for me to nitpick.) Others say, “No; I’m not even sure God does that sort of thing.”

“He does,” I tell them. “I go someplace where he shows up regularly.”

“You mean a church,” they respond, suspiciously.

“That too,” I say.

Nah. They’ll pass. Not interested. Because they don’t wanna go to church. They don’t want anything to do with religion. They like God, and might even want God… but they really don’t wanna deal with Christians, our institutions, and our expectations.

Sometimes for legitimate reasons; we’ve been awful. Sometimes not; they were told we’re awful… and it’s not like there’s no truth to those rumors. I grew up Christian, so I’ve seen firsthand how awful we can be. And of course I’m gonna insist we’re not all that way, and that’s gonna fall on deaf ears when a pagan is wholly prejudiced against Christians. They need to see we’re not that way, and that’s gonna take time, and a lot of active love on our part. But back to my point.

Christians, and our churches, make people uncomfortable. And if you can’t fathom this, imagine you’re them. Imagine you have questions about God. Imagine there’s this friendly weirdo you know; might be a coworker, or might be some stranger you met in a coffeehouse, and she claims she can get you all the God-answers you want, and all you gotta do is visit her cult. And no, the people there aren’t mean or controlling at all; they don’t want your money; they’re the nicest folks you’d ever meet! Wanna go check it out?

Swap “cult” for anything which pokes you in your own prejudices: Mosque. Ashram. Coven. Strip club. Maybe then you’ll realize that’s why it’s so hard to get ’em to visit. We’re not part of their comfort zone. Not in the slightest.

We need to bear this in mind when we invite pagans to our churches. If you’ve ever wondered why it’s like pulling teeth… well, there y’are.

This doesn’t stop once we’re Christian.

Once we’re in—once we’ve met Jesus, decided he’s Lord, joined a church, and started following him—we often find ourselves in whole new places where we claim we wanna follow God… but we just won’t follow him there. Plenty of people tell God, “This far; no further.”

And just as in evangelism, quite often the Holy Spirit honors our lines in the sand. Problem is, sometimes he doesn’t have a plan B. There’s only one route he intends to take us, and if we tell him no, he’s not taking us an alternate route; he’s gonna sit there and wait for us to step over that stumbling block. If we refuse… well, we’ve come to a dead stop. We stop. So he stops.

I remind Christians of this, and for some reason this surprises them. What’d they think “Stop” meant? “Stop and go another direction”? Often yeah, that’s what we naïvely thought. But all these other directions are merely side trips. Inevitably we come right back to the original stumbling block.

“Stop just this one thing”? For God, our entire lives are holistic. He’s Lord of all, not Lord over just the religious parts. He doesn’t make exceptions for just this one thing. We may only want him to be Lord over spiritual things, like the happy thoughts we have when we sing worship songs, and the sense of self-fulfillment we get from agreeing with Christian memes. But God refuses to be Lord over only a segment of us… especially such an insignificant segment. He must be rule all, or nothing. If that means our happy thoughts are on their own, so be it.

Every real relationship, especially close ones, pushes us out of our comfort zones. Couples gotta learn how to put up with one another’s quirks and irritating habits. Sometimes they gotta drag one another away from their respective comfort zones, and ask, “Do this one thing, just for me.” Sometimes they gotta ride out a crisis together. Sometimes—God forbid, but sometimes—they gotta go through trauma, and learn to support one another instead of pushing one another away… and not all of ’em successfully do.

I’m not saying they need to seek suffering in order to forcibly (and artificially) strengthen their relationships: Unlike God, they can rarely control the outcome. Trials will come on their own. But when they do, “This far; no further” won’t just put your relationship in a holding pattern while your partner tries to figure out a different direction. In nearly every relationship, “No further” kills the relationship. You’re done.

Thankfully God isn’t like that! He’s not abandoning us when we balk. He’s kinder than that. But in any other relationship, “no further” is a deal-breaker. God, in comparison, patiently waits us out. He’s always willing to pick up where we left off, once we repent. But we still gotta follow the Spirit over that stumbling block: When he tells us, “Do this one thing, just for me,” it really does need to be done. For our sake. That’s why God brought us there to begin with.

So when we have doubts, and God says, “Do this, and it’ll help you deal with them,” and our response is, “I’m not going there,” we shouldn’t be surprised when our Christian growth comes to full stop. Nor when, the absence of Christian growth, our doubts grow instead. It’s easy to see this coming. It’s harder to just follow the Spirit. But that’s what we gotta do.

Same as the pagan who has to take that initial leap of faith—who has to put aside their discomfort and false expectations, because God is more important than any of that.

When God tells us no.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 March

If you ever browse books on prayer, you’ll notice most of them are about being successful at prayer: Prayers that work. Prayers that get heard. Prayers which’ll definitely reach God’s ears. How to be persistent at it, and thereby get what we want. How to have the proper prayer attitude, so God’ll be pleased with us and give us what I want. How to pray as God would want, and therefore get us what we ask for. Yada yada yada.

What makes prayer “successful”? Clearly, getting all our wishes granted.

Of course we won’t always admit this. We’ll try to make our answers sound less greedy, more spiritual, less self-centered. “Um… A successful prayer gets us closer to God.” Yeah, nice try Bubba. Closer to God for why? So now that he knows us, he’ll grant all our wishes.

Look, I already pointed out it’s okay to ask God for anything. The Lord’s Prayer entirely consists of prayer requests, and Jesus tells us to pray like that, so clearly God’s not gonna be offended when we tell him we want stuff from him.

But let’s be honest for once: As far as every Christian is concerned, successful prayer gets results. We ask God for miracles, money, quick fixes to big problems, autonomous fruit of the Spirit, power and influence, and maybe daily bread. God grants all our requests, we get what we want, we give him all the credit (’cause apparently that’s all the payback God needs, and thus we restore our karmic balance), and that’s how prayer works.

Thus we have Christians who arrogantly expect everything we pray for, to just happen. We named it; we claimed it; God’s gotta cough it up, because he promised he’d give us whatever we ask for in Jesus’s name. And he wants us to live successful, prosperous, territory-expanding lives. And he gave us his power to call forth the things that are not, as though they were. Ro 4.17

Now lemme be blunt: God is not your genie.

Nearly all the name-it-claim-it Christians do not have the ultimate goal of growing faith and glorifying God. Their goal is to enrich themselves, and justify their comforts on the grounds God wants us to be comfortable. Their relationship with God is distorted into a senile grandpa who wants to spoil the kids, or a Santa Claus who’ll give us everything on our Christmas lists. It’s entirely based on how God benefits me, ’cause I am the center of this universe.

So those people who are wealthy and comfortable and problem-free, figure God’s happy with them and they needn’t apply any more effort to their relationship. They’ll gleefully call him a mighty God. The rest of us, who still have struggles and suffering… wonder what’s wrong with this system. And one of four things follow:

  1. We figure we’re the problem. We prayed wrong. Or we sin too much, or haven’t confessed everything, and thus alienated God. Or we don’t have enough faith; let’s believe even harder! Or we’re short on good karma; let’s do a bunch of good works and get back in God’s favor. Or maybe we’re not even saved; maybe God isn’t gonna save us.
  2. We figure God turned off the miracles. He doesn’t answer prayer anymore. He left. All he left behind is the bible; read that and be ye warmed and filled. Jm 2.16 KJV
  3. We figure God’s the problem. And if God won’t come through for us, f--- him; we quit. (Happens more often than you’d think.)
  4. We still don’t get it… but we don’t really care enough to investigate, and like the trappings of Christianity too much to just quit. So we go through the motions, claim we believe but really don’t, put our faith in other things, and go Christianist.

All these wrong ideas are based on the assumption that too many Christians don’t honestly consider: God can, and does, tell people no. He’s not ignoring us; he’s not denying us; he’s not punishing us; he’s simply saying, “You don’t know what you’re asking” Mk 10.38 —same as Jesus told two of his students when he told them no.

Yep. God’s not a mathematical formula that, once you figure him out, you can get the answers you like. Our relationship isn’t a contractual quid pro quo, where we do for him, and he’s therefore gotta do for us. He’s a sentient being with free will, and as the wisest being, he knows best. He says “no” for good reason. If we can’t accept that, we’re presuming we’re the wisest person in our relationship… and that’d be stupid.

Learn to trust his no.

It’s actually not true that most of God’s prayer answers are “no.” We humans just tend to focus so much on the “no” answers, we forget how frequently God tells us yes. Imagine a child whose parents took her to the Disney store and bought her every princess tchotchke imaginable… yet because they won’t let her stay up past her bedtime to play with them, her day’s just ruined. That’d be us. We get so fixated on the “no” answers, it colors the way we look at God’s infinite generosity.

Simple fix to the problem: Start keeping track of your prayer requests. Mark down God’s answers. Notice how few “no” answers God actually gives you.

And notice how often these “no” answers are actually “not yet.” I get a lot of those. I get ’em every time I pray for Jesus to return. I know it’ll become yes eventually; it’s inevitable. But God’s response is “Not now,” and I want it to be now. You know, like the kid with the princess toys.

So why not now? Well, God doesn’t have to tell us. Sometimes he will; sometimes he won’t. If the answer will do us any good, he’ll tell; if it doesn’t, he won’t. You might notice, in Job, how we know the entire backstory: The devil dared the LORD to let it smite Job, and the LORD said okay… and poor Job didn’t know what hit him, nor why. Come to think of it, Job would’ve been pissed had God explained it: “Well y’see, Job, the devil and I had this bet…” I sure wouldn’t have appreciated it—even though God has every right to take back my property, my family, my health, and my life, if he so chooses. And Job needed a reminder of that fact, which is why God answered, “Can you do what I can?”—and this truth shut Job up.

When we’re miserable, no answer God gives us is really gonna comfort us. That’s why sometimes God won’t bother with answers. They don’t help. We just need comfort. And faith. We need to remember God knows best.

He doesn’t tell us no because he wants to frustrate his kids, and deprive us. Just the opposite. Mt 7.9-11 He has far better in mind for us—but we don’t see it right now. We can’t see how the consequences of our smallest actions might affect or influence people for billions of years, from this age to the next. We may not even care about such things; we think of ’em as hypothetical realities, and we’re only looking at what’s right here and right now. But to God, these “hypothetical realities” are realities, ’cause he’s infinite and is already there. In order to bring us from here to there, he’s gotta bring out the best in both us and everyone else. If we can’t fathom this, there’s really no point in God giving us any answer: We’ll just flail about in confusion and anger, nitpick his decision (kinda like we already do), and wallow in self-pity.

Look, I don’t like God’s “no” answers any more than you. Deep down I probably still foolishly think I know better. God’s “no” is a reminder I don’t. He does. There are infinitely good reasons why I follow him, and not vice-versa. And if I’m gonna follow him, I need to accept a “no” from time to time and be okay with it. So I try. So should we all.

“Spiritual… but not religious.”

by K.W. Leslie, 09 March
SPIRITUAL 'spɪ.rɪtʃ(.əw).əl adjective. Dealing with immaterial things in the human spirit or soul.
2. Dealing with religion.
[Spirituality 'spɪr.ɪt.ʃəw.æl.ə.di noun.]

Many pagans like to describe themselves as spiritual. ’Cause they are: They believe in immaterial things, like the soul. Might even believe in other spirits; or God, whom they correctly recognize is spirit; Jn 4.24 or a spiritual afterlife. Or not: They only believe in spiritual forces, like good vibes or positivity, bad vibes or negativity, which can affect not just ourselves, but everyone around us.

Christians call ourselves spiritual too, ’cause we are. We have the Holy Spirit, who’s hopefully working on us—if we let him. We’re taught to pursue spirit, not flesh. Ro 8.5-6 We believe in God and angels and unclean spirits (like the devil) and that we’re part spirit. For the most part, we believe in the supernatural too.

Now, you can tell a pagan all this: “You’re spiritual? So’m I.” But there’s still a dividing line which they insist they won’t cross: They’re spiritual. But not religious. We Christians are religious, and they don’t wanna go there.

This’ll confuse many an Evangelical. ’Cause over the past six decades, many have got it into our heads we’re not religious. (And we might not be, but that’s another article.) When Evangelicals say “religion,” most of us mean dead religion, and we’re not that; we have a living relationship with Jesus, right?

I used to believe this rubbish too, so I’d tell pagans, same as most Evangelicals, “Oh, I don’t have a religion. I have a relationship.”

Which confused ’em. To a pagan, if you go to church—and we should!—you’re in an organized religion. You don’t get to determine, on your own, by yourself, what you do and don’t believe: Your church does. Your bishop, pastors, and elders do. They tell you what to think and believe and do. There are rules. There are mandatory rituals. You’re threatened with hell if you don’t do them.

Obviously they’ve never been to church (or if they have, it was kind of a cult), ’cause it doesn’t work that way at all. Yeah, the church has official doctrines, and if you wanna get into church leadership you gotta agree with the doctrines. But the regular members believe what they want, do as they want, and answer to nobody but the Holy Spirit; and they won’t even follow him half the time. Or most of the time. And there’s grace, or at least there had better be; we do have a proper understanding that good works don’t save us; nobody should be using hellfire to threaten one another.

Even so: Whenever we Evangelicals claim, “Oh I’m not religious,” pagans believe either we’re lying, and trying to trick ’em into joining our religion; or we’ve been brainwashed, and don’t realize just how far our religious leaders have their tentacles in us.

Likewise, “No, my church doesn’t work like that.” Pagans won’t believe this either: They’ve heard the horror stories… or, sadly, might’ve lived them. They “know better.”

The religion they prefer is one which permits them perfect freedom. Nobody tells them what to think, how to do things, how to be, where to go. Maybe God gets to; maybe their angels. Maybe they listen to their favorite gurus with fervent devotion, and do everything they’re told, same as any cult member. But to their minds, they can walk away whenever they like; they’re in control. They’re not sure they can maintain this level of control if they set foot in your church building. So no thank you. Organized religion isn’t for them.

Not all disorganized religion is the same.

I’ve heard Christians describe the “spiritual but not religious” as if they’re all the same—as if these pagans only dabble in religion, but have no strong beliefs. Or if they totally do have an organized religion, but like Evangelicals they’re in denial, because they redefined their vocabulary words.

As I explained in my article on eclecticism, humans don’t monolithically all believe the same things. We can lump people into categories, and even then they don’t all believe likewise. You gotta ask ’em on an individual basis.

But generally I find the “spiritual but not religious” fall into six groups.

FAKE CHRISTIANS. By all outside appearances, these appear to be Christians… but they just won’t affiliate themselves with any church. They’re going it alone. They call themselves Christian; they know Christian terms, and have Christian trappings. But in fact they’re incognito pagans—they only think they’re Christian. They have no Holy Spirit within them, and produce none of his fruit.

Nope; they’re not hypocrites; they’re not faking anything. They honestly do think they’re Christian. They have no idea they’re not, or have some idea but suppress those doubts as much as they can. They like Jesus; they just don’t follow him. They like the bible; they just never read it, don’t know it, and are easily tripped up with fake bible quotes. They don’t pray, or they assume their positive attitudes count as a form of prayer. And they certainly don’t go to church, ’cause they never wanna be told they’re wrong.

There’s more than one type of fake Christian. I just mentioned the positive sort, whose idea of Christianity is happy and uplifting and heavenly and friendly. Then there’s the negative sort. All the fears and paranoia of dark Christianity—and the reason they won’t go to church is they don’t trust any church, and think they’ve all been corrupted by Satan. Yours included. They might read the bible, but only to find proof texts for their conspiracy theories. They might pray, but largely they’re imprecatory prayers—“God, smite my foes” and all that. They’re more obviously fruitless than the positive Christianist: No grace, no love, lots of anger.

DEVOTEES. These folks have a religion. But they’re like Evangelicals who’re in denial about how their consistent practices are so a religion. They figure because they’re in no organized religion, they’re not religious. But of course they’re religious: Whatever beliefs they have, they believe in ’em devoutly. They’ll even try to convert you.

’Cause many pagans, though they refuse to join any particular church or religion, really wanna know the truth about the universe, the afterlife, God, and so forth. So they explore, study, learn… and believe. They find things to believe in, and are entirely sure they’re true. They’ll bet their lives (and afterlife) on it.

In any event, their minds are made up, and you’re not gonna convert them till they shake their beloved beliefs.

SEEKERS. And here’s the polar opposite of the devotees: These folks are totally open-minded. They don’t currently adhere to any religion. But if we present ’em with a good one, they’ll join.

These are just the sort of pagans we Christians love to work with. ’Cause their minds are open. They’ll visit our churches. They’ll listen to what we have to say. They may not agree with everything, but that’s okay: If they hang out with us long enough, they’ll meet Jesus, and he’ll cinch the deal and make ’em Christian.

DIVORCÉS. They’re a form of seeker: They just left another religion. They used to be devotees—sometimes of their own ideas—but they realized it was all bogus, or it stopped working for them. so they quit. In some cases their gurus and leaders drove ’em away. Regardless, they’re still open to God and spirituality. They just haven’t found a new religion yet.

Like seekers, these are also the sort of pagans we Christians love to work with. Although if they just left one branch of Christianity, they’re gonna come with a lot of baggage—a lot of hurts we have to minister to. And they’ll still have a lot of misconceptions about God, held over from their previous religion—some of which they might be really fond of. Gotta be patient with them.

ANTICHRISTS. Regardless of their beliefs, when it comes to Christianity, they want nothing to do with it, and that’s firm. They had a terrible experience with it, or encountered really awful representatives of it. Frankly, they’d like to see it done away with.

Since I’m writing about the “spiritual but not religious,” I don’t mean the non-spiritual: I don’t mean nontheists and agnostics. They tend to be antichrists too; they often want to see all religion eliminated. But when a pagan is spiritual yet antichrist, it means they do believe in God or gods or spirits… just not Jesus of Nazareth, nor his followers. They don’t consider us valid. Antichrists will claim Jesus’s followers made everything up, and even that Jesus himself never existed. They’ll be open to everything but Christianity. Their minds are open to everything else, but not us. They’ll try anything else, so long as it’s not Christian.

APATHETIC. They sorta believe in God, gods, or spirits. But really, they figure there are way more important things in their life than religious beliefs. They don’t wanna explore these ideas any deeper. They figure they’re just fine as-is.

True, sometimes an apathetic pagan evolves into a seeker. When life gets rough or unmanageable, people might point ’em to religion, so they’ll dabble, and see whether it can help ’em any. And maybe nothing more than that: They’ll use meditation to relieve stress, but they won’t examine meditation to see whether it reveals anything more about God. They’ll believe in a higher power ’cause it helps them through their 12-step program, but they won’t try to get to know their higher power, ’cause the important thing is breaking their addiction. The goal is their own well-being. Nothing more.

Help them find their way.

As you can tell, some of the “spiritual but not religious” folks are open to what we have to say… and some not so much. Seekers and divorcés might listen. Devotees and fake Christians will try to instruct us. Antichrists will fight us. And apathetic folks won’t care. So if you wanna share Jesus with pagans, first figure out what stripe of pagan they are.

No, I’m not saying to skip resistant pagans, like the antichrists. God wants to save them too. I’m just warning you: They’re gonna fight us. It’s way harder to share Jesus with someone who hates Jesus. In many ways it’s even harder to share Jesus with the apathetic: They don’t care whether he loves them. And Jesus tells us we ordinarily shouldn’t waste our time and theirs: Once you tried, shake the dust off your feet against ’em. Mk 6.11

But sometimes pagans change camps. Fake Christians repent and become real Christians. Antichrists like Saul of Tarsus run into the living Christ and switch teams in a blink. Devotees realize they’re totally wrong and become divorcés. I don’t care what determinists tell you: Don’t ever write someone off. You never know what the Holy Spirit is doing to ’em.

So as you wait for the Spirit’s next instructions, be available. They may have no questions for you right now, and not even care to hear a thing you have to say. So make sure they know you’re a non-judgmental Christian, whom they can come to once they ever get curious. When the Spirit’s about to crack that walnut, he often turns to the people who made themselves available like that.

And by non-judgmental I really do mean non-judgmental. Don’t judge them! Don’t debate ’em. Don’t rebuke ’em. Don’t correct ’em. They’re not Christians; you have no business holding non-Christians to God’s standards. Not even God does that. Ro 2.14-16 You’re there to be Jesus to them, and Jesus didn’t come to condemn but save. Jn 3.17 When they wanna turn to Jesus, you’re there to point the way. Till then… well, point the way.

Memorize Galatians 5.22-23.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 March

Whenever Christians talk about the Holy Spirit’s fruit, we typically quote Paul’s list of ’em in Galatians 5.22-23. And it’s not a bad idea to memorize this particular verse. Pick your favorite translation and put it in your brain; I’ll quote the original.

Galatians 5.22-23 THGNT
22 ὁ δὲ καρπὸς τοῦ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἀγάπη, χαρά, εἰρήνη, μακροθυμία, χρηστότης, ἀγαθωσύνη, πίστις,
23 πραΰτης, ἐγκράτεια· κατὰ τῶν τοιούτων οὐκ ἔστιν νόμος.

Oh okay; the King James Version.

Galatians 5.22-23 KJV
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

Anyway, this way we have a small inventory of fruit memorized. Comes in handy if there’s ever any question whether these things are fruit.

Defining the words.

Obviously whenever people quote this verse, it’s to list the fruits, and to define ’em. And for that, they bust out the dictionary—and if they have any sense, they bust out the Greek dictionary, since our English dictionaries only tell us how popular culture defines stuff.

I’ll quote Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament.

ἀγάπη/agápi, from ἀγαπάω/agapáo. Love, i.e. affection or benevolence; specially (plural) a love-feast—(feast of) charity(-ably), dear, love.

χαρά/hará, from χαίρω/haíro. Cheerfulness, i.e. calm delight—gladness. Or “greatly” (or “be exceeding”) “joy(-ful, -fully, -fulness, -ous).”

εἰρήνη/eiríni, probably from a primary verb εἴρω/eíro (to join). Peace (literally or figuratively); by implication, prosperity—one, peace, quietness, rest, + set at one again.

μακροθυμία/makrothymía, from the same as μακροθυμώς/makrothymós. Longanimity, i.e. (objectively) forbearance or (subjectively) fortitude—longsuffering, patience.

χρηστότης/hristótis, from χρηστός/hristós. Usefulness, i.e. morally, excellence (in character or demeanor)—gentleness, good(-ness), kindness.

ἀγαθωσύνη/agathosýni, from ἀγαθός/agathós. Goodness, i.e. virtue or beneficence—goodness.

πίστις/pístis, from πείθω/peítho. Persuasion, i.e. credence; moral conviction (of religious truth, or the truthfulness of God or a religious teacher), especially reliance upon Christ for salvation; abstractly, constancy in such profession; by extension, the system of religious (gospel) truth itself—assurance, belief, believe, faith, fidelity.

πραΰτης/praýtis, from πραΰς/praýs. Mildness, i.e. (by implication) humility—meekness.

ἐγκράτεια/enkráteia, from ἐγκρατής/enkratís. Self-control (especially continence)—temperance.

Other dictionaries will analyze these words in greater detail, and of course you can do a word study on each of ’em to see how the bible’s authors used these words.

Anyway these are some of the traits which should be obvious in a growing Christian. Having this verse memorized means we can more easily identify other Christians as growing… or not. But more importantly, we can identify whether we are growing… or not. It’ll remind us to be fruity.

Seeker-sensitivity: Being all things to all people.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 March
SEEKER 'sik.ər noun. One who’s attempting to find religion: God, truth, peace, or self-justification.
 
SEEKER-SENSITIVE 'sik.ər 'sɛn.sə.dɪv adjective. Caring about seekers’ feelings, hangups, offenses, needs, or lack of familiarity; adapting one’s message in consideration.
2. Compromising one’s message to make it more appealing.
[Seeker-sensitivity 'sik.ər sɛn.sə'dɪv.ə.di noun.]

People are more apt to listen to you if you’re like them.

Yeah, I know there are exceptions to this rule. When I’ve been on missions trips, the locals are kinda curious about the novelty of American foreigners, and that’s why they’re more apt to listen to me a bit. But only till the novelty wears off.

One of the things American missionaries discovered in the 20th century (and it’s a little dumbfounding it took us so long to discover it, but it’s probably ’cause racism) is our missions either grow really slow, or don’t grow at all, whenever we don’t put locals in charge. The fastest-growing churches and denominations are run by natives, not foreigners.

Paul of Tarsus understood this, and when he went round the Roman Empire founding churches, he recognized the importance of adjusting himself to whatever culture he worked in. Still obeying God, of course. Yet he lived within the cultural expectations of the people he preached to. He didn’t want his obvious differences to get in the way of the gospel.

1 Corinthians 9.19-23 KWL
19 Having freedom in everything, I enslave myself. Because I could get many!
20 I become, to the Judeans, like a Judean. Because I could get Judeans!
I become, to Law-followers, like a Law-follower. Because I could get Law-followers!
21 I become, to Law-breakers, like a Law-breaker—
Not breaking God’s Law, but following Christ’s Law. Because I could get Law-breakers!
22 I become, to the weak, weak. Because I could get the weak!
I become, to whomever, whatever. Because however I could save some of them, I will.
23 I’ll do anything for the gospel, so I can be a part of it.

One of the other things American missionaries discovered in the 20th century… is the United States is also a foreign culture. No, this isn’t still because racism: If you grew up in popular Christian culture, you have a mindset which pagans aren’t all that familiar with, don’t understand… and sometimes find wholly offensive.

Ever took your pagan friends to church… only for that to be the week your pastor unexpectedly went off on a rant about the very issues which alienate your pagan friends? Might be politics, or social issues, or even football teams. Whatever it takes for pagans to have the knee-jerk response, “I’m never coming back here.”

Man alive, have I been there. Took months to coax ’em into the building; took all of three minutes to convince ’em hell sounds more fun.

So this is what seeker-sensitivity is about: Trying not to push people’s buttons. Trying not to alienate potential Christians. Trying to share the gospel, not our agendas. Trying to be kind to newcomers.

Thing is, look up “seeker-sensitive” on the internet, and just about all you’ll find are people who are totally against the practice. Why?

Bluntly, and a little crudely, it’s ’cause they’re a--holes.

Seeker-insensitivity.

Whether they got their attitude from dark Christians, or they never bothered to grow fruit and turned dark all on their own, a number of would-be Christian evangelists are not kind like our Lord is, and wants us to be. They feel the gospel has to be presented in terms of “my way God’s way or the highway,” and any lessening of its “righteousness” is compromise. The freedom in everything which Paul wrote about? 1Co 9.19 They feel that’s for them to enjoy, but God’s grace doesn’t extend to anyone else, so they’ll bash every sin which offends them and call that the gospel. It’s really not.

Thanks to them, too many Christians are afraid to adapt the gospel message to new environments. They’re too afraid we might change it, and then it’d no longer be the gospel, and heresy. They’re afraid we won’t create new Christians, but compromise-riddled heretics.

I understand the concern. But for the most part it’s totally invalid.

It’s because a lot of Christians don’t recognize there’s a vast difference between popular Christian culture, and God’s kingdom; there’s a wide difference between every Christian topic, and the gospel. One’s narrower than the other. The gospel is the good news that God’s kingdom has come near. Mk 1.15 It’s that God wants a relationship with us, wants to be our Father, and made it possible through Christ Jesus. It’s not our worship, our religious practices, our ministries and good deeds—you know, the stuff we do to further that relationship. The religion stuff might be incredibly useful to us, and potentially useful to others, but it’s adaptable. Sometimes it’s even disposable.

For Christianists, those people who pursue popular Christian culture but not so much Christ himself, their culture is the gospel, is God’s kingdom. They don’t recognize it as our pathetic human substitute for the real thing. They worry if we compromise their culture, we’ve compromised the gospel. That’s why they’re willing to tear entire churches apart over stupid little things like music style, bible translations, and the color they painted their Fellowship Hall.

I’ve heard a number of ’em claim not only should we not make cultural adaptations to reach pagans: We should double down. We should get even more traditional and hardcore and old-timey. ’Cause pagans won’t respect a watered-down “gospel”: They want all the differences and otherworldiness and old-fashioned trappings. They’re rejecting their culture to embrace Jesus; they don’t want him new and modern and relevant, but ancient and medieval and alien. And if they want to abandon today’s secular culture, why on earth are we trying to make Christianity speak to it?

One Catholic pundit in particular claims this is why more people are turning Catholic: They want these old traditions. Thing is, when you look at the stats, you find he doesn’t really understand what’s going on. Yes, people are turning Catholic because they yearn for tradition. But the people turning Catholic are Protestants turning Catholic. Not pagans. We’re talking about Christians who want to try a new religious tradition, not people with no religious tradition who want to adopt one.

And if you know any Catholic missionaries, you’ll know they’re totally seeker-sensitive. They’re trying to make Catholic tradition relevant to today’s pagans, as well as curious Protestants. But they’re not actually trying to seek and save the found. Neither should we be.

Drop the Christianese.

So if we’re gonna share Jesus with pagans, the first thing we gotta do is eliminate all the vocabulary words they won’t understand. Stop trying to sound like a Christian, and start trying to sound like them.

No, you don’t have to start using their profanities. Nor their slang; you’ll sound ridiculous. (’Cause they sound ridiculous, but they’re clueless.) You just have to drop all the Christianese, the terms we Christians casually fling around which aren’t familiar to newbies or pagans. In fact I’ve found a lot of Christians aren’t sure what they mean either. They’ve been guessing all this time. So eliminate the guess work. Unfamiliar terms get in the way, so learn familiar ones.

Yeah, Christianists act like this is heresy. I’ve watched ’em lose their tiny minds when I use common English instead of the words redemption or atonement or transubstantiation. Usually ’cause once they learn what these words actually mean, it turns out they don’t really believe in them! Turns out they’re the heretics. Whoops.

Other times, I kinda see where they’re coming from. One particular megachurch tries to avoid the words cross and sin and surrender and repent in their literature and website. Wait, aren’t these concepts central to salvation? Humans are sinners; Jesus defeated sin? Sin darned well better be on a real Christian’s website. Otherwise there’s no gospel in that church.

But sin is a Christianese word. Seriously. Pagans don’t use the word! Not that they don’t totally know what wrongdoing is; not that they don’t know God forbids certain things. They certainly forbid certain things. But ask your average pagan, and they’ll think sin means “evil,” not “violating God’s command.” Your average evangelist doesn’t bother to define it either; they just assume everyone already knows what sin is. So when they fling the word around, pagans misinterpret it: To them, “All have sinned” means “All are evil,” and they can’t believe that. And that’s not what we’re trying to teach anyway. (Well, I’m not. I don’t know about certain dark evangelists.)

You see the problem. So the responsible thing to do, believe it or not, is to not use the Christianese word sin. Instead:

  • God told humanity what he expects of us.
  • People either don’t know his expectations—or in extreme cases deliberately violate them, just to show him their contempt.
  • God offers to forgive us everything, and help us reform ourselves.
  • God wants to create a kingdom of such followers, and live in love and harmony with us forever.

Didn’t use sin in any of that gospel presentation. Didn’t need to. And yet some Christians will insist I just taught heresy, because I didn’t use their favorite word—or because I defined it correctly, and they’re convinced it doesn’t really mean that..

Stop using proof texts.

And if they can’t handle dropping Christianese, they especially get outraged when I tell ’em to drop the proof texts.

Most evangelists, when they preach Jesus, quote the scriptures like crazy. As we should. But for some reason they tack on the bible reference to every single quote.

“For all have sinned—Romans 3.23—and the wages of sin is death—Romans 6.23—but Christ has taken our sins and nailed them to the cross—Colossians 2.14—and so we’ve died to sin—Romans 6.10.”

Yeah, that’s some good proof-texting. Now, are any of the pagans you’re preaching at, gonna get out their bibles and look up any of those references? Are they gonna remember those references? Do they even have a bible?

See, pagans don’t care about the bible. Haven’t learned to care about it. To them, it’s a book. “The Good Book,” but still a book. They might own a copy, but they don’t know where it is, any more than I know where my copy of The Book of Mormon is. They already assume all the stuff we’re preaching comes out of the bible—even though sometimes it doesn’t. I once heard some pagan on a radio show express great surprise that the apostles aren’t called “St. Paul,” “St. John,” or “St. James” in the bible. Clearly he never read it, and that’s to be expected.

But for the most part, pagans don’t want to hear us quote a book. Even The Good Book. They wanna know what we’ve experienced. What’s Jesus done for you lately? And what might he do for me?

See, to us Christians, the scriptures might be living and active, He 4.12 but pagans haven’t experienced this power firsthand. To them, the bible’s just another ancient book written by dead brown guys, translated into old-timey English by dead white guys, over-quoted by overbearing old farts. We Christians respect the bible; they don’t. Before this attitude changes, they gotta meet Jesus.

Again, critics are horrified by this idea. Proclaiming the gospel without bible references? It can’t be done. It shouldn’t be done. It can’t be anything but heresy.

Yet evangelism without the bible references is precisely what we see in the bible. Chapter and verse numbers weren’t invented yet, so when they quoted bible, the most they could tell you was “In the prophets” or “According to Isaiah” or “It is written”—and a lot of times they didn’t bother and just started quoting. For that matter, in Acts, the apostles had to share Jesus without a New Testament—they were still writing it!—and couldn’t quote the gospels, nor their fellow apostles’ letters, nor Jesus’s revelation to John.

Even then, quoting the Old Testament only worked on fellow Jews. Gentiles weren’t familiar with it, didn’t respect it (like our present day), and Paul had to resort to quoting Greek poets. Ac 17.28 I’m not kidding. He quoted pagans. It’s as if I tried to share Jesus by quoting Mohandas Gandhi. Which I have in fact done.

Yes, I also quote bible. Lots of bible. Directly and indirectly. I’d better be consistent with the scriptures. But I don’t throw in the addresses. To a pagan, a scripture address means, “I’m quoting an old book; I have no personal experience with this,” and so forth. And they’re not gonna look it up.

To Christianists, the bible is part of the gospel. The very first thing I should be teaching these pagans is to respect the bible as God’s word. ’Cause it’s our foundation for everything we believe about Jesus. If I don’t make that crystal clear to them, it’s like I’ve denied the scriptures.

Okay, first of all our foundation for what we believe about Jesus, is Jesus. 1Co 3.11 The scriptures speak about him, Jn 5.39 but if he’s not valid, the scriptures aren’t valid. Pagans understand this. Christians, particularly those who inadvertently worship their bibles, forget it, and need to be reminded of it.

So our priority isn’t bible, but Jesus. We need pagans to meet Jesus, get to know Jesus, get to follow Jesus—and then they’ll wanna crack those bibles and learn as much as they can from them. Too many people already love their bibles but don’t love Jesus. Turns ’em rotten. Let’s not make more of them.

Don’t drop Jesus!

Thus far I’ve discussed false compromise. Now let’s deal with the real thing.

Every so often I’ll meet spineless Christians who can’t share Jesus without caving in. Sometimes they know this, which is why they never bother to share Jesus. Other times they plow right ahead… but preach a gospel with all the uncomfortable bits edited out. “Come to Jesus and he’ll solve all your problems,” is usually the form this takes. They never warn people that Christianity presents its own set of problems, like fighting our selfishness, struggling with righteousness, dealing with doubt, pushback from antichrists, and evading the devil’s booby-traps. Christianity isn’t easy; it’s hard. But it’s true.

Those who preach Christianity is so easy: Too often they’re avoiding the hard parts themselves. They don’t fight their selfishness, nor struggle with righteousness. They practice cheap grace. That’s their version of the gospel: God forgives all, so believe in him and you won’t have to go to hell. And won’t have to change anything else. Just your beliefs. Which is easy; you can psyche yourself into believing anything you want.

Of course, presented with one of the not-so-easy concepts, some of these folks fold like a defective lawn chair. “You don’t really believe God throws people into hell, do you?” makes ’em sputter, “Uh… yes? But even so, he’s really really nice.” And they try to make hell sound not all that nasty; that it’ll be cold and dark instead of hot and stinky; that very, very few people will go there; that people in hell will be burnt up instead of suffering forever (which, to be fair, is debatable); or that hell is temporary, and after a bit God’ll let everybody into heaven. However they weasel away from the idea, it’s because the peer pressure got to them, and they don’t want God to appear unfriendly, unfair, intolerant, unpopular, or punitive.

Most of the time it’s the individual Christian who lacks a spine. But I’ve run into churches who lack one too: They don’t like the idea of hell. (Hey, I don’t blame ’em; anyone who loves the idea of hell is seriously twisted.) But while there’s nothing wrong with de-emphasizing it, ’cause it’s not a central idea of the gospel, they don’t just de-emphasize it. They deny it. They claim it’s not there, or not so bad. They also wind up ignoring Jesus’s every warning to stay away from it.

There are Christians who are more liberal than the scriptures, and Christians who are more conservative. I’ve met all sorts. They teach the beliefs they like, instead of the gospel of Christ Jesus.

Technically none of this is seeker-sensitivity. True seeker-sensitivity is about being kind to the seeker: If a truth makes ’em uncomfortable, tell it as kindly as we can. But tell it. Tactfully. Carefully. Lovingly. Graciously.

Fake seeker-sensitivity isn’t about kindness. It’s about avoiding our own discomfort. It’s about sucking up to the seeker, telling ’em whatever they want to hear, doing whatever it takes to turn ’em to Jesus. Of course, if we’ve not presented him accurately, are they really turning to Jesus?

The Jesus of spineless Christians is a spineless Jesus. One who’d never have defeated sin and death; he’d have worshiped the devil Lk 4.5-8 and spared himself a crucifixion. Not that the Jesus of graceless Christians is any better: Full of wrath, absent of love.

So as you can tell, I advocate for true seeker-sensitivity. We need to present Jesus like Paul did: Whatever facilitates sharing the true Jesus with others, let’s do. Whatever makes people balk, or run away, let’s handle carefully. And everything else—the cultural differences, our individual practices, our church’s favorite emphases, the popular buzzwords, the junk—let’s set aside. That’s not the gospel. First things first.

The bargain with God.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 March

Probably the most common form of prayer is the bargain with God. It takes the form of, “God, if you do this for me, I’ll [something I may do; no guarantees though].”

We fill in the blank with all sorts of things. We promise we’ll reform our behavior: We’ll stop sinning, start some religious practice—or do one of ’em more regularly, be more charitable, perform some act of penance, or pathetically that we’ll even believe in God. ’Cause we don’t really, and this bargain with God is, to completely confound metaphors, our Hail Mary pass.

I’ve heard a lot of Christians dismiss, mock, or discourage the bargain with God. They believe it encourages the wrong attitude about prayer: Prayer’s about putting God’s will before ours. Not about working out an exchange of goods and services.

True. But the whole putting-God’s-will-first idea? That’s something devout believers know and practice. The bargain-with-God idea? We find it more among pagans, unbelievers, not-yet-believers, and newbies. (And the desperate, who revert back to this old behavior whenever doubt overwhelms ’em.) When we’re talking mature Christians, of course I’m gonna discourage them from trying to cut deals with the Almighty, ’cause we’re supposed to be tighter with him than that.

But when we’re talking newbies, I don’t mind when they bargain with God. And y’know, God doesn’t mind if they bargain with him either. Sometimes he actually accepts their deals.

No, really. It’s in the bible.

Genesis 28.20-22 KWL
20 Jacob vowed a vow, saying, “God, if you’re with me on the way I’m going,
you’ll give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, 21 and I’ll return in peace to my father’s house.
LORD, be God to me.
22 This stone, which I set up as a marker, is God’s house.
Everything you give me, I tithe you a tenth of it.”

God actually went along with that one. He watched over Jacob, despite the trickery of his uncle/father-in-law Laban, and despite some of Jacob’s own trickery. Jacob did eventually return to Canaan in peace.

1 Samuel 1.11 KWL
Hanna vowed a vow, saying, “LORD of War, if you see me,
see your maidservant’s affliction. Remember me. Don’t forget your maidservant.
Give your maidservant offspring, a man,
and I give him to the LORD all the days of his life.
A razor will never go upon his head.”

God went along with that one too. Hanna’s offspring was the prophet Samuel, and his mother dedicated him to God. Hence the whole no-razor thing; those under a Nazirite vow of holiness never cut their hair. Nu 6.5 Samuel was even sent to live at tabernacle, where he first heard God’s voice.

Judges 11.30-31 KWL
30 Jefta vowed a vow to the LORD. He said, “If you give answers to prayer,
give the sons of Ammon into my hand.
31 My offering will be whatever goes out the door of my house to meet me on my return,
in peace after battling the sons of Ammon.
It’s for the LORD; it goes up in the fire.”

And God did indeed help Jefta defeat the Ammonites. Unfortunately Jefta’s story has a nasty ending. See, the first thing out of Jefta’s house—the thing which Jefta promised to go up in the fire—was his only daughter. Jg 11.34

Yeah, are we sure this was part of the bargain?

Jefta’s first, understandable response was to freak out. Jg 11.35 Because while he knew he couldn’t break his vows to God, Nu 30.2 he didn’t know God well enough to know human sacrifice opened up a huge exception to his promise: God forbade that! Dt 18.10 But all the pagan gods permitted human sacrifice, so Jefta assumed why wouldn’t the real God?

So he gave his daughter two months to mourn, then “did to her as he vowed.” Jg 11.34-39 Which lots of Christians much prefer to imagine was send her to live as some kind of pre-Christianity nun, but they had no such things back then. So… eww. Just eww.

Because of the horrible outcome of the Jefta story, there are plenty of Christians who insist there’s no such thing as a bargain with God. Jefta thought God gave him victory because of his vow, but this is a case of the post hoc ergo propter hoc error: Just because one event follows another, it doesn’t mean one’s a cause and the other’s an effect. God was gonna let Jefta defeat the Ammonites anyway. He didn’t have to vow to burn the first thing out of his door. Arguably he might’ve just been showing off, just to demonstrate how devout he was.

Anyway, these Christians get downright deterministic: The Almighty’s gonna do what the Almighty’s gonna do. Making promises isn’t gonna sway him one way or the other, once his mind’s made up. So if our promises are irrelevant, they’re therefore invalid. So what if I promised God I’d go to church if he’d heal my kid? He was gonna heal my kid either way. To hell with church.

Sounds all reasonable and logical… till we get to the rotten fruit.

Look, obviously God has his own ideas and plans in a lot of situations. Sometimes, especially when we’re following Jesus, we’re gonna want the same things he does, and pray for the same outcomes he wants. Even when we’re not following Jesus, sometimes we’re gonna coincidentally want the same things: Pagans don’t want their neighbors to throw noisy orgies every weekend, any more than God does, though for different reasons. Sometimes the bargain with God isn’t necessary, ’cause we’re on the very same page: He wants what we want.

But the main reason people decide, after the fact, that the bargain with God is invalid: They wanna weasel out of the bargain. At that point, they’re perfectly happy when some know-it-all Christian proclaims, “God doesn’t make such deals.” He doesn’t? Great!—it lets ’em off the hook. They don’t have to follow through with their end of the bargain. Heck, some of ’em will quickly jump from “God doesn’t make such deals” to “There’s no God out there to make such deals with.”

The fact is, if God appears to come through in any bargain, we’re on the hook for it. ’Cause we promised God, “If you… then I’ll,” and it doesn’t matter whether he did it specifically for us or not: We promised we would. God holds us to our promises. Don’t make ’em if you won’t follow through with them.

If you don’t really believe there’s a God out there to make such promises to, that’s a whole separate issue. The whole no-atheists-in-foxholes, “If you’re there, God, get me out of this!” situation is a pretty common move of desperation. But be honest with yourself: Did God legitimately come through for you? Did you actually get what you prayed for? You did? Then do a little more investigating. You’ve got some evidence for a real God; it makes sense to find out more. Denial might be convenient, but it’s stupid.

God’s motive: Faith.

The bargain with God isn’t an invalid form of prayer. Immature? Sure. But sometimes we’re immature. And God is willing to meet us where we are.

That’s the point. That’s why God sometimes takes us up on these deals: We don’t know him. We don’t know any better. We doubt he’s there. We don’t know the difference between God’s love and reciprocity: We think we gotta pay him back; that if he does us a favor, we owe him one. And when we do know better, but we’re desperate, we wonder whether offering God something, anything, might just tip the scales in our favor.

The bargain with God means he’s dealing with a person who lacks knowledge and faith. He interacts with these people anyway because he wants to grow their knowledge and faith. He knows answering their prayers will get them to take him seriously, even follow him. In the long run it’ll have a positive outcome. And he’s not gonna be so hung up on “what’s proper” to deny such people. (Besides, who gets to decide what’s proper anyway?)

Hence when we bargain with God, we need to be sincere in what we offer. Too often people tell God, “If you… then I’ll,” but have no follow-through. They might totally mean it in the moment, but they’re flaky. And God knows whether we’re the type of people who will, no matter how ridiculous it might look, how humiliated we might feel, do as we promised. If our promise is likely to bring us into a relationship with him, of course he’ll take us up on those deals. God’s no fool. He knows a good deal when he sees it.

In some cases, we’re not sincere but God still takes us up on our bargains. And then—because we’re not allowed to break our oaths to God Nu 30.2 —lets us suffer the consequences of oath-breaking. Not because God wants us to suffer, but to make us realize a promise is a serious thing. For those people who have a superficial relationship with God, this wakes ’em up: God isn’t to be trifled with.

Maturity: When God stops making deals.

Keep following God, and you’ll invariably find we reach a point where we can’t bargain with him anymore.

About 15 years ago I was really in a bind. I asked God’s help out of it, and in good ol’ desperation I found myself trying to bargain with him a little. “If you do this for me,” I told him, trying to think of anything to bargain with, “then I’ll….”

“You’ll do it anyway,” said the Holy Spirit.

I stopped. Went through a mental inventory, which took a while: Everything I could think of to offer, was stuff I ought to do regardless.

  • Give something up? I should give it up regardless.
  • Pray more? I should pray more regardless.
  • Praise more? Ditto.
  • Give more charity? Also ditto.

Went through everything I could think of, and gradually realized I was screwed. I got nothing.

And as any mature Christian could tell you: Well duh. We’re supposed to surrender everything to God when we first became Christians. We don’t have anything left to bargain with: It’s all surrendered! If we have any bargaining chip, it means we’re inappropriately clinging to something we have no business saving. Gotta give it up too.

When we look back upon our old bargains with God, we’ll often laugh about how immature these bargains were: The stuff we offered him, already belonged to him! Everything was a gift from God; anything that wasn’t, needed to go. And in the End, everything goes into the fire. 1Co 3.10-15 What’s from God, survives. What’s not… well, if we’re still clinging to it, I suppose we’ll stay in the fire with it.

So after a certain point of Christian maturity, the bargain with God can’t work. We’re beyond that. Which is just as well.

By this point, we oughta have way more faith in God to answer prayer. We oughta be way better at hearing him. We shouldn’t have to resort to desperate behavior so often. Okay, sometimes there will be slip-ups, like mine. But we can easily slip right back into place once God snaps us out of our panic. No bargaining necessary.

Pagans and heathens and nonchristians; oh my!

by K.W. Leslie, 02 March
PAGAN 'peɪ.gən adjective. Holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions. A non-Christian.
2. A neopagan: Adherent of a recent religious movement which incorporates beliefs or rituals from pre-Christian Europe and North America.
[Paganism 'peɪ.gən.ɪz.əm noun.]
 
HEATHEN 'hi.ðən adjective. Pagan.
2. Uncultured, inappropriate.

Pagan is a Christian word, from the Latin paganus, meaning one who lives in the country, as opposed to one who lives in the city. Ancient Christians figured we live in the “city of God,” his kingdom… and pagans live outside, so let’s invite them in. It was their shorthand way of saying nonchristian. It’s mine too.

I know; a number of people have appropriated the word to mean their religions. The neopagan movement started in the mid-1800s, when British and American mystics started to revive occult religion; and once again in the 1960s and ’70s, when nature religions did likewise. These would be the maguses, practitioners of magick (with a -k), Wiccans, druids, shamans, nonchristian faith healers, followers of various nature gods, and folks who brought back worship of the ancient Egyptian or Norse or Greco-Roman gods. Largely it’s a backlash to Christianity: They felt we suppressed the pre-Christian nature religions of their ancestors, and wanted to dabble in that, have a little fun, and really bug their parents. Certainly some of ’em take these religions way more seriously than that, ’cause they found something there which was seriously lacking in their lives. But neopagan religions don’t look as much like the ancient pagan religions as neopagans imagine—and ancient pagans never called themselves pagans, ’cause like I said, it’s a Christian word. And when they get annoyed with us for using “pagan” generically, it’s because they forget they swiped our word.

Christians use “pagan” to refer to nonchristians in general. Technically it refers to people with no organized religion. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and even neopagans, are organized religions—even though their organizational structure might be extremely messy. Whereas a true pagan isn’t affiliated with any religious group at all, and has no intention of joining any. They’re not religious.

This is not to say pagans have no religious beliefs. Most of ’em totally do; I’ll get to that. But they don’t believe in organized religion: They might visit a church for a wedding or funeral, or because it’s a neat-looking building, but otherwise won’t go to any religious gathering, ’cause they don’t wanna join anything. They wanna be in charge of what they believe, and how they practice it—whether they pray or not, whether they read scriptures or not, what they think about the universe, gods, or the One God. Or what they don’t think: Some of ’em are comfortable with the idea of not knowing anything, and are happy to let it remain a great mystery.

As for the word heathen: It’s always been a more derogatory word for uncivilized people (“What have you little heathens done to my kitchen?” after the kids leave behind a giant mess) and true, some pagans totally are heathens. But I generally don’t use it. Let’s be nice.

What pagans believe.

True, some pagans hold no religious beliefs; they’re nontheist. Ironically, some of ’em get mighty religious about their nontheism, and feel they simply have to bash God and organized religion at every opportunity. Others are agnostic, and functionally act as though they’re atheist… till they’re in a jam and have to pray to some higher power to get ’em out of this.

The rest have generic beliefs about God which are derived from their wider culture. If you’re surrounded by Christians, your pagan beliefs are gonna resemble Christian ones. If you’re surrounded by Hindus, you’re gonna sound more like a Hindu; if Buddhists, more Buddhist; if Jews, more Jewish; and so forth. Stands to reason.

In the United States, pagans tend to look like irreligious Evangelicals. So much so, many of ’em even think they are Christian, but of course they’re not: They won’t go to church, won’t believe what the churches teach anyway, won’t read or believe the bible, and see no reason to change their beliefs or behavior.

Back in 2002, I spelled out pagan beliefs for my theology students like so.

  • THERE’S A GOD. They might believe all sorts of things about him, and certainly a lot of it will be projection. Depending on how they like to imagine him (and how many ideas they’re borrowed from either Christians or Hindus), he might be the unconscious sum of everything in the universe, or a heavenly Mother; whatever floats their boat.
  • JESUS IS GOD’S SON. A great moral teacher. A nice guy. Gives great advice. Not God though. Buddha is also God’s son; as is Muhammad, Confucius, Mohandas Gandhi, and pretty much every significant religious leader. (So long that pagans like them. If they don’t like L. Ron Hubbard, he’s not God’s son.)
  • THE HOLY SPIRIT IS GOD’S POWER. The holy spirit, lowercase, isn’t a person but a force, like the Force in Star Wars, but without a dark side. An “it,” not a “he.”
  • GOD LOVES EVERYBODY. Unless we’re mean. Mean people suck.
  • GOD WANTS PEOPLE TO BE NICE. Pagans believe all religions essentially teach this, so it’s all anyone need do: Be nice. (Unless you’re dealing with mean people. Then you can be mean right back to them. Help karma out.)
  • DEATH MEANS WE GO TO HEAVEN. And become angels! Again, exceptions are made for mean people. Fr’instance Adolf Hitler definitely went somewhere bad. But if we’re nice, or if enough people love us (or at least the majority doesn’t hate us), we’re probably off to heaven. Of course, many pagans believe in reincarnation, so for them death means we’re reborn as something nice.
  • ORGANIZED RELIGION IS UNNECESSARY. Disorganized, eclectic religion will do them just fine. All that matters is the pagan holds a few spiritual beliefs which make ’em feel good, and do things from time to time which make ’em feel spiritual (i.e. good). It’ll all work out in the end. ’Cause God loves everybody!

You might notice, and I gotta emphasize, pagans are particularly self-centered about their beliefs: God wants them to be happy and fulfilled. God only involves himself in their lives when they seek happiness and fulfillment. But to be fair, a whole lot of Christians are mighty self-centered too.

Christianist pagans.

As I said, some pagans think they’re Christian. ’Cause they like Jesus. They’ll quote bible—not consistently, but when it suits them. Some of ’em will even attend church, and may even get involved—although they certainly don’t feel obligated to believe anything the church teaches, or follow their interpretations of Jesus. You know, like when politicians go to a church hoping to recruit helpers or voters.

I call any belief system which prefers the trappings of Christianity, over Christ Jesus himself, Christianism. But sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, in their book Soul Searching, call this belief system moralistic therapeutic deism. (MTD for short.) It’s moral ’cause it defines good and evil for itself, and emphasizes good. Therapeutic ’cause it feels good. And deist, ’cause it believes in a God who’s impersonal and not all that involved in humanity. Smith and Denton sum up MTD’s beliefs thus.

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Smith and Denton were the principal investigators in the 2003-05 National Study of Youth and Religion. They concluded

a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that it is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Smith and Denton 262

No, they’re not claiming all irreligious Christians are pagans, not Christians. Neither am I about Christianists. Smith and Denton’s rather valid concern is that, rather than Christianity, a lot of Christian churches are instead teaching MTD. As a result, the kids they raise aren’t always gonna be Christian.

I know from personal experience they’re quite right. A lot of kids in my high school youth group weren’t raised Christian. Their parents expected our youth pastors to take care of the religion parts. As if two hours of Christian instruction a week is gonna put a dent in an unconvicted, irreligious lifestyle. Consequently as soon as we moved out of the house, a lot of us threw away our Christian masks and became the pagans we always secretly were.

And y’know, some parents honestly don’t care. Just so long that we’re good people. ’Cause they’re pagans too, and everybody goes to heaven.

Prechristians?

At one church I went to, a new fad began where we called pagans “prechristians.” We decided we were gonna be optimistic: These people will become Christian someday! They’re not lost; they’re pre-found.

There’s a fine line between optimistic and delusional, and I don’t feel like crossing it today. I hope these people get found; always do. Till then, they’re pagans.

The dividing line between Christian and pagan is simple. We Christians do follow Jesus as our Lord, do expect God to save us from death despite our sin, and do recognize God expects a level of obedience, devotion, worship, and prayer from his people. (Even though we might suck at it.) We aren’t in charge of fashioning our own religions from scratch, and cherry-picking our beliefs to suit and appease ourselves. We follow Jesus, and let his Holy Spirit show each individual how to follow him best.

Tons of Americans firmly believe the central goal of life is the pursuit of happiness. Christians included. They’re wrong, and believing so will only distort our Christianity and turn us into the same selfish jerks we find everywhere. It makes our Christianity impotent. It bears less, or no, fruit. But it’s not necessarily paganism. It’s only paganism when we no longer follow Jesus because our warm fuzzy feelings tell us different.

Following Jesus makes all the difference.

Jesus cures a demonized boy.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 February

Mark 9.14-29, Matthew 17.14-21, Luke 9.37-42.

First time I was ever taught this story, it was called “Jesus heals an epileptic.” At the time I didn’t know what epilepsy was; now I do. So I object to that description every time Christians bring it up. This isn’t epilepsy whatsoever. The boy was possessed by an evil spirit.

Matthew and Luke go so far as to identify it as a demon, a “guardian spirit” ancient pagans believed in, much like Christians believe in guardian angels. If you were sick, sometimes pagan “physicians” (really witch doctors) would try to put demons in you, hoping they’d root out the illness. Instead these critters would take you over and make your life miserable. That‘s why there were way more cases of demonization in Jesus’s day than in ours: Our physicians don’t do that. (I don’t know about your favorite “spiritual healers” though.)

Christians have misidentified this boy as epileptic for centuries… making life miserable for epileptics all that time, and even today. People have accused ’em of being demonized, and in some cases hurt them badly, on the grounds they were trying to hurt the demons within. In so doing, they never bothered to treat the very real medical condition. They simply treated ’em like sinners—much like that one blind guy Jesus cured.

Of course now that we know epilepsy isn’t demonization, we’ve often got it wrong in the other direction: Plenty of people now misdiagnose demonized people as mentally ill. There is an actual difference, y’know, and you can usually tell when you treat the patient: Treatment and meds work on the mentally ill. But they won’t work on a demon; only exorcism will.

Here’s the other big problem with the way Christians usually spin this story. Most Christians presume demonization is what happens when people dabble in evil, invite evil spirits into their lives, and the spirits take ’em over. So we tend to figure it’s their own fault for getting possessed; they dabbled in evil, and got what’s coming to them. But this is a story of a little boy. Did this little boy legitimately get what’s coming to him?—was his possession his fault?

Again, no. The boy could’ve been ill, so his dad and mom took him to the local witch doctor, who figured a demon might be helpful. And pagans today regularly make the same errors: They’ve learned some incantations to invite “angels” and “good spirits” to watch over their kids, but they’ve never been taught that some spirits aren’t good and benevolent. They’re kinda horrified to discover otherwise… unless of course the evil spirits can keep ’em deceived. But once found out, the evil spirits can turn mighty nasty—as we regularly see in Jesus’s exorcism stories.

The faith-deficient students.

After Jesus and his students had come down from the hill where he was transfigured, they got an eyeful of this mess:

Mark 9.14-18 KWL
14 Coming to his students, Jesus saw many crowds with them, and scribes arguing with them.
15 Next all the crowds, seeing Jesus, were startled. Running, they greeted him.
16 Jesus asked them, “Why are you arguing with them?”
17 One of the crowd answered Jesus, “Teacher, I bring my son, who has a speechless spirit, to you.
18 Whenever the spirit takes him, it tears at him, and he foams and grinds his teeth and shrivels.
I told your students so they’d throw it out, and they couldn’t.”
 
Matthew 17.14-16 KWL
14 Coming to the crowd, a person came to Jesus, kneeling before him,
15 saying, “Master, have mercy on my son!—he’s ‘moonstruck.’
He has an evil spirit: Often he falls into fire, often into water.
16 I brought him to your students, and they couldn’t cure him.”
 
Luke 9.37-40 KWL
37 This happened the next day, as they were coming down the hill:
Many crowds met Jesus and his students.
38 Look, a man from the crowd cried out, saying, “Teacher,
I beg you to look upon my son, for he’s my only-begotten,
39 and look: A spirit takes him over and cries out suddenly,
and tears him up with foaming, and hardly ever leaves him, crushing him.
40 I begged your students to throw it out, and they couldn’t.”

A man had a demonized boy, and brought him to Jesus to be cured. Not finding Jesus, he went to Jesus’s students, whom Jesus had taught to do exorcisms; he’d had them do it before. So you’d think they’d be up to the task… but it appears they actually weren’t. Mark describes the melée Jesus walked into as having “scribes arguing with them,” Mk 9.14 ’cause more than likely these bible scholars were telling Jesus’s kids, “You’re doing it wrong!” And they weren’t wrong, ’cause the demon didn’t come out.

Since Jesus’s students were so inept, how much faith do you think the boy’s father had in Jesus at this point? Pretty much the same level of faith as pagans have in Jesus whenever his current followers—us Christians—can’t seem to do anything either.

The boy’s father presented his problem to Jesus: He had a boy who was σεληνιάζεται/seliniádzete, literally “moonstruck,” although more often we go with the Latin-based synonym “lunatic,” like the KJV. No, ancient superstitions about the moon have nothing to do with it: The boy acted mad. But the father knew the cause: There was an evil spirit in him. A “speechless spirit,” Mk 9.17 which didn’t let the boy talk, though it did let him scream. Lk 9.39 It may have mimicked the symptoms of epilepsy—the better to be misdiagnosed as disease instead of possession—but the father knew better.

The crowds weren’t expecting Jesus to show up, so they were startled by his appearance. Mk 9.15 No doubt the students were relieved, ’cause now Jesus could sort this out—much as we Christians are hoping Jesus will sort out all our problems once he returns, and this way we won’t have to sort ’em out ourselves, like he wants.

Jesus’s response reveals he fully expected his students to be able to handle this situation without him:

Mark 9.19 KWL
In reply Jesus told them, “You untrustworthy kids!
How long will I be with you? How long will I support you? Bring him to me.”
 
Matthew 17.17 KWL
In reply Jesus said, “You untrustworthy, distorted kids!
How long will I be with you? How long will I support you? Bring him to me here.”
 
Luke 9.41 KWL
In reply Jesus said, “You untrustworthy, distorted kids!
How long will I be with you and support you? Bring your son here to me.”

Jesus’s complaint regularly gets misinterpreted, because Christians assume the “faithless and perverse generation” Lk 9.41 KJV refers to his generation—his Judean and Galilean contemporaries, all the Israelis of his day. It does not. Whenever Jesus refers to the γενεὰ/gheneá, KJV “generation,” he means the generation he taught, not the generation he is. Outside of Sabbath services, rabbis didn’t disciple students their own age; they taught children and teenagers. Jesus was 15 to 20 years older than his students, and in that culture, it made him old enough to be their dad. They were of another generation. They were kids; hence my translation “kids.”

As for being faithless and perverse: Jesus’s kids didn’t lack faith altogether. They did try to cure the boy! But you recall Jesus regularly described them as having little faith, deficient faith. Ἄπιστος/ápistos can mean either “no faith” or “not faithful,” and in this context it makes more sense to recognize Jesus is calling ’em untrustworthy. ’Cause they weren’t trustworthy: They should’ve easily been able to drive out that demon, as easily as Jesus did it.

So “How long will I be with you and support you?” Lk 9.41 is not a cry of frustration towards Israel: “You unbelievers are working my last nerve, and I’m not gonna put up with it much longer.” It’s a warning to his students: “You realize in a very short time, I’m no longer gonna be around to bail you out? I’m teaching you to do this yourselves. It’s the whole point of your discipleship!”

The faith-deficient father.

Mark includes this bit about the boy’s father further explaining the situation to Jesus.

Mark 9.20-24 KWL
20 They brought the son to Jesus, and seeing Jesus,
the spirit next tore at the son, and falling to the ground he rolled, foaming.
21 Jesus asked his father, “How long has it been like this with him?” He said, “From childhood.
22 Often it even throws him into fire and water, so it can destroy him.
But if you can, help us!—have compassion on us!”
23 Jesus told him, “If you can. For believers, everything’s doable!”
24 Crying out, the boy’s father next said, “I believe!—help my unbelief.”

Many a modern translation has Jesus’s discussion with the boy’s father sound more like this:

Mark 9.22-23 NLT
22B “Have mercy on us and help us, if you can.”
23A “What do you mean, ‘If I can’?” Jesus asked.

They interpret Jesus throwing the man’s “If you can” right back at him. Some translations even make Jesus sound like he’s mocking the man, or responding with sarcasm. And yeah, Jesus isn’t beyond pushing our buttons when he’s trying to make a point. But that’s not what this is.

The father’s statement is ἀλλ᾿ εἴ τι δύνῃ/all’ ei ti dýni, “but if you might work any power,” and Jesus’s response is τὸ εἰ δύνῃ/to ei dýni, “The [issue is] if you might work any power.” This Greek word to makes a pretty big difference: Jesus didn’t say precisely the same thing back to him, but brought up a new issue. He wasn’t smacking the man down for not trusting him enough, but informing the man God offers him the power—really all believers the power—to kick out such demons ourselves.

Hence the Good News Translation’s much better rendering,

Mark 9.23 GNT
“Yes,” said Jesus, “if you yourself can! Everything is possible for the person who has faith.”

Why do we Christians keep misinterpreting Jesus with such a bad, faultfinding attitude? Projection. We have a bad attitude, and presume Jesus thinks like we do. We figure this poor guy is part of a “faithless generation” Jesus was ranting against. At the same time we’re kinda irritated about our own faithless generation, with its apathetic Christians and unbelieving pagans. We’re tired of them, and assume Jesus was just as frustrated and angry with everyone—and taking it out on this poor suffering father.

We must never interpret Jesus apart from kindness. If God ever looks unkind, he’s deliberately trying to startle people into paying attention to him or their circumstances. But in this story, Jesus isn’t being unkind! He only looks unkind when we make him unkind, and force him into a mould of our own making. But that isn’t his motive at all. He wanted to encourage this father towards greater faith. Which worked, ’cause the guy‘s response was, “I believe!—help my unbelief.”

The Holy Spirit helps us grow faith. We don’t automatically believe the impossible. We might try to psyche ourselves into believing impossible things, but that’s foolishness, and the result is Christians who believe in stuff Jesus never taught, never promised, and won’t do. We must only believe what Jesus legitimately teaches, and try it, and see whether it’s so, and see what he’ll empower us to do. And when we pray for greater faith, our prayer should be precisely what this father prayed: “Help my unbelief.” The Spirit does!

Keep praying and fasting.

Of course Jesus cured the boy. You think he wouldn’t?

Mark 9.25-27 KWL
25 Jesus, seeing the crowd running to him, rebuked the speechless spirit,
telling it, “Speechless, deaf spirit, I order you: Get out of him. You may never enter him again.”
26 Crying out and tearing him some more, it came out.
The boy became like the dead; hence many were saying that he died.
27 Jesus, grasping his hand, lifted him up and raised him.
 
Matthew 17.18 KWL
Jesus rebuked the demon, and threw the demon out of him,
and the child was cured from that hour onward.
 
Luke 9.42 KWL
As the boy was still coming to Jesus, the demon broke him, and he convulsed.
Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and cured the boy, and gave him back to his father.

Later, privately, Jesus’s students came to him to ask him about why they couldn’t cure the boy. Rightly so, it bothered them. Bothered ’em in a way it doesn’t bother a lot of Christians nowadays, because too many of us figure, “Well of course Jesus could cure the boy and the disciples couldn’t; he’s God and they’re not.” True… but the Holy Spirit is God too, and since we have the Holy Spirit in us, shouldn’t he be able to defeat any and every evil spirit? Why on earth should any Spirit-empowered believer be unable to perform an exorcism? Especially since Jesus himself taught his apostles how to do it—and already had them do it.

Jesus’s explanation differs between Mark and Matthew.

Mark 9.28-29 KWL
28 Entering the house, Jesus’s students privately asked him this: “Why couldn’t we throw it out?”
29 Jesus told them, “This kind can’t be thrown out unless you’re praying and fasting.”
 
Matthew 17.19-20 KWL
19 Then the students, coming to Jesus privately, said, “How come we couldn’t throw it out?”
20 Jesus told them, “Because of your insufficient trust in God:
Amen! I promise you when you have faith like a mustard seed, you’ll tell this hill, ‘Move from here to there!
And it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

In Mark it’s because the students should’ve been praying and fasting, and in Matthew it’s because they didn’t trust God enough.

To a number of Christians this looks like a bible difficulty: Two different gospels, two different answers. Which makes ’em nuts, because they don’t want there to be two different answers; either Jesus’s students lacked faith or they lacked discipline. At some point in the third or fourth century, Christians simply started adding Mark 9.29 to the end of Matthew’s version of the story, like the Textus Receptus has it:

Matthew 17.21 KWL
[But this kind doesn’t come out unless you’re praying and fasting.”]

Which alters the meaning of Matthew: The students shoulda had more faith… but even if they had more faith, this is a tricky sort of demon, so faith itself wouldn’ta been enough.

Which is the right answer? Well, both. (Without altering either gospel to eliminate any “difficulty,” thank you very much.) Jesus’s students regularly had deficient faith, so of course that topic needed to come up: They needed to stop thinking, “This is way too big for me; let’s have Jesus do it instead.” They needed to step up and fight this devil themselves. Like Jesus said, he wasn’t always gonna be around; and now that he’s currently with his Father, we need to fight such beings—and win!—without him doing the exorcisms for us. We can do it. So let’s do it.

And at the same time, fighting evil spirits isn’t a task for irreligious Christians. Yeah, there are plenty of irreligious Christians who suddenly get all “Not today, Satan!” whenever they encounter any difficulty… but you’ve seen how utterly sloppy they are at following Jesus in the rest of their daily lives. If you never resist temptation, you’re no spiritual warrior! If you seldom pray, never fast, and have no self-control to speak of, you’re not gonna throw out a thing. The devils own you. Who are you to tell ’em where to go?

The holistic Christian lifestyle has to include both practices: A deep trust in God, and the regular spiritual discipline of good religion. We shouldn’t just be practicing both things simply so we can defeat evil spirits; we should do it out of love for God. But y’know, if we practice these things… we totally can defeat evil spirits. It’s a nice side effect.