The two loves.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 May

Two verbs in the New Testament get translated “love.” They’d be φιλέω/filéo and ἀγαπάω/aghapáo. They’re synonyms like “boat” and “ship,” or “couch” and “sofa,” or “Christ” and “Messiah”—they’re the same idea, with maybe a little different nuance, but not enough to make a big deal over.

But some of us wanna make a big deal over minor things, so of course people are gonna insist there’s a major difference between them. Aghapáo is related to the noun Paul and Sosthenes defined in 1 Corinthians 13, ἀγάπη/aghápi, KJV “charity.” That’s the sort of love which God is, 1Jn 4.8, 16 and therefore it’s gotta be of an infinitely greater quality than the other sort of love, the noun φίλος/fílos, KJV “friend.” Therefore aghapáo has gotta mean “to love like God would,” and filéo has gotta mean “to love like a friend would.”

Fine. Let’s say I agreed with this deduction. So… shouldn’t we love our friends like God would? And doesn’t Jesus consider his followers his friends? Jn 15.15 If we’re loving one another properly, in the way Jesus expects and instructs us to, should there be any functional difference between filéo and aghapáo?

And for the most part the ancient Greeks didn’t see any functional difference between ’em either. C.S. Lewis did, and in his book The Four Loves he went on and on about the differences he saw in those concepts. But having studied Greek for a few decades now, I’m pretty sure he just used the slight differences in nuance to riff on his own ideas about love.

The ancients used fílos and filéo to talk about familial, relational love. Like between family members; it’s why our American city of Philadelphia (named for the church of Φιλαδέλφεια/Filadélfeia in Revelation) is nicknamed “the city of brotherly love.” Thing is, a sovereign’s closest allies became known as his fílë, “friends.” Jn 19.12 True, the familial love is supposed to be unconditional, whereas the “love” for political allies is nearly always conditional, so political “love” is hardly a synonym for aghápi. It’s fair to say the political usage may have tainted the word a bit, and it’s further tainted by its use in a lot of compound Greek words:

  • Φιλάργυρος/filáryiros, “loves silver” or “loves money.”
  • Φίλαυτος/fílaftos, “loves oneself.”
  • Φιλήδονος/filídonos, “loves hedonism.”
  • Φιλόνεικος/filóneikos, “loves to fight.”
  • Φιλοπρωτεύω/filoprotévo, “loves to be first.”

But at the same time it’s found in compounds with positive connotations:

  • Φίλανδρος/fílandros, “loves men,” particularly “loves [one’s] husband.”
  • Φιλανθρώπως/filanthrópos, “loves people.”
  • Φιλόθεος/filótheos, “loves God.”
  • Φιλοξενία/filozenía, “loves strangers,” i.e. hospitable.
  • Φιλοσοφία/filosofía, “loves wisdom.”
  • Φιλόστοργος/filóstorgos, “loves family.”
  • Φιλότεκνος/filóteknos, “loves children.” (And not in a creepy way.)
  • Φιλόφρων/filófron, “loves the mind,” a synonym for “friendly.”

You don‘t find as many compounds made of aghapáo, which is part of the reason you won’t find as many variant definitions for it in an ancient Greek dictionary. But as I said in my article on love, you will find lots of definitions, for both words, for the ancients pulled them every which way, exactly the same as present-day people do with our word “love.”

The result was filéo and aghapáo overlapped a lot. So much so, it’s not wholly correct to insist they mean different things. They don’t really. When the authors of the bible used aghapáo they meant love; and when they used filéo they meant love. Not a different love; not a lesser love. They’re synonyms.

But what about Peter and Jesus in John 21?

When preachers touch upon John 21, in the story when Jesus asks Simon Peter whether he loves him, most of the time they point to Jesus’s three questions, and try to match ’em up with Peter’s three denials of Jesus on the day Jesus was killed. That, they imagine, is what makes the passage so profound: Peter denied Jesus thrice, so Jesus expects Peter to declare Jesus thrice. ’Cause that’s how karma works: Peter’s gotta earn his way back into leadership.

Rubbish, as anyone who knows Jesus can tell you: Jesus doesn’t make us jump through ridiculous hoops before forgiving us. We don’t have to undo three sayings with three other sayings, as if these are magic incantations we have to undo. That’s not how grace works; that’s not how any of this works.

And if you learned a little Greek, or if you have a preacher who learned a little Greek, they’re quickly gonna point out the real issue is Peter and Jesus were using two different words for love. Peter was using filéo; Jesus aghapáo. Jesus wanted to know if Jesus loved him, and Peter was only willing to say he liked him. So Jesus, ’cause he’s kind, came down to Peter’s level and asked him if he liked him, and it kinda broke Peter’s heart because it highlighted his own sense of unworthiness.

And that’s also rubbish. Because like I said, filéo and aghapáo are synonyms, so Peter’s response isn’t properly interpreted “I love you but I don’t love-love you.” You’ll notice the bulk of our English translations (CSB, ESV, GNT, KJV, ISV, MEV, NASB, NET, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) deliberately, intentionally do not make any distinction between filéo and aghapáo, and translate ’em both “love.” The translators know what they’re doing. There is no real distinction.

At the same time it is relevant that Jesus and Peter are using two different words here. The problem isn’t that Peter is claiming a lesser love and Jesus is trying to get him to go for more… and then gives up and settles for Peter’s lesser love. They’re using synonyms. They’re both talking about the same level of love and commitment and friendship and devotion. So if you’re gonna translate it so they’re using different words, the words had better mean the same thing. That’s what I went for.

John 21.15-17 KWL
15 So when they ate, Jesus told Simon Peter, “Simon bar John, do you love me more than these others?”
Peter told him, “Yes Master, you’ve known I’m wholly devoted to you.”
Jesus told him, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Jesus told Peter a second time, “Simon bar John, do you love me?”
Peter told him, “Yes Master, you’ve known I’m wholly devoted to you.”
Jesus told him, “Pastor my sheep.”
17 Jesus told Peter a third time, “Simon bar John, are you wholly devoted to me?”
Peter grieved, for Jesus told him the third time, “Are you wholly devoted to me?”
He told him, “Master, you’ve known everything. You know I’m wholly devoted to you.”
Jesus told him, “Feed my sheep.”

Peter wasn’t trying to weasel out of anything, like he did when he denied Jesus. That was a major mistake, Peter knew it, and knew Jesus forgave him and accepted him again. (Jesus had appeared to him multiple times by now, y’know.) And now that Jesus was alive again, Peter was sure he wasn’t gonna blow it again.

And then he kinda blew it again, ’cause he kept using filéo when Jesus wanted him to say aghapáo. Because sometimes we don’t want synonyms. We wanna be on the very same page, using the very same words. Diversity is important, but sometimes unity is, and that’s what Jesus wanted at this time. ’Cause shepherding Jesus’s sheep is a big, big deal.

But if Jesus expected Peter to have aghápi instead of fílos—because, as undereducated preachers claim, they’re two different words—he’d have demanded Peter quit waffling and love him, exactly the same as he commanded all his students to love one another. Jn 15.2 Instead Jesus was fine with the synonym. Peter was wholly devoted to him, after all.

Do a word study on these different words for “love” in the New Testament, and you’ll quickly see they’re treated as interchangeable. True, filéo tends to get used when the authors write about loving things we shouldn’t… but then again so does aghapáo. People igápisan darkness rather than light; Jn 3.19 Paul complained Dimas agapísas this present age when he shouldn’t, 2Ti 4.10 and John warned Christians not to agapátë the world nor the things in it. 1Jn 2.15 If aghapáo only ever refers to godly love, it’d make no sense to use it to talk about ungodly love; but that’s not how the ancients used it. How they shoulda used it falls back on Paul’s definition in 1 Corinthians, and we should use it that way too. But don’t read that definition into every use of aghápi and aghapáo in the bible. Our culture’s loosey-goosey definition of love works just fine, in most contexts. For both words.

“Love is a verb.”

by K.W. Leslie, 29 April

From time to time you’re gonna hear a preacher claim love isn’t a noun, but a verb.


dc Talk singing “Luv Is a Verb.” Yeah, this was the state of Christian hip hop in the ’90s. Sad. dc Talk

Largely I blame dc Talk’s 1992 song “Luv Is a Verb,” in which they looked up love in a dictionary and were apparently gobsmacked to discover yep, it’s a verb.

Pullin’ out my big black book
’Cause when I need a word defined, that’s where I look
So I move to the L’s quick, fast, in a hurry
Threw on my specs; thought my vision was blurry
I looked again but to my dismay
It was black and white with no room for gray
Ya see, a big V stood beyond my word
And yo, that’s when it hit me, that luv is a verb

Lots to pick apart there.

  • Other Christian songs can talk about the death and resurrection of Christ, the atonement of humanity, the forgiveness of sins, and salvation itself, in one verse. But dc Talk needed the entire first verse to talk about using a dictionary. It’s not a deep song, yo.
  • Seeing as dictionaries list many common definitions of the word “love,” there’s plenty of room for gray. So what is there to be dismayed about?
  • Didn’t hit him that love is a verb till he saw the V, meaning “verb,” in its listing. So… he never used the word as a verb before? As in “I love this audience”? “I’d love another taco”? “I love Jesus yes I do, I love Jesus, how ’bout you”?
  • Apparently the dictionary’s the absolute authority when it comes to parts of speech. Not so much spelling; they kept using “luv.”

But enough mocking a 28-year-old Christian hip hop oldie. The song’s about how love is a verb, and we Christians oughta exercise Jesus-type love. But nowhere in the song does it say, “Love’s a verb, not a noun.” It never denies the nounhood of “love.” It only reminds us the word’s also a verb, and therefore oughta be practiced.

Leaping from “Love is a verb” to “Love is a verb, not a noun” is adding an idea to the song which isn’t there. You know, like we Christians too often do with bible verses. Next we wind up defending our additional ideas instead of the original text, utterly lose the point of the original text… and forget to be Christlike while we’re at it, which is a whole other article.

Yes, love is a verb. And a noun. It’s both. Elevate both.

You’re gonna see both in the bible.

Those of us who’ve studied biblical Greek, as well as those of us who’ve maybe cracked open a Strong’s concordance and dictionary, know Greek has both noun and verb forms of the word.

  • The noun, you’ve likely heard of. It’s ἀγάπη/aghápi (which Americans tend to transliterate agape). It appears 116 times in the New Testament.
  • The verb is ἀγαπάω/aghapáo, “to love,” which appears 143 times (142 in the Textus Receptus).

Basic grammar review: A noun is a person, place, object, or concept. Jesus is a person, the airport is a place, robots are objects, strength is a concept. Now, none of those four items are passive. Jesus, the airport, robots, and strength, all act. As does love. Love has patience; love behaves kindly. 1Co 13.4 Still a noun though.

When Paul and Sosthenes wrote 1 Corinthians, they used the verb aghapáo twice, but the noun aghápi 14 times. Nine of those times are in chapter 13, where they defined it:

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.

Note they defined love using verbs, not adjectives: How it behaves, not what its characteristics are. English translations tend to use adjectives, like the NIV’s “Love is patient, love is kind,” 1Co 13.4 NIV because English doesn’t have convenient one-word verbs for μακροθυμεῖ/makrothymeí, “has patience” and χρηστεύεται/hristévete, “behaves kindly.” My translation tried to avoid adjectives because the apostles didn’t use ’em.

And again: Just because we define aghápi with verbs, doesn’t make it a verb. Same as defining a noun with adjectives doesn’t turn it into an adjective.

Preachers wanna emphasize the active nature of love. As we should. But come on people, “love” is also a noun.

Love gone askew.

Whenever we claim love’s not a noun, we reveal two things.

First, and the most problematic of the two: We’re letting pop songs determine our belief systems.

That’s not a new problem; it’s a very old one. Music, especially for people who love music, gets into our heads really easily. As do the lyrics. People are regularly surprised to discover they actually know all the lyrics to pop songs—they can even sing along to it!—even years later. Those words managed to worm their way into our subconscious.

Sometimes that’s neat… and sometimes that’s disturbing, because there are a lot of things in our subconscious which we’ve grown to unthinkingly accept. Advertisers definitely take advantage of this, and try to make sure we’ve heard their slogans and catchphrases so they can influence us to buy their product.

When a Christian pop musicians write a bit of fluff, hoping it’ll get played on K-LOVE and sell a bunch of downloads, they’re generally hoping the same thing: They want the music and lyrics to be catchy, and make you want to listen to it even more, and buy it and play it on your phone or iPod all day long. And you might. But same as any pop song, those words’ll get in you… and influence you in unexpected ways.

I’ve already written on problematic worship music. I needn’t go into that again. I should just remind you to take those subconsciously-memorized lyrics out of your subconscious and take a good hard look at them: What are the musicians saying? And is it good stuff?—or is it really bad theology, which needs correction before it leads you in the wrong directions?

Second, and importantly: In our haste to talk about how love is active, we’re a little too quick to dismiss other things which are also love. It’s important for love to be a noun.

Certain teachings from the scriptures, from Jesus himself, require us to possess love, and hold onto it ’cause it’s important:

  • “The love you have with one another will prove to the world you’re my disciples.” Jn 13.35
  • “Remain in my love.” Jn 15.9
  • The Holy Spirit fills our hearts with God’s love. Ro 5.5
  • Nothing is meant to separate us from God’s love. Ro 8.35, 39
  • Our love oughta be sincere, Ro 12.9 do no evil, Ro 13.10 and build people up. 1Co 8.1
  • We should pursue love! 1Co 14.1

When we don’t possess love, we might perform some of the same acts which love does. It’s possible to act patiently, or pursue truth, even when there’s no love involved. But here’s the problem: When we act without love, we botch things. 1Co 13.1-3 We do ’em for corrupt, self-centered reasons. Like a criminal patiently waiting for his evil plans to unfold. Or a person researching the truth so she can use it as a weapon. Reducing love to a verb doesn’t take our motives into account, and our motives can be totally depraved. We need to possess love in order to act in love.

Lastly, God himself is love. 1Jn 4.8, 16 And God may be almighty, but he’s no verb.

Prayer instead of wisdom.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 April

We see this happen all the time, but the current COVID-19 outbreak is just making it more obvious: We got Christians who ignore science, ignore all medical and professional and government advice, ignore commonsense… because they pray.

They have access to the Almighty, and he can stop every potential bad thing from happening to them. “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” and all that. This being the case, it’s okay if they ignore safety warnings. They got faith. You should have faith like they do.

Bluntly, no you shouldn’t. They’re fools, and that’s not faith. It’s wishful thinking.

Faith is based on a trustworthy person or thing, and Christian faith is of course based on Christ Jesus. Faith is based on evidence, He 11.1 and that evidence is God’s word, whether it comes from the scriptures, from God’s prophets, or from the stuff he tells us when we pray. (All of which oughta jibe with one another.) If it’s not based on any of those things—if it’s based on knowing God is almighty, yet he never said he’d use his almightiness and do stuff—y’got nothing. You might call it faith, and plenty of people will agree with that misrepresentation, but again: It’s wishful thinking.

Did the Holy Spirit say he was gonna defend us against this particular disease? Actually, specifically, personally tell us so? Or did we start with a preexisting desire, and now we’re just appropriating bible verses regardless of context in an attempt to defend ourselves?


TV preacher Kenneth Copeland cursing COVID-19. I know this disease is awful, but I still say there’s a lot more rage in this guy than we oughta see in fruitful Christians. Now This News

Are we actually following Jesus? Or are we hoping, with just the right combination of proof texts, maybe we can get Jesus to follow our lead? If we shout like an angry televangelist, and curse the disease in the LORD’s name, maybe we can obligate the LORD to follow our will, instead of praying we follow his.

I hope you see the difference. One path is wise, and uses prayer correctly. The other is stupid and presumptive.

And we got a lot of stupid Christians out there. The Holy Spirit told ’em nothing when it came to this outbreak. Not that he has nothing to say; they never asked! They just presume he makes them immune—hence all the “No weapon formed against me…” quotes—and continue through life incautious and oblivious. Like a child who never learned to not follow the candy-bearing stranger into the unmarked white van. (Which is why so many Christians are so quick to fall for ridiculous, unproven “remedies”… but that’s another rant.)

For those Christians who think prayer is an almighty substitute for wisdom, caution, planning, patience, study, or for using your brain in general: Obviously it’s not.

Prayer is not a magic cure.

Prayer is talking with God. That’s all. We talk to him; he talks back. We ask for stuff; he says yes or no or “Wait” or “Do this for me first” or “No, you do it.” He grounds us, teaches us, corrects us, and encourages us. It’s like any healthy conversation with the wisest being ever.

Conversely prayer is not a ritual we perform which grants us holiness, good karma, or magic powers—including the power to fight disease. If any power follows prayer, it’s the Holy Spirit who grants it, not prayer in and of itself. Praying doesn’t grant you immunity; the Holy Spirit does that. Praying doesn’t cure illness or banish evil spirits; the Holy Spirit does that. And that’s assuming the Holy Spirit wants to do that. If he hasn’t told you he’s doing that, it’d be stupid to presume.

But of course a lot of Christians are totally presuming. They want that; they can’t imagine why the Holy Spirit wouldn’t want it as well.

If they ever bothered to pray, it’s all been unidirectional. The Spirit told them nothing. (Or maybe he has, but they weren’t listening.) Nonetheless they got out in front of him, and are claiming immunity. They’re screaming “Begone, coronavirus!” like an enraged televangelist, as if the Holy Spirit empowered them to do this; again, without first consulting him. They have no evidence this’ll come to anything. Their “faith” is based on nothing.

Well, other than the belief they prayed, so that’s something.

But that’s karma-based thinking, and God’s kingdom runs on grace. God doesn’t grant us superpowers because we pray. God acts when we trust him to do the right thing, regardless of what we might think is “the right thing,” because frequently he’s got way better ideas than we do.

And until you know what God’s ideas are… it’s best to follow basic commonsense. Like washing your hands, standing 2 meters (or 6 feet) apart from other people, covering your nose and mouth, staying home as much as possible, and prioritizing the weak and the sick over wealth and materialism. And certainly over your favorite politicians’ political priorities.

Likewise any other ailment. If you cut your hand, do you wash out the wound, or do you ignore basic first aid and pray super hard that God’ll keep you from infection, and maybe miraculously make the cut disappear? It’s freakish that Christians will immediately resort to Neosporin and Band-Aids when it comes to small injuries, but when it‘s heart disease or cancer or something else just as life-endangering, they’ll actually postpone surgery or chemotherapy and claim prayer will fix ’em. Unless God definitively answers their requests with yes, no it won’t. And even if God does plan to supernaturally cure ’em, he may want us to go to hospital just so he can cure us right in front of the nurses and doctors, and give their faith (or doubts) a massive jolt. Don’t presume one way or another! Do the commonsense thing. And pray; never stop praying.

Likewise any other safety precaution. Put smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in your house! Wear your seat belts! Don’t dive into the shallow end of the pool! In general, use your head, and don’t figure prayer will make up for common stupidity. That’s not what it’s for. It’s to talk with God, and the fact Christians persist in common stupidity kinda reveals they aren’t really praying as much as they claim: If they had that much interaction with the wisest being in the universe, you’d think some of that wisdom woulda rubbed off by now.

Depravity: Humanity is messed up, yo.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 April
DEPRAVE di'preɪv verb. To make immoral, wicked, or twisted.
[Depraved di'preɪvəd adjective.]
TOTAL DEPRAVITY 'toʊ.dəl di'prøv.ə.di noun. The Christian belief that unregenerate human nature is thoroughly corrupt, sinful, and self-centered.
2. The Calvinist belief that all human nature, regenerate or not, is this way.
[Totally depraved 'toʊ.də.li di'preɪvəd adjective.]

Present-day Christianity has been heavily influenced by popular culture and popular philosophy. And vice-versa. Sometimes for good; sometimes really not.

Humanism, fr’instance. It’s the belief we humans have great potential to do great things. It emphasizes rejecting our instinctive, conditioned behavior, and solving our problems through rational, selfless ways. It emphasizes human rights and human worth. After all, God figures we have infinite worth: He loved us so much, he sent us his Son. Jn 3.16

Problem is, one of humanism’s core beliefs is Pelagianism, the belief humans are inherently good. Humanists insist we were born good, not evil; and become evil because we have evil influences. Like evil parents, evil neighbors, evil authorities, evil media. Those folks taught us to be evil, but we can unlearn it, and choose to be good.

Hence you’ll find more Christians are Pelagian than not. Because being inherently good sounds way better than the alternatives, so we embrace the idea: “We are good. For when God created the world and humanity, didn’t he declare his entire creation ‘very good’? Ge 1.31 And what could be more innocent and sinless than a newborn baby? Certainly we’re born good. But we got corrupted. Stupid parents. Stupid mass media. Stupid government. It’s all their fault. If they’d just leave us alone to do as we naturally will, we could be free and libertarian and sinless.”

Well. Those who think nothing’s more sinless than a baby have clearly never raised one. Why do babies cry? ’Cause they want stuff. And as soon as they’re old enough to swipe it, or shove other kids out of the way in order to get it, they will. As soon as they figure out the word “no” they use it. A lot. Not because they’re inherently good and rejecting their parents’ evil; because they selfishly want their own way, even when it’s wrong.

Humans don’t have to learn to be selfish. We are selfish. Inherently. It’s part of our self-preservation instinct: We have this whole system of pain sensors in our body which warn us if we’re gonna seriously damage ourselves. (Or inform us we’re seriously damaged.) So if animals didn’t look out for number one, they won’t survive.

Humans have simply taken that natural instinct, and dialed it way up. Everything we do is about defending ourselves, getting our way, making ourselves comfortable—physically and emotionally. We don’t always go about it the right way, but we don’t care about the right way, or others’ feelings; we want what we want. If you get in the way of our wants, we’ll shove you aside. Goodness isn’t the goal; it’s about what’s good for us, or what we consider good, or what feels good—no matter how many brain cells it kills.

Humans aren’t naturally good. We have to be taught what goodness is. Problem is, who’s doing the teaching? Other selfish humans.

Yep, it’s corruption all the way down. All the way back. Started with the very first humans. When God first created ’em, they were good. They changed. Lots changed.

Sin happened.

I assume you know the Adam and Eve story. If you don’t, this sums it up: God made an אָדָ֜ם/adám (Hebrew for “humanity,” and humanity is descended from him) and made part of him into a woman. He put the two of them in paradise, and gave ’em a simple command: There’s a tree, and eating of this tree gives you knowledge of good and evil. Don’t eat from it. Otherwise do as you please.

The humans broke the one rule, so God booted them from paradise. Can’t live forever anymore. Now they gotta work for a living, wear clothes, childbirth is painful… but God promised ’em a savior. Oh, and now they know what good and evil are. Guess which of the two they gravitated towards.

Genesis 6.5-6 KWL
5 The LORD saw how Adam did great evil on the earth.
Every inclination, every thought in his heart: Only evil, every day.
6 The LORD was sorry he put Adam on the earth.
It grieved his heart.

Give humans the wherewithal to do evil, and that’s the direction we go. Not reluctantly, not grudgingly; we head that way in a mad dash. We aren’t naturally good. If we were, we wouldn’t need governments, wouldn’t need judges, wouldn’t need money, wouldn’t need laws. Evil would be easy to defeat. And it’s not.

Evil comes from the inside, Jesus taught, not the outside.

Mark 7.20-23 KWL
20 Jesus said this: “What comes out of the person? That makes the person ‘common’.
21 For evil reasoning comes out from within the person’s heart:
Porn. Theft. Murder. 22 Adultery. Covetousness. Depravity.
Deception. Immorality. Stinginess. Slander. Conceit. Stupidity.
23 All these inner evils come out and make the person ‘common’.”

The human heart is desperately wicked. Jr 17.9 It’s self-seeking, self-deceptive—we think we figured out how to be good, but at their core all our “good deeds” are ways to look good, and fool ourselves into thinking we are good. ’Cause we’re better than other people. Or we’re good enough. Or we’re more good than evil on our karmic balance sheet. Look at all the charity we’ve done!—surely that makes up for the hit-and-run we committed years ago.

Paul wanted to be good, but found his fight with sin to be a losing battle.

Romans 7.14-24 KWL
14 We’ve known the Law is spiritual—and I am fleshly, sold into sin’s slavery.
15 I do things I don’t understand. I don’t want to do them. I hate what I do.
16 Since I don’t want to do them, I agree: The Law is good.
17 Now, it’s no longer I who do these things, but the sin which inhabits me.
18 I know nothing living in me, namely in my flesh, is good.
The will, but not the ability, exists in me to do good.
19 I don’t do the good I want. I do the evil I don’t want.
20 If I don’t want to do them, it’s not so much me doing them, as the sin which inhabits me.
21 That’s why I sought the Law, which wants me to do good: Evil is always around.
22 I rejoice in God’s Law, despite my inner humanity—
23 I see another law in my body parts, fighting the Law in my mind,
taking me captive to the law of sin, which exists in my body parts.
24 I am such a miserable human.
What will rescue me from this death-plagued body?

Theologians call this total depravity: Sin has so messed us up, so warped our thinking and behavior, there’s simply no way for us humans to defeat it without divine intervention. It ruins everything. That’s why we call this depravity total.

Our salvation: God.

As I hope you know, Paul’s discussion doesn’t stop in the middle of verse 24.

Romans 7.24 - 8.3 KWL
24 I am such a miserable human.
What will rescue me from this death-plagued body?
25 God’s grace, through Christ Jesus our Lord!
That’s why my mind’s now enslaved to God’s Law… while my body, to sin’s law.
1 That’s why there’s no judgment anymore for those in Christ Jesus:
2 The law of the Spirit of Life, in Christ Jesus, released you from the law of sin and death.
3 God, sending his own Son in the form of sinful humanity, judged that sin in the flesh,
doing what the Law, hindered by the flesh, couldn’t.

Christians (assuming we’re truly following God) don’t wanna sin anymore. 1Jn 3.9 God doesn’t want that for us either, and hasn’t abandoned us to the ravages of sin. He’s entered the fight on our side. He’s come to cure us of total depravity, and help us so we don’t sin. 1Jn 2.1-6

So if we can’t be good about God, what about all the “good people” in the world? What about philanthropists, charities, peacekeepers, do-gooders, and all those who try to make the world a better place?

Well, lots of them are Christians. I’ve worked for a few charities. They’re loaded with Christians and God-seekers. That’s why they started those groups, or joined up. God’s working on them, they’re working with God, and they’re doing good on his behalf.

Then there are those so-called “good people” who are no good at all. I’ve worked with them too. They work for charities because they have to: They get a paycheck. They’re trying to pad a résumé. They were convicted of a crime, and volunteer work is part of their sentence. Their family or job expects it of them. They earn tax credits. They get good public relations. They’re trying to earn good karma. And so on. All these motives are self-serving, and goodness is a byproduct.

So no, I’m not saying (as many Calvinists will) that non-Christians are incapable of good deeds. Of course they’re capable. I’m just saying total depravity taints their deeds. There’s just enough self-interest, just enough wrong motive, just enough unwholesomeness, to turn it into crap. It’ll be mostly good; it’ll be 99⁴⁴⁄₁₀₀ percent good. But it never wholly good, ’cause we can’t be wholly good. It won’t meet God’s absolute standards for goodness.

God can use (and even inspire) the good deeds of such people. Often he’s the reason their good deeds get anywhere. It’s surely not because of them.

Partial depravity?

Christians who grew up believing the humanist view of goodness, tend to think total depravity is only a Calvinist thing. John Calvin taught it, and Calvinists are a little too fond of preaching on the subject. But it’s hardly just a Calvinist thing. St. Augustine taught it, Martin Luther taught it, John Wesley taught it… and all orthodox Christians teach it. Because we are totally depraved, and need God to save us. We can’t save ourselves!

The reason Augustine taught it was ’cause one of his contemporaries, Pelagius of Britain, believed as the humanists do: People are inherently good. He taught that if Christian kids were simply raised right, we won’t sin. And if we adults just exercised our free will and self-control, if we just embraced positive thinking and a wholesome lifestyle, we could banish sin from our lives and live entirely sin-free. If you wanna stop sinning, just stop.

Except, as you’ve just read, Paul tried that and failed. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and loads of Christians have tried to achieve sinlessless on our own steam, and failed. Betcha Pelagius failed too; he just did a better job of fooling himself. Sinlessness can’t be achieved without the Holy Spirit—and even if we think we have achieved it with his help, we’re likely still fooling ourselves.

If sinlessness were possible, Jesus wouldn’t’ve had to die for sin, y’know. He could’ve just told his students, “Hey, guys: The Law? Read the Law. Follow it real good. See you in heaven.” And back he went. No; legalists throughout history have tried their darnedest to follow the Law, and of course had no real success, because the Law was never meant to save us anyway. We can’t be good without God.

This is why we call Pelagius’s view heresy. There’s only one savior, only one mediator between God and humanity, and that’s Christ Jesus. If we’re not totally depraved—if we’re only a little depraved, and can overcome the rest of our sins with a bit more effort—it means each of us can be our own saviors. Jesus saves the rest, namely those who lack the willpower, but the rest of us can do just fine without his salvation or the Holy Spirit’s sanctification.

What happens when we believe this crap? Bad stuff.

See, we fail. And we know we fail. And if we imagine perfection is possible, yet somehow we can’t achieve that perfection, we’re gonna think we’re utter scum. If every other Christian can achieve goodness, yet we can’t, we must be some sort of sick, freakish, nasty aberration. Maybe we’re not really saved. Maybe we’re predestined for hell. We’re just too twisted for God to want.

Such people don’t realize—and can’t believe—everybody is twisted, everybody needs God. They think, wrongly, God only takes the good ones, and they’ll never qualify. Like Paul said, “What will rescue me from this death-plagued body?” Ro 7.24 People who assume we can be good on our own, tend to feel this very same kind of despair and frustration. And we needn’t! God can save us. You’re not a special case. You’re normal.

Everybody’s totally depraved. But God can save every last one of us. And wants to. 2Pe 3.9 It’s not a losing battle, an impossible dream.

Besides, God does the impossible all the time. Sometimes for fun. And always because he loves us.

The “spirit of Jezebel.”

by K.W. Leslie, 23 April

Every so often, Christian preachers will denounce what they call a “Jezebel spirit” in their churches. Some of ’em do it all the time, so they presume their churches know what they mean by that. ’Tain’t always so.

No, it’s not the ghost of Queen Jezebel bat Ethbaal of Samaria, possessing somebody and making ’em do evil stuff. Nor even is it the way Jezebel acted or behaved. Might be closer to the way Bette Davis’s strong-willed character Julie behaved in the 1938 movie Jezebel, but that’s assuming anyone’s even seen the movie, and betcha they haven’t.

It’s meant to be based on something Jesus said in Revelation. But since Jesus didn’t spell out what he meant, people guess at it, typically guess wrong, and claim all sorts of behaviors they don’t like “come from a Jezebel spirit.”

Let’s dig into biblical history, and from there we can see where all the usual popular misinterpretations come from.

Jezebel of Samaria.

Jezebel bat Ethbaal of Sidon (Hebrew אִיזֶבֶל/Iyzevél, probably meaning “exalt Baal”) first comes up in 1 Kings 16.31, when King Ahab ben Omri of Samaria married her.

Up to that point in the Deuteronomistic History, the historian (whom for convenience I’ll call “Sam”) compared every rotten king of Samaria to their first king, Jeroboam ben Nebat, who corrupted the LORD’s worship by building worship sites for him in Dan and Bethel—and by putting gold calves there. But Ahab outpaced Jeroboam by miles. Jeroboam’s sin was using idols to represent the LORD, and otherwise permitting idolatry in general. Ahab, however, was a full-on pagan. He didn’t dabble in false gods on the side; he devotedly worshiped Ašur, the Baal of the Assyrian Empire.

“Baal” means “master,” and it’s a generic title for the many Canaanite gods in the bible. Thanks to ritual sex with temple prostitutes being a big part of pagan worship, Baalism was extremely popular. Ahab promoted Ašur like crazy. More: He married a Sidonian princess who was just as much into Baalism as he. Maybe even more.

Sam took issue with Jezebel because she was really into Baal. So much so, she actively tried to eradicate the LORD’s prophets, 1Ki 18.4 who had likely denounced all the idolatry and reminded the people Israeli kings were mandated to follow the Law. Dt 17.18-20 Of course if the king didn’t even worship the God who mandated the Law, he was hardly likely to follow it.

In Israel kings were under the Law; in Jezebel’s homeland of Sidon kings were above it. This is why, when Ahab was unsuccessful in convincing his neighbor Naboth to sell him a vineyard, Jezebel had no qualms about arranging for Naboth’s death (on the grounds of blaspheming God, of all things) so Ahab could seize the vineyard. 1Ki 18.1-16 Various Christians look at Jezebel’s actions in the Naboth story and presume she overstepped her role, but really she didn’t: Jezebel told her husband she’d get him that vineyard, 1Ki 21.7 and Ahab was perfectly happy with her results. She did nothing behind his back; she did everything with his approval. She usurped nothing.

Sam’s objection wasn’t about Jezebel “not knowing her place,” but that Ahab “sold himself to do evil in the LORD’s eyes,” 1Ki 21.20 and follow Jezebel instead of the LORD. There’s nothing wrong with following your wife when she’s following God, and doing what’s good and righteous. There’s everything wrong with endorsing murder, slander, and theft. The issue isn’t usurpation, but evil. 1Ki 21.25

Hence the LORD’s prophet Elijah declared Jezebel would die, be left unburied, and get eaten by dogs. The next we see her, in 2 Kings 9, that’s just what happens. Army commander Jehu ben Jehoshaphat was ordered by a prophet to destroy King Joram ben Ahab, plus Ahab’s whole family, 2Ki 9.6-10 which he did.

Before Jehu killed Joram, he shouted, “How can there be peace when your mother Jezebel commits so much whoring and sorcery?” 2Ki 9.22 Many Christians interpret this to mean Jezebel was literally a whore and sorcerer, and teach this. For some odd reason they totally forgot “Your mom’s a whore” and “Your mom’s a witch” are two age-old insults. Translators really don’t catch this either. Even paraphrased bibles take Jehu literally. Certainly Baalism had a lot of ritual sex and ritual magic, and certainly Jezebel indulged in both. “But the queen does it” is a convenient rationalization for any Israelis who were tempted to try Baalism for themselves. She totally influenced many towards evil. But taking Jehu literally is an iffy interpretation.

Anyway. When Jehu arrived at the royal house in Jezreel, Jezebel did something which strikes many present-day readers as odd: She put on her makeup and fixed her hair. 2Ki 9.30 In American culture, women didn’t wear makeup for about three centuries; only actors and whores did. So our culture still frequently assumes this “painted Jezebel” did this so she might seduce Jehu. It’s a laughable interpretation: It doesn’t fit at all with her words, ’cause as Jehu entered the grounds, she taunted him and called him a murderer. 2Ki 9.31 What’s more likely is she knew she was gonna die, and hoped to go to her death looking decent.

Which just wasn’t gonna happen. Jehu had two eunuchs throw her out of the window, then ran over her with his chariot horses. 2Ki 9.32-33 When he finally bothered to have her buried, he found the dogs had got to her first, 2Ki 9.34-37 just as Elijah had said.

Jezebel of Thyatira.

When Jesus appeared to John and had him write Revelation, his message to his church of Thyatira was largely this.

Revelation 2.20-25 KWL
20 “But I have against you that you forgive the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet.
She teaches, and leads my slaves astray into porn and eating idol-offerings.
21 I gave her time to repent, and she didn’t want to repent of her porn.
22 Look, I throw her, and the adulterers with her, into bed and great suffering,
lest they repent of her works. 23 I’ll put her children to death.
Everyone in the churches will know I’m the one who examines minds and hearts,
and I give to each person according to your works.
24 I tell the rest of you Thyatirans, whoever doesn’t have this teaching,
whoever doesn’t know ‘Satan’s deep things,’ as they’re called,
I don’t put any other burdens on you.
25 Only cling to what you already have till I come.”

Revelation is an apocalypse, a prophecy where, like parables, the images and words in it represent other things. This woman wasn’t literally named Jezebel. Jesus picked the name because this fake prophet in Thyatira, just like Jezebel of Samaria, was a total devotee to the immoral idols of her homeland instead of the LORD.

Jezebel of Thyatira was enabling idolatry in Jesus’s church, just like Jezebel of Israel had enabled idolatry in ancient Israel. This is only speculation, but I would guess she was teaching ’em God’s grace made it okay for them to dabble in idolatry. Ancient Roman paganism wasn’t a whole lot different from Baalism, particularly in the ritual sex and ritual magic. So it was having the same effects: The Christians were becoming immoral and evil. And just as the LORD sent Elijah to Jezebel and Ahab to get ’em to repent, Jesus gave this woman plenty of time to repent too. But now it was time for consequences. Sounds like illness; probably sexually transmitted diseases, or at least food poisoning.

That’s the real issue: False teaching. Idolatry. Heresy. Christians who think it’s okay to be Christian, but dabble in other religions and spiritualities. We got a number of not-all-that-devout Christians who don’t really care to go much deeper into Christianity, but are sorta curious about what Hinduism or Buddhism or Wicca or Spiritualism teaches, and wonder if they can’t mix a few of those beliefs into the pile.

But we can’t be Christian and dabble in other religions. You can’t be a Christian Wiccan, or a Christian Hindu, or a Christian Spiritualist. You can try to be a Jewish Christian, thanks to the huge amount of overlap; but as both Jews and Christians recognize, your ultimate affiliation is with Christ Jesus. Exactly as Jesus taught about money, we can’t serve two masters. Mt 6.24 One’s gonna win out. When Buddhism and Christianity don’t overlap, a “Buddhist Christian” is gonna follow either the Buddha or the Christ—and if they go back and forth between their two gurus, they’re really following neither; they’re doing as they please.

So Jezebelism is really about that. But of course, Christians popularly presume it’s either about usurpation or loose women.

Usurpation.

Usurpation means seizing control that’s not rightfully yours. This is a valid problem in our churches. But sometimes it’s not. Valid instances would be churches with

  • A self-anointed prophet who wants everyone to recognize their authority as God’s mouthpiece.
  • A group of “concerned members” who think their numbers gives ’em the right to circulate petitions, overthrow leaders, overrule their pastors, or otherwise wield power.
  • People who use financial manipulation to get their way: “I tithe a lot of money to this church, and if I don’t see ‘proper changes’ I think I’ll have to donate it elsewhere.”
  • Those who sue to get their way.
  • Teachers who will hear no correction or rebuke from anyone, ’cause they’re the teacher and they’re right.
  • The pastor’s spouse, siblings, or kids, who think the pastor’s authority automatically applies to them too—despite their lack of ability, maturity, or anointing.

Invalid instances would be cults. Or any church where the leadership is micromanagerial or tighly controlled. Where you might be put in charge of something, and given a title, but you don’t actually get to make real decisions; you’re like a high school student body president who hasn’t yet realized the principal and faculty really runs things.

Fact is, in every church God gave supernatural gifts to most of the people in it, if not all. Meaning most of the people in a church should be able to lead in some capacity. New believers should be given very little leadership authority, ’cause they still need to develop character (i.e. be fruity). Whereas mature believers should be given as much authority as possible, ’cause they know what they’re doing and can support the pastors. Pastors can identify who is whom; responsibilities can be delegated appropriately; the church can work together in harmony. And everyone recognizes their true place: Under Jesus.

The unhealthy church puts all that responsibility on only the pastor’s shoulders, or only on a tight group of elders. Not so much Jesus’s. And these folks jealously guard their power, and fight off anyone who tries to take it. It doesn’t look at all like God’s kingdom, where the greatest is everyone’s servant; it looks like a city council, or a dictatorship, Mk 10.42-44) or Ahab’s kingdom—where the worry about a person like Jezebel would be far more valid.

In a church where everyone recognizes all authority is submtted to Jesus, anyone who tries to grab some immediately stands out, like a tree in a wheat field. That’s how we fight usurpers: Surrender. Not to them, but to God. When it’s all given to him, there’s none left for them, and you starve ’em out.

But again: Jezebel of Thyatira’s problem wasn’t usurpation. She didn’t take over Thyatira’s church. Instead they tolerated her. They forgave her. They kept letting her lead people astray. The problem is false teaching, not bad leaders.

Sexuality and sexism.

Lastly, “Jezebel” is too often misinterpreted to mean a seductress. Christians zoom in on the sex parts of Jesus’s warning, and figure there’s the entire problem right there: We got a seductress in the church who’s leading the men into adultery, whoring, and other vices. We got a girl who’s too promiscuous, and having her around is giving people the idea promiscuity is okay. Or we got a girl who people assume is promiscuous because they’d like to sleep with her: She’s really attractive, or she wears too much makeup and too few clothes, or—intentionally or not—she distracts the preacher with her boobs when he’s trying to think holy thoughts. (Or in Paul’s case, distracts him with her hair.) Get those women out of there, or at least put a burka on ’em.

This might be a valid problem… but usually the real issue is men who lack self-control. Or men who are too promiscuous, and likewise having them around is giving people the idea promiscuity is okay… for men, anyway.

But even when we understand Jesus correctly, “Jezebel” is only used to refer to women. How often are men called “Jezebels,” or get accused of having a Jezebel spirit? (Or even “an Ahab spirit”?) Frankly they don’t. Even when they actually are being like Jezebel of Thyatira. I’ve seen many a male false teacher or false prophet try to sway a church in the wrong direction, and nobody even thought to call them Jezebels.

Sexuality, or threats to power, tend to produce an emotional reaction in people. Particularly people who covet power or sex. It’s because of these gut-level responses that people are slow to recognize they’re using the term “Jezebel” wrong… or to stop using it wrong even when they know what it properly means. So don’t be too surprised to see the misinterpretation perpetuate itself.

Loving the world: Do or don’t?

by K.W. Leslie, 22 April

Let’s start with some contradictory-sounding scriptures, shall we?

1 John 2.15-17 KJV
15 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. 17 And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
 
John 3.16-17 KJV
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

Nope, John wasn’t using one of the other Greek words for “love” in these verses. Same one, ἀγαπάω/aghapáo, “to love.” Don’t love the world, he advises in his letter; but Jesus states in the gospel God loves the world, and sent us his Son to save it. So… don’t love the world, but God loves the world.

Plus Jesus instructs us to love everybody:

Mark 12.31 KJV
And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.
 
John 15.12 KJV
This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
 
Matthew 5.44-45 KJV
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

Between loving your neighbor, loving fellow Christians, and loving your enemies, that’s pretty much everybody on the planet. Sounds like we gotta love our world. So where does John get off telling us to not love the world?

Obviously it depends on what we mean by “world.” Same as English, the Greek word κόσμος/kósmos generally means “world,” but it has multiple shades of meaning: The planet we live on, everything on the planet we live on, just the people of the planet we live on, and those people’s power or wealth or interests or opinions. Calvinists add another definition—“the Christian world,” or Christendom—so they can explain how God loving the world really means he only loves the elect, and Jesus only died for Christians. Which is rubbish, but it’s one of their essential doctrines, and they’re kinda fond of redefining words to make the bible support their doctrines.

Anyway yeah, when John and Jesus are speaking of the world, they’re using different definitions of kósmos. You can figure out which by the context. Unless you don’t care about context, and are simply trying to justify loving the world, or not… and in both cases secretly plotting to love (or not love) the wrong world.

Jesus is talking about loving the people of the planet we live on. (Duh.) If you have the Holy Spirit, he loves the world, and when we follow him and produce his fruit, we’re gonna love the world. Even when the people of this planet are awful to one another and to us—and they do this quite a lot—we’re still gonna want the best for them, and want ’em to repent and be saved instead of getting destroyed by their own vices and stupidity. True of fellow Christians, true of neighbors, and with time and effort on our part it’s even true of enemies. Hey, a repentant enemy usually stops being an enemy.

John wrote about society. He lived in the pre-Christian and very pagan Roman Empire, where people worshiped and followed anything and everything. Heck, people are still that way, lip service to Jesus notwithstanding; note their fruit. You don’t wanna love that. It’s so contrary to God, you gotta wonder whether people who immerse themselves in our culture even know God; John certainly didn’t think so. I tend to give Christianists the benefit of my doubts and assume they just have sucky relationships with God; a really superficial knowledge of him at least. But many of ’em are pretty far gone towards “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” It hasn’t been about what Jesus teaches for a very, very long time.

People can be saved. But the culture’s gotta go. And it will; give it a decade. It’ll be replaced by something just as dumb. It’s why investing our time, our lives, our beings into it is so wasteful. Why loving it—why exhibiting that patience, kindness, forgiveness, grace, and passion towards it instead of people—is not just a massive waste of spiritual resources, but ultimately self-destructive as well. It’s like jumping out of a lifeboat because you think you saw a mermaid… and clearly all you know about mermaids comes from movies and comic books, ’cause in all the myths, mermaids eat sailors.

Humans are creatures of extremes, and sometimes that’s because we’re looking for an excuse to do as we please. So you’ll get Christians who sometimes insist, “The bible says to not love the world,” and use it as their excuse to utterly disconnect. From everything. Not just from popular culture, from social media, from reading the news, from even the electrical grid; from living like Mennonites where they obviously care about people, but make an equally obvious point of having nothing to do with worldly culture. Nope; it’s more of a bunker mentality, where they withdraw from society and withdraw from everybody else. Where they have nothing to do with anyone. They just stay at home, demonstrating with their very behavior why God once commented, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Ge 2.18

If you wanna be antisocial, the bible’s not gonna back you up. Loving your neighbor obligates us to get out of our bubbles and interact. Doesn’t have to be in person; we’ve got phones and internet. But it does have to happen, ’cause if Jesus isn’t teaching us about interacting with God, he’s teaching us to interact with fellow humans. So go find some fellow humans and love ’em.

The other extreme, naturally, is people who wanna justify being culturally immersed. Supposedly we can’t share Jesus with pagans unless we have points of common reference; we gotta know something about the culture in order to be “relevant.” And yeah, there’s wisdom in that: We should check out the news and know what’s going on in our world. But John’s instructions to his church was to not love it. Love God, love people; but if we love music and books and baseball and TV and politics instead of people and God, we’re blowing it big-time.

People are eternal. The culture, not so much. So let’s get our priorities straight.

Pray like Elijah.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 April

When our pastors encourage us to pray, sometimes they do it by quoting this particular verse. Maybe not in the NKJV as I’m about to, but all the good translations have the same gist.

James 5.16-18 NKJV
16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.

“See?” they conclude: “Elijah was a person just like us. Bible says so. And when he prayed, it stopped raining for three and a half years; 1Ki 17.1-7 and when he prayed again, it rained like crazy. 1Ki 18.41-46 Your prayers can have just as much effect as his. So pray!”

Yeah, but… Elijah wasn’t a person just like us.

I mean he’s human like us. James says that, anyway: He has “a nature like ours,” or as the KJV put it “subject to like passions as we are,” Jm 5.17 KJV which is their way of translating ἦν ὁμοιοπαθὴς ἡμῖν/in omiopathís ymín, “with the same pathology as us,” or in clearer English, “felt exactly like we do [when we pray].” That’s the point pastors wanna make: You got doubts; Elijah had doubts. But he prayed and God did stuff. So pray, and watch God do stuff!

But the part of that passage we keep going back to is “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” A righteous man.

Elijah was righteous. As for us… well, we’re not so sure we’re righteous.

Obviously there are Christians who feel plenty righteous, and are naming-it-and-claiming-it full speed ahead. Is God giving ’em what they demand from him? Not always. In fact the more arrogant they get, the less he cares to give ’em, ’cause God doesn’t wanna encourage this kind of prideful dickishness in his kids. Certainly they’re not who we think of when we’re talking righteousness. We’re thinking of Elijah, and trying to measure ourselves up to him.

And sometimes incorrectly, ’cause we got the wrong definition of righteous on the brain: We imagine it means good. The prayer of a good person is gonna work… and we’re not so good. Not as good as Elijah. So if we want prayer results, we gotta become as good as Elijah. Gotta rack up some good karma, and then God’ll recognize us as being worthy of granting us our requests. Till we do, of course we’re not getting what we want; God doesn’t listen to dirty sinners.

Okay, time to remind everyone: Righteous means we’re in the right standing with God. How do we get righteous? By trusting God.

Galatians 3.11 ESV
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” Hb 2.4

You wanna be righteous like Elijah? It’s not about being good like Elijah. We have no stories in the scriptures about how he was particularly good; about his acts of charity and Law-following and other good deeds. We have loads of stories about how he trusted God, and how far that took him. You wanna be righteous like Elijah, you gotta trust God like Elijah.

And yeah, Elijah struggled with trust issues. After he prayed for the rain to stop, after he called down fire from heaven to burn up an offering (and the entire stone altar it sat on), 1Ki 18 one little death threat from the queen got him to flee for his life, go to Mt. Sinai in Midian, and complain to God about how it seemed the whole world was out to get him. No it wasn’t, said the LORD; go back and get back to work. 1Ki 19 Elijah certainly didn’t have unshakable faith. Like James said, he was a man with a nature like ours.

Elijah prayed for massive things and God met those requests, and I suspect that’s because Elijah already lived a lifestyle of praying for small things and God meeting those requests. He had to grow his faith to the point where praying for big things was doable. Still might’ve been a faith challenge, depending on how impossible these things looked, but if you’ve regularly seen God grant prayer requests, it gets less and less impossible-looking over time. So that’s my advice to you: If you’ve gotta grow your faith to Elijah-level proportions, start small and work your way up.

But faith, not good works, is how we get righteousness. (Good works is simply the fruit.) You wanna be the righteous person whose prayers avail much? Work on the faith.

Saved from what?

by K.W. Leslie, 20 April

Four things you’re gonna notice about every religion in the world:

  • They try to explain who God is, and what he’s like: Caring nurturer, or wrathful disciplinarian? Disconnected first cause, or deterministic micromanager? The sum total of everything in the universe, or totally removed from everything? The object of all our faith and devotion, or not relevant? The only thing that’s real, or doesn’t even exist? Where does he fit between these extremes?—or is he paradoxically both?
  • They try to explain what happens after we die: Afterlife, new life, another life, or annihilation?
  • Morality: How ought humans live?—in light of who God is, or in light of what happens after we die.
  • How ought we compensate our clergy for all the valuable insights they’ve given us? Money? Free stuff? Sex?

Yeah, that fourth thing is a bit cynical, but the issue is there, y’know. Even in the benign religions.

But why do people pursue religions in the first place? Simple: It’s salvation. They wanna get saved.

Saved from what? Well, that varies.

Yeah, my fellow Christians are gonna tell you we need to be saved from sin and death. As will I, ’cause we do. That is what Christ Jesus offers. But it’s not necessarily what people are thinking of when they first look into Christianity. Or look into any other religion: Buddhism, Islam, Wicca, Mammonism. Or, because they don’t wanna be told what to believe, cobble together their own belief system so they can be “spiritual not religious.”

Most want to be saved from their circumstances. Their lives suck. They’re addicted to alcohol, food, sex, or narcotics; their relationships are out of control; their finances are insane. Some live in awful countries, with warlords who threaten their livelihoods and lives. And even when all those things are fine, there’s something in ’em which is just dissatisfied with life, and they can’t put their finger on it. So they figure God has the answer. Since this desire is so common, you’ll notice most Christian evangelists talk about being saved from this instead of sin and death. (Hey, a lousy life is no doubt the result of sin, right?) Turn to God and he’ll get your life right, and give you peace no matter what’s going on.

Many of ’em are looking to be saved from doubt. They wanna know why the universe works the way it does: Why do bad things happen to good people? They wanna know who or what God is. They wanna know what happens after death—not because they’re worried about death itself, for they figure whatever happens, happens. It just bugs ’em they don’t have simple answers to these questions. Or at least answers they’re comfortable with.

Many want to be saved from worry. Because they are worried about death: They don’t wanna cease to exist, or don’t wanna find themselves in a black cavernous chaotic nothingness, or are afraid of finding themselves in hell, and worry hell’s gonna look like the very worst horror movies. And again, many Christian evangelists zero in on these fears, and preach almost exclusively about getting saved from hellfire.

But back to sin and death.

Christianity focuses only on Jesus saving us from sin and death. Yeah, he could save us from circumstances, worries, and doubts too. And maybe he will. But what he’ll definitely do is save us from sin and death.

Oh you want proof texts? Yeah, let’s do proof texts. Sin first:

Matthew 1.21 KJV
And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
 
1 Corinthians 15.3 KJV
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
 
1 Timothy 1.15 KJV
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.

Now death.

Luke 9.56 KJV
For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.
 
John 3.16 KJV
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
 
John 10.28 KJV
And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.
 
1 Corinthians 15.22 KJV
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

The two are of course related. Sin produces death. Ro 3.23 We sin; it gradually but definitely kills us. And others: Humans murder innocent people, like infants and fetuses, all the time. One human pollutes and another gets poisoned; one human cuts corners and another gets killed from shoddy craftsmanship. Jesus is a perfect example of a totally innocent victim: He never sinned, so his own sins didn’t kill him. But the Judeans’ and Romans’ sins absolutely did—and by extension humanity’s sins did too, ’cause Jesus would never have to come into the world to show us the Father Jn 1.18 if our sins didn’t distort our ideas of God so very much.

Jesus’s solution to the problem is not to merely give us a nice afterlife. It’s the kingdom of God—in which he’s the king. It’s to transform us through his Holy Spirit so we can be citizens of this kingdom. It’s to follow him by behaving as citizens of this kingdom; to do as he teaches. And if we’re pursuing God’s kingdom, our circumstances and worries and doubts tend to sort themselves out:

Matthew 6.33 KJV
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

“These things” being the worries of food and clothing—petty worries for the middle class, but serious needs for the impoverished people to whom Jesus preached. No, Jesus isn’t blowing off our serious needs, and telling us, “Forget about that; concentrate just on being religious.” He’s trying to restructure our priorities correctly. Most of our other worries are likewise the product of sin. So let’s root out the underlying cancer first. And Jesus is here to help.

The Mizpah covenant.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 April

Genesis 31.48-49.

When I was a kid, and people hadn’t yet figured out how to use the internet for shopping, my family got the Sears catalog. Basically it was a 500-page, full-color, softcover book. It’d contain every single thing Sears sold—particularly stuff you couldn’t find in its stores, but thanks to the catalog you could order it by phone. Then wait 4 weeks for it to be delivered. Yep, a month. Sometimes longer. (Anyone who’s nostalgic for “the good old days” is a moron.)


A typical mizpah coin.

When bored I’d browse the things. Usually the toys. But next to the toy section was the jewelry section, and among the baubles Sears offered were mizpah coins. Maybe you’ve seen them too… or maybe half of one. They’re meant for couples. The coin is split in two, and one partner gets one half, the other t’other. You have to put them together to read the entire verse:

Genesis 31.48-49 KJV
48 And Laban said, This heap is a witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed; 49 and Mizpah; for he said, The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.

Aww, how romantic. May God watch over us when we’re apart.

Except in context, it’s not at all romantic. Laban and Jacob didn’t make a pile of stones and swear this oath because they were gonna miss one another, and want each other to be safe. It was because they didn’t trust one another. For good reason: Both those guys were lying, scheming weasels.

If you have the context of this verse in mind, giving it to your significant other kinda means you don’t trust your significant other. Which is why you gotta invoke the LORD. He’s gotta watch over your partner, because for all you know, your partner’s banging their way through every bar in the state. And, like Jacob or Laban, totally lying to you about everything, and they have no idea why it burns when you urinate. Probably something you did.

The funny thing about most people is it often doesn’t matter if they know the context: They’ll still totally quote it out of context anyway. I’ve known preachers who taught, in great detail, on the seriously dysfunctional relationships Jacob had with his family. They know all about why Laban and Jacob made their mizpah pile. And yet they and their spouses wear mizpah coins… because that’s not what they mean with their mizpah coins. Well if that’s not what you mean, stop referencing bible!

But enough ranting. Let’s get to the actual context.

Untrustworthy men; totally trustworthy God.

Jacob is the second son of Isaac ben Abraham, whom the LORD later renamed Israel. Yep, the Israelis are descended from him; the 13 tribes are named for his 11 sons and two grandsons. He’s kind of a big deal.

Customarily the eldest son would inherit the patriarchy from his father, but Genesis tells two stories of Jacob scheming to get the birthright away from his slightly-elder twin brother Esau. First he traded Esau lentil stew for his birthright. Ge 25.29-34 Next—and far less honestly—Jacob disguised himself as Esau so his near-blind father would grant him Esau’s irrevocable birthright-type blessing. Ge 27 This pissed Esau off to the point he meant to murder Jacob, and to keep him alive, Jacob’s mother got her husband to send Jacob to her family in Paddán-Arám, ostensibly to find a Hebrew wife. (Esau had two Canaanite wives, and the family did not get along with ’em.)

In Paddán-Arám, Jacob fell immediately, and hard, for his first cousin Rachel bat Laban. (Eww.) He had no wealth to speak of, so Laban got him to agree to seven years of labor in exchange for Rachel. A typical dowry in the ancient middle east was 30 sheqels of silver, and a typical labor was a sheqel a month, so properly that’s about four years of labor, not seven; but Jacob was too lovestruck to haggle. But then Laban swapped out Rachel for his other daughter Leah on their wedding night, and by the time Jacob discovered the switch it was too late; they’d had sex, so they were married. If Jacob wanted Rachel as a second wife, it was gonna cost him another seven years. Laban got 14 years labor out of Jacob; 10 years more than Jacob should’ve reasonably expected. Ge 29 Obviously Jacob met a superior con artist.

After that, Jacob worked for wages. Which Laban kept changing; likely decreasing, ’cause “expenses.” So Jacob came up with a scheme where he finally came out ahead: Laban gave him all the striped and speckled goats, and the brown sheep, as wages. Jacob did some weird folk-medicine thing with sticks which got his own animals to breed more. Ge 30 Once Laban’s sons objected that Jacob was getting too prosperous, the LORD informed Jacob that maybe now was the time to go back to Canaan. So he did… but because he didn’t inform Laban, much less get his permission as his patriarch, Laban came after him. Ge 31 After all, Laban’s attitude was, “These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children, and these cattle are my cattle, and all that thou seest is mine.” Ge 31.43 KJV He didn’t see Jacob as his nephew or son-in-law; just a subject he could exploit.

But the LORD told Laban to leave Jacob be, Ge 31.24 and Laban did heed the LORD, if no one else. He wouldn’t just leave Jacob alone though; he wanted a covenant which stipulated Jacob would care for his daughters, and marry no one else, Ge 31.50 and that neither would invade or attack the other. Ge 31.52 They put up memorial stones, offered a sacrifice, ate together, and that was that.

Laban called the stones יְגַר שַׂהֲדוּתָא/yegár šahadúta, Aramaic for “witness pile [of rocks],” and by Jacob גַּלְעֵד/galéd, Hebrew for the very same thing—“witness pile.” The word מִצְפָּה/michpá (KJV “Mizpah”), “watchtower,” is another thing the place is called, from Laban’s oath, “The LORD watch between me and thee.” Ge 31.49 There’s where we get the name for those broken coins—and no, nobody breaks a coin in half anywhere in the Jacob/Laban story. Not even in Jewish mythology.

There’s the context. Using Mizpah as a name for cemeteries, for jewelry, for oaths or any other promises to stay together, with the LORD watching over us to keep us safe: It has nothing to do with Jacob and Laban’s relationship. That’s about a control-freak father-in-law wanting some form of petty victory when it turned out he wasn’t getting his way that day. And I would hope our romantic relationships aren’t as messed up as Jacob and Laban’s relationship; yikes.

The opposite of love.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 April

When Christians talk about love, naturally we’re gonna bring up the subject of the opposite of love.

But on this subject, we’re not entirely agreed. The scriptures contrast a lot of things with love. Obviously hate.

Ecclesiastes 3.8 KJV
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
 
Amos 5.15 KJV
Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the LORD God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph.
 
Malachi 1.2-3 KJV
2 I have loved you, saith the LORD. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the LORD: yet I loved Jacob, 3 and I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.
 
Matthew 5.43 KJV
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
 
Luke 16.13 KJV
No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Here’s where teachers like me are obligated to point out when middle easterners contrast love with hate, they don’t always literally mean hate. Frequently they just mean “don't love as much as the other person or thing.” When the LORD said he loves Jacob but hates Esau, Ro 9.13 no he doesn’t hate-hate Esau, but favors Jacob more. He chose Jacob, and passed over Esau. The LORD still blessed Esau, made a nation out of him, even had close relationships with Edomites like Job; his “hatred” still looks a whole lot like great and gracious love! But the LORD had much greater expectations on Jacob and the Israelites, and offered ’em particular blessings as a result. Plus Jesus was born an Israelite.

Other Christians take note of this particular verse in 1 John

1 John 4.18 NKJV
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.

—and conclude, not wrongly, that fear and love kinda oppose one another. And no, this idea isn’t only found in only one verse; Paul kinda hinted at it in a letter to Timothy:

2 Timothy 1.7 KJV
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

Hence Christians take this idea and really pound it into the ground. When other Christians state love and hate are opposite, these know-it-alls love to point out, “Actually no; it’s love versus fear.” And sometimes quote the proof text. And sometimes talk about their personal experiences which prove love and fear are opposite.

Yeah, you probably guessed I have an alternative answer. And if you ever studied logic, you already know what it is. The exact opposite of love, is not-love. The absence of love. It’s when love simply isn’t there. We don’t have it.

The absence of love can look like all sorts of things, including hate and fear. And selfishness, callousness, anger, violence; y’might think up a few more. But it doesn’t have to look like anything. If love simply isn’t there, it won’t really look like anything anyway. Pick any inanimate object, like a pencil on your table: Does it love? Only if you imagine really hard that it has a soul, and thoughts, and feelings; that it loves to draw, and hates getting sharpened. Which is all projection, of course.

Likewise a rock doesn’t love. A chair doesn’t love. Statues don’t; dollar bills don’t. Even “smart” objects don’t: Your phone doesn’t love, your car doesn’t love, your Roomba doesn’t love. Even when you program these things to tell you so, or get ’em to do things that our fellow humans do to demonstrate love, we recognize love’s gotta have an intelligence behind it. Artificial intelligence ain’t there yet.

So when a human lacks love, that person’s not necessarily gonna look hostile, negative, or dangerous. At our most benign, humans are gonna look as inert as a pencil. They won’t love you… and won’t hate you either. Won’t anything. You’re not a factor in their considerations. That’s all.

If you want a one-word synonym for not-love, the best I can think of would be apathy. But apathy implies they know about you, yet don’t love you; more often they don’t know about you, or simply haven’t thought of you. Or it hasn’t crossed their mind to love you: Point this out to them, and they might! Point is, not-love is even more nonmalignant than apathy. No harm’s meant. No offense.

But not-love still creates problems.

Yep, not-love is in the bible.

First time I explained to a youth group how the opposite of love is not-love, one of the kids objected, “But love versus fear is in the bible, and your thing isn’t in the bible.” Ah, but it is. People quote it all the time, too:

1 Corinthians 13.1-3 NKJV
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

When we act without love, even when we supernaturally act without love, we’re irrelevant, we’re useless, we accomplish nothing, and we’re being jerks.

I’ve seen it firsthand aplenty. When people are working in a ministry, but have no love for the people they’re ministering to, they become massive jerks. They exhibit no patience, no kindness; it’s just “Move it along; I’ve got lots of people to serve and you’re holding me up.” It’s not about people; it’s just numbers. It’s not about getting people to appreciate, or get interested in, God’s kingdom; it’s about all the jewels you were told you’d get in your crown at the End. It’s all about racking up good karma for Jesus, not loving your neighbor… and it shows. And it sucks.

To those being “ministered to,” who get herded like cattle instead of helped and loved: They were expecting love. They got brusqueness, impatience, sarcasm, and mockery. Sure felt like hatred.

’Cause when love is absent, everything else, especially all the negative, self-centered, fleshly stuff, is still there. There’s no love to mitigate, nullify, or take the place of those things. People really feel the difference. It’s why Christians are meant to be identified as Christ-followers by, at the very least, our love for one another. Jn 13.35 But we suck at demonstrating that, and people definitely remember Christians who weren’t quite so loving to them.

Doing the opposite of hate and fear doesn’t count.

I’ve heard many a Christian claim they do so love their neighbors… because they certainly don’t hate them. See, if hatred and love are opposites, they figure if they lack hate, by default they gotta have love. And other Christians try the very same thing with fear: They’re not afraid, so it must be love, right?

Back to logic: The opposite of hate is not-hate. The opposite of fear is not-fear. An inanimate object doesn’t hate, doesn’t fear; it’s inert. And while it’s good that we don’t hate and fear others, simply not hating and not fearing makes us just as inert as a boulder on the ground. Once again, we have apathy. Which, I remind you, is just a blank slate… one where our fleshly works are all the more obvious.

Okay, you’re not doing evil! But we still gotta do good. Do something.

And love actually does stuff. Love has patience, behaves kindly; doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion, point out how great it is, inflate itself, ignore others’ considerations, provoke ill behavior, plot evil, delight in wrongdoing, etcetera. 1Co 13.4-5 The apostles defined love with lots of verbs, describing what it does, and describing what we oughta do. We don’t just love by default when we don’t hate and don’t fear: We gotta do love. Put some effort into it!

Love one another. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Love everybody, basically; same as God loves the world. Jn 3.16 It’s a big job, so start small. But get started.