The explosive power of God?

by K.W. Leslie, 26 August
DYNAMIS 'daɪ.nə.mɪs, ' or DUNAMIS 'du'nə.mɪs noun. The extra-mighty sort of power God possesses.
[Dynamite power 'daɪ.nə.maɪt 'paʊ(.ə)r noun.]

Alexander Pope wrote the saying, “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” in his Essay on Criticism in 1711. It’s frequently misquoted “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and constantly taken out of context: People assume Pope meant it’s better to have no knowledge at all. Knowledge is power, but power in the wrong hands is dangerous.

Read his whole poem, and you learn what Pope actually meant:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Yeah, for those who lack a little learning about what a Pierian Spring is, that’d be a fountain in ancient Macedonia (which is not the current country of Macedonia) dedicated to the Muses, the Greek goddesses of wisdom and talent. Drink from the spring, and you’re supposed to gain their wisdom, and be able to understand profound truths. But if you don’t take a big drink from it—if you only take little sips from a 6-ounce Dixie cup—you’re not getting a full dose of wisdom. You’re only getting tiny but partial insights. Only half-truths.

That’s what Pope considered dangerous: A little learning. A partial knowledge. Don’t be satisfied with tricks or trivia. Dig deeper.

One obvious example is what popular Christianity claims about “dynamis power.” I first heard it before I went to seminary and learned Greek. I’ve heard it countless times since.

Pastors are impressed by how similar the word δύναμις/dýnamis is to our English word dynamite. And of course it’s similar. After Alfred Nobel patented “Nobel’s Blasting Powder” in 1867, he decided to give it a more clever name: The Greek word for power, plus -ite. So it’s not a coincidence the two words are similar. Fully deliberate on Nobel’s part.

So these pastors will spend a lot of time on “the dýnamis power of God” (or dúnamis, depending on whether they know an upsilon is pronounced i instead of u, and usually they don’t). They’ll spend a lot of time on how dynamic or dynamite it is. Or as one of my pastors loved to put it, “the dynamite power of God!” ’Cause once the Holy Spirit gets in there and does something, BOOM!

It’s an exciting image. It’s that excitement which indicates someone’s been sipping from the spring of knowledge again. Not drinking deep.

When I first heard this idea, I thought it sounded clever. But what did I know? I hadn’t learned any Greek yet. And even for quite a few years after my Greek classes, I perpetuated the error: God’s power is ’splodey like dynamite. But one Sunday 14 years ago, after yet another sermon on the explosive power of God, I decided to finally double-check the idea against a Greek dictionary. And as you can guess, no that’s not what dýnamis means.

Defining God by his might, instead of his love.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 August

People have all sorts of ideas about what a god is. To the ancients, a god was simply a non-human being who was mightier than they, who had power over nature, and if you worshiped them they might control some nature for you. To present-day westerners, whose ideas of God have largely been influenced by Christianity, God is properly defined as the mightiest being the universe. The Almighty. Nothing and no one comes close.

Which he is, but people tend to fixate on that definition instead of God’s own description of himself—as love.

Exodus 34.6-7 KJV
6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, 7 keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

It’s kinda obvious why: Humans covet power. And God’s all-powerful. So, same as with the ancients and their gods, we figure if we suck up to God just right, he might use his power on our behalf. Even grant us a little power.

So whenever Christians write theology books, and start writing about the attributes of God, that’s where we typically start: God is almighty. God is the Almighty. He’s El Šaddaý, God Almighty; El Elyón, the Most High; El Jefe, the Boss. (Okay, that last one’s Spanish, not Hebrew, but he is.) And then we go into detail about all the ways he’s almighty, usually with Latin-derived words beginning with omni-. He’s omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnidirectional, omnivorous… well, considering he discouraged the Hebrews from certain ritually unclean animals, maybe not omnivorous; Jesus didn’t eat shellfish. But those theology books surely do pound away at the omnis. Because we’d surely like to be omni.

And sometimes speculate what it’d be like to be omnipotent. Could God really do anything? Really anything?

SHE. “God is almighty, right? So could he create a rock so heavy, he can’t lift it?”
ME. “Yes. Of course he could create such a rock.”
SHE. [figuring she got me] “But if he can’t lift it, then is he really almighty? Is he really God?”
ME. “Well first of all, God isn’t defined by his almightiness. But second of all, it’s a poor sort of almightiness that can’t create paradoces.”

Yeah, this person didn’t realize this wasn’t my first go-around with this particular question. I grew up inflicting it on my Sunday school teachers, just to see whether I liked any of their answers. (Seldom did I.) Theology professors still use it to mess with the minds of their students. I came up with my own answer back in seminary, just to mess with the minds of my theology professors.

But the reason Christians confound themselves with the paradox of truly being able to do anything—including contradictory things, however much that might bend our brains—is because we love the idea our God can do anything, and wanna explore that idea. Explore it a lot. Explore it a little too much.

And in some cases go too far, and forget even though God has the power to do absolutely anything, there are all sorts of things he can’t do. Not just “will not do,” not just “refuses to do,” not just “could do but won’t”—things he can’t do. Because to do such things violates the core of who he is. God is love, and can’t violate that attribute. Can not.

So is he almighty? Sure. So long that we remember “almighty” means God has the complete, unlimited power to do whatever he wants. If we’re only talking about complete, unlimited power to do anything at all, no. God’s never gonna be wicked. Period. It’s not who he is.

Those who love and covet God’s might, have a big problem with me making this “qualification.” Because they don’t wanna put any limits on God’s might. Even though God himself puts limits on his own might. He has way more self-control than we do. But those who covet power wanna claim, with no qualifications whatsoever, that God does have the complete, unlimited power to do anything at all—and we should be in awe of this raw power, and worship it.

Whoops, I mean God. And so do they. Kinda. But maybe not.

See, this is the inevitable problem with defining God by his might instead of his love: We humans have the bad habit of worshiping our favorite things about God, instead of God, the being, himself. We love to talk about God’s might ’cause we worship might. We love to talk about God’s unlimited resources, ’cause we worship wealth. I know this one music pastor who loves to talk about how God gets worshiped round his throne, ’cause he loves worship, and by “worship” this guy usually means music: He loves music. I won’t accuse him of worshiping music itself, but he does love music.

But when we worship God’s love… well, God is love. When we strive to define love the way the scriptures define love, and love God and our neighbor as commanded, we are by Jesus’s definition Mt 22.36-40 worshiping God. It’s not really misdirected worship. It’s correct worship. Worshiping might will quickly turn into idolatry; worshiping God’s love will always turn into worshiping God.

God is love.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 August

No doubt you’ve heard “God is love” before. If we wanna understand it better, it helps to read St John’s context, from his first letter.

1 John 4.7-16 KJV
7 Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. 8 He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. 9 In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. 10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. 12 No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13 Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.
14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. 15 Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. 16 And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.

John wrote his letter to address the problem of gnostics in Ephesus—and really throughout the Roman Empire—who claimed all sorts of things about God and who he is, about Jesus and whether he’s even human, and about how to identify God’s followers through their secret knowledge—whereas the scriptures teach us to identify fellow Christians by our fruit. The most obvious fruit is love, and if we don’t have that, we quite obviously don’t have the Holy Spirit within us, because above all else, God is love.

How do we know God is love? Duh; before we even knew to love him, he sent Jesus to die for our sins. And when we repented and confessed and turned to him, he gave us his Holy Spirit—who is God himself. If a person has the Holy Spirit within them, and is actually following the Spirit like we should, there should be obvious signs of it. Namely God’s love. “Love is of God.” 1Jn 4.7

And if we don’t see love—and sad to say, there are a lot of Christians in whom we really don’t—John doesn’t go so far as to say these people doesn’t really have the Spirit in ’em. He only says “He that loveth not knoweth not God.” 1Jn 4.8 If we knew God, we’d know love’s a big big deal to him. Because it’s who he is. God is love.

John says the words ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν/o Theós ayápi estín, “God is love,” twice in this passage. 1Jn 4.8, 16 There’s no ambiguity in them. God is, present tense, love. And ayápi is the same word the KJV elsewhere translates as “charity,” and St. Paul defines thisaway:

1 Corinthians 13.4-7 KJV
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

More than one preacher has noted this is a pretty good description of God himself.

God’s names. (And a bunch of his adjectives.)

by K.W. Leslie, 23 August

New Christians—and a bunch of us older ones too—tend to be fascinated by the fact God has a lot of different names.

No, I’m not talking about the different words for “God” in other languages: Theos, Deus, Dios, Diyos, Dieu, Dia, Dio, Zeu, Gott, Gud, Hudaý, Bog, Buh, Elohim, Allah, Ulah, Dev, Ram, Atua, Kami, Haneunim, and so forth. Those are neat too, as are the different ways humanity has rendered “Jesus.” But people who are into that, are more into languages. Your average Christian is more into the many different things God is called in the bible.

James Nesbit is selling this poster of God’s names. Without the watermark, I expect.

There’s “God,” of course. There’s “the Lord” or “the LORD,” depending on the original-language words we’re translating. There’s his personal name “I Am” or “YHWH” (or “Yahwéh”) or “Jehovah.” There’s “the Most High” and “the Almighty”…

And I haven’t even got to the titles yet. Like Mighty God, Ancient of Days, Alpha and Omega, Lord of Hosts, and so on. Go to your average Christian bookstore (assuming your local one hasn’t shut down, or moved to the internet) and they even have a poster covered in God’s titles. Suitable for framing, if you’re not a teenager but still like posters.

Bust out some Hebrew to go along with it, and some Christians will get sloppy with excitement. I can write articles about God’s attributes till my fingers go numb, but many a Christian doesn’t give a rip about theology: They just want easy ideas which they can meditate upon and come up with their own insights about, and one of the easiest ideas to mentally play with is one of God’s names. So they just love God’s names.

There’s just something about them. Because, as many Christians teach, there’s power in God’s name. Jr 10.6 Power, power, wonder-working power. Power to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.

But I should first point out these many names of God… are not necessarily what God names himself.

Fr’instance “God.” In nearly every culture, a god is what you call any being who’s mightier than a human—stronger, smarter, longer-lived, heals quicker, or what have you. It’s why superheroes tend to be called gods—and every time someone in a movie refers to Superman or Thor as a god, we Christians balk: They’re not gods. “There’s only one God,” as Captain America said in the first Avengers movie, “and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” But in ancient pagan cultures—and regularly among today’s pagans—it is how people think. Once you become more than human, you become a god.

So you suck up to gods as you do a warlord or king. ’Cause it’s more powerful than you, and could either do things for you, or smite you. It might have expectations on you, or capriciously decide it doesn’t like you.

But to the ancients, gods weren’t all-powerful. Gods could only control, or reign over, one particular thing—like weather or sex. Even the mightiest of gods wasn’t the creator of all things; ancient myths always had the first gods making the universe out of pre-existing materials, which nobody made… and often the pre-existing materials made the gods, like when Ouranos and Gaia made Chronos. Likewise these gods weren’t even moral beings. (Well, Baldr was good. But of all the gods in pagan mythology, it’s pretty much only him. And they killed him.)

In contrast, the anceint Hebrews, we Christians, and Muslims are monotheists: There’s only the One God, and he’s a supreme being; he’s God over all, not just individual things or nations, and he created heavens and earth Ge 1.1 instead of heavens and earth creating him. We don’t consider any other “gods” to be legit. When we use the word “god,” we monotheists only mean the One God. Who’s almighty, and good.

The Dragnet Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 August

Matthew 13.47-50.

You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what a dragnet is, and think it has to do with cop shows, or police putting up roadblocks in order to catch a suspect. Police have certainly borrowed the term, but properly a dragnet is a fishing net.

There are many kinds of dragnets. The type most commonly used today is a seine (a word descended from the ancient Greek word for dragnet, σαγήνη/sayíni), a fishing net with floats on the top and weights on the bottom, pulled behind a boat, which catches everything swimming in the top part of a body of water. Another is the kind which sinks to the bottom of the lake or sea, and pulls up everything from the floor. And since it catches everything, it might catch garbage… or endangered fish or marine mammals, like dolphins. It’s an efficient way to catch fish, but it’s not popular with environmentalists.

Jesus’s base of operations was Kfar Nahum (Greek Καφαρναοὺμ/Kafarnaúm, KJV Capernaum), a fishing village on the coast of Lake Tiberius, the Galilee’s freshwater “sea.” No doubt a lot of his followers were fishers. Four of his Twelve definitely were: Andrew and Peter bar John, and James and John bar Zebedee. Mk 1.16-20 Four more might also have been: Thomas, Nathanael, and two unnamed others. Jn 21.2-3 So, two-thirds of the Twelve. And the other four were not unfamiliar with fishing practices… epsecially after several years of hanging out with fishers all day.

Y’notice Jesus tended to tell parables about agriculture and sheep-herding. This is the only one about fishing. He also told a few about building and carpentry too, but the reason he didn’t tell as many about his old vocation, is because he was concentrating on his audience. What’s gonna connect with them most?

Matthew 13.47-50 KWL
47 “Again, heaven’s kingdom is like a dragnet,
thrown in the sea and gathering together every species.
48 When it’s full, it’s dragged to shore and set down.
The fishers gather up the good into containers, and throw out the useless.
49 This is how it is in the end of the age:
The angels will go out and separate evildoers from the middle of the righteous,
50 and they’ll throw them into the fiery furnace;
there will be wailing and grinding teeth.”

Like all parables it’s about God’s kingdom, and specifically the people who will be judged worthy of it in the end. Or not.

The Fear.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 August

You likely know the main reason Christians don’t act in faith.

It’s why we won’t share Jesus with our neighbors and coworkers. Why we don’t pray for people to be cured of illnesses, freed from addictions, or rescued from troubles. Why we never even think to ask God for miracles. Why we won’t prophesy, even though we’re sure God is speaking to us right this instant. Why we won’t start ministries, won’t offer help, won’t encourage, won’t anything.

It’s the Fear.

I capitalize it because it’s not just any ol’ fear, like overcaution in case anything goes wrong, or concerns we might be doing too much, or hard experiences which inform our hesitancy. It’s the Fear. I’ll explain.

You’ve likely met Christians who’re the most friendly, outgoing, outspoken, extroverted people you’ve ever seen. Got no trouble with public speaking. No trouble sharing their opinions. (Even when you’d rather they didn’t.) No trouble talking about their favorite movies, teams, products, politics. Maybe a little initial stage fright when they’re in front of a crowd, but they shake it off quickly. But when it comes to talking about Jesus or acting in faith, these very same Christians suddenly seize up and never snap out of it. It’s like someone flipped a switch. Someone cut the power. Someone crimped the hose. The meds wore off. Pick your favorite simile.

Because their minds immediately went to the darkest possible scenario: “If I act, they’ll…” followed by the most awful thing we can picture. Or can’t picture; they won’t even allow their minds to go there; it’ll be that bad.

In real life? Rarely happens that way. Rarely. In the United States, four out of five of us consider ourselves Christian, and even if these self-described Christians don’t believe in miracles, they’re not gonna say no to prayer. Not gonna dismiss Jesus outright. Might hesitantly respond, “Um… okay.” Even hardcore antichrists will just smile and say “No thank you.” We’ve gotta find someone with serious anger issues before we’d ever encounter a worst-case scenario.

But that’s who these Christians immediately picture. Usually it sounds like this: Say we ask a man whether we can share Jesus with him. He immediately reacts with a demoniac’s strength—with the rage of a thousand angry nerds who were just told Jar Jar Binks is gonna star in the next Star Wars movie—and shouts, “How dare you tell me about Jesus. How dare you talk religion. I hate Christians. You’ve made an enemy for life!” Out of nowhere a medieval mace appears, and he beats us like that one devil-possessed guy beat the clothes off the sons of Sceva. Ac 19.11-20 Out of nowhere a lynch mob swarms us, screaming for our blood, and once they’re done with us, they run amok, burning down all the churches, hanging Christians from every lamppost.

Maybe your worst-case scenario doesn’t look this way at all. But in many a Christian’s deepest, darkest parts, we kinda worry something just as bad could happen. At the very least no one will like us anymore. They’ll think we’re the office bible-thumper. Or the holier-than-thou legalist. Or the insufferable hipster Christian who tries to redirect every conversation into a religious one. The Jesus freak. Whatever threatens to make us friendless and alone.

That’s the Fear. It’s when we presume the instant we step out in faith, we’ll get overwhelming backlash, and things’ll be awful.

So we just don’t.

Fear-based evangelism: Carrot and stick. Mostly stick.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 August

Four years ago I got to talking with a regular at my church about evangelism. She wanted to know how I shared Jesus. Not to pick up any pointers or anything; this was an orthodoxy test. She wanted to make sure I wasn’t steering people wrong. Some people love to appoint themselves as heresy hunters, and she’s one of ’em. (She’s also not entirely sure anyone’s doing Christianity right but her.)

So I talked about how I usually tell people about Jesus: First I find out what they believe, if anything. Most of the time I find out they’re already Christian, or believe themselves to be. If they’re not churchgoers, I encourage ’em to go: I try to plug them into a church. Doesn’t need to be mine, but it does need to be a fruitful church. ’Cause they’re more likely to experience Jesus for themselves when the people of their church know him personally.

SHE. “And what do you tell them about hell?”
ME. “Not much. They don’t usually ask.”
SHE. “You don’t warn them about hell?
Me. “I don’t need to. I’ve already got ’em interested in going to church.”
SHE. “But you’ve gotta warn ’em about hell!”
ME. “Why?”
SHE. [gonna burst a blood vessel over my perceived stupidity] “Because that’s where they’re headed!”
ME. “Oh, they know that. That’s the one thing they definitely know about us Christians: We think they’re all going to hell. I don’t need to repeat that. Not that they always believe in hell anyway.”
SHE. “They have to believe in hell. The bible says…”
ME. “Well yeah, the bible says. But half the time they don’t believe what the bible says. You know how people think nowadays: The bible’s an ancient book, written by old dead white guys…” [brown guys, but few people realize that] “…and seeing is believing. That’s why I’m trying to get ’em into a church: I want ’em to see stuff. Not that they will, but I don’t just want ’em to take my word for it. Even if I quote buttloads of bible at ’em.”
SHE. “If they don’t believe the bible, they can’t be saved.”
ME. “Well, lucky for them neither I nor God believe that.”

Pretty sure I didn’t convince her I’m not going about it totally wrong.

But the reason I share Jesus this way is ’cause I used to do it her way. And I didn’t get anywhere.

The type of evangelism she prefers is old-timey hellfire and brimstone. Warn people they’re going to hell—the final hell, gé’enna, with the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and its angels—and make it clear hell sucks, and they don’t wanna go there. Terrify them with the idea that God is filled with wrath towards sinners, and wants to send every last one of them into fiery hell, and he’s never ever letting ’em out; they’ll burn forever. And once they’re nice and scared, offer the solution to the problem: Jesus. God may wanna burn you like a little boy frying ants with a magnifying lens, but Jesus just wants to give you a great big hug and let you into heaven.

I call it carrot-and-stick evangelism: Heaven’s the carrot; hell’s the stick. But be sure you preach about 75 percent stick, lest they think there are no dire consequences for rejecting heaven. It’s a common dark Christian practice.

It also has the undesired effect of creating plenty more dark Christians.

Fearful churches.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 August

We Christians are meant to be holy, and consider ourselves separate from the rest of the world.

No, this isn’t because we’re better than them. We’re so not.

No, this doesn’t mean we’re to move into little gated communities where nobody but Christians live, isolate ourselves from everybody else, and drive out anyone we might consider sinners. This is how cults start—assuming the cult hasn’t already started, and the compound is just another creepy symptom of how we’ve gone astray.

We’re distinct from the rest of the world because God calls us to follow Jesus. Not other people. Not one another. Not even popular Christian culture—especially its political or Mammonist variants. As the rest of the world does its thing, we’re to ask ourselves, “What would the Father rather I do?” or “What does Jesus do?” Then do that.

Believe it or don’t, sometimes this means we do as the rest of the world does. If the culture suddenly realizes society is institutionally unjust—that violence and discrimination and sexism are wrong, that evil needs to stop—we need to cheer them on, participate, and see whether the Holy Spirit uses these moments to bring people to Jesus. ’Cause he will, and does.

But of course we need to bear in mind pagans have entirely different motives than we do. They don’t do grace; on their better days they do karma. They want things to be fair and equitable, not because it’s inherently good that they’re so, but because fairness ultimately benefits them. And when it doesn’t, they don’t try to make things fair. The status quo and current social order is fine. Why discomfort themselves when reform does absolutely nothing for them, or even costs them, or makes ’em give up power? Nah.

Our motives have to be like God’s: Way higher. Wheenever we find ourselves on the same side as the world, we oughta see this for what it is: It’s a chance to draw a few pagans to Christ Jesus and God’s kingdom. But not every church realizes this, and figures we’re to stay away from the world, lest “bad company ruin good character.” 1Co 15.33 Best to stay away from pagans, turn the kingdom into a fortress, and isolate ourselves from them with both spiritual and rule-based hedges of protection.

When you visit such churches, that’s the mindset you’re gonna find among ’em. A whole lot of anti-world rhetoric. Everything inside the church is good, pure, and holy; everything “out there” is wicked, corrupt, destructive. Dabble in it just a little, even unintentionally, and it’ll ruin you. Stay away. Touch not the unclean thing.

Ostensibly the goal is holiness. The real result? Fear and dark Christianity.

The fear of God.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 August

Humanity discovered pretty quickly that if you want to rule over others, you either have to get ’em to love you so much they’ll trust you and do as you say… or be worried about what you might do to ’em if they don’t obey you.

Love takes time and patience on the ruler’s part… and even then, the people might be too stupid to obey the ruler anyway, much like a two-year-old ignoring the warning, “Don’t touch the stove!” Or of course projecting their own corrupt impulses onto the ruler’s motives, and presuming the ruler’s selfish instead of benevolent. (Much like every president’s opposition party typically does.) Love ain’t easy. But speaking from experience, it works really well.

Most rulers don’t have that kind of time or patience, so they just go with fear.

Still do. Politicians warn of all the terrors that’ll take place if the people vote for the other guy; that you have to vote for them, and if you don’t it’ll probably trigger the great tribulation. Dictators take their enemies out and shoot them, or otherwise kill them in nasty ways, and while their fans might cheer, they also recognize they’d better never become the dictator’s enemy. And as dictators go mad with fear about what might be coming due to their bad karma, they get more and more murdery. Friends and fans regularly get killed too.

Because we humans like to justify our evil, ancient rulers grew to believe the people’s fear of them was a good thing. Their subjects should fear their ruler. After all, he was mighty, and could casually destroy them, so it was always best to stay on his good side.

Proverbs 16.14-15 NRSV
14 A king’s wrath is a messenger of death,
and whoever is wise will appease it.
15 In the light of a king’s face there is life,
and his favor is like the clouds that bring the spring rain.
Proverbs 19.12 NRSV
A king’s anger is like the growling of a lion,
but his favor is like dew on the grass.
Proverbs 20.2 NRSV
The dread anger of a king is like the growling of a lion;
anyone who provokes him to anger forfeits life itself.
Proverbs 24.21-22 NRSV
21 My child, fear the LORD and the king,
and do not disobey either of them;
22 for disaster comes from them suddenly,
and who knows the ruin that both can bring?

Since YHWH, the LORD, is Israel’s king 1Sa 12.12, Is 33.22 —regardless of the human kings who sat on the thrones in Jerusalem and Samaria, who supposedly worked for him, but didn’t always—the LORD’s various prophets used ancient kingly language to describe him. That includes statements to fear the king: Now it was to fear the LORD. It’s even in the commandments.

Deuteronomy 10.20 NRSV
“You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.”
Deuteronomy 6.24 NRSV
“Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case.”
Deuteronomy 10.12-13 NRSV
12 “So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.”

Lest you think all this fear-talk was only found in Deuteronomy, where Moses was explaining the Law to a new generation not wholly familiar with it, it’s not; we see it in Leviticus as well. “Fear your God” Lv 19.14, 23; 25.17, 26, 43 is a reminder that we’re to love our neighbors and not cheat or dishonor or disrespect ’em, because God disapproves of such behavior—and you’d better fear God.

But this fear-talk regularly bugs Christians. Because we were taught fear is a bad thing, and we ought not do it.

Matthew 10.31 NRSV
“So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Luke 12.32 NRSV
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Mark 4.40 NRSV
He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Matthew 14.27 NRSV
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
John 14.27 NRSV
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Revelation 1.17-18 NRSV
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.”

If we’re not to be afraid; if fear is a liar, and makes us irrational, and God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear, 2Ti 1.7 for there’s no fear in love and perfect love drives out fear, 1Jn 4.18 what business do we who love God, have in fearing God? How is fear an appropriate response to God?

And yet even in the New Testament we’re instructed to fear God. 1Pe 2.17, Rv 14.7

So yeah, it feels like a contradiction. A big ol’ discrepancy. A paradox: We’re to fear God, yet at the same time we’re not to be afraid of him. Feels a little like the writers of the bible weren’t in sync on this one. And it certainly makes our preachers sound inconsistent when they talk about fearing God… then talk about how God is nothing to fear. Plus too many of ’em have the bad habit on going overboard in one direction or the other, depending on their own biases. We have the dark Christians who want us, and everybody else, to be absolutely terrified of God’s wrath. And on the other extreme we have Christians who refuse to even talk about the scriptures which say we oughta fear God, lest people get what they think is “the wrong idea.”

All right, so which is it?

The Major Finds Story. (Treasure in a Field, Pearl of Great Price.)

by K.W. Leslie, 15 August

Matthew 13.44-46.

Jesus has two quick one-liner parables in Matthew which are about the very same thing. I don’t know whether he told these stories separately, and Matthew bunched ’em together, or whether he told them together so the repeated idea might sink in all the better.

Regardless, Christians have historically called ’em by separate names. One’s the Hidden Treasure, or Treasure in the Field, or Secret Treasure, or Clever Treasure Hunter, or whatever you wanna emphasize most in the story. The other’s the Hidden Pearl, Valuable Pearl, Pearl of Great Price, or Clever Pearl Merchant—again, whatever you wanna emphasize most.

Me, I bunch ’em together. Like I said, they’re about the very same thing, and they repeat the idea of finding something major, and selling all you have to get it. So I call them collectively the Major Finds Story. Heaven’s kingdom is like a major find. Really, heaven’s kingdom is a major find.

Take it away, Jesus:

Matthew 13.44-46 KWL
44 Again, heaven’s kingdom is like a treasure hidden in the field.
When a person finds it, he hides it.
In his joy, he goes off and sells everything, whatever he has,
and buys that field.
45 Again, heaven’s kingdom is like a person, a merchant looking for good pearls.
46 Upon finding one extremely expensive pearl, going away,
he’s sold everything, whatever he has, and buys it.”

Christians are so used to telling this story, we never think about the problematic behavior involved by both of these guys who discover a major find.

The first one is a guy who stumbles across a treasure, hides it, then buys that field so he can possess the treasure—and obviously doesn’t tell the previous owners there’s treasure in their field. Um… shouldn’t they know? Maybe that’s their inheritance their father meant to give them, but died before he could disclose it to them. Maybe it’s stolen property, like pirate or drug lord treasure… although we probably shouldn’t go there, because I doubt Jesus had that in mind when he told the story. Regardless, the buyer’s behavior is such that any skeptical Pharisee (and many a skeptical pagan) would flinch. “Waitaminnit… is Jesus teaching ‘finders keepers’? Isn’t that a kind of theft?”

The second is a pearl merchant who finds a pearl worth all his existing fortune. Again, there’s the possibility he knows of the pearl’s true value and the seller does not, which is why the merchant’s so eager to spend all he has on it. But something which regularly skips most Christians’ notice: Pearls are something shellfish produce, and shellfish are ritually unclean. Is Jesus talking about an Israeli pearl merchant?—then he’s clearly talking about a secular Israeli, one who doesn’t bother to follow the Law, yet Jesus here uses him as an example of God’s kingdom. Or, which is a little less likely, and a lot more scandalous to his audience, is he talking about a pagan pearl merchant?

Yep, in both these stories, Jesus is talking about iffy, less-than-honorable, less-than-devout people. And comparing their behavior to God’s kingdom. And probably bugging devout Pharisees in so doing. Well, that’ll happen.