To Interpret with Love

I have written recently about the difficulty of agreeing on Biblical interpretation.  It is easy to draw lines in the sand and difficult to discern between what is cultural and what is truth that transcends place and time.  It is easy to vilify those with whom we disagree and difficult to extend the grace of believing that they, too, are doing their best to follow Christ.
The ease of which I find myself speaking in terms of “us” and “them” while speaking of how we interpret the Bible forces me to search more deeply into how I see the Bible.
God's Words
Do I view the Bible as a way to live my own life or do I look into its pages to search out ways of making me right and them wrong?  Of even more eternal import, do I place the Bible as an idol above God?  Do I view the Bible or Jesus as the Word of God?
The Word
It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God.  The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.  When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is myth (but of course myth specially chosen by God from among countless myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer.  But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read with attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.  ~ C.S. Lewis in a letter to a lady
When it does become necessary to know how to interpret a certain passage (only, as Lewis said, for my own spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity), to know whether it was only written to one particular culture or whether it should be obeyed in all times and places, I am learning that love should be my standard.   It seems obvious when you think about what Jesus mandated as the most important of all the commands, but it is a standard for interpretation that I had never thought about before.  Love is to be the standard for deciding which passages are cultural and which are universal.
Paul says in Romans that whatever commandment there may be, it can be summed up in the rule “love your neighbor as yourself”.  He is, of course, writing of the Greek word agape when speaking of love.  Agape is a selfless, sacrificial, unconditional sort of love.  It is the kind of love that seeks out the best for others before it seeks for the good of itself.  I think what Paul means, what Jesus means by “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” is that if we are truly living out God’s kind of love for others, we will always be led to do the right thing.
Picking Corn
Breaking the Sabbath
Even Jesus seems to apply the same principle to the Jewish Scriptures when He heals on the Sabbath or picks and eats grain on the Sabbath.  Rather than defending Himself by saying that He is not technically breaking the Sabbath, in each case He argues that sometimes violating the letter of the law is necessary in order to act in love and fulfill the spirit of the law instead.
I have a lot more praying and studying to do about this, but this idea feels incredibly freeing.  Rather than having to be a Bible scholar and know the ancient languages by heart, I can apply this standard of agape love and let God’s Spirit lead me to the best answer of whether a passage is cultural or for always.  Paul speaks of slaves obeying their masters, but agape love demands their freedom.  Paul’s rules about hair length and head coverings were good in his time and place, but they have no current relation to loving God or our neighbors.
We have been set free from the Law.  We no longer live under the supervision of the Law but under grace.  “What then?  Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?”  Paul speaks to this many times, saying that we are not to use our freedom to indulge our own selfish impulses but that we are to use our freedom to serve each other in love.  Love, agape love, is to be our standard, our way of deciding what is right and what is wrong, both in our deeds and in God’s Word.
After all, as we see in the story of the judgement in Matthew 25, Christ knows us by our actions as we serve the outcasts, the hungry, the sick, the poor, and the imprisoned.
But Jesus provides no list of beliefs at all.  People are judged not on what they believe but on how they have loved. ~ Kathleen Norris in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith

How We Love

Is Christianity Good?

I was listening to my Mars Hill Audio Journal recently when I heard one of the guests claim that the current question about faith for the younger generation (ages 18-35) has moved from Is Christianity true? to Is Christianity good?
Creation of Adam
I am on the upper end of this demographic and this claim at first struck me as false.  After all, much of my youth, especially in high school and college, was spent learning apologetics, learning how to prove to everyone around me that Christianity was true.
Chris Chrisman
(This book not particularly recommended!)
We’ll ignore the fact that most people turn to Jesus because of a friend who lived Jesus rather than because of a stranger who argued Jesus.  I was taught all of the classic defenses and I read all of the classic books: Mere Christianity, A Case for Christ, etc.
None of this is bad.  It is wise to know whether or not your faith is true, to know whether it is intellectually probable.  It would be foolish to “believe” solely because you were raised that way.  The question of whether or not Christianity is good simply never occurred to me.
Yet the more I thought about it, the more I think that perhaps this claim is, after all, true, at least to some degree.  Even beyond the question of whether Jesus is necessary (if you persist in believing that you are not “that bad” then you will not believe that you need such an ultimate sacrifice as the cross), if you believe that human dignity and human good are based on human freedom, and if you believe that freedom is synonymous with autonomy, than Christianity is emphatically not good.
Christianity speaks much about submission, about losing your life, about obedience, and these words sound oppressive in light of what most believe about personal freedom.  Yet any thoughtful person knows when it is articulated clearly that limits are good, that complete autonomy for every individual leads to unsustainable living conditions.
After all, limits provide constraints, but they also provide direction and therefore opportunities.  Leon Kass, an American physician, scientist, and educator, pointed out that gravity is a form of limit but without it we could not dance.
Many of us who follow Christ try to retool the Bible to fit what modern culture has taught us is good.  We want to make Jesus less about submission and more about social justice.
I think most of us do doubt at times whether Christianity is truly good, wondering whether freedom might be a better path.  After all, our culture has taught us that the ability to make all of our own choices is more important than the quality of any of those choices.  Our own Supreme Court has stated that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”.  (Planned Parenthood vs Casey, 1992)
Christ's Freedom
If we can pause for a moment, however, and remember that freedom is not the same as autonomy, then the gospel begins again to become good news rather than being burdensome and dictatorial.
If we can remember that freedom means being who we truly are, being who we were created to be, even being allowed to participate in the Being of our Triune God, than God’s way of submission becomes the way of love rather than the way of oppression. God’s path of obedience becomes the path to becoming our true selves, free from all of the appetites and desires that threaten to enslave us.
Thus the answer to the question “Is Christianity good?” is an emphatic yes.  But only if we step back from our culture’s definition of freedom and move back to a truer definition.  A definition that replaces our autonomy with our very truest selves.
I know which one I would rather have.
What have you found in your relationships? Do people care more about whether Christianity is true or whether it is good?
Art Credits: Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti; photo of chains by Javier Gonzalez; photo of Christ by Asta Rastauskiene

An Essay I Didn’t Want to Write

I’ve had a lot on my heart lately.  A lot of thoughts, issues, questions that are simmering deep inside me as I search for discernment and clarity.
Some of these you will probably read about in future essays.  Some may stay in my heart for a while yet.
Notebook and Book
This essay today, though, is one I did not want to write.  It makes me nervous and uncomfortable.  I was tempted to leave it alone.
I worry that people will think I am foolish.  I hate being foolish.
I worry that people will get angry with me. I hate having people mad at me.
I am trying, however, to value God’s opinion of me more than man’s, to desire God’s approval of my writing more than man’s.
I could come up with all sorts of worries and reasons why I shouldn’t write this, but one of the main reasons is that it is a topic about which most people don’t allow dissent. One can either agree with the speaker’s point of view or get lambasted over a fire of burning coals.  I think I just boiled together several metaphors.
Burning Coals
The topic?  Same-sex marriage.
Upset Baby
See?  You had an immediate visceral reaction one way or the other, didn’t you?  🙂
Could we agree to something within this space?
Could we agree to love each other, regardless of our opinions? Could we agree to listen to each other with open hearts and to trust that we are all trying to follow Christ the best that we can? Can we agree to value diversity of thought and to have a conversation in which we may find ourselves in disagreement?
Coffee and Conversation
I’m not sure why this topic causes so much emotion.
Even those who do not claim the name of Christ can see it:
Spiked logo
Brendan O’Neill, a self-proclaimed atheistic libertarian who is a columnist for spiked says:
But I have never encountered an issue like gay marriage, an issue in which the space for dissent has shrunk so rapidly, and in which the consensus is not only stifling but choking.  This is the only issue on which, for criticising it from a liberal, secular perspective, I’ve been booed during an after-dinner speech and received death threats.
I’m not sure why this is so, but that’s not really within the scope of this essay.  Suffice it to say, I feel nervous talking about this topic.
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Yet it is at the forefront of our American culture right now as we wait for our Supreme Court to rule on the Defense of Marriage Act and on California’s Proposition 8 (probably sometime this month), and so I feel that I need to speak.
Several popular Christian bloggers lately have spoken about this issue, both for and against, and I feel that I, too, should speak.  I am quite sure that I don’t have all the answers and I know for certain that I am probably wrong on several fronts.  Still, I have this space, this platform, for speaking and for conversation, and if enough of us can host a civil conversation, perhaps we all might get somewhere helpful.
Those bloggers who championed the gay/lesbian cause challenged the Church to stop treating homosexuals harshly, to quit excluding gays and lesbians from their congregations, to instead love them unconditionally.
With that, I agree wholeheartedly.  Sin is sin, and to heap shame and disgrace and hatred on the heads of some while extending grace, or worse a blind eye, to those who commit adultery or have sex outside of marriage or gossip about all those who do is simply wrong.  We are called to love each other and to look in the mirror at our own plank before picking at the dust in another’s eye.
And so I, for one, say to any who have been made to feel shame or to feel unloved or worthless by anyone in the Church: I’m sorry.  We all struggle with sin and with judgement.  Please look at Christ rather than at us for perfection and holiness.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman
Yet inside the Church is different than outside the Church; the atmosphere of the Church is different than the laws of the land, and I’m not convinced that legalizing same-sex marriage is wise.  When it comes to the laws of our country, I try not to consider things solely from a Biblical viewpoint, because I also am not convinced that we should impose Biblical principles on a country that espouses freedom to practice any or no religion.
American Flag
Standards of morality for believers are much different than for those who do not claim the name of Jesus.
Yet even when I look at things from a philosophical or a natural law point of view, legalizing same-sex marriage doesn’t seem to make sense.
Laws should be about advancing the public interests of society.  In every culture, children are the future, so it would make sense to incentivize  a marriage contract that can bear children, that contributes to the success of society’s future.  It may or may not be true that legalizing same-sex marriage would advance the private interests of our society, but private interests do not justify the force of a law.  No liberty is being denied to anyone who wants to live together and call it marriage.  The issue seems to be whether the state should grant incentives to anyone who wants to live together and call it marriage.  This sort of proposed law does not advance the public interests.
As long as one side is angry with me, may I now pique the other side?
Making You Mad
Same-sex marriage is not the greatest threat to the traditional definition of marriage.
Inside and outside the Church, when our highest goal is our own self-satisfaction, when we choose self over a spouse and children, God’s version of marriage is threatened more than when a free country decides to legalize same-sex marriage.  I believe that the loss of keeping a covenant before God is the greater threat to the tradition of marriage.
 Wedding Photo
Yet in the end, for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, it doesn’t much matter whether we would have voted for or against Proposition 8.  It doesn’t much matter whether we enjoy debating the matter thoroughly or we’d rather hide under a bed then speak about such things.
What matters is how we love people.  What matters is that we treat all people as men and women who are loved by God and are therefore full of worth.
We must love as Jesus loved Zaccheus and the Samaritan woman.  We must love as Jesus loved the woman caught in adultery and the men who crucified Him.
We must love as Jesus loves us.
So let’s have the conversation, and let’s love each other at the same time.  What do you say?

art credit: Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Henryk Siemiradzki

Beautiful Law

I think a lot about rules and law these days.
Why? I have a preschooler and a toddler in the house.
To them, law is restrictive, constraining, unpleasant.
As I consider how to teach them to obey, I am, once again, brought up short and shamed by the deep places inside of me.
The deep places that agree with my preschooler and my toddler.
I, too, see rules as unpleasant. I sometimes feel constrained by the laws of God.
angry at the law
I have thought about this before, the idea that living under God’s authority gives me the freedom to be truly myself, to be who God created me to be.
Yet I still disobey. I still think of myself as better than others. I still yell in anger at those I love. I still struggle with wanting to spend all day reading rather than taking care of my responsibilities.
Why is this so difficult? Why do I view God’s laws as restrictive?
I search God’s Words as I am searching my own heart, and I read David’s words in the Psalms:
My soul is consumed with longing for Your laws at all times.
The law from Your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.
Oh, how I love Your law! I meditate on it all day long.
When I am honest with myself, my difficulty is that I don’t truly believe God. I don’t believe that His way is better, that obeying Him will bring me happiness.
I continually choose my own way and am always disappointed.
While I contemplate this striving, I hear an interview with Gerald McDermott on my Mars Hill Audio Journal, discussing these very ideas, discussing the beauty of law.
McDermott is discussing Jonathan Edwards’ views on God’s laws when he speaks about the beauty of the Triune God who loves His human creation with deep father love, Who wants us to be able to participate in His Being (which is, in itself, astounding and worthy of much more searching and study and writing!). The way that we do this, the way that we are able to participate in the Being of this Triune God is to live the way that God lives.
The way that we do that? We live the way that God lives when we live by His laws, by His teachings, in His ways.
This turns everything upside down and over around on its head. Are you as astonished as I am?
I can live the way that God lives.
If God has given us His law so that we can live like Him, so that we can participate in His Being, then I can no longer view that law as unpleasant or constraining. God is simply giving us the ways that will bring us the deepest, most lasting sort of happiness. God’s law is beautiful!
God gave them other rules…The rules showed God’s people how to live, and how to be close to Him, and how to be happy. They showed how life worked best. ~ The Jesus Storybook Bible
Teach me, Abba, how to obey. Teach me to believe that Your law is beautiful, that living in Your ways will bring me happiness and will help me to be more fully myself.
Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in Your law.