The presence of contradictions in the Bible has damaged Christian faith in the past 250 years, but not for the reason people think.
- Landmark battles in the history of Christian faith
- The damaging response to contradictions in the Bible
- A more faithful response
- “Heaven,” the Kingdom, and finding Jesus today
- A postscript on a present landmark battle Christianity faces
Christianity has always had a need to defend itself. In the first century Paul defended Christianity against its parent religion Judaism. In the following few centuries people like Justin Martyr and Tertullian defended Christianity against Greek philosophy and Roman culture. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries Christianity was defending itself against Islam (though we picked the fight), and in the sixteenth century Christianity was defending itself against itself through the Reformations—both Protestant and Roman Catholic.
But for the past 250 years Christianity has been defending itself against the movement of secular humanism arising out of the Enlightenment (see postscript below for another battle we’re engaged in). In philosophical terms, this movement is called “Modernism” and it is characterized by optimism in human progress through scientific investigation. We learned to question the givens—for example, religious answers and societal/political arrangements—and to solve our problems and improve our lives on our own.
The Enlightenment made everyone aware of contradictions in the Bible. Since then people have lost faith not because the Bible contains contradictions, but because the church has failed to teach them how to deal with them. Instead, the church has argued whether contradictions exist, and people have simply lost patience, and then they lost faith. This is how contradictions in the Bible have damaged the church.
Perhaps the word “contradictions” makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps you’ve read, as I did many years ago, contemporary Christian apologetics (“defenders of the faith”) which use a very technical definition of “contradiction” to work in arguments that harmonize the two Creation stories, the birth narratives of Jesus, or the accounts of his resurrection. If so, at least you might agree that, despite the fact that everyone else sees these as contradictory, there are tensions in the Bible—tensions not only within itself, but with other ways of explaining things, like from science, history, or other religions.
The point is, as long as we spend our efforts denying or arguing about the contradictions instead of teaching the faithful how to keep faith in spite of them, the faithful will continue to lose faith. In fact, the issue isn’t really a new one. In the fifth century Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, advised his priests that tensions in the Bible exist to ensure that our faith was directed to Christ and not to the scriptures. Instead of a piecemeal preoccupation with details—and remember, the “devil is in the details”—Augustine counseled them to ask, “What is the larger story here?” In Luke 24 Jesus showed how Moses and the prophets spoke of him. The entire book of Hebrews demonstrates this approach very effectively.
The reason this approach for dealing with contradictions works is because (by and large) the contradictions are in the details. When we focus on the details, and especially arguing about the details, we risk the larger story. We miss the forest for the trees.
Take the succession story from Elijah to Elisha as an example. Elijah tests his protégé three times to ensure his heart is sincere. Three times he tells Elisha to wait here while he goes on ahead, knowing that “going on” means he is leaving for good. Three times Elisha promises to walk with Elijah. Finally Elijah tells Elisha to pay attention, to not be distracted, and if he sees him leaving, Elisha will receive Elijah’s ministry.
Elisha passes this final test. Even when a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire swoops Elijah away to heaven, Elisha is not distracted by this rather spectacular detail and he sees Elijah drop his mantle as he “goes on.” The narrative concludes by telling us that, “The spirit of Elijah now rests on Elisha.”
The same basic story is told about Jesus. Throughout his ministry he called his disciples to watch and not be distracted. And in the Ascension story of Acts the disciples are at risk of being distracted, so much so that the same two messengers that appeared at the Resurrection come and stand among the disciples. They ask essentially the same question here as they did then. Then it was, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here.” Now they ask the disciples, “Why are you looking up to heaven?”
Instead of looking for Jesus “in heaven,” the messengers suggest, the disciples should look where Jesus told them to go, “in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This is verified in the fact that this is exactly what they do throughout the rest of the book. Acts tells us that over the past forty days Jesus “presented himself alive” to the disciples. He used “many convincing proofs” and spoke “about the Kingdom of God.” We have accounts of such proofs at the end of the Gospels. How many more did they need? How could anything he might have done been more convincing? What Acts is telling us is that the convincing proof of Jesus’ resurrection is in fact the revelation not of a body but of the Kingdom.
Jesus reveals the Kingdom—first in his life, then in his resurrection. He reveals the Kingdom when he forgives sin, welcomes outcasts to his fellowship, feeds the hungry, heals the broken, and restores sight to the blind. This is how, Acts suggests, Jesus presents himself alive to his disciples, then and now. These are the convincing proofs. This is the main story, the forest the disciples are to see. We’re not to be distracted by the details, the contradictions, the things that confuse us. We’re not to look “towards heaven” for Jesus. We’re to find Jesus in the Kingdom right here, right now.
Heaven is where Jesus is, but it is less a place than a perspective. Jesus, the messengers suggest, may be out of sight, but he is not absent. We are to “look through” (per-spect) his absence and discover his presence. Just as the spirit of Elijah rested on Elisha, so now the Spirit of Christ rests on the church. Christ is “in heaven,” but present in Spirit, manifest in proofs, and evident to the faithful.
So let us look for Jesus where he can actually be found—in the Kingdom, through convincing proofs, moving beyond the wow of his Ascension to the now of his ongoing ministry. This is how he returns to us. It is how we see him today. And how we are his witnesses to the end of the earth.
POSTSCRIPT: Christianity is still defending itself against the Modernism of the Enlightenment. Fortunately, “Postmodernism” has provided a way forward for many of us. But the other place we are defending ourselves is against civil religion. It’s a battle front more and more people are realizing, but is still one most of the church happily ignores. We live in a country and culture that freely uses the language of Christianity when convenient but acts in ways opposite to Christ’s teaching. We quote the Bible to justify the obscene accumulation and concentration of wealth, exploitation of the planet, and waging of war. Few things reveal this hypocrisy more clearly than the annual lamentation about the “war on Christmas.” The war on Christmas was lost long ago, not by using red unmarked coffee cups, but when consumerism replaced thankful and thoughtful generosity. The fact that we think the battle line falls between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” shows just how successfully consumerism has obscured Christmas.
Is it possible that Jesus was a sexist, racist, uncaring Savior? Don’t ask the Canaanite woman.
- Two explanations for Jesus’ bad behavior
- How comparing Matthew with Mark may get Jesus off the hook
- The real lesson Matthew is teaching us
- How religion turns to violence: the example of Psalm 149
- How Matthew’s lesson leads to peace
When people read the account of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman, they are confused at best or offended at worst. And these responses are justified. Why would Jesus refuse to help a desperate parent seeking deliverance for her child? One popular explanation is that Jesus is simply testing her faith. After all, he couldn’t be culturally conditioned and so there’s no way he could be sexist or racist, as his response suggests. Plus he is omniscient, so his behavior must be the unlikely means to a godly end. And in addition to evoking her faith, he’s teaching something to his disciples. It’s a tidy explanation.
Another explanation says that Jesus is culturally conditioned, or at least takes into account that he is fully human. So his perspective is limited—something he himself acknowledges when he admits he doesn’t know the hour of his own return (Matthew 24:36). Jesus doesn’t yet realize that Gentiles are included in the gospel of grace. From this perspective, it is the Canaanite woman who is doing the teaching.
We may never know, but what becomes clear upon analysis is that Matthew is trying to teach us something in this story. For the way Matthew tells the story, as compared to Mark, shows that Matthew is pushing an interpretation upon us.
For example, in Mark’s telling, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first.” There is an order to Jesus’ ministry, and while it starts with the children it will eventually flow to others. But in Matthew Jesus says, “I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and then later, “It isn’t right to take children’s food and give it to the dogs.” In other words, Matthew’s account is harsher, more pointed.
Another example is that Mark says the woman is a Greek, a Syrophoenician. This is a contemporary and geographic designation. But Matthew calls her a Canaanite. This is an archaic designation, like referring to someone from central Mexico as an Aztec today. There were no Canaanites in Jesus day. Matthew is highlighting old hostilities, as his audience would have remembered the Canaanites as those people who inhabited the Promised Land, those who had to be eradicated in the “conquest.” They would have remembered that God commanded them to, “utterly destroy the Canaanites, and show them no mercy.”
Because Matthew edits in this way, many have wondered if Matthew is something of a “Jewish” gospel. Other observations leading to this question include that Matthew is particularly concerned with showing that Jesus fulfilled prophecy from Hebrew scripture. Matthew presents Jesus in parallel to Moses, the great prophet and priest of Judaism. For example, Jesus has five mountain discourses in parallel with the Pentateuch (Five Books) which they assumed was written by Moses. More specifically, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explicitly reinterprets several of the Ten Commandments. Jesus is, according to Matthew, the new Moses, and Christianity is the culmination of Judaism.
But Matthew presents a major development within Judaism: the gospel of grace now includes the Gentiles. This is why in the Christmas story Matthew tells us that Magi from the East, that is, Gentiles, came to worship the Christ child. It’s also why Matthew ends with the Great Commission in which Jesus sends the disciples to “all nations,” that is, Gentile nations.
And that’s why Matthew calls this woman a Canaanite. He’s setting up his audience to dismiss her out of hand, as Jesus initially does. And then he turns the tables on them—and Jesus, too, the way the story is told. The Canaanite woman gets included in the end.
To emphasize the point, Matthew offers us another story of Jesus feeding a multitude. In the previous chapter, in a wilderness within Jewish quarters, Jesus fed 5000 men plus women and children. After that feeding, the disciples gathered up the leftover pieces: twelve baskets full. It reminds us of the Twelve Tribes of Ancient Israel—God’s chosen people. After this episode with the Canaanite woman, Jesus feeds 4000 men plus women and children in a wilderness setting surrounding the Jewish quarter. This time the disciples pick up seven baskets full of leftovers. Brian McLaren suggests this represents the Seven Tribes of Canaan: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.
What Matthew is trying to teach us is that when God changes, we change. What if God actually loves the Canaanites? What if our religious identity culminated not in discord but in love? What if Jesus really meant what he said: “You love your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself”? What if religious bigotry were to give way to relational love?
Consider the example of Psalm 149. It begins with a call to worship: “Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song. Sing God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful. For the LORD takes pleasure in his people. God adorns the humble with victory.” But a few verses later it ends this way: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones.”
You see how religious zeal can turn to violence. What if Psalm 149 was the only story we had about God? What if this was the only way we knew how to talk about God? Could there ever be an end to war—except by eradicating the enemy? There would never be peace, if this was all we knew about God.
But Psalm 149 is not the only story. Thanks to Matthew, we have the story of Jesus who loved the Canaanite woman. Who also loved her needy neighbors: the lame, maimed, mute, and blind. Who also loved “many others” in Matthew’s catch-all phrase for all who are wounded and less than whole. Who loved all who hungered—4000 men, besides women and children, besides the Canaanite woman and her child.
Matthew invites us to realize that in Jesus our understanding of God changes, and when God changes, so should we.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What are some times God has changed in your life? What was going in your life at those times? How did you change as a result of God changing in your life?
- Who are the “Canaanites” today? Whom does the church or “Christian society” ignore because of the assumption they are not chosen or are even hated by God?
- What do you think of the two explanations about Jesus bad behavior at the beginning of this message? Which is more satisfying to you? What does each explanation fail to explain?
Remember those black billboards from God, like: “They’re not called the Ten Suggestions”? Turns out they are suggestions.
- How to hear Hebrews
- How we approach God—the former way and the new way
- How the new approach sets us free
- The Ten Commandments in the new approach
The Newer Testament book called Hebrews is best thought of as a sermon, a preacher’s commentary on scripture, interpreting it for his or her day in light of Jesus Christ. That’s why Hebrews includes so many quotations from the Older Testament, and allusions to liturgy and ritual. One of the main points of the sermon of Hebrews is how we approach God.
Consider these verses, for example. Chapter four urges us to, “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The author promises, “a better hope, through which we approach God” in chapter seven. Later he (or she?) identifies Jesus as the one who is able, “for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Concluding the chapter we are considering here, the author says we may, “approach God with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” And as our passage begins, the author argues that the Law, as only a shadow of the good things to come, cannot perfect those who approach.
Hebrews was written to offer a new approach. To clearly see how radical the new approach is, let’s review the former approach. In the former approach God is distant, and mostly because of our sin, both individually and collectively. In fact, we have distanced ourselves. Then, out of grace, God gives us the Law in an attempt to restrain our sin. The Law also exposes our sin and makes us conscious of it. Newly aware of our sin, we conclude that God is also angry with us and must be appeased through death. We ritualized this human-divine drama with animal sacrifice.
The new approach taught by Hebrews starts from a different premise. Here God is close—close and ever closing in on those who are lost. Out of grace, God gives us the Law so we can understand what pleases him. What is God like? What is God’s character? This is what the Law teaches. Then in the Spirit, God puts the Law in our hearts and on our minds, but in our weakness we still sin, and so we still fear God.
Do you see the difference? In the former approach, sin separates us from God, we fear God, but sacrifice allows us still to approach. In the new approach, sin isn’t the issue. In the sacrifice of Christ sin has been forgiven. That our sin is forgiven is hard to believe, which means that what separates us from God now is not sin, but unbelief. We don’t believe God has forgiven us, so we still go about in fear managing our sin. We don’t believe that Christ has done that for us, and this unbelief separates us from God.
Last week we considered that Christ has set us free to love. We are free from the fear of condemnation, free from that understanding of the Law that is the former approach. Instead we are free to love our neighbor as ourselves—what Paul calls the “Summary of the Law.” Today we look at one way to actually go about it.
The basis of our freedom is that God has already forgiven us in Christ, the same basis for the new approach in Hebrews. Jesus’ death, Hebrews teaches us, eliminated the necessity for animal sacrifice. It revealed that animal sacrifice actually served to appease our guilty conscience, not God’s wrath.
With forgiveness assured, then, we are now free:
- Free to live in the confidence in which Christ lived
- Free to love God and neighbor
- Free to pursue justice and peace
- Free to explore our calling, not prop up our egos
- Free to experience healing
- Free to be honest about the past
- Free to repent from sin—our own sins and the sin in which we live
- Free to receive the wisdom of the past and to interpret it for the present
- Free to be guided by such wisdom as the Ten Commandments
From this perspective, the Ten Commandments really are suggestions. They are invitations. We’re used to hearing them as warnings and threats from an angry, low-voiced, slow-speaking, insecure, male God barely restraining himself from, or even eager to punish us.
But can you imagine how our response to the Ten would change if we received them not as a threat but as winsome encouragement, as a guide for our lives? In this regard, I like to think of God like a docent in the museum of life. Docents are usually volunteers who love and are passionate about some topic and just want to share this with others. Museum docents hope to deepen the appreciation of others by guiding them through the exhibits.
God is the docent of life and wants to guide us to it. Jesus said he came, “that we may have life and have it to the full.” He said he, “gave his life for the life of the world.” His death puts an end to dying in order to survive a wrathful deity. Instead his death—and resurrection—shows the path to life: divine life.
All Saints Day invites us to walk through the museum of life with Jesus as our guide—our docent. As we walk through the exhibits, Jesus teaches us from the lives of those who have gone before us. He shares God’s excitement over them with us. And all the while the sense grows within us that someday our own portrait could hang in this museum of saints.
But to find your life, Jesus our docent teaches, you must lose it. We must lose it not to religious rules and regulations—making “the same sacrifices year after year” in the words of Hebrews. Instead we lose our lives to the person God is calling us to be, to the child of God we were created to be. We lose our lives to the Christ within us. The Ten Suggestions serve as one guide for how to live as Christ lived, how to love God and our neighbors.
And as we practice the Christian life, allowing Christ to live through us now, we will discover that we have been perfected, and that we live through Christ for eternity.
In our country which prides itself on “freedom,” the good news of Jesus might sound like bad news. That’s because one of the things Jesus assumes about all of us is that we are not free.
- Two different kinds of captives: Obvious and Obscured
- Two different kinds of obscure captives: Disadvantaged and Privileged
- How Jesus sets all the captives free with one question and one commandment
- What Paul learned about freedom and teaches us today
- Questions for discussion and reflection
There are two different kinds of captives in the world, those whose captivity is obvious and those whose captivity is obscured. For the woman in John 8, her captivity is obvious. She has been “arrested” for a “sin” and brought to a “court.” Since she is not there by her choice, her captivity is obvious.
Obvious captives exist today. Like those in John’s day, we would call them “sinners” and “lawless,” and they would include thieves, murderers, and violent offenders. Illegal immigrants, as those who have broken a law, are obvious captives. But what is “obvious” changes. For example, not long ago in the church, those who were divorced were considered obvious captives and were not allowed to hold ministry leadership positions. We need to be careful about what we deem “obvious.”
There are others whose captivity is no less real, but it is obscured. Some captivity is obscured by disadvantage. The woman provides an example of this kind of captivity also. Her captivity is obscured by her many disadvantages. She lives in a patriarchal culture which undervalued women. As proof, just recognize that the crime of which she is accused is a partnered one: Where is the man? Within her culture as a woman, she is also captive to the disadvantage of having severely limited economic opportunities. It has been suggested that she may be a prostitute, which would be one of the only ways she could survive given her culture and economic limitations.
But the woman is not the only captive in the story. The Scribes and Pharisees are captives also, only their captivity is obscured by their privilege. First of all, they were men in the patriarchal culture. And they were religious. They had the powers-that-be on their side. Nonetheless, as Jesus will show, they too are captives.
Just as there are obvious captives today, there are also those whose captivity is obscured by disadvantage and privilege. Disadvantaged captives today include people growing up in poor neighborhoods. Their children are captive to the disadvantages of being undernourished and attending underperforming schools. Their brains and social development never reach optimal capacity. Children with abusive parents are captives to a disadvantage. And in society, people are captive to disadvantages based on racism, sexism, heterosexism, and religious marginalization, just to name a few.
And like the Scribes and Pharisees of John’s day, we have today those whose captivity is obscured by privilege. These include those in the religious and political majority. Just listen to some of the ignorant things said on news and talk shows by such privileged people. There are those with an economic advantage who are captives. For example, the person with extraordinary earning potential who works a little harder to afford what they want but can’t find any way to raise their giving to the church another percentage point. He is a captive to his money. And the “traditionalists” are obscured captives also. They have the momentum of “it’s always been this way” working for them. It’s helpful on this Reformation Sunday to remember that the Reformers were working against those captive to tradition.
When Jesus started his ministry, he proclaimed in a sermon that, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me to proclaim release to the captives.” So with all these captives standing before Jesus, those who are obvious and those whose captivity is obscured, Jesus is compelled to set them free—the woman, the Scribes, the Pharisees—everyone. How does he do this? How did he do it in John 8?
Since Jesus wrote on the ground in the presence of the woman’s accusers, scholars have wondered what he wrote. Based on the reaction of the accusers, several suggestions have been made. Some say he listed the Ten Commandments—just as a reminder. Others have suggested he was more specific, writing the names of her accusers and some of the ways they have sinned. My Young Life leader wondered if Jesus wasn’t just doodling.
I’d like to suggest that Jesus wrote down the “summary of the Law,” which Paul reminds us is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” John tells us Jesus wrote something down, then the accusers questioned him, then he wrote some more. I imagine it went something like this.
They want Jesus to rule on whether to stone the woman. He bends down and writes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then he writes, “You shall love your neighbor.” Now they begin questioning him. “Who is our neighbor?” “What do you mean by ‘love’?” We hear these protests today. “Illegal immigrants aren’t our neighbors.” “I love the sin and hate the sinner.”
Jesus answers them. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he stoops down and writes, “You shall love.” And finally he just writes, “You.”
John tells us the crowd disperses, beginning with the oldest members, until only the woman is left standing before him. After releasing all those whose captivity was obscured by privilege, Jesus releases her.
This one commandment, if we followed it and nothing else, can you imagine how many captives it would set free today? How it would release the obvious captives by preventing them from breaking the law? How it would release the obscured captives by guiding them to selflessness?
Paul understood the power of this one commandment to release captives. He was a captive obscured by privilege. Like the Scribes and Pharisees, he was a religious man with power. Once he was on his way to exercise his privilege, to release what he considered “obvious captives”—weak people who were breaking the Jewish law by following the false messiah Jesus. Because what mattered most to Paul at this time was the Law.
But on the way he met Jesus, and what he discovered is that what matters most is not the Law but faith working through love. He learned that love doesn’t just see obvious captives. Love sees everyone a captive, and love works to release them all. He learned this from Jesus.
That’s why Paul calls the Cross an “offense.” The Cross reminds us that Jesus loved women as well as men, the disadvantaged as well as the privileged, sinners as well as religious, Romans as well as Jews, children as well as adults. Paul learned that through love, Jesus sets all captives free. Jesus set free the woman, the Scribes and Pharisees, Paul, and the Galatians. He set them free from slavery to the Law, and set them free to slavery to Love.
Paul wrote Galatians because we can become slaves to the Law again. It is possible that Christ would “no longer be a benefit to us” and that we can “fall away from grace.” Since Paul included non-Jews, the “uncircumcised,” into the community of faith, some Jewish Christians accused him of being a lawbreaker. And now these same Law-loving Jewish Christians were trying to draw the Galatians back to love of the Law. Paul wrote Galatians to prevent this from happening to them.
And how does one continue to benefit from Christ, to remain in grace? The answer is to be a slave to love. And the easiest way to be a slave to love is to find a need and serve it. It’s something everyone can do every day. So let us cease to see the world through Law, and begin to see the world through Love. Because that is true freedom—it is the love of freedom—and it sets all the captives free, beginning with us.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- In what ways have you been an obvious captive? How could the summary of the law have prevented you from becoming such a captive? How might it release you today?
- Since by definition obscure captivity is hidden, pray that God would show you the ways you are captive by disadvantages or privilege. You might be a captive to a hurtful past. You might be captive to some privilege—racial, religious, political, monetary. Discuss how the summary of the law can release you from these captivities.
- To ensure Christ remains beneficial to you and that you don’t fall away from grace, identify a need you can satisfy, and in doing so show love to someone. Share this with others and then do it.
The Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Jesus got that, and hopes that we will also.
- How Jesus and Joseph overcame anger to become forgivers
- Why God wants everyone to become forgivers
- Four reasons forgiveness is hard
- The “Fourfold path of forgiving”
Many of us carry around a lot of anger—especially anger that arises from resentment. Resentment results when we have been wounded or wronged. When this happens we get angry and we want revenge. If we hold on to this attitude, it’s going to hurt a lot of people, beginning with ourselves.
I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “If you are angry with your brother or sister, you are liable to judgment, you are liable to the hell of fire.”
Jesus would have been familiar with anger. He was born under embarrassing circumstances, a fact that would have accompanied him his whole life. He was spiritually precocious, so much so that even his parents and siblings didn’t really get him. In his preaching, he spoke like a messiah, but didn’t fit the messianic expectations of his contemporaries. The religious authorities who should have recognized him instead rejected him. Eventually he was tortured and executed as a traitor to the state.
When faced with these occasions for anger, Jesus might have remembered Joseph who also had a lot of reasons to be angry. He was the second youngest of his eleven brothers, but he was the favored one of his father. Early on, he bragged about being special, and his brothers were jealous. They sold him into slavery in Egypt. He was wrongly accused by his master and thrown into prison where he was forgotten. Eventually, however, he was elevated to a high political office.
Over the course of his narrative, through these occasions which might have made him angry, Joseph came to know God. He became humble, honest, and hard-working. He also became a forgiver. When drought forced his brothers out of Canaan to seek his help in Egypt, they were terrified that he would take his revenge upon them. But instead he forgave.
Both Jesus and Joseph became forgivers. From their stories we learn what it takes to become a forgiver. It takes being wronged and wounded. It takes time—sometimes a long time. And it takes God being with you.
When God raised Joseph from prison to prime minister, and Jesus from the grave to life, God rewrote the wrongs that they suffered. And in Christ’s resurrection, God calls us to become forgivers also. Because when Joseph and Jesus became forgivers, they experienced life—true life, eternal life. And in Christ God wants everyone to experience this eternal life. This is why Jesus doesn’t just command us to forgive others, he pushes us to be reconciled when we’re the ones who need to be forgiven. “Don’t let your religious worship distract or fool you,” he says, “go be reconciled with someone who has something against you before you perform your religion.”
True eternal life is salvation, and in both biblical testaments salvation refers to healing and peace. This is what Jesus hopes for all of us—true eternal life, healing and peace, in a word: salvation.
So he wants everyone to become forgivers, because without forgiveness all we are left with is past wounds and wrongs, and our whole lives become consumed with vengeance. He says it’s like being in debtor’s prison until you pay off your debt, which of course, you can’t pay in prison. So your whole life is consumed all because of a lack of forgiveness.
My two favorite books on forgiveness are Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, and Lewis Smedes’ The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How. Together these books have helped me understand that forgiveness is the way we participate in God’s rewriting the wrongs of our lives and our world.
Tutu lays it out pretty simply: There comes a moment of choice, he says, “to either walk the path of revenge and be bound to suffering, or take the path of forgiveness and be freed into healing.” (pp. 48-9) In the ABC drama Once Upon a Time, the wicked Maleficent has spent her whole life wondering what happened to the daughter who was taken from her. At long last they meet one another, and her daughter Lily wants to know what revenge the two of them will exact on those who separated them.
Maleficent responds, “Now that I see you, I don’t want to waste our time on revenge. I understand why you want it. It’s suddenly so clear we should only look forward. We can be happy in the future, or we can be angry about the past.”
They are at that point of decision Tutu identifies, that crossroads of vengeance and healing and peace. It is the juncture called “forgiveness.” Tutu says, “Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.” (p. 16)
Forgiveness is hard for lots of reasons. It’s hard because we think it lets the wrongdoer off the hook. In reality, it puts him on the hook because we can’t forgive whom we don’t first blame. It’s hard because we’re waiting for the wrongdoer to apologize or to be punished. But those things may never happen, and “The problem is that the strings we attach to the gift of forgiveness become the chains that bind us to the person who harmed us.” (Tutu, p. 20)
Forgiveness is hard because we think it makes us vulnerable to wounds and wrongdoing again. But forgiving a wrongdoer doesn’t obligate us to return to him. Rather, it frees us from the ongoing victimization we inflict upon ourselves in our anger and desire for vengeance. Forgiveness is hard because we think it erases the past. In reality, it rewrites the past. Smedes says it “creates a new way to remember.” (p. 171)
Tutu’s Fourfold Path to Forgiveness is deceptive in its simplicity. It’s easy to forget that forgiveness takes time—maybe a long time. And we must never forget that that it takes God’s help.
The first step is “Telling the Story.” We have to understand what happened. In my own life, I’ve been tracking down an aspect of my story for over two years. Each time I “tell” it, I understand it better. Telling the story also helps us realize the humanity of the wrongdoer, which is essential to being able to eventually forgive them. The wrongdoer isn’t just what they did to us—they are also a person. Getting in touch with the story helps us remember this.
The second step is “Naming the Hurt.” Remember that we can’t forgive what we don’t first blame. We can’t let go of vengeance until we feel it. Therapists say, “You can’t heal what you don’t feel.” If we want healing for our past wrongs and wounds, we first have to name them. Naming the hurt clarifies the choice we have when faced with our pain: we can “hold onto it, get even for it, or heal it.” (Smedes, p. 136)
The third step is “Granting Forgiveness.” This is the choice we make to surrender our private demand to get even. (Smedes, pp. 69, 177) The wrongdoer will still have to face justice, but not our vengeance. Tutu says, “You may not have had a choice in being harmed, but you can always choose to be healed.” (p. 109) Support groups call this step “Letting it go,” and they remind us that we may have to do it over and over. Forgiveness is often a process, not a one-time shot. When we retell the story or feel the pain again, we may have to grant forgiveness again.
Tutu’s final step is to “Renew or Release the Relationship.” Yes, we may keep the relationship, but it’s now under different terms. These terms include the wrongdoer’s remorse and repentance. It may require the wrongdoer’s making restitution. But if there is a renewal of the relationship, it is certainly not a return to the same relationship. But we may also choose to abandon the relationship. Forgiveness gives us the freedom to release the relationship, without guilt, and with peace and hope.
Forgiveness can’t be rushed, so we shouldn’t try to hurry it. It took Joseph much of his lifetime to become a forgiver. Healing takes time, and the deeper the wound and more unjust the wrong, the longer it takes. But our eternal life, salvation, and peace can start today, as we follow Jesus command to forgive and to seek forgiveness, and as we allow God to rewrite our wrongs and the wrongs of the world.
Lord Jesus Christ, you know something about forgiveness. You know about being wounded and being wronged. You know about trusting your Father’s Spirit to accompany you through the pain of such wrongdoing, and to deliver you through it. You also know about our own wounds, and the wrongs we have endured. You know we have suffered in a past we cannot undo. But you also have a vision for us, for a hopeful future, one in which we are free from our pain. And you have commanded us to begin this new life through forgiveness. So walk with us through the redemption of our lives from the pain that would cause us despair if it were not for your presence. And grant us hope and peace in the meantime. Amen.
Have you ever wished that God was different, like when you read of God’s destruction of the world, or divinely sanctioned genocide, or God’s inflicting entire nations with plague? Well, apparently, so does God.
- Waiting for God’s promises—what Abraham teaches us
- How the testing of faith clarifies our understanding of God
- How Micah envisioned the most faithful image of God, and how Jesus fulfilled it
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Last week we met Abraham and Sarah, and how they were chosen to be a blessing to the world. That blessing would begin through a child, and this week we are on the threshold of the promise. Three angelic visitors come to Abraham’s tent “in the heat of the day.” Abraham has Sarah make cakes—something of an appetizer—while he slaughters a choice calf. While the visitors eat, Abraham waits under a tree like a waiter in a fine restaurant.
Here is a major difference between the Older Testament and the Newer—and today: the Older Testament isn’t in a hurry. We’re about twenty-four years after God first made the promise to Abraham and Sarah. And Abraham spends the whole afternoon waiting on the visitors. Sometimes we have to wait through the long narrative of our lives—in the heat of the day—to see God’s promises fulfilled.
Waiting that long is hard. Just ask Sarah. Maybe out of weariness of faith, or maybe she’s learned to cope with disappointment using humor, but Sarah laughs when the angels reveal her impending pregnancy (Abraham laughed in the previous chapter). But because God uses every detail of our lives, wasting none of what occurred while we were waiting, their son ends up being called Isaac, which means, “he laughs.”
The Bible promises a last laugh—when God sits around with all creation and we laugh at how unbelieving we were. It does take time to get there, though.
Anyway, Isaac is born to overjoyed if also surprised parents. And after another perhaps 20 years Abraham hears something absolutely devastating. He hears God command him to sacrifice Isaac.
This sounds very foreign, barbaric, uncivilized, and horrific to us. But it wouldn’t have to Abraham. Child sacrifice was common in ancient religions. It was known even during the time of the monarchies which is why Micah, writing in the 8th century (1200 years after Abraham) mentions it.
Just as Abraham is about to kill Isaac, he notices a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. Isaac is spared; the ram is sacrificed in his place.
Imagine for a moment how Abraham’s understanding of God changed through his life. First God starts as a voice calling him to unknown place. Then God makes outrageous promises. God condemns the social injustices of Sodom and Gomorrah. God even blesses the child Abraham had with Hagar, Sarah’s slave, when they were trying to move the promise along. Then God’s promised Isaac is born, but he commands Abraham to sacrifice him. Finally God substitutes a ram for the child.
If you wish God were different—less bloodthirsty and violent, perhaps, or less passive and permissive—then Abraham’s story, along with the whole Bible, invites us to keep walking. God wants to be known for who he truly is, not for how we envision him.
Micah understood this. As he watched Assyria’s conquest of the Northern Kingdom, his contemporaries were assuring the Southern Kingdom’s Jerusalem that it would never fall because of God’s promise to David. Micah had the courage to say, “You’ve misunderstood God.” God doesn’t want sacrifices of calves, rams, oil, or children, Micah says. God wants you to sacrifice yourself—your heart, your ego, your body—to justice, kindness, and humility.
We get a depiction of this through Abraham. When the three visitors arrived, he saw a just need. He satisfied it with kindness. And he waited humbly for what was next. It’s true that Abraham also thought God wanted child sacrifice. Then that God wanted animal sacrifice. All that teaches us is that it takes a while for God to change our images of him.
But at their best, Abraham and Micah looked ahead to a time when the sacrifices we make are spiritually motivated, not motivated by the need to appease a bloodthirsty, vengeful God.
In an attempt to purge us of this distorted image of God, God revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ as a final high priest. With his death came the end of blood sacrifices. Now only spiritual sacrifices remain. And as Jesus demonstrated with his own life, Micah had it right: God calls us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with him.
May our faith have enough courage to leave behind old images of God, and embrace the fullest revelation we have in Christ. Amen.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Share an example of how you’ve had to wait (or are still waiting) to see God’s promises fulfilled? As you share similar stories, what encouragement do you draw from Abraham’s story or from one another’s stories?
- What other “image changes” do you see through the scriptures—between Older and Newer Testaments, between the Gospels and the Epistles, between the Histories and the Psalms?
- Jesus and Micah agree on the image of God. What other agreements do you see between Jesus and the other parts of the Bible?
All religious people share this in common: they think they have chosen the right religion. Biblical religion really isn’t about choosing God, but about being chosen.
- Different ways we relate to “them”
- How the church has killed faith
- How we can bring faith back to life
- How we have the same faith as God has
One of the first lessons we learn in life—and continuely throughout our lives—is that we are not the center of the universe. Our first human experience is that we exist. But it isn’t long before we discover the “them.” The first “them” we discover is our parents, and if we have them, siblings are next. We want food. We want a clean diaper. We want a certain toy. But we discover that these things are dependent on “them.”
Then we learn about them cousins, them neighbors, them in other states, them in other nations.
There are different ways we can relate to the “thems” in our lives. We can take the attitude us-and-not-them: Who cares about them? Or we can take an us-versus-them attitude, especially useful when our desires are frustrated by them. We can assume an us-and-them attitude, sometimes reluctantly when we have no choice.
But the faithful relationship, the one ultimately presented in the Bible, is an attitude of us-for-them. This was the call to Abraham and Sarah. “Leave your homeland, and all your us-ness, and I will bless you and all the world through you.” Abraham was chosen by God. The theologians call this the Doctrine of Election. Abraham was chosen, yes; but he was chosen to bless.
Historically speaking, faith evolves in an observable cycle. A community of faith—an us—encounters a them of other faith. In in the face of this difference, we formulate doctrine (teachings)—ways to distinguish us from them. We thus define faith as doctrines, rituals, or rules (typical of Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and Baptists respectively—though we all do all three).
When faith evolves this way, it becomes reduced to just believing the right things. It becomes intellectual and passive. Such religion results in inaction. Normally, something inactive is considered dead. I remember when a stock I was advised to buy became inactive. It died. Everything was lost. It’s the same with faith. James 2:26 describes it succinctly: “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without action is also dead.”
So how do we keep faith active? How do we keep it alive and vital? The key to such a faith is to have an us-for-them faith. Abraham is the example. Paul reminds us that, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” And he goes on to promise that, “All those who believe with Abraham are blessed with Abraham.” In other words, people who believe as Abraham did are blessed and right with God.
What did Abraham believe? He believed he was chosen by God. And he believed he was chosen to be a blessing to others. It took time, and he and Sarah tried to game the system to move things along. But God was patient with Abraham until Abraham learned to be patient with God. And eventually, Abraham and Sarah lived to see the beginning of the promise being fulfilled.
This is what biblical faith is. It is Abrahamic faith. It is to believe that you are blessed to be a blessing. It is an us-for-them faith, a living faith, a righteous faith. It is a faith that makes us right with God because it is the same faith God has.
The Triune God didn’t celebrate being us together. Father, Son, and Spirit didn’t congratulate one another in their divine comunity. God is not a God alone, nor is God a God against, nor is God a God alongside, any sort of them. The biblical God is an us-for-them God. And we are the them.
Biblical faith, godly faith, is to be chosen, yes; but we are chosen to bless.
For those of us whose faith is dying, for those of us whose churches are dying, here is one sure way to give life to faith. Figure out how you have been blessed, then find a way to bless others. Figure out what you have been given: health, time, resources, abilities, etc., then find a need you can fill.
Vital faith asks the question, “How can others experience blessing because of me?” Others where you work. Where you live. Even the whole world. How can you be a blessing to them?
Because this is the same question God asked. “How can the world experience blessing because of me?” And his answer was Jesus. What will your answer be?