Creative Redemption

This blog seeks to explore themes from the Bible, theology, spiritual formation, creativity, and responses to change and conflict to discover how to promote God's redemptive work in his creation.

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

The Surprising Relationship of Fear and Love in the Bible (Part 1)

Am I supposed to fear God or love God? Is this an either/or proposition, and if not, what does it mean to fear God? Many Christians have been led to think that they should resolve this tension through the following dangerously oversimplified contrast: the Old Testament calls for believers in God to fear him, whereas the New Testament calls for a response of love instead.

One problem with this “solution” is that the New Testament also appeals to “the fear of the Lord” several times (see Acts 9:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11; 7:1; Ephesians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:17; 2:17-18; Revelation 19:5). In addition, the greatest command, to love God with all one’s being, appears in Deuteronomy 6, a passage we will consider below.

The main problem, however, remains our view of what the problem is in the first place.  We tend to view the fear of God as a negative, whereas the Bible views it in a highly positive way. The wisdom writers in the Old Testament, in particular, view it as the essential foundation to wisdom (see, for example, Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7).

Let’s begin, however, by going back to Deuteronomy 6, where verse 4 exhorts Israel to love God with all their heart, soul, and strength. In the opening verses of the chapter, however, Moses precedes that exhortation with these words:

These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.

Notice that this passage not only places fearing God in close proximity to the call to love God wholeheartedly, but it also places fearing God in an interesting relationship to the commands of God. We often consider fear as a motive for obeying God, because if we don’t keep his commands we will be punished. In Deuteronomy 6:1-2, however, the commands are given “so that” we may fear him “by keeping” his commands.

 Another significant passage from Deuteronomy ties together loving God, fearing him, and keeping his commandments:

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

                   –Deuteronomy 10:12-13

At a minimum, passages such as these demonstrate that fearing God and loving him are seen in the Bible as non-contradictory. When we bring obeying his commands into the mix as well, we are beginning to make progress toward a healthier understanding of the fear of the Lord (as well as the love of the Lord). Rather than contrasting these ideas, the Bible ties them closely together. In fact, one could argue that the various phrases in Deuteronomy 10:12-13 are essentially saying the same thing in different ways.

Another observation may prove helpful in this connection. Our first reaction to words like “fear” and “love” is to think of them as emotions. We struggle, therefore, when we are called to “fear” God or to “love” our enemies. Those feelings may seem inappropriate (especially the latter). Furthermore, how can we feel something as a result of a command?

On the subject of loving our enemies, consider the language of Exodus 23:4-5:

If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.

These verses describe love of enemy, but they do not use the word “love.” They command us to behave in a certain way toward an enemy, not to feel a certain way. This perspective is true in general in the Bible. It might sound hypocritical to us because we don’t think we should do something if we are not “sincere.” Hypocrisy has to do with motive and intent. If we have the proper motive and intent, we do not have to feel warmth for others in order to act lovingly toward them. An increase in loving feelings typically comes as a result of loving actions, not the other way around.

 Next: Positive associations with fearing God in the Bible and an attempt at a definition of “the fear of the Lord.”

The Bible Is Not Flat!

The earth is not flat, but the massive data affirming this reality has not deterred members of the Flat Earth Society. The Bible is not flat either, but this reality has not deterred many from reading it that way. What does a “flat” reading of the Bible mean, and why is it a problem?

My first Bible was a King James Version. I’m old enough that in my early years few alternatives existed, but not so old that the language of the KJV matched the language of my daily life. My issue here, however, is not with the archaic way the KJV speaks (which was appropriate, of course, for the time when it was written), but with another factor more relevant to the question above.

Many Bible students realize that today’s chapter and verse divisions in the Bible were not part of the original text. The chapter divisions were added in the 13th century, and verses in the 16th century. The KJV, unlike more recent versions, presents the text of the biblical books as a series of chapters, each containing a string of seemingly free-standing verses. In books like Psalms, the reader observes no indication that this portion of the Bible is written as poetry. In narrative texts, one finds no paragraph divisions.

Although subsequent Bible versions have improved the formatting of the text, the historic influence of the King James Version may have contributed to an unfortunate legacy of approaching the Bible more like a dictionary than what it is in reality: a collection of diverse literary works. To use the Bible as if it were a repository of answers to be looked up by chapter and verse creates a dangerous pattern that lies at the heart of a flat reading. Such a reading ultimately does more damage than the belief in a flat earth. (Ironically, this approach to the Bible has probably contributed to the belief in a flat earth, just as it contributed to the belief that the earth is the center of our solar system.)

Perhaps the best way to elucidate the meaning and danger of a flat view of Scripture is by describing some areas to which we must be sensitive if we are going to avoid this danger and read the Bible more appropriately.

1)Genre

Genre refers to a category that reflects common characteristics. In the realm of music, for example, classical, bluegrass, blues, and hip hop describe different genres. A straight news story represents a different genre with different rules than an editorial. When we encounter familiar literary genres like these, we tend to change gears instinctively as we read.

Not only does the Bible use some less familiar genres, such as law, wisdom, and apocalyptic, but even some of the more familiar ones, like narrative, operate differently at times from our equivalents. Most seriously, we fail too often even to consider the issue of genre when we read the Bible. We cite a proverb or a passage from Revelation or Romans as if they all convey truth in the same way.

To read the Bible as if it consists of a single shapeless genre results in a flat reading that obscures many nuances of God’s revelation.

2)Context

Two aspects of context carry relevance for the way we read the Bible. The first is literary context, which refers to the relationship of a given verse or passage to the text around it. This context extends all the way from the immediately surrounding verses to all of Scripture. We have all heard people protest that their words were “taken out of context.” The words of the Bible have often suffered this fate.

A second dimension of context deals with the time, place, language, and circumstances into which God revealed himself. He has not given us a collection of timeless truths, but words delivered to people in particular times and places. In so doing, God met them where they were. This gracious and necessary approach, sometimes called contextualization, requires those of us from different times and places to recognize that the Bible was not written directly to us.

To read the Bible as if a given passage can be understood and applied apart from its surrounding literary and cultural context results in a flat reading that obscures many boundaries of God’s revelation.

3)Theology

The way we read the Bible shapes our theology, which is simply our understanding of the larger message of the Bible. The more extensively and appropriately we read the Bible, the healthier should be our theology. Interpretation of particular passages and our theology ideally will interrelate with one another in a positive way. Our biases and blind spots, however, hinder this process.

As we grow in theological understanding (which involves our life response to the text as well as our intellectual study), we come to appreciate some important dimensions of the Bible. We recognize progressive revelation, the way in which God’s will is revealed with increasingly clarity as it comes to its fulfillment in Jesus (see Matthew 5:17-18; Hebrews 1:1-2). We also find certain emphases that give different weight to aspects of God’s revelation (see Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:8; Matthew 22:34-40; 23:23).

Another issue with which our developing theology confronts us is the tensions that exist within Scripture. We wrestle, for example, with divine sovereignty and human free will, or the staggering love of God and his judgment. We often seem to be more eager to resolve these tensions (because they make us uncomfortable) than is the Bible itself. Unfortunately to resolve them to our satisfaction flattens the more complex texture of Scripture.

To read the Bible as if every passage or issue addressed carries equal weight and every tension is a problem to be resolved results in a flat reading that obscures the complexity of God’s revelation.

Avoiding a flat reading of the Bible will not resolve every interpretive disagreement, but it will put us on a much healthier path, one that respects the way God chose to shape his revelation to us.

Training for Reigning

This is another post sparked by one of Phillip Camp’s sermons. Phillip preached this Sunday on the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25. He noted that the distinction between the commended and rejected servants in this parable has to do fundamentally with the different ways they view the master. Fear tends to paralyze, which is what leads the servant who considers the master harsh to bury the significant amount entrusted to him.

Before leading the discussion on this sermon in our Sunday night gathering, I decided to look at the comparable Parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11-27. Interestingly, Luke introduces this parable by noting that Jesus told it to those who “thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.” A parable that speaks of a master going on a journey of indeterminate length before returning to settle accounts obviously seeks to shift these hearers’ focus in a different direction.

Jesus’ correction of this misperception raises a couple of important questions. Why is there a delay before the kingdom comes in its fullness? Why does Jesus stress the faithful “investment” expected of servants to whom much has been entrusted? The first question is particularly difficult to answer completely, but the two taken together point to the graciousness of God in allowing us to participate in his larger purposes. To entrust something of great value to another is deeply affirming, especially since God’s human servants have regularly proven untrustworthy.

In both Matthew and Luke, the master entrusts servants with significant material wealth. In both gospels, this wealth is described as small in comparison with what will be given to those who prove faithful. Matthew says the master invites these faithful servants to enter into his joy and puts them in charge of many things. Luke tells us that the master places them over a number of cities in proportion to the return on their investment.

The delay between Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom and his return to consummate it extends grace not only to his flawed servants, but also to those who have not embraced the redemption Jesus came to make available. Consider one additional benefit of the delay: while we serve as God’s agents in embodying the kingdom and its redemption, we are being prepared – as were the servants in the parable – for “greater things.”

God originally intended for humanity to reflect his benevolent reign within the creation (see Genesis 1:26-28; 2:5, 15). We have failed to live up to that calling, not only in the garden, but repeatedly ever since. Yet God has not given up on his original intention. We get a glimpse of our role in God’s future in a couple of passages from Revelation:

Revelation 5:10

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,

  and they will reign on the earth.

 

Revelation 22:5

They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light And they will reign for ever and ever.

Whatever we have at present (abilities, opportunities, resources) comes as a gift from God:

1 Corinthians 4:7

What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why to you boast as though you did not?

In these gifts we see God’s generosity. If we use them in a way that glorifies him and serves others, we embrace our “training for reigning” in the future. This, I think, is what Jesus means when he says that “whoever has will be given more” (Matthew 25:29). In other words, we do not truly “have” something unless we recognize its source and purpose. Living with this awareness, on the other hand, prepares us for our greater future service. Every servant in the parables received something, so the “have-nots,” are those who squander and ultimately lose God’s gifts by either fearfully burying them or greedily hoarding them.

As for the exact nature of our future reign, we might confess with John, “what we will be has not yet been made known” (1 John 3:2). He goes on to say, however, “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” We will in some sense share in his eternal reign over the renewed creation if we faithfully and bravely participate in his current reign. We participate now by investing what we have received in ways that anticipate God’s future within the present creation.

The Redemption of Jacob

In my last post, I briefly considered the unlikeable character of Jacob, a scheming deceiver from the womb whose very name reflects his nature (a self-fulfilling prophecy?). How strange that this man, despite the hardships caused by the way of life he has chosen, becomes the father of twelve sons who form the foundation of God’s covenant people.

Jacob even becomes the namesake of this covenant people, but primarily through his new name, not his original one. God’s changing of Jacob’s name to Israel helps us understand the redemption of Jacob, as well as our own.

As we discussed in the previous post, the prophet Jeremiah’s use of a wordplay on the name Jacob to describe the surpassing deceitfulness of the human heart (Jer. 17:9) establishes a connection between Jacob and the rest of us. Most of us do not deceive others on the same scale as Jacob, but the root problem of self-deception resides within each of us.

As we (perhaps reluctantly) consider how Jacob’s walk with God parallels our own, we should notice first God’s pursuit of Jacob. God confirms his general covenant faithfulness, and Jacob’s distinctive role in that covenant, on two significant occasions. The first occurs when God reveals himself to Jacob in a dream as the deceiver/deceived flees from his twice-wronged brother Esau. The second involves Jacob’s unusual wrestling match with a “stranger” on the evening before his fearfully anticipated reunion with his brother.

The first encounter at Bethel perhaps reassures Jacob somewhat, but otherwise does not appear to impact him substantially. Over the course of his struggles during his “exile” with his uncle and father-in-law Laban, however, both Laban and Jacob become increasingly aware of God’s presence with and blessing upon Jacob.

What truly marks the turning point for Jacob, however, is the exhausting and ultimately incapacitating wrestling match. In the end, when Jacob comes to the end of his own strength and realizes he is not up against an ordinary opponent, he can only cling and ask for a blessing from God. It is in this context that Jacob’s new name, Israel (“struggles with God”), makes sense. Only by clinging to God as the source of blessing can one prevail in the inevitable struggles (internal and external) to find one’s true place in the world.

Strikingly, however, Jacob appears to revert to his old ways in short order. After a positive reunion when Esau comes out to meet him, Jacob proposes to take a different route the rest of the way home due to his large family and young children. Although Jacob expresses his intention to meet up with his brother again, due to lingering fear or some other reason, he does not join Esau at the end of his travels.

Jacob’s life, in a sense, is ours “writ large,” but the end of our story remains open. In typically less dramatic and obvious ways, God pursues us with the intent to bless us and, through us, to bless those around us. We might superficially acknowledge God and his good intent. Trusting God to work in this way, however, challenges our insecurities, provoking our tendency to take charge and obtain what we want with little concern for the negative impact on ourselves and others.

At some point, though, we come to the end of ourselves and recognize that we ultimately cannot control God, the world, others, or even ourselves. Yet self-deception allows us to deny these realities if we are determined to do so. Even if we face the truth we inevitably revert to old ways from time to time, especially under stress.

Jacob not only highlights God’s use of the unlikely to accomplish his purposes, but he also illustrates the winding path of redemption. Overcoming the Jacob in us does not happen suddenly, but over the course of time. Thankfully, God’s relationship with Jacob also affirms his covenant faithfulness and patience with us.

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