Thursday, July 11, 2019

Nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe it prefers a clean sweep.

Have you ever felt a vacuum in your life--not like a Hoover, but like a black hole?  Grief can make you feel that way, and so can depression.  It's not only death of a loved one that brings this kind of sadness, but the loss of a marriage, loss of a job, children moving away, your own move to a different home, or change of any kind.  Depression can be brought on by life situations, and it can also be caused by chemical imbalances.  These things can make you feel like you have a vacuum in your heart, consumed from within by a black hole.

In 1 Samuel 16, King Saul felt this way:

14 Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.
15 Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.”
17 So Saul said to his attendants, “Find someone who plays well and bring him to me.”
18 One of the servants answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him.”
19 Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” 20 So Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them with his son David to Saul.
21 David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. 22 Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.”
23 Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.

There are three theological points that I don't have time to get into in depth right now, but I want to briefly touch on.  The first is that God doesn't send evil spirits--that was the common misconception of Hebrew authors at the time.  The second is that under the Old Covenant, the Holy Spirit would come and go, but under the New Covenant, believers have the indwelling Holy Spirit forever.  The third is that some people interpret "evil spirit" to mean a demon and others interpret that phrase to simply mean a bad mood or psychological event.  Your opinion on that is immaterial to what I'm saying today.  So what's the point?

Vacuums want to be filled, and messy houses need a clean sweep.  

Saul felt the way that he felt because the Spirit of the Lord had left him.  Empty spaces in the heart want to be filled with something.  Some people who feel internal vacuums fill them with drugs, alcohol, sex, YouTube, political campaigning, food, hoarding, or anything else that can be addictive.  Others fill the void with self pity, complaining, and undermining of others.  These are negative ways of dealing with the empty space inside.  When Saul felt this way, he could be slanderous and murderous.

To deal with the problem, Saul needed to make a clean sweep inside his heart.  He needed to "get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice (Eph 4:31 NIV)."  But you can't simply sweep a house clean and leave it that way.  Jesus says in Luke 11 (NIV):

24 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25 When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26 Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

What Jesus means is that you can't simply empty out the bad habits, the negative thinking, and the problematic things from your life, get that clean sweep, set your house in order, and expect it to stay that way.  You've got to fill your life with positive things that cancel out the negative.  Members of Alcoholics Anonymous have learned to replace drinking with meetings, and with helping others.  In the times when Saul was successful at resisting the vacuum, he would fill his heart with songs of worship.  This is helpful because Psalm 22:3 says that God is enthroned on the praises of people.  This means when we put God on the throne in our hearts, He takes the seat that was vacated by negative things.  He gets rid of the vacuum, makes a clean sweep, and then keeps the house clean.

I wonder--if you're trying to get rid of something negative in your life, are you simply trying to cast it out?  Or are you replacing it with something good?  I hope you'll fill the vacuum with good things today.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Celebrity in our Midst

Once, I went on a ghost tour in Wilmington, North Carolina.  A small group of people joined the tour guide as he led us from one old mansion to another, through the town graveyard, past an old tavern, telling us stories of people who had been murdered along the way.  One person in the crowd appeared to be enjoying the tour, and enjoying the fact that nobody seemed to recognize him.  Actor Michael Cera was part of this tour group--not as part of of the production, but simply as a fellow tourist.  He's a pretty unassuming guy, and even though I did recognize him, I never acted like a fan, never ran up and asked him to confirm his identity, never asked for his autograph.  I let him have his anonymity.

It wasn't too long before that incident, that I was in Scottsville, Virginia, in an ice cream shop.  Through the window, I saw singer Dave Matthews  (who owns a farm outside of town) walking down the sidewalk.  Others (possibly tourists) inside the shop also saw him through the window, pausing as he considered whether to take his daughter inside.  The others began fawning over him and treating him like an idol, even through the panes of glass, waiting to see if he would join them in the ice cream parlor.  I happened to be on my way out.  I stopped to say hello to Dave, (who's a really nice person), and told him that he should be aware that if he goes inside, he should be prepared to encounter adoring fans.  He thanked me, and we said goodbye.  I don't know whether he chose to go in and be recognized, or not.

Sometimes, celebrities like to be recognized, and sometimes they don't.  It may be that they're trying to have personal time with their family.  They may be on a ghost tour and just want to be left alone.  Or, they may want you to know who they are.  After all, celebrities choose their lives of fame and certainly profit from it.  It's hard to know what to do when you recognize celebrity.

In 1 Samuel 16, the prophet Samuel goes to Bethlehem to find a king for Israel.  He thinks he will find that king among prominent Jesse's more stalwart sons.  One is the strongest, another is the tallest, another is the most handsome.  Samuel almost misses the celebrity right under his nose--little David, who was so ignominious that he was nearly forgotten.  Just a shepherd boy, tending the sheep.  But God chooses him as king of Israel.

In Luke 24, after Jesus' resurrection, two disciples encounter a stranger on the road to Emmaus.  They spend all day with him, talking about current events and listening as he explains about the Messiah.  It's not until evening, when they break bread together, that they realize that the stranger IS THE MESSIAH they've been talking about.  Then, Jesus vanishes from their sight.

Sometimes, we recognize celebrities in our midst.  Other times, we miss them entirely.  But what if we stopped to recognize the celebrities who are ALWAYS among us?  The word "celebrity" means somebody to be celebrated--and isn't that your spouse, your child, your parent, your neighbor, your coworker, your friend?  Isn't that the person nearest to you, that you tend to overlook as common?  The truth is, celebrities are in our midst every day, if we only have the eyes to see them.  The divine is among us in every person we meet, if we only have the heart to embrace God With Us, Emmanuel.

I hope today you'll recognize celebrities in your midst.  I hope you'll see God in the most common person, and that you'll treat them like the precious one that they are.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

"Lessons I Learned from a Thief"

It's amazing the people you can learn from, isn't it?  I've learned from the pious and impious, from saints and sinners.  And from a thief I learned that you can't always tell those two categories of people apart.  In fact, the dying thief in Luke 23(MSG) has taught me several surprising things.  Jesus was crucified between two thieves, who were also strung up by the Romans for capital punishment.

39 One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!”
40-41 But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him—he did nothing to deserve this.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.”
43 He said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise."

In just a handful of verses, here are a few things I've learned from the thief on the cross:

You don't need to say the "Sinner's Prayer" to be saved.  You know, it's only been for the past several generations that Christians have been "led to Christ" with a "sinner's prayer."  I've heard many preachers say that unless you can point to a specific time and date that you "got saved" (meaning that you said a prayer asking God to forgive your sins and asking Jesus into your heart) that you probably aren't saved.  The famous Chick tracts offer the following prayer of salvation: "Dear God, I am a sinner and need forgiveness. I believe that Jesus Christ shed His precious blood and died for my sin. I am willing to turn from sin. I now invite Christ to come into my heart and life as my personal Saviour."  But for most of the history of Christianity, there was no such magic prayer that saves you.  The thief on the cross certainly never prayed such a prayer, and yet Jesus promised him paradise.

You don't need to be baptized to be saved.  Many will quote Mark 16:16 (NIV) to say that baptism is necessary for salvation.  Here, Jesus says, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned."  But here, the mention of baptism is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  This means that Jesus expects that saved people will be baptized, not that baptism determines whether or not you are saved.  While Christians should want to be baptized, the lack of baptism wwon't condemn them.  It's belief that's key here, not water baptism.  The thief on the cross was never baptized, yet Jesus promised him paradise.

You don't need to do good works to be saved.  Some believe that you're saved by doing good works.  I once knew a man who wasn't particularly loving, didn't care for church, never read the Bible, and never prayed.  Yet he thought he would earn "brownie points" with God for doing good things.  Yes, it's a popular belief that we are saved by grace + good works.  But Jesus' promise to the thief on the cross is clear that we are saved by grace through faith.  All it takes is a small amount of faith to receive that gift.  The thief on the cross never had time to repent of his sins, turn his life around, and live righteously--and yet Jesus promised him paradise.


You don't need to have a highly developed theology to  be saved.  If we're saved by grace through faith, the question follows: How much faith do you need?  Or, how much do you need to understand?  From the thief on the cross, I learned that saving faith doesn't need to be complicated.  It doesn't need to be well-informed.  It doesn't need to be highly developed theology.  Simply by asking Jesus to remember him, and recognizing Jesus' sovreignty--that was enough.  While Christians ought to desire spiritual growth, saving faith is like a seed that moves mountains of sin.  It doesn't take much--it simply takes a "yes" spoken to God.


Being saved doesn't save you from the consequences of your actions.  If he'd wanted to, Jesus could have told the dying thief, "Now that you've spoken in faith, I'll rescue you from that cross and give you a long life."  But he didn't do that.  Harsh and unjust though the Roman sentence of crucifixion was for someone who was a common thief and not a murderer, Jesus did not commute his sentence.  Often, Christians believe that because God has forgiven their sins, they should escape the earthly consequences.  But God generally leaves consequences to the courts--or to the circumstances of everyday life.  Sometimes this is so we can learn lessons.  Sometimes it's so justice can be done.  Sometimes it's simply because every action has an equal and opposite reaction--called a consequence.  God has set certain natural laws in place, and doesn't generally break them without enormous cause.  So if you're saved, congratulations!  Welcome to eternal life!  But don't expect God to rescue you from the consequences of your actions--maybe God is going to let you suffer those for a very good reason.


Saints and sinners look alike.  Hanging between two thieves, only Jesus can discern the hearts of those crucified near him.  From down here on the ground, the thief on Jesus' right and the thief on Jesus' left seem very much the same.  It's easy for us to judge people withough knowing what's inside them.  From the thieves on the cross, I learned to withhold judgment and let God be God.

If you pay attention, you can learn a lot from a thief.  For that matter, you can learn a lot from everybody that God puts in your path.  Let's be careful not to judge too quickly before we let them teach us.  The lessons we learn may just be surprising.


Saturday, June 29, 2019

"What Would You Have Said?"

"I grew up in the Lutheran church," she told me yesterday.  "I went through Sunday school and was taught everything I was supposed to learn.  But I've drifted away--I guess a lot of my generation drifts away.  I don't believe like my parents believe.  I guess I'm an agnostic, really.  But after a while, I started feeling disconnected.  Like, I don't have a sense of community.  Well, there's this Methodist church I've found, that a friend invited me to.  They have a praise band, and they need a guitarist.  I don't like Christian rock--but I've started playing with them.  I like it--but I don't know if I'm just pretending to be something that I'm not.  I like the sense of connection and community that I find in church, but I'm not sure if I should be there if I don't accept everything they believe.  What do you think?"*

Instead of jumping in and telling you immediately how I answered her, I'm curious what you'd say. 

Some Christians would answer that unless she believes the same way they do, she shouldn't be in church--that church is a gathering of like-minded Christians.  Others would say she is welcome to attend, but definitely shouldn't join the church as a member.  Still others would say she should be welcome there, but shouldn't be playing in the band, since that's leading worship and worship leadership is only for those who believe.  Some go even further and say that a believer should only be in worship leadership if they're living life by some pretty righteous standards.  You get a lot of opinions from Christians about who's in and who's out, in terms of the church. 

In Acts 11:1-18 (MSG), Peter explains to the church that he has learned a tough lesson about judging people to be insiders and outsiders.  Here's what he says:

1-3 The news traveled fast and in no time the leaders and friends back in Jerusalem heard about it—heard that the non-Jewish “outsiders” were now “in.” When Peter got back to Jerusalem, some of his old associates, concerned about circumcision, called him on the carpet: “What do you think you’re doing rubbing shoulders with that crowd, eating what is prohibited and ruining our good name?”
4-6 So Peter, starting from the beginning, laid it out for them step-by-step: “Recently I was in the town of Joppa praying. I fell into a trance and saw a vision: Something like a huge blanket, lowered by ropes at its four corners, came down out of heaven and settled on the ground in front of me. Milling around on the blanket were farm animals, wild animals, reptiles, birds—you name it, it was there. Fascinated, I took it all in.
7-10 “Then I heard a voice: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, Master. I’ve never so much as tasted food that wasn’t kosher.’ The voice spoke again: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’ This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the sky.
11-14 “Just then three men showed up at the house where I was staying, sent from Caesarea to get me. The Spirit told me to go with them, no questions asked. So I went with them, I and six friends, to the man who had sent for me. He told us how he had seen an angel right in his own house, real as his next-door neighbor, saying, ‘Send to Joppa and get Simon, the one they call Peter. He’ll tell you something that will save your life—in fact, you and everyone you care for.’
15-17 “So I started in, talking. Before I’d spoken half a dozen sentences, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us the first time. I remembered Jesus’ words: ‘John baptized with water; you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So I ask you: If God gave the same exact gift to them as to us when we believed in the Master Jesus Christ, how could I object to God?”
18 Hearing it all laid out like that, they quieted down. And then, as it sank in, they started praising God. “It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life!”

Peter's conundrum wasn't about clean and unclean food.  I mean, as a Jewish man, yes, that was an issue, and that was radical enough.  But this vision was God's way of making the point that just as there's no such thing as clean and unclean food, there's no such thing as clean and unclean people.  Everyone is acceptable to God. God does not play favorites.

Yet, for some reason, there are some people that many churches still don't welcome.  They are deemed unworthy, or outsiders, because of the color of their skin, their disability, their citizenship status, their language, their sexual orientation or gender identity.  They are told that they're not welcome to fully participate in church life unless they believe the right doctrine, unless they're baptized, unless they're tithers, or unless they measure up in some other arbitrary way.  But the Bible's pretty clear that God plays no favorites.

So yesterday, I told the young woman that if I were the pastor of the church she's been attending, I'd tell her that if she's coming for the sake of community, she should keep coming.  That she shouldn't pretend to be something she's not, but if she enjoys playing the keyboard and contributing to the community in that way, she should continue to do so.  

Because, what would happen if I'd told her that she should stop playing, or stop attending, because her faith wasn't "good enough?"  I'd essentially have told her that she was an outsider.  Her partial interest would have turned to no interest at all--and worse than that, she would have felt hurt, rejected, and alienated.  

I believe that when Jesus hung on the cross, his arms were spread wide--not just in crucifixion, but in welcome.  "Come to me, ALL who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest," Jesus said.

So, I told her to come, encouraged her to stay, and hoped she'd share her gifts.  But I wonder...

What would you have said?






*The above conversation was real, but certain details have been changed to protect anonymity.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

"Rule Number Six"

In a world like ours, it's easy to get offended.  Somebody posts something that differs from your opinion on Facebook, and you take it as a personal attack.  You have your review at work and your supervisor points out something you need to improve, and you take a critique as criticism.  The sheer existence of another person that you perceive as different from yourself causes you to sweat--mainly because you take yourself too seriously.

It would be easier to smile at these things and understand the deep secret that...

IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU.

In the Bible, the prophet Samuel governed Israel, not as a reigning monarch, but by the power of his moral influence.  Everybody came to him for advice, and they admired him for his wisdom.  That worked pretty well, until the Samuel's children started misbehaving.  People started questioning his leadership.  They also started looking at the nations around them, and got ideas that the governmental structure ought to change.  1 Samuel 8 (MSG) says:

Fed up, all the elders of Israel got together and confronted Samuel at Ramah. They presented their case: “Look, you’re an old man, and your sons aren’t following in your footsteps. Here’s what we want you to do: Appoint a king to rule us, just like everybody else.”
When Samuel heard their demand—“Give us a king to rule us!”—he was crushed. How awful! Samuel prayed to God.
God answered Samuel, “Go ahead and do what they’re asking. They are not rejecting you. They’ve rejected me as their King."

Samuel could have gotten offended, but God reminded him that it wasn't about him, anyway.  There was a bigger picture to look at, that went way beyond Samuel's fragile ego.

I remember when I was pastoring a church, and I had church members who vehemently opposed anything I tried to do or say.  They called my leadership into question time after time.  If I said the sky was blue, they'd say it was green.  I took it personally.  I got offended.  Then somebody came to me and said, "Don't worry about them--they opposed the pastor before you, and the pastor before him, and the pastor before him.  They just don't like pastors."  That gave me some perspective, and helped me to smile at their antics, not absorbing their negativity as a personal jab. 

Maybe there are areas in your life where you need to do the same.

I leave you with a story called "Rule Number Six" from the Huffington Post:

Two prime ministers were sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly an aide burst in, shouting and banging his fist on the desk. The host prime minister quietly said, “Peter, kindly remember Rule Number Six.” Peter was instantly restored to complete calm, apologized for the interruption, and left the room. The prime ministers resumed their discussion. Several minutes later, another aide rushed in, shouting and stamping. Again the host prime minister quietly said, “Marie, please remember Rule Number Six.” Marie calmed down immediately, apologized, and left the room.
The visiting prime minister said “I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Tell me, what is this Rule Number Six?” The host prime minister said, “It’s really very simple. Rule Number Six is ‘Don’t take yourself so damned seriously.’” After a moment of pondering, the visiting prime minister inquired, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?”
The host replied, “There aren’t any.”

Sunday, June 23, 2019

"Recalculating"

Just when you think you know God's plans, God shows other plans.

Just when you think you've figured out God's will, God shows you something else.

Ever felt that way?  You've read the Bible, you've prayed, you've got all your spiritual bases covered so that you're certain you're doing what you're supposed to--only to have the same God you thought was directing you, lead you in another direction?  It's confusing, isn't it?

In Acts 16, Paul is on a missionary journey.  He knows he's been directed to spread the word about Jesus, and he's got the trip all planned out.  He's measured the miles on Google Maps, planned out his destinations, and even allowed extra travel time for site-seeing along the way.  But God has other plans in mind.  Verses 6-10 (MSG) say:

They went to Phrygia, and then on through the region of Galatia. Their plan was to turn west into Asia province, but the Holy Spirit blocked that route. So they went to Mysia and tried to go north to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go there either. Proceeding on through Mysia, they went down to the seaport Troas.
That night Paul had a dream: A Macedonian stood on the far shore and called across the sea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” The dream gave Paul his map. We went to work at once getting things ready to cross over to Macedonia. All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans.

Just when Paul thought he had his itinerary all scheduled, God threw a monkey wrench into his plans.  First by the Holy Spirit, then by the Spirit of Jesus; finally by a vision of a Macedonian man--three times Paul was told that the course he had plotted was good, but it wasn't right for today.  Instead of taking the Gospel deeper into Asia, Paul turned aside and jumped the creek into Europe.  And the course of church history was changed, from Paul's will to God's will.

What made the difference in this story?  How was Paul able to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit, of Jesus, and of the Macedonian?  He took time to get quiet, to pray, and to listen to the inner prompting of his heart.

I know in my own life, just when I thought I had the next couple of decades planned out, God let me know in very clear terms that my plans were not his plans. In Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV), God says:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Maybe God's been showing you the same thing that I had to learn, and that Paul had to learn.  Maybe you're seeing that no matter how much work and detail you've put into plotting your course, God may have detours ahead.  How do you deal with those details?  Take time to get quiet, to pray, and to listen to the inner prompting of your voice.

When I'm on a road trip, I generally trust my GPS to take me where I want to go.  But sometimes a detour comes up that I didn't expect.  That's when the GPS says, "Recalculating." That's when I've got to be willing to adjust my plans, recalculate, and go a new way.  I hope that when life takes you on detours, you'll be able to recalculate and go with God's plan rather than your own plan.  As you do so, I wish you safe travels.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Is God Violent?

On Saturday, a gunman killed one person and injured three more at a Passover service at Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, California.  Last October, eleven people were killed and seven injured at a mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.  This was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States.  Crimes against Jewish worshipers are certainly on the rise.

But that's not all.  On March 15 of this year, Christchurch, New Zealand mourned as its Muslim community came under attack.  "The attacks began at the Al Noor Mosque in the suburb of Riccarton at 1:40 pm and continued at the Linwood Islamic Centre at about 1:55 pm. The gunman live-streamed the first attack on Facebook Live. The attacks killed 50 people and injured 50 others."

In addition to the Jewish and Muslim communities suffering violence, Christians are under the gun.  On November 17, 2017, a gunman killed 26 people and injured 20 others at First Baptist Church.  "The attack was the deadliest mass shooting in Texas and the fifth-deadliest mass shooting in the United States.  It was the deadliest shooting in an American place of worship in modern history, surpassing the Charleston church shooting of 2015 and the Waddell Buddhist temple shooting of 1991."

Of course, none of this is new.  These are but a few examples in recent memory.  Down through time, faith-based violence has always been a huge theme in human history.  All you have to do is read the texts of sacred literature from around the world and learn that religions have been at the center of violence, either as perpetrators or as victims, since the dawn of time.  But recently, such violence is on an upswing.  On March 15, 2019, WJAC's Crispin Havener wrote:

Violence against religions is as old as time, but studies have shown that in the past decade worldwide, the number of incidents have spiked upward
According to Pew Research Center, in 2018 more than a quarter of the world's countries experienced a high incidence of hostilities motivated by religious hatred, mob violence related to religion, terrorism, and harassment of women for violating religious codes. That’s up nearly 10 percentage points from a decade ago and affecting virtually every religious group: with Christians, Muslims, and Jewish groups the most targeted.
In the United States, the FBI says hate crimes reports were up about 17 percent in 2017, the last year data is available, marking the third straight year it's increased. Specifically, religious based hate crimes went up 23 percent in 2017 from 2016.



The upturn in religious brutality leads to the question: Is God violent?  Our answer will determine whether we condone or condemn such atrocities as the shootings in mosques, churches, temples, and churches, or whether we believe someone is justified in bombing abortion clinics.  And what about violence that is not physical?  If God is violent, then faithful people have license to engage in hateful diatribes against believers of other faiths, and against nonbelievers.  Suddenly, gay-bashing isn't such a bad thing, if it promotes a stricter adherence to religion.  But it God is a God of love, we have to denounce violence perpetrated in God's name.

For most of my Christian life, I've had a hard time grasping biblical passages that depict God as either directly violent (e.g. the Great Flood), commanding violence (e.g. the Jewish conquest of Canaan), or endorsing violence (e.g. prophets calling down curses on their enemies).  I've asked myself, "Could a God of love really be violent, ask people to commit violence, or support violence?"  If the answer was "yes," then God became a scary, mean, capricious person in my perspective.  But if the answer was "no," then that called into question the integrity of the scriptures that made such claims about such a seemingly violent God.  I've struggled with this for years, going so far as to do my own lengthy study of the topic myself--with no good solution.

Recently, I finished reading Greg Boyd's Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence.  While I can't agree with a hundred percent of what Boyd says (I have yet to agree with 100% of what anybody says, I did find his overall perspective compelling.  In a nutshell, Boyd takes the position that God is love.  God's most perfect expression of that love is Jesus, and specifically the self-sacrificing, nonviolent love that is expressed by a Savior who is willing to be killed on a cross rather than to take divine anger out on his enemies.

1 John 4:7-12 (NLT) says:


Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.
Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.

Jesus was very clear that the most complete understanding of God can be found by looking at the Savior.  When the disciples asked Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus replied:

Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.  (John 14:9-12 NIV)

To see Jesus is to see the Father.  This means that the character of Jesus is the very character of God.  Jesus was the one who refused to call down legions of angels to defend himself (Matthew 26:53).  When Jesus' disciples asked for permission to call fire from heaven to destroy those who rejected the Gospel, Jesus rebuked them (Luke 9:54-55).  Not only is God nonviolent, but Jesus says that God's people must also be nonviolent, doing the same works that he has done.

If this is the case, you may ask, what does Greg Boyd do with all the cases of violence in the Bible that God seemingly commits, orchestrates, orders, or condones?  While Boyd affirms the divine inspiration of the Bible, he denies that every story is accurate in its depiction of God or God's will.  For example, when God drowns the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, or when God commands the Hebrew invaders to kill the men, women, children, and livestock in a particular village, Boyd argues that the biblical record renders not what God really did or commanded, but the primitive conception of what God did.

Boyd is aware that biblical literalists will accuse him of misrepresenting who God appears to be in the Bible, making God out to be who Greg Boyd wants God to be.  But Boyd simply points to Jesus, saying, that the Savior is the true character of God, and that any depiction of God that falls short of nonviolent, self-sacrificial love is only a shadow of God God is, and falls short of being a true description of God.  Then, Boyd does something fascination with the picture of Jesus on the cross, that explains how the Bible could contain misunderstandings of who God is.



On the cross, Boyd says, God stooped to being misunderstood.  While God is a God of truth, God allowed the divine nature to be so misunderstood and misrepresented as to submit to crucifixion between two thieves.  Jesus allowed himself to be identified as a sinner, even though he never committed a sin.  Just as Isaiah 52:14 describes the Suffering Servant as being so abused and scarred that he no longer appeared human, Jesus allowed himself to be so misrepresented to the extent that he didn't even appear to be God.  On the cross, the nonviolent God was willing to be identified with violence so that God could identify with humanity, and we might know God.

Boyd suggests that this is exactly what God was doing by allowing people to misunderstand the divine character, identifying God in ways similar to other near eastern warrior deities.  In order to have a relationship with humanity, God was willing to be misunderstood in the short term so that in the long run, Jesus could lead us to a full understanding.  Boyd contends that every passage of scripture that depicts God directly committing violence, commanding violence, or condoning violence, is an example of God condescending to be misunderstood by violent humanity, just as Jesus condescended to be misunderstood on the cross.

While many will say that this view denies biblical authority, Boyd contends that understanding scripture in this way allows us to read the Bible not as a science or history textbook, but as a narrative of humanity's misunderstanding of God, coming to a climax with Jesus' redemptive death on the cross/.  To believe that Old Testament depictions of God are more true to God's character than the loving, nonviolent, and self-sacrificial depiction of God that we find in Christ is to elevate the Bible over the witness of Jesus himself.  Boyd suggests that any biblical passage that depicts the character of God in a way that seems contrary to the character of Jesus himself must be reinterpreted in the light of Jesus' love.  He says that the best way to understand this is to see that God is willing to be misunderstood and misrepresented as violent, in order to stoop to our level and eventually through Christ lead us to a more perfect way.

Perhaps this is a new concept for you--it certainly was a new idea to me when I read Boyd's book.  I encourage you to read it for yourself and see if it helps you to deal with the subject of divine violence in the Bible.  Personally, I feel sick over the religious violence that is all too prevalent in the world.  It's important that we answer the question, "Is God violent?"  How we answer that question will determine not just whether God is violent, but whether we ought to be as well.