Forgiveness and Trust

When there is a breach in relationship, a wrongdoing or harm directed from one party to another, there is almost always erosion, or sometimes even complete destruction, of trust. If there is hope for complete reconciliation between two people, trust must come into play at some point.

The Erosion of Trust

If someone has wronged me, I probably have lost some or all trust in that person. The degree to which trust has been broken depends on all kinds of factors, including how grievous the offense was, whether it was coming from someone with whom I’ve had a long-term trusting relationship, whether the person was a person in power over me, or even whether this was a one-time event versus a repeated, habitual thing. Every situation will be different, but one thing is sure: every time we are wronged, or we wrong someone else, trust is eroded.

When it comes to forgiveness, there is a paradox at play: When someone wrongs us trust is eroded, but in order to forgive that person requires us to turn around and extend even a small amount of trust. The question is, how do we trust enough to forgive when trust has been lost in the first place?

Dealing with this paradox is like getting back on the proverbial horse after getting bucked off. You may not trust the horse anymore, but if you want to ride him, you’ll have to trust him again, even a wee bit, to do so. However, as we’ll soon see, in order to trust the horse a second time, you might decide to change or limit the circumstances in which you ride him. You might decide, for example, that you can only trust the horse sufficiently with someone leading the horse. That doesn’t mean that horse won’t buck you off again. He may well do just that! But the point is: any attempt to get back on will likely mean that your trust is a bit more focused the second time around.

It is foolish to live life in complete and utter distrust of anyone who happens to wrong us. “Never again will I trust that person” is the phraseology of someone who has abandoned any hope of reconciliation. And indeed, living by that mantra will guarantee that one day we will live a life free from the risk of being hurt by another. But the cost of that guaranteed freedom from pain is that we will also be free from gaining even the basic benefits accrued from human relationship: a sense of being loved, security, even the wondrous experience of entrusting a piece of ourselves to someone else.

The paradox of trust and forgiveness means that forgiving someone always means taking a risk. Or to put it another ways, There is no risk-free forgiveness. If you aren’t ready to take a risk in forgiveness, you probably will never get around to forgiving.

Let’s play this out in a little thought experiment.

Let’s say that I have been regularly lending you my car (see my pride and joy below). We’ve made an agreement that when you borrow the car you are responsible for damages, that you will clean it and fill up the gas tank when you return it. So far in the last 10 times you’ve borrowed it, you’ve returned it clean with no new dents or damages and with a full gas tank. Every time you do this, you deposit a bit of “trust-credit” in our relational account.

However, let’s pretend that on the 11th occasion, you bring home the car without filling up the gas tank. That’s a fairly small matter, but it was part of the original agreement. Now at this point, I have a choice: 1) I can overlook this and assume it was simply an oversight that won’t be repeated in the future, or 2) I can mention it to you.

If I say nothing and overlook it, it’s important to understand that I am not “forgiving” you at this point, but simply drawing on the “trust-credit” you and I have built up together. I prefer, rather, to call this act an outworking of the language of “bearing with one another” (Cf. Gal. 6:2), a “forbearing” with you, or giving you the benefit of the doubt. I may choose, for a number of reasons, not to bring it up with you. It may be I’m just scared to say anything because I don’t want to add friction to our relationship. Or I may simply sense that you’ve been having a difficult month and out of a sense of love, I don’t want to burden with this so I just let it slide. Whatever the case, I am not making a choice to “forgive you” at this point because your action is morally ambiguous. You may have simply forgotten or you may have been quite intentional and hope that I don’t notice. I simply don’t know. But I can still choose to say nothing, to overlook it.

But let me be absolutely clear here: If we choose to bear with one another, we do so on the basis of our mutually built up “trust-credit” account. And when I bear with you in this “little matter,” I actually withdraw a little of my trust of you. Why? Because at this point, I still don’t know why you didn’t refill the gas tank and I really won’t have a hope of knowing unless I ask. And the longer I don’t ask, I will continue to draw from our trust-credit account until it is all gone–likely by the second or third time you return the car without filling up the tank.

Forbearing is not forgiving. It is rather simply standing in solidarity with our fellow human in their weakness and finitude. It is an overlooking on the basis that, I, too, know what it is like to forget or to make a mistake and that when I forget or make a mistake, I’m not sinning per se. But in forbearing, I still cannot be sure whether you have made a moral decision to wrong me because forbearance assumes human weakness, not moral culpability.

But let’s go back to the scenario. If instead of simply overlooking or forbearing, I decide to mention the fact that you have not filled up the tank, how you respond to my query at that point will determine how much or whether I have to draw further from the trust-credit account.

If you say, “Oh! My apologies. I completely forgot! Let me take the car and fill it up right now,” you probably will succeed in restoring the trust-credit account to where it was before and my forbearance was the correct response.

Why did I forbear in the first place? Because of the history of our relationship. Ten times before you’ve never failed to fill the tank so I’m apt to trust that you simply forgot. Thus, when you tell me you forgot, and indeed, go fuel up the tank, my faith and trust in your is instantly restored, if not increased, and I realize that you not filling the tank was a result of human finitude and weakness, not sin. And you don’t have to forgive humans for being weak or finite. We laugh it off together, or I politely accept the apology (and apology is not a confession of sin–that’s another post!). We just keep loving each other in the midst of our finitude and weakness.

HOWEVER, what you if after I ask you about the empty gas tank, you say, “I’m glad you brought this up. I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve decided I’ve more than paid for the gas I’ve used and I feel like you are abusing me with this rule. I always fill the tank, no matter how empty or how much I’ve used the car, and you’re getting more gas than I use so I just decided not to fill it up this time, and in fact, I won’t fill it up again for the next three times”?

Now we have a very different situation because your answer reveals to me that you’ve violated what we agreed upon. Sure, maybe I’m getting a better deal and sure, maybe you feel taken advantage of by me. Then the right thing to do is to come to me to try to renegotiate the deal. Who knows? I may make a new deal with you on the basis of the trust-credit we had built up! But instead, you unilaterally did NOT do something I trusted you to do. Guess what? You not only lost a small deposit in the trust-credit account, but you’ve potentially, in one action, put yourself into the red in regard to my trust-account. All that had been saved up can be instantly lost. That’s the weird thing about trust. It may take a long time to build up, but can be almost instantaneously lost.

Now of course, I could play out this little thought experiment many more steps, but the point is that when someone does something that harms trust, it doesn’t necessarily mean that forgiveness is necessary. Something may in fact happen just because we are weak humans. But we can’t really know until we have a conversation about it. If I hadn’t brought it up with you, the next time you brought back the car without filling up the gas, I would have begun to get angry and upset. And within one more time of borrowing of the car, we would now be in for a fight, an argument or me vowing never to lend my car to you again, not to mention potentially breaking off our relationship.

In other words, trust grows only when there is constant verbal openness between people in relationship. Openness to discuss and get clarity on why things didn’t happen the way they normally happen. Without that openness to discuss “relational anomalies”–actions that are different from what we’ve experienced in our relationship–trust inevitably, and quickly, erodes.

In this regard, I am absolutely convinced that the most important reason relationships are broken and destroyed so quickly is that people are generally unwilling to have an honest conversation with one another when relational anomalies occur. Why? For various reasons, I’m sure, but a major one is simply that the majority of us (with some notable exceptions!) avoid conflict at all costs. We see conflict as bad rather than as the key opportunity to strengthen a relationship.

Earlier I mentioned “relational anomalies.” It’s crucial to be alert to when these happen and not to assume that a relational anomaly is an instance of sin or bad intention. Sometimes we just forget or are careless. Sometimes we are tired. Sometimes we have something else heavy on our mind (a sick parent, a child who is failing in school, the threat of a lay-off, etc.) and we act in ways the other person doesn’t expect. These aren’t because of sin. But never, ever, should we assume, apart from a conversation, to know why someone did or didn’t do something. We cannot read each other’s minds or intentions. And so, unless we have the courage to raise the issue, in a non-accusing, non-condemnatory but exploratory way, we are very likely to have trust eroded at lightning speed.

[At the risk of getting sidetracked, I have to mention that I believe the practice of unilateral forgiveness–that is, mentally or emotionally forgiving someone in the absence of knowledge of what really happened or even what their intention was–does more to hasten the erosion of trust than anything else because it is forgiveness offered in the absence of conversation. It is a feigned form of relational “omniscience” which presumes to know the reason and intention of the person without that dialogue or conversation. It robs, in other words, the other person the right to explain themselves. That doesn’t mean that conversation will always result in reconciliation. It doesn’t. Jesus makes that clear in Matthew 18:15-20. But NOT to have a conversation and to forgive is, in my opinion, ignoring the very structure of how Jesus wants us to deal with relational anomalies. But that’s a whole other conversation!]

Re-building Trust

How, then, is trust restored after it has been eroded or lost?

Let’s assume that trust has been eroded or lost not simply due to human finitude (ran out of time, another thing came up we couldn’t avoid, etc.) and weakness (e.g. forgetting, emotionally distracted, etc.) but because one or both of us followed our flesh and did what is sinful. At that point, the re-establishment of the relationship will require forgiveness not as the sum total of our reconciliation, but as a step along the way to reconciliation. Forgiveness, in these sense, is always a means to the ultimate end of reconciliation.

You need to understand here that I understand the biblical notion of forgiveness as a bilateral relational transaction where the wrongdoer is convicted of and confesses his wrongdoing to the one he or she has wronged. Jesus’ teaching in Luke 17:3-4 is the most succinct description of this bilateral relationship. (I should also note that according to a Christian doctrine of sin, when we sin, all sin is really only against God (Psa 51:4), but we acknowledge that though all sin is against God, we secondly, sometimes, sin against others, too).

Now let’s return to our little scenario. After a short time, you might come to conviction that you unilaterally changed the terms of our agreement and that by refusing to fill up the gas tank, you were doing something wrong that risked the trustful status of our relationship. You admit that it was basically breaking your word, and you first (hopefully) ask God to forgive you (1 John 1:9). But you now also realize that even if God forgives you, our relationship has now been broken and needs repair. So, you come to me, admit that this is what you did and ask me to forgive me. Now what? Where does trust come into play?

In the scenario I outlined above, you had borrowed my car 10 times previously with no problem so your apology and seeking forgiveness would probably be relatively easy for me to grant. NEVERTHELESS, even if it was relatively easy, I have to take a risk to draw on the trust-account and give you another chance. Yes, it is a relatively small risk, but there is, in my reading of the situation, a good sense that you are repentant. You admit you were wrong, you come voluntarily without me badgering you, you even make a promise never to do it again.

I do a quick mental assessment of your confession and then take the risk (i.e., I decide to extend you a bit of trust) and forgive you, trusting that you will not do it again. In other words, I assume that you are repentant. Now what? One of two things happens:

  1. You carry on borrowing my car and I continue to trust you as I lend you my car, and this incident never happens again. We rebuild trust after one or two more times and things are good. We are reconciled. You risked my trust by coming to me and I risked trusting you again and forgave you.

    OR:
  2. You do it again.

If #1, we’re fine and this little trivial matter–whether because you forgot or because you temporarily let your flesh get the best of you–does not prevent us in growing in our fellowship with one another. We go on to be best friends and have deep trust of one another.

If #2, the second time you come to ask for forgiveness, I will be obligated to forgive you (“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them” Luke 17:3). Indeed, I believe Scripture is clear we are obligated to forgive anyone who asks. However, forgiveness even in the face of authentic repentance does not automatically restore trust.

In fact, in terms of “trust,” I may hesitate next time you ask to borrow the car. And you may also draw double the amount of trust out of my trust-credit account the second time. That means that before we can get to a fully restored, reconciled relationship, we might need a bit more time, a bit more conversation, perhaps a renewed agreement, etc. before I’m back to trusting you as I did.

Of course, if #2 keeps happening, trust will erode very quickly to the point that when you come to ask for forgiveness, though I’m still obligated, it now takes me a bit longer to respond and it may take a even longer to heal the relationship and to trust you a third, fourth, seventh and seventieth time. Indeed, I may really reconsider around the fifth time whether to lend you the car anymore until I see some of those habits change. Remember that when Jesus teaches us to forgive our brother or sister seventy times, he’s simply making the point that repentance obligates us to forgive. He isn’t tell us to through out wisdom and to be foolish in permitting our brother or sister to continue doing what they’re doing without challenge.

To be clear, my new hesitation to lend you my car doesn’t means I’m being unforgiving. It just means that trust has been eroded to the point where I’m not quite as willing to put myself into the situation where you might hurt me again.

So yes, forgiving when asked, of course, is a biblical requirement. But it is not a biblical requirement to cast our pearls before swine, to use the jarring metaphor that Jesus uses (Matt 7:6). Stomp on my pearls once, and I will forgive. Stomp on my pearls twice, and I will forgive if asked–but you can well be sure I’ll be holding on to my pearls a bit more closely next time. Stomp on my pearls three times and if you ask for forgiveness, I’ll still be obligated to forgive. But wisdom and a spirit of discernment may well be warning me at that point to stop lending you my pearls. Moreover, I should also realize that by continuing to lend you my pearls (car!), I’m not only putting myself in a situation where I am being abused, but I’m putting you in a situation where I keep letting you carry on in your abuse, i.e., actually encouraging and enabling you in your sin.

So next time you ask to borrow the car, and I refuse, it’s not because I’m an unforgiving person or keeping records of wrongs, but because you are demonstrating a life of unrepentance and I simply don’t want to aid and abet you in your unrepentant ways. Just like we don’t give whisky to an alcoholic, so, too, in Christian love for you, I do not give you opportunity to keep sinning against me.

Not until, of course, we have found other ways to begin restoring the trust we once had. Then and only then will I be even ready to consider lending you my car!

Anger, Pain, Forgiveness and Unrepentance

When we’re harmed by the wrongdoing of another, we are likely to experience both pain and anger. Hopefully, though, at some point we will consider the place of forgiveness in light of our anger and pain.

However, before we rush too quickly to trying to patch things up, we need to make an all-important distinction between pain and anger with the realization that these two things, though often intricately and hopelessly intertwined, must be dealt with differently. And we need to recognize that disentangling the two requires both the help of the Holy Spirit and true humility of spirit in us.

Pain

Pain manifests in both conscious and unconscious ways. Pain might result in actual physical discomfort, panic, anxiety, depression, sadness, memory loss, changed behaviour, changed ways of relating, self-isolation, self-harm, and a myriad of other ways. In whatever way we identify the pain we are experiencing (whether on our own or with the help of a friend, confidante, or counsellor), we should NEVER use forgiveness as a therapy for our pain. You’ll see why shortly.

Pain requires healing, and most of the time, healing comes through an external source, not through self-medication. For the Christian, the ultimate source of healing should always be sought from the Great Physician, Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean that healing is always a “direct and instantaneous from above” experience (though it may in fact be that), but is often over a period of time and through other forms of mediation.

Spiritual healing should be sought in direct reliance upon God, but healing can come to us from God mediated in practices of prayer, meditation and reading of Scripture, silence, worship, and even service to others. Of course, discussion and dialogue with seasoned and experience spiritual directors, pastors and counsellors are also a means.

Healing, of course, may come quickly or take a long time. It may come unmediated or mediated by a helper. We can’t predict such things in advance, and spiritual healing is not a program or a technique, though programs and techniques may accompany healing. Remember, healing is all at the mercy and grace of the Father of our Lord Jesus and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Anger

Anger is slightly more complicated than pain because it manifests in both righteous and unrighteous ways.

Righteous anger arises when we see God’s name and reputation brought into disrepute. Righteous anger may also manifest in a concern for justice for others before ourselves, a concern for the well-being of others even before ourselves. It is possible be righteously angry and not sin (Eph 4:26)

Unrighteous anger, in contrast, manifests in rage, in seeking revenge, in plotting harm against the offender or even other non-offenders (i.e., lashing out against those near us), in condemnation, in gossip and slander, etc. Unrighteous anger is sin.

Before Forgiveness

Before we even begin to think about how forgiveness may occur, we must distinguish between our pain and our anger and ensure they are dealt with properly. Three things to remember:

  • Pain requires healing
  • Righteous anger requires lament
  • Unrighteous anger requires repentance

Pain requires healing

When someone does something wrong or harmful to us, it is normal to feel pain. If we don’t, we should consider whether we have been hurt so often and repeatedly, perhaps by the same person, that we have set up a hard emotional and spiritual shell as a psychological and spiritual defense mechanism against pain. If that is the case, we need the Spirit to reveal to us our hardness and seek to have our hearts softened. But even if harm is not felt, it can still do irreparable damage.

When we feel emotional and spiritual pain, then we need to do what we normally and instinctively do when we feel physical pain: seek treatment, and resist the urge to self-medicate.

In most cases of serious harm or pain, we seek the help of a physician. Likewise, in relational or emotion pain caused by an offender, we seek the Great Physician, Jesus Christ. We do this in prayer, and yes, through processing with the help of a professional, a trusted friend or family member, or a spiritual confidante. And yes, we keep going for divine therapy as long as we need, even when the offender is unrepentant. That is, we keep casting our pain, daily, even hourly, at the foot of the Cross.

In contrast, we need to resist the enticingly and powerful urge to gain healing through self-medication or self-numbing. If we are there, we need to seek the help of others, and most importantly, the help of God himself.

We need, in other words, to identify and name the pain we have and lay it at the foot of the Cross of Jesus who bore not only our sin and guilt, but our pain and shame as well.

Righteous anger requires lament

Once we’ve differentiated between pain and anger, we then need to clarify whether the anger is righteous or unrighteous, as noted above.

If it is righteous anger we need to do two things:

  • Lament – Here we need to do what is modelled so well in the Psalms when we see God’s name and reputation harmed, when we see others continually being harmed, or even if we see that our offender is doing so because of the harm he or she has received in past. We lament, we cry out to God that he would do something.

    We need, in other words, to identify and name the injustice we have experienced or seen and put it at the Cross of Jesus who one day will right all injustices.
  • Let God Deal with Injustice – The typical pattern of lament in the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 2) is to cry out to God in our righteous anger, but then to rest in God’s promised deliverance, even if we do not see that deliverance in our own lifetime. Biblical lament sees injustice, but also knows ultimately that even if we work toward righting wrongs, only God will ultimately be Victor.

    Even righteous anger can quickly turn to sin. In your anger, do not sin (Eph 4:26) and do not let a root of bitterness grow in you (Heb 12:15). Here we need the Holy Spirit to give us discernment and conviction. Moreover, righteous anger issues in righteous action, doing something about the injustice, even if the only righteous thing we can do means pouring out our lament to God and leaving it in his hands. Unrighteous anger, in contrast, stews internally and issues in seeking harm and revenge of others.

Unrighteous anger requires repentance.

If the Spirit reveals that our anger is unrighteous, we do not deal with it by unilateral forgiveness of an unrepentant offender. To do so is already an action not done out of faith but in the flesh, the ungodliness that issues when we live out of fellowship with God and in our own unrepentant sin.

Rather, we acknowledge our unrighteous anger, regardless of the repentance of non-repentance of an offender, and we do business with God. That is, we confess our unrighteous anger, rage, slander, gossip, and conspiracy to harm to God. We confess that even as the “offended” we have now sinned against God and need his forgiveness.

The fact is, before any reconciliation between us and our offender can truly take root, it means having a clear account and clear conscience and purified heart before God. “If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousess.” (1 John 1:9) However, as John had just previously noted, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)

Indeed, to try to deal with the unrepentant while failing to confess unrighteous anger is simply to be blinded to the truth that an unrepentant sinner is wholly incapable of reconciling to another unrepentant sinner.

Seeking to forgive an unrepentant sinner is to take justice into our own hands rather than to give the sinner into God’s merciful and righteous and just hands.

In the end, pain is dealt with by God’s healing touch. But even if pain is not fully dealt with instantly or shortly, we are commanded by Jesus himself to love our enemies and do good to those who do us wrong or harm us. To love the enemy is a work of the Spirit in us and a recognition that God alone can bring the unrepentant to repentance–and that he does so through his kindness and love (Romans 2:4).


The Silence of Jesus–And Ours

Our age is an age of voice. Everyone has a voice that we want heard by others.

But the inevitable corollary to living in such an age is that many, many voices crying out in the Wilderness of Twitter means also that there will be a bewildering cacophony of voices are all striving to be heard at once.

That can mean only one thing: if some voices are to be heard at all, others will necessarily need to be silenced.

But as has been abundantly, and rightly, noted these days: Having a voice silenced is one of the signs of living under oppression of some sort.

But what if silence were golden, as the old saying goes? What if there is, as Scripture says, a time to speak and a time to be silent? (Interestingly, the verse I’m alluding to, Ecclesiastes 3:7 actually reverses the saying: “a time to be silent and a time to speak”–might silence logically precede speaking?)

silence

I’m writing this in the midst of a massive social upheaval, which, by the way, I won’t name or describe, for fear that whatever I say about it, the main import of what I would want to say will be–silenced. Silenced either because what I say does not align with mainstream attitudes, or with the attitudes of my peers; silenced because I have no authority to speak on it; or silenced just because I haven’t simply said it loud or brash enough. So if you are reading this at some future date, you will have to look at the original posting date to piece together what I am referring to. For those reading right now as this is posted, it will be obvious.

As a public theologian, I often feel under tremendous pressure to say something to each and every issue that comes up. I’m feeling that pressure right now, to be sure. Especially because I see so many of my fellow theologians saying such important stuff. Good on them.

But whether it be fear, or simply a kind of intellectual paralysis that keeps me from speaking directly to the issues at hand, or more likely, a deep sense of spiritual inadequacy to speak to the issues, I’ve tended to view my silence in such times as a kind of fault, a sign of theological or professional or even personal weakness.

I’m reminded of a criticism that Karl Barth faced often in his life. Why don’t you address issue X or debate Y? For example, though Barth directly and often addressed the problem of German National Socialism head on, he was silent on the invasion of communism in the Eastern bloc countries. Why a scathing critique of Nazism, and yet silence on Soviet Communism, his critics demanded? To which Barth, for the most part, remained silent.

Perhaps Barth failed. (He certainly had his share of personal, moral and yes, theological failures). Perhaps I am failing right now. (That’s certainly a good possibility). Maybe Barth should have given as much effort to critique Stalin as he did Hitler. Maybe I should be putting more effort to speak to the current issues as some of the issues I’ve spoken to in the past. God will be the judge. However, I am instructed and inspired by Barth’s decision, and maybe even discipline, to remain silent, despite the harsh criticism, even condemnation, he subsequently received.

I’ve also, more importantly, been comforted deeply as of late by the words of Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:38)

In the midst of the current crises (yes, I use the plural there), I admit that I am feeling weary and burdened by it all. And my burden just grows as I feel increasing pressure to say something profound, incisive, sharp, definitive, witty, even. So I find myself silent on today’s pressing issues dominating air and (a)ether(net). And so Jesus’ words have been a balm to my soul in these trying times. I’m a theologian, yes, charged to speak God’s Word to the situation we find ourselves in. But sometimes, I think, theologians, too, should be quiet. Sometimes I have to resign myself that it’s okay not to speak all of the time.

Notice, I didn’t say theologians should always be silent. I do not judge those who are seeking to speak a word into our current situation. God bless them, God bless you who read this and are labouring to speak God’s Word to our situation.

But for those who do speak: Be sure to protect your soul as you speak. And be sure you have to speak. Just because you can speak and have a platform and audience to whom to speak, don’t presume you are thereby bound to speak. Speak out of the well-spring of Spirit-filled prayer and Spirit-led biblical reflection, not just out of an intellectual guttural reaction.

This all comes to me as I’ve been reflecting lately, and deeply struck by, the places in the Gospels where we sometimes see Jesus in silence.

As I see it, there are three types of silence we can observe in Jesus. I think all of them can be instructive to us at this time.

The Silence of parable

The first type of silence that Jesus practiced was the silence of parable. Now this isn’t a direct kind of verbal silence but is a kind of verbal indirection and/or redirection. It’s speech that does not say something head on, but which expects that which is not said to have the impact.

Anyone familiar with the Gospel accounts knows that Jesus often spoke in parables as a way of indirectly saying something. It’s why he sometimes said, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” (e.g., Mark 4:9, 23).

The silence of parable is such that a story or analogy or even a personal account might have greater impact than speaking to an issue head on. Jesus spoke in parables very intentionally, knowing that there would be three types of responses.

Some, of course, would hear a parable from Jesus and with frustration, say, “What in the world is he talking about?”

This response might seem like a failure to communicate. But for these people, a parable is actually a grace to them because their hearts may not have been in a place either to accept or reject the truth to which the parable points.  To them the parable is simply verbal nonsense, a kind of encoded message for which they did not have the cipher.  Receiving the message doesn’t necessarily mean that they reject it. It may have been that they simply weren’t capable or equipped or in a place to hear it or understand it. Perhaps days and weeks later, as they mulled over that verbal nonsense in their head, the Spirit would enlighten them a with spiritual decoding Key such that they joyfully accept it. Others, tragically, harden their hearts even further in outright rejection, even once the key is given. (Cf. Heb 6:1-9)

Others would hear Jesus speak a parable and be offended, sometimes even to the point of responding in utter rage. I think of the time Jesus quoted the Proverb (a super-short parable, of sorts), “Physician, heal thyself” only to face an angry mob wanting to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4). These heard the parable and understood its meaning quite well, thank you very much. It wasn’t for lack of understanding, but refusal of will to bend their hearts and minds to it.

(I’m reminded of a friend in my McGill days who was doing his PhD in NT. He probably understood the meaning of Jesus’ parables at one level better than I ever will, but who outrightly confessed to me that he rejected them not because he couldn’t understand them, but because he could not commit himself to the life of discipleship that he knew Jesus demanded. Sad!)

And yet others, whose heart-soil was freshly cultivated by the Spirit to receive the seed of the Word, received the hidden truth of the parable with joy–and repented.

Today, I wonder: Who are the parable-theologians we ought to be listening to? And to what extent might we be called, not to face issues head on, but to work with story, with analogy, with testimony, not to solve an otherwise insoluble puzzle, but to throw something into the mix that the Spirit might choose to use, whether that be for the sake of repentance, comfort, or exhortation, or all.

Maybe sometimes the stories being told are the theological words that need to be heard. Maybe the key to hearing them isn’t for me to come along and give a theological explanation. Maybe the Spirit can use those stories on their own to reveal the truths people need to absorb deep within their spirits and souls. Maybe we don’t always need a theologian to come alongside to clarify what is already clear. As in digital image manipulation, sometimes over-clarifying something actually leads to distortion.

We need more poet theologians. More novel (as in the book) theologians. More creative arts theologians. More story-tellers. More spoken-word artists. More painters. More musicians. More Christians who simply say, “I don’t have all the answers but here’s a little story about something that Jesus has done for me.” These parables of life, literature art, and story may well be used of God in sometimes more powerful ways than the “direct-speech” in which we theologians so often engage.

The Silence of Rest

If the silence of parable is a kind of indirect speech, a type of verbal Judo whereby we redirect speech away from direct speaking to a critical issue, the second is all-out bodily silence–a silence of rest.

In Mark 6, we read:

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

As I write this, I confess that this is the place from which I write. I am exhausted by a year filled with double-duty, with family crisis and distance, with personal health issues, with various global crises, and with the tiredness that comes just weeks before some slated time-off.

It’s perhaps a good reason why I need probably need to simply to shut up and not pretend to have the energy or words to say that I might otherwise wish I had.

As the apostles excitedly report to Jesus a résumé of their accomplishments, all the good things they had done and all the good stuff they had said, they turn around and–there are more people in need!

The response we might have expected from our Loving Lord is that of compassion. Based on his responses elsewhere in the Gospels, we might expect him to look at the multitudes in need with deep love and care. We expect his heart to break for them. We expect him to turn to the apostles and say, “You feed them.” (He did direct the apostles to do just that on other occasions).

What a mighty surprise it must have been when Jesus said, “You know what? Let’s go. You’re all tired and hungry–and so am I. Let’s find a quiet place where we can eat, and rest. Enough working, enough talking. Let’s take a personal day.”

As I wrote the previous paragraph, the image of a kindergarten or pre-school class came to mind. I think of the tremendous amount of energy expended by a class of pre-schoolers throughout the course of the day, and I’m not surprised that, in the midst of it all, both kids and teachers need “nap time.” (Maybe teachers more than kids, but kids for sure, need it, too!)

Humans are “soulish” creatures (Cf. Gen2:7) which means that who we are as humans is not simply the sum total of our words and actions. Far too often, we derive our worth precisely in that, as rewarding as it can be. The apostles, I’m sure, were thrilled beyond imagination to be on the Lord’s mission, speaking and doing and helping as they were. But Jesus knew them better than themselves. Humans cannot be sustained alone on the bread of their words and actions. Such bread will eventually lead to malnourishment of the soul.

I guess the rather simple but oft-overlooked point is this: Sometimes, even when the multitude of people and issues seem to be raising more urgent need than ever, the best thing is to pull away, to rest, to be silent, to have a snack and a nap. Elijah and Jesus did it. So, too, should we.

And so today, I covenant with the Lord, and maybe some of you, too, that today, and perhaps even for the next while, it’s okay that I have little reserve of words to say and actions to do in the face of the current crises.

I will rest in silence.

The Silence in the Face of Power

And sometimes The Word said–Nothing.

There are a few occasions in the Gospels where Jesus surprises us with nothing.

For example, sometimes he refuses to answer a question.

Luke 20 One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”

He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”

So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Now granted, Jesus does speak here, but I’m awed by how here, at least, he answers a question with a question. And when the answer was not forthcoming, Jesus decided that therefore, he too, would not answer. I wish the editors of the text would have entitled this section, “When Christ clammed up!”

I think this little incident is instructive for us, especially in situations where, perhaps, we are being forced to take a side, fully knowing that whatever answer we give, we will be condemned from both sides.

Jesus saw through these power plays. And he simply refused to play along. How refreshing is that!

For me, at least, I am the kind of person who always wants to be on the right side. I’m not inherently a rebellious personality or a rhetorical provocateur. I want peace and quiet and order. That can, to be sure, good at times, but it can also be a bad thing. It can be a sign of complicity, duplicity, and cowardice.

So yes, sometimes we have to stand up for the right things, even if we are unpopular with our peers for doing so and even when it causes high level of stress and discomfort. I’ve been there and frankly, I don’t like it.

But sometimes, is there not an overwhelming sense of pressure to answer every question and respond to every critique? Maybe it’s just me but it seems to me that theologians and pastors and Bible teachers here are flooding the internet (“Hey, look at me as I post yet another blog post!” Smirk…) with an attempt to be heard, to provide answers, to guide the flock.

Again, I do not judge those who do this. May God bless you.

But for others, let me suggest that though Jesus often and regularly calls out injustice and hypocrisy and, yes, sin itself, other times, he knows that sometimes, anything he says will be condemned from every side and that sometimes, it is just better to be silent. It serves no purpose, ours or God’s, when we speak and it does nothing but create a deeper trench of division or even hatred. Sometimes we have to hang on to our pearls.

So Jesus is my exemplar here: If Jesus doesn’t have to answer every question thrown at him, I would hope he will be okay when I don’t answer every question either. May I simply have the grace and discernment to know when to speak and when to be silent. And it is in those times of silence when in fact, my actions will need to speak louder than my words.

But there’s another crucial moment of silence in Jesus’ ministry:

62 Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. (Matt 26)

If you want to do a fascinating study, read through the various Gospel accounts and observe how Jesus responded, or didn’t, before the authorities leading up to his crucifixion. Whole books could be written on how Jesus responded, or didn’t, to various audiences.

Both before the high priest and Pilate, Jesus spoke. And was silent. Matthew records that Pilate was amazed that “Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge.” (Matt 27:14)

In the face of false accusation, in the face of power seeking to divide and conquer, Jesus is silent.

Now, I acknowledge that we have to be so very careful here. When Jesus was accused of wrongdoing, we know the charges were false. He is the man in whom no fault or deceit can be found. In that regard, he isn’t like us. Unlike Jesus, we have plenty of accusations that could be lodged against us for good and right reason. And if we are silent, it is because we know the accusations to be true. Such silence, in the face of a direct confrontation of grace (L. Gregory Jones) would be tantamount to a denial. When we’ve sinned, we ought to confess with our mouth.

Nevertheless, we need to be instructed here by Jesus: He is silent at a crucial moment, that is, when the rhetoric directed toward him is being used as means of exerting power over him.

It’s in those moments, Jesus refuses to play and meets the rhetoric with silence.

Isn’t it ironic? The crowds wanted Jesus to be quiet, and Pilate wanted him to speak.

To the crowds Jesus spoke, and to Pilate Jesus refused to speak. What’s the commonality?

In both cases, speech was being used as a power-play. The crowds demanded silence from Jesus because his words to them were uncomfortable. “We had better shut him up, then!” the crowds reasoned.

Pilate on the other hand, wanted answers from Jesus because he knew that Jesus was being unjustly accused. For Pilate to condemn and innocent man would call into question his own concern for justice.  “Answer me, dammit!” we can hear Pilate demand. “I have the power of life and death over you and you refuse to answer me?”

But again, Jesus knew the truth. As he says in John 10:17-18, “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”

So, when being threatened to speak lest we overpower you, the appropriate response seems to be silence. Not rolling over and cowering, but standing firm in silence. Sometimes those verbal power-plays come at us from without–from those outside the Church, outside the faith. But tragically, all too often those power plays are coming at us from within. Even Christians are being forced to line up on sides and say the right words. In such instances, I think we need to have the courage of silence.

Undoubtedly, we are in time when speech is being used in both good and wicked and yes, even in trivial ways. Speech is a gift of God and having a voice is part of what it means to be created as the ambassador image of God. We speak and preach and instruct and praise and worship with our mouths to the Glory of God.

But speech, we so well know, can divide and conquer as well. And so when demands are placed upon us, demands and pressures to speak so that the other side can be overwhelmed or silenced, we had better weigh our speech carefully and prayerfully. If we are being called upon to silence others, our speech is violence.

In that case, it is better, I believe, to be silent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

365 Days of Faithfulness?

If someone asked you, How many days in a row have you been faithful to the Lord?, what number would you give?

This morning I was reading in Genesis when I came across the Enoch account. It says, “Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years.” It goes on: “Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Gen 5:22, 24).

500px-Figures_God_took_EnochNow interestingly, of his total life, Enoch is accounted with 300 years of faithfulness to God, which, incidentally, began at the age of 65 after he had fathered Methuselah. (Methuselah, you will recall, is the one who is credited as having the longest human life in the Bible—or ever!—of 969 years).

We don’t know what it was that sparked this “senior moment” of faithfulness for Enoch. Maybe becoming a father at age 65 causes one to reconsider one’s life and the legacy one will leave for one’s child! At any rate, the text is clear that God’s accounting of Enoch’s faithfulness started at age 65!

Now as interesting as the beginning marker of Enoch’s faithfulness is, that wasn’t what jumped out at me. It was the number 365—the total number of years Enoch lived. Why?

As perhaps many of you, I’ve been reflecting on my goals and habits and thinking about the 365 days ahead. But as I read about Enoch this morning, I asked myself: Could it even be said of me that I lived faithfully for 365 (or at least 300) days in a row?

This obviously begs the question of whether one can be counted faithful and yet fall into sin. Protestants and Catholics alike are generally convinced that few can make it through a day without sinning. And to be frank, I have to believe that even good ol’ Enoch gave into to temptation once, twice, thrice in those 300 years.

And yet Enoch is credited as having walked faithfully with God.

So what’s this mean for us?

1) It’s never too late to start living faithfully before God. We don’t know what happened in the first 65 years of his life, yet the the Bible indicates that Enoch, after 65, was faithful for 300 years. We may not have as long as Enoch to live out our faithfulness to God, but we are never too old to start. It doesn’t matter if you are 6, 60, or 600 (just covering my bases here), you can start a walk with God today.

2) Faithfulness to God isn’t necessarily defined by sinlessness. I’m convinced by the broad witness of the scriptural narratives of the great heroes of the faith, that the faithfulness they are credited with is not based on perfect records of sinlessness. Just take a look at the Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame to see the line-up of sinful characters there! They sinned, and so do we.

And of course, theologically, we can never be reminded enough that the faithfulness credited to us is only by the faithfulness and sinlessness of Jesus Christ on our behalf. And yet, we cannot ignore the fact that sinning humans are credited as faithful in the Bible.

Here the phrase in Genesis 5 is so important. Remember what it says? “Enoch walked faithfully with God.” Human faithfulness here, and almost everywhere in the Bible, isn’t a statement about sinless perfection, but about walking with God in Jesus Christ. Walking means taking one step at a time, and continuing on, day in and day out. It’s the same word the apostle John uses in his exposition on sin and fellowship with God in 1 John 1. As we walk in the light of Jesus (I John 1:7), it is impossible to say we are without sin or to deny that we have sinned (1:8,10). But as we walk in Jesus, our sins are forgiven and we are cleansed day by day (1:9).

You see, we don’t measure the veracity of journey as to how many missteps, slips, and falls we’ve made, but by how we refuse to stop walking. So if you’ve fallen, slipped up, taken a wrong turn—don’t let that stop your journey with God. Keep on walking. Get on the path, ask God’s forgiveness, and move on.

3) Faithfulness should, however, be marked by greater victory over sin. Faithfulness in walking in the light of Jesus means that our awareness of sin should become ever more acute and our tendency should be to deal with it more and more swiftly and with greater resolve to see it killed in our bodies.

These reflections all started when I asked myself, Could I, by the help and grace and mercy of Jesus, actually live 365 days without sin? I doubt I will, but that doesn’t mean it is worth setting as a perhaps a goal.

This morning I heard about a Saskatchewan man who last January was feeling despondent about his life and he decided to make an audacious goal: To walk across Canada–just because. He wasn’t doing it for charity, but just wanted to see if he could do it. And do it he did.

Now don’t get me wrong: It isn’t about justifying ourselves by our sinlessness before God, but it is asking: Can I, with the abiding Spirit’s help, resist that temptation one more day? Can I stay on the path just another hour? Just as the fellow who walked across Canada needed to take one more step—and do it repeatedly—it is worth asking ourselves why we are unable to get through a day, or an hour, without giving in to temptation.

I don’t want at all to set ourselves up for disappointment and guilt and shame in failure. However, I do wonder if we—I—tend to give up or given a little bit too quickly.

And that caused me to wonder: What would 365 days of faithfulness look like this year? Each of us will answer that a bit differently and each of our circumstances will demand different disciplines. Some need to commit to being more faithful prayer. Others to curbing appetites. And others to accountability. And still others to finishing something that they’ve procrastinated finishing in 2018. Whatever it is, imagine the joy of being able to look back at the year, and for God to say, “And _________ [insert your name here] walked faithfully with God for 365 days…”

 

Christmas Longings—and the Desire of the Nations

Do you remember as a child anxiously and breathlessly waiting for Christmas to come?

In my childhood home, we followed the tradition of gathering as a family to read the Christmas story and open gifts on Christmas Eve (followed by stocking stuffers on Christmas morning!). I remember when I was about 8 years old that the wait was particularly difficult. I anticipated and dreamed of getting a Meccano set, though I wasn’t quite sure if I was getting it. So it seemed like torture waiting for gift opening time.

However, after Dad’s customary reading of the Christmas story, we were ready to open our presents. I tore into my present and was thrilled with the discovery of my Meccano set!

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And even though that toy was the source of many hours of enjoyment and learning in months and years to come, I also distinctly remember that by the end of Christmas Day, I had these strange feelings of let-down, or mild disappointment.

It wasn’t disapppointment about the gifts—I loved what I had received. But it was that all the anticipation and euphoria was followed by a strange feeling of sadness and even a tinge of emptiness. I’m sure it had a lot to do with how much I worked myself up into an emotional frenzy that made coming down from the euphoria a bit more noticeable to my eight-year old self.

C.S. Lewis, Sehnsucht, and Christmas

C.S. Lewis adopted a German word for this feeling: Sehnsucht (ZANE-zookt). It was a word Lewis used often to describe the deep longings and desires of the soul that were often left unfulfilled. Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as “yearning, or wistful longing.” It’s a difficult concept to put into words (though Lewis is one of the best to do so), but most of us get it because we’ve all felt it at one point or another. We’ve hoped, and despaired when hope did not play out, often enough in our life that we intuitively understand Sehnsucht. 

Christmas can be a dangerous and depressing time of year for many. We put so much stock into the season, anticipating that it will somehow be “magical” and deeply satisfying, only to find ourselves with that feeling of emptiness again. It probably doesn’t help either when we find ourselves wondering why many of us don’t have the same excitement or anticipation in the Christmas season as we once did when we were kids.

However, rather than seeing the unsatisfied longings that are sparked and dashed often at Christmas, it may be better to ask ourselves what that longing, that wistfulness, is itself pointing to.

Here Lewis comes to the rescue. In discussing Sehnsucht in his famous little book, Mere Christianity, he puts it this way:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

I’m a bit theologically nervous with Lewis’ last phrase which speaks of being made for another world, even though I do buy into what I think he intends to say. In saying that we were made for another world, we need to be careful not to read into Lewis here a kind of escapism or even a tinge of Gnosticism: Lewis is too careful a thinker to do that. He wasn’t saying that we need somehow to escape God’s creation or that only an escape from this world will satisfy our deepest longings.

Rather, I think Lewis’ sense here is more along the lines of Jesus’ own words when he said, “I am not of this world.”  (John 8:23). Here Jesus isn’t saying that he does not share our humanity—he most certainly did and does, and Christmas is that time when we affirm that God’s Son took on full and permanent humanity. Rather, he is saying is that the origin or source of his identity and person is not derived from the created world, but from his Father in heaven.

The true Desire of our Desires

Christmas is ironically a time when we hope to see our deepest longings and desires to be fulfilled, only to find ourselves over and over again deeply disappointed. The gifts and family times and turkey meals are all great, and I’m not critiquing those things which can serve up good moments of joy delight.

However, the strange paradox of Christmas is that so many hopes are placed in things that cannot ultimately satisfy, even though Christmas is the time to commemorate the coming of the One who truly is the “desire of the nations.” As the prophet Haggai foretold:

I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Hard to believe that the babe in a manger is the one who will shake the nations, and yet he is indeed the one whom the nations truly desire—despite their, and our, unwillingness or failure to acknowledge him as the fulfilment of the deepest desires and longings of our hearts.

 

The Prophetic and Political Significance of Jesus’ Natal Announcement

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We tend to be aware of the prophetic significance of the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Luke 2. As Christian readers we are likely to grasp how the announcement was directed to Jewish shepherds who (likely) would have seen it as a fulfilment of Hebrew prophecy.

But we may be less attuned to fact that the announcement would have also been heard by Gentile recipients reading Luke’s Gospel as a radical political statement. Both of these aspects are important to understand, so let’s look at them in order. How might a typical Jewish person hear the angelic announcement? And how might a typical Gentile or Greek hear it?

The Prophetic Significance of the Angelic Announcement

First, let’s recall what the angel told the shepherds:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11).

Here I want to highlight four words or phrases from the angel of the Lord’s announcement: 1) Good News; 2) Saviour; 3) Messiah; and 4) the Lord. (2:10-11)

From a Jewish perspective, the four words would likely be received as an announcement of the fulfillment of the prophetic hope of the Hebrew Bible.

Good news – The prophet Isaiah (which has sometimes been called “The Fifth Gospel”) makes repeated mention of “good news.” (E.g., Isaiah 40:9, 41:27; 52:7). Thus, when the angel of the Lord announces that he is bringing “good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” Jewish shepherds are likely to have their minds drawn to these promises.For example, think of Isaiah 40:9 which says,

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, 
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”

What is the good news? “Here is your God!” It’s no wonder the shepherds went for a look!

Saviour – The word Saviour is derived from the Hebrew name “Joshua” which literally means, “Yahweh is salvation.” When the shepherds arrive at the manger side and find out his name is “Jesus” (the Greek version of Hebrew Joshua), the connection of this baby to Israel’s promises of deliverance embodied in Joshua would have been obvious.

Messiah – This word, of course, is at the heart of Jewish hopes. The Hebrew Scriptures long predicted the coming of the anointed one. And any Jewish person who was even minimally attentive knew that the Messiah would come from the line and house of King David. Of course, that the shepherds were directed to and found their way to Bethlehem, the city of David, well, that just was icing on the cake!

Lord – But just in case the shepherds missed it, the angel of the Lord declared that the baby is “the Messiah, the Lord.” The word “Lord” (Greek, kyrios) here is loaded with significance. As Larry Hurtado points out, the word Lord or kyrios, “had become a widely-used oral substitute for YHWH among Greek-speaking Jews.” I don’t know what language the angels spoke to the shepherds in, but for Luke, there is a clear connection of the identity of the Messiah with the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible.

In short, for Jewish readers of Luke’s account, it is clear that Jesus is to be understood as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes as testified to in Hebrew Scripture. The long awaited Messiah had come, and the shepherd’s did not delay in going to see him. And when they did, they went out, witnessing to what they’d heard the angels tell them about the child (Lk. 2:17). (Notice here that their witness consisted primarily in what they heard. Although they speak both of what they heard and saw (v.20), it is the angelic message which gives content to their witness, not so much what they saw.)

The Political Significance of the Angelic Announcement

But what about for Gentiles or Greek speaking readers? How would Luke’s record of the angelic announcement resonate with them?

Here we need to run through these four words once again, but this time I want to argue that for our Gentile author, Luke, and for what we assume would be in the first instance a predominantly Gentile audience, the words elicit a radical political announcement.

Here we must not miss the connection between the opening line (“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . .”) and the proclamation of the angel of the Lord in Luke 2:10-12. It is easier to see, as above, how this announcement aligns with Hebrew expectation because we are more likely to be familiar with the Old Testament. But it is a bit less obvious to see the radical political implications of the angelic announcement apart from some extra-biblical information that most readers of the Gospel today do not have immediately at their fingertips. Remember that for most Gentiles reading or hearing the Gospel of Luke for the first time, they would have far less familiarity with the Hebrew Bible than, say, Matthew’s readers and hearers. Thus, when Luke provides his account, it is in the context of the historic figure of Caesar Augustus. Thus, the political allusions would have more likely resonated with Greek/Gentile hearers.

In short, everything that is said about Jesus by the angel as recorded by Luke was previously directly or indirectly attributed to Caesar Augustus himself. So let’s go through these four words again,but this time from the perspective of how Caesar Augustus would have been understood.

Good News – In his book, Divine Honours for the Caesars, Bruce W. Winter draws attention to a decree written by the Proconsul of the League of Asia around 8 BC which extols the virtues of Caesar Augustus—the very same Caesar spoken of in Luke 2:1. At one point, the Augustan decree says, “with his appearance Caesar [Augustus] exceeded hopes of all those who anticipated good tidings [‘euangelia’ – Gospel, good news] before us, not only surpassing those who had been benefactors before him, but not even leaving those to come any hope of surpassing him the future.” (Winter, 37).Historians generally agree that the birth of Jesus took place around 4 BC, which means that the Augustan decree spoken of by Winter had been written just four years earlier. It isn’t hard to see the radical nature, then, of the angelic announcement which declared that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was “good news” for “all the people.”We shouldn’t underestimate how this account is a direct  “poking the bear” of none other than the mighty Caesar Augustus which just four years previously had been declared to have been the greatest leader ever and with no hope of any coming after who would surpass him. And yet, here came Jesus on the scene, announced as “good news for all the people.”All this to say: The angelic announcement as “good news” isn’t political subtlety, but a forthright declaration of challenge to the Augustan decree! One simply has to say that this was a statement of political boldness at its best!

Saviour – A year prior to the Proconsul’s 8 BC decree, there is also evidence that this same Caesar August was declared publicly to be a saviour to the people.  On a Priene calendar inscription we find this:“Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order” (Emphasis added).

Moreover, an inscription from the city of Halicarnassus declared Augustus to be “saviour of the common race of man” (Cited in Winter, 72) and scholars have commonly noted how he was repeatedly called “the savior of the world” and “the savior of the inhabited earth.”The fact that Augustus was issuing a decree, according to Luke, to the “entire Roman world” (Lk 2:1) and that Luke’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3 traces Jesus all the way back to Adam (unlike Matthew who traces all the way back to Abraham) indicates that when Jesus is declared to be “saviour”, in a first century Gentile familiar with the honours accorded Augustus as “saviour of the common race of man,” it is beyond doubt the counter narrative Luke is providing for us. No, Luke’s Gospel says, it is not Augustus who is the Saviour of humanity, but Jesus, the man for all people.

Messiah – English translations of Luke 2:11 (such as the NIV I’m citing from) translate the last clause as “he is the Messiah, the Lord.” The word Messiah is the English transliteration of Hebrew word “Mashiach.” However, Luke, writing in Greek, records that the baby is the Christos Kurios, more directly translated in English as “Christ the Lord.” (I think English translations should opt to translate the word as “Christ” here, given Luke’s Gentile orientation, but I digress.) At any rate, both Messiah and Christ mean “anointed one.”

In Judaism, of course, the anointed one, the Messiah, is clearly associated with the prophetic anticipation of the one to come from the house of David, as noted above. Its noteworthy, then, that Jews were predisposed to be awaiting and looking for the Messiah to come, and in their looking, they were aware that the Messiah was going to be born in “Bethlehem in Judea” (Matt 2:5).

So, when Luke then goes on to begin his account of Jesus (right before the genealogy) by recording a birth announcement, the parallel to imperial power cannot be ignored. Jesus cames as Messiah and saviour for all, including all right back to the time of Adam! But Jesus also comes as the one who will be Messiah and Saviour of all to come.Here Winter points to a lengthy resolution passed by the members of the Koinon of the province of Asia. In that resolution, the birth of Caesar Augustus is viewed as the beginning of a new Golden Age and they declared that Augustus’ birthday should mark the beginning of a new calendar year to represent how with the appearance of Augustus, a new world age had begun. Indeed, an inscription to Augustus read: “the birthday of our god marked for the world the beginning of good news through his coming.” (Winter 37).

An anointing is a marking, a designating, so here again, it is not difficult to see how Luke’s portrayal of Jesus birth is so closely tied to the decree of Caesar Augustus who himself was portrayed as the harbinger of a new age. And yet it is Jesus, the angels announce, who is the anointed one, and the one who “Today” (2:11) (usually a word used in the Bible connected to the announcement of the present day arrival of the kingdom of God) has come as one bringing joy to all people.

Lord – It is as if the best is saved til last with this word. As noted above, the word Lord (kyrios) was clearly associated in Jewish thought with Yahweh, but what about in the Gentile mind?

N.T. Wright makes the claim that at the time of Jesus’ birth, “as far as most of the Roman world was concerned, the ‘divinity’ of the emperor was obvious and uncontroversial” (Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, 65)Here the full significance of Luke’s record of the angelic announcement comes into focus. Indeed, Caesar Augustus declared his father a deity, thus making Augustus a “son of deity (or as inscriptions put it, “a son of a god” (Cf. the title ascribed to Jesus: the son of God!).

It is widely known that the Emperors were commonly acknowledged and honoured as nothing less than deities themselves. In fact, it was because of their divine status as deities that eventually Christians found themselves in trouble whenever they found themselves declaring, “Jesus is Lord!”–but that’s for another post some day!

So, the natal announcement plays a dual role for both Jewish and Gentile hearers. For the Jew reading Luke’s account, the angelic announcement encourages them to see Jesus as the fulfillment of all Hebrew prophetic anticipation and as the one to come, the Messiah, the Son of David.

But for Gentile hearers, the natal announcement is shot through with political significance and challenge. Indeed, for many of Luke’s readers, the natal announcement is nothing less than a political counter challenge to the highest political authority of their day, namely, the Emperor himself.

And so Jesus Christ is to us today: the hope of Israel (Jeremiah 17:13) and the desire of the nations (Haggai 2:7).

Stock up on Summer books

I just got notice that Christian Book Distributors has a summer clearance sale on many books, including some up to 99% (yes, you read that right–99%!) off. Take a look, you might find something.

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Here’s a few examples:

Oliver Crisp’s Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology. – $1.99 (US)

Catherine Kelsey’s, Thinking about Christ with Scheiermacher. – $0.99 (US)

Gregory Alan Thornbury’s,  Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry,  – $1.99

Rupert Shortt, Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, – $1.99 (US)

And of course, Karl Barth’s entire Church Dogmatics! – $179 (US)!

dogmatics

 

Three Reasons to Give Bultmann Another Chance

When Stanley Hauerwas was informed that he had been named by Time magazine as one of America’s “best” theologians, he responded as he ought to have responded:  “best is not a theological category.”

Similarly, the word “successful” is not a theological category. So when I say that David Congdon’s little book on Bultmann is successful, I hope I’m not making a categorical mistake.

Nevertheless, I will persist.

There are at least three reasons why Congdon’s book, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology (Cascade, 2015) should be rightly designated a “successful” theological book–successful because it gives good reason for those who have either given up, or never even looked at him in the first place, to give Bultmann a(nother) chance.

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THREE REASONS TO READ CONGDON’S BOOK, or, THREE REASONS TO GIVE BULTMANN ANOTHER CHANCE

1. Congdon successfully casts into serious doubt, if not demolishes, many of the (mis)perceptions that many have held and taught about Bultmann’s thought. 

I don’t know which friend it was that Congdon is speaking about who “upon finishing the famous programmatic essay on demythologizing for the first time, told me he kept waiting for the sinister demythologizing he had heard so much about but which never arrived” (xv), but I, too, had a similar experience a year or two ago after reading Jesus Christ and Mythology. Clearly, not everything I had been taught or read about Bultmann is true.


That said, let me also say that Congdon’s book will not necessarily transform readers into devoted Bultmannians.That is because defending Bultmann isn’t so much what this eminently readable book is all about–even if Congdon is clearly sympathetic to much of what Bultmann was saying. Rather, the success of Congdon’s book is that he portrays, with great clarity and with excellent primary evidence, a portrait of Bultmann not as one who was seeking to destroy faith–as some conservative critics are still apt to assume–as much as he was seeking to preserve faith in God in the increasingly secularized and scientifically-oriented modern world. Congdon helped me to realize that I need to be much more cautious in teaching others what Bultmann’s program represents.

Most important in re-orienting me to Bultmann were the three chapters respectively entitled “Eschatology” (chapter 1), “Dialectic” (chapter 2), and “Self-Understanding” (chapter 4, which in my opinion, was one of the most clarifying chapters of the whole book). For it was in these three chapters that I discovered how Bultmann was locating himself in the 20th century debate about the nature of the kingdom of God (ch. 1); was seeing himself as a faithful participant, together with the early Karl Barth, in the project of dialectical theology (ch. 2); and was seeking to show that “faith understands God only by simultaneously understanding oneself, because the God [we] encounter in revelation is the God who justifies [us]”(60 – ch. 4).

Here I have to ask: Does this latter statement not sound a whole lot like Calvin in the opening pages of his Institutes?

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (Calvin, Institutes, I.1)

2. Congdon successfully makes the case that Bultmann should not be interpreted only through the lens of his associations and disagreements with Karl Barth.

One of the most clarifying moments I had in reading Congdon’s account was in his chapter on “dialectic” where he highlights, in line with Bruce McCormack, that it is Bultmann, not Barth, who most consistently works out the existential theology first discovered in Barth’s commentary on Romans. In other words, the true “heir” of the early dialectical theological programme inaugurated by Barth is none other than Rudolf Bultmann! As Congdon explains,

Barth would eventually change his mind [after his Romans commentary] about . . . eschatology. In his later dogmatic writings, he grounds the eschaton, and so theology, in the historical person of Jesus, and thus replaces existential theology with a certain kind of christocentric theology. Bultmann, however, consistently develops the theology of Barth’s Romans. . . . If Bultmann remains faithful to the theological position of the early Barth, then it follows that he remains a dialectical theologian, even in his later work.

In other words, in as much as the roots of dialectical theology  can be traced to Barth, Bultmann is more properly the one who seeks to “conserve” these roots. Thus, when Barth later broke publicly and adamantly with Bultmann, it wasn’t because Bultmann had changed, but because Barth had changed! (If you want to get a sense of my own interpretation of Barth’s mature understanding of dialectic, take a look here.)

Of course, the question remains whether one is persuaded to follow Barth’s christocentric vs. Bultmann’s existential theological center. But after this, I will follow Congdon in pointing out that Bultmann is actually more consistent in carrying out Barth’s earliest form of dialectical theology than Barth himself. It also illustrates yet another place where there was more change in Barth than he often was willing to admit.

3.  Congdon successfully demonstrates that Bultmann, whether one agrees with his approach or not, was not trying to destroy faith, but to understand faith under the conditions of modernity.

It is the case that to this day, Bultmann’s concept of “demythologization” is still commonly understood as simply seeking to” de-supernaturalize” the teaching of the Bible. Take Bultmann’s following oft-quoted statement:

We cannot use electric lights and radios, and in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. (quoted in Congdon, p. 105)

This statement has been regularly used as a key piece of evidence that Bultmann didn’t believe in miracles or that he somehow thought that everything in the Bible needed to be explained in naturalistic terms. However, as Congdon argues,

Bultmann does not think that belief in the wonder world of the NT can be isolated from the cultural context in which that belief comes to express, just as the use of the radio and modern medicine presupposes a distinct cultural context, as missionaries to remote tribes today understand well. Indeed, he would say this spirit and wonder world is not even an element of the NT kerygma, since it was a world-picture shared by everyone in that cultural context. It was as natural to them as our belief today in the capacity of scientists to discover the biological cause of a person’s illness. The early Christian apostles necessarily made use of their world-picture in bearing witness to what God had done in Jesus of Nazareth, but that can be no more essential to the kerygma than the use of Greek or Aramaic. (105-6)

So what, then, is Bultmann trying to do? Congdon convincingly argues that Bultmann was trying to take seriously the fact that we live in a “radically different–even incommensurable–cultural context from the authors of scripture, though this does not preclude intercultural communication since . . . we are not reducible to our cultural situation” (107)

Once again, we may or may not agree with how Bultmann sought to carry out what is essentially the missionary task of translating the Gospel into various 21st century contexts and cultures, but few would disagree that the task nevertheless needs to be done. Few, if any, believe that we can simply read the pages of the Bible in original Greek or Hebrew to a modern audience and expect them to hear and respond to the Gospel. Yet this is what Bultmann, Congdon argues, was simply trying to find a way of doing. In other words, Bultmann wasn’t trying to desacralize an “other-worldly” Bible into a “worldly” Bible, but was actually trying to highlight the dangers of pretending that we can bring the “other-worldliness” of the Bible into our world without risking the loss of its essential other-wordliness altogether! 

Let me conclude simply by commending Congdon’s “little book on Bultmann” to you, especially if you aren’t quite ready to delve into his “big book on Bultmann” quite yet. That is my next task…!
 

Karl Barth Conference 2016 – Follow up and Announcement

I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to keep up with the conference postings. We had a number of great lectures and good discussion both yesterday and this morning. However, evening commitments last night and getting back to the airport today prevented me from getting to the summaries. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee having time to finish these up, as I have heavy commitments in the next two weeks. My apologies for those who were waiting for these.

Announcement: It was exciting to hear the announcement for the Karl Barth conference in 2017. Prof. Bruce McCormack informed us that in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (Luther’s 95 theses were written in 1517), next year’s conference will focus specifically on “Luther, Barth, and Movements of Theological Renewal, 1918-1933.” In attendance will be 12 invited scholars from around the world, including three Jewish scholars. The conference will seek to produce original research giving historical, theological, and cultural context of these pivotal “dialectical” years for Barth in his conversations with both Lutheran and Jewish scholars. This conference will undoubtedly be a “big deal” so save the date: June 18-21, 2017.