I read these piercing words from Paul in Romans 2v1 this morning:
“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (NRSV)
Wow. That stings. This is the biblical equivalent of that saying we often hear, “Every time your point your finger at someone else, three more are pointing back at you.”
This condemning/judging of others comes so natural to us for lots of reasons:
It takes the focus off of us and our shortcomings.
It makes us feel better about ourselves if someone else screws up.
It allows us to be one of the ‘insiders’, those who are allowed in the group because our moral purity is acceptable. Conversely, it also means that those we condemn are placed on the outside.
And Paul doesn’t mince his words. He doesn’t soften the blow. He calls us, in all our arrogant self-righteousness, out on the carpet.
Now, before you push back, I should let you know that I’ve been in Christian communities my whole life. My grandfather was a pastor. So, I’ve heard (and given!) these excuses/defenses for being judgmental before:
“We can’t judge, but we are called to fruit inspectors.”
“I’m not judging you, God is.”
If we are honest, then we will admit that 99% of the time, these are simply excuses that seek to cover up gossip, self-righteousness, and sometimes a crippling sense of our own failure, so we need a scapegoat to place all that guilt/shame/blame onto.
My job isn’t to judge you.
I love how Paul puts it in Galatians 6v1-2:
“My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (NRSV)
Notice the tone of this.
Bearing another’s burdens with them.
This isn’t a judgmental condemnation, this is simply one flawed, struggling human being helping another carry their load.
I guess that, in many ways, is the point. Beyond any of the ways we have chosen to divide the world up (race, religion, economics, politics, sports rivalries), when all that gets stripped away, we are still human. We are still made–all of us–in the image of the Sacred.
Yesterday was one of “those” days. I’m confident you know exactly what I mean.
One frustrating situation after another.
The kind of day that makes you want to throw in the towel, and go off all alone, find a dark room, and sulk.
Yep. That was yesterday.
But something interesting happened last night. While sulking, focusing of the negative, on what I had to worry about or feel angry about, I received a text message.
This text was from someone who probably had no idea how bad my day had been. Yet the words in this message totally changed the game for me.
They were encouraging.
I woke up this morning a brand new man. Without even realizing it, those words, that I read and re-read more than once, had somehow actually changed my disposition.
Which brings me to my point: Words matter.
They can heal or wound.
Build up or tear down.
Give life or take it.
The writer of Proverbs puts it like this:
Pleasant words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body. [16v24, NRSV]
And, the reverse is just as true:
Rash words are like sword thrusts… [12v18, NRSV]
So, today, let’s think deeply about what we are saying to each other. Let’s ask how these words we are about to speak will affect those who hear them. Let’s offer the gift of encouraging, hopeful, live-giving words.
Trust me, they make all the difference on one of “those” days.
Yesterday at Morgantown Community Church we began a journey through the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5-7] that will span six months and four different series. Our first series is an exploration of the ‘Beatitudes’, or as Frederick Dale Bruner calls them, “Jesus’ surprisingly countercultural God-bless-yous to the people in God-awful situations.”
There is so much I’d like to dig into each week, but time won’t allow for all of it. So, here on the blog, I’ll try each week to post some of the ‘cutting room floor’ quotes, ideas, etc. that didn’t make the Sunday teaching.
Today, we hear more wisdom from Dallas Willard on what the Beatitudes actually are:
“The Beatitudes simply cannot be ‘good news’ if they are understood as a set of ‘how-tos’ for achieving blessedness. They would then only amount to a new legalism. They would serve not to throw open the kingdom—anything but. They would impose a new brand of Phariseeism, a new way of closing the door—as well as some very gratifying possibilities for the human engineering of righteousness…The Beatitudes are human ‘lasts’ who at the individualized touch of the heavens become divine ‘firsts’.”
I talk about the Bible a lot. So, it stands to reason that I also hear people talk about the Bible a lot as well. One of the phrases I hear often in such settings is some variant of the following:
“I just believe the Bible.”
“I’m just telling you what the Bible says.”
Statements such as these imply that our personal opinions, context, background, worldview and all such things are divorced from our reading of the Bible. We approach the Scripture without bias or presupposition, and objectively make pronouncements about the meanings of the text.
The issue with this is simple: That is not possible!
We are human beings. We live in a particular context, have a particular worldview, and that colors our interpretation of the Bible.
And let’s be even more honest, we are all interpreting the Bible. There is no divine manual of interpretation that fell from the sky that gives us a clear ‘this is what it means’. We all interpret the Bible, and that interpretation is an opinion. This opinion may be shared by some [and not by others], but that doesn’t make it less of an opinion.
To claim that we somehow stand above the fray and offer an unbiased, unopinionated interpretation just isn’t accurate. Or honest. That claim is seeking unquestioned authority and obedience to our interpretations. And, some opinions/interpretations are better than others. Some are more true to the text. But they are still interpretations.
That’s the key, actually. The Bible must be interpreted. We wrestle with what the Bible means–when it was written and now–because we want to live as true to the vision and way that are set out there as we possibly can.
But let’s be honest, none of us approaches the Bible as a clean, objective slate. We bring our experiences, our views, what we’ve heard or been taught…we bring a mixed bag of bias and opinions that make us anything but completely objective.
There is much wisdom in these words from Thomas Talbott, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Willamette University:
“We don’t read the Bible the way it is; we read the Bible the way we are.”
He is not disputing the claim that there is truth to be discovered, or that some readings of the text aren’t better or more accurate than others. He is disputing the idea that we can just tell people ‘what the Bible says’ without making interpretations, which are filtered through our views, opinions, and ideas.
This wrestling with the text and its meaning is one of the things I love about the Bible and being in community with others. The Bible, though more, is not less than an invitation to carry on an ancient conversation about the things that matter most.
Immerse your life in it.
But let’s not assume we somehow offer an unbiased interpretation.
Just the other day on the wild and wonderful world of Twitter, Rainn Wilson [Dwight of 'The Office' fame] posted the following tweet:
What do we want!? Justice!! When do we want- Oh look Anthropologie’s having a sale!!
I think this tweet is an insightful critique of where we find ourselves in the 21st century. Thanks to smart phones and social media we are more hyper-connected than ever before. We are more aware of what is happening in the world. When there’s violence in Egypt, we can follow it in ‘real time,’ instead of waiting for tomorrow’s paper.
And, inevitably, certain things inspire a swell of empathy, sympathy, and compassion from us. We are moved by a cause, by an injustice, by some darkness that needs to be dragged out into the light. The problem, however, is that we don’t stay focused on the issue long enough to bring real, lasting change.
We want justice…but our desire for justice is trumped by the latest sale, or Kardashian news, and what had our attention for 15 minutes or so is now old news, another fad that couldn’t survive our over-indulged, over-blown appetites.
And I’m not talking about you. Or the Kardashians.
I’m talking about me–about my own habits and tendencies to be taken off track by the smallest things.
To see real, measurable, and lasting change in the world–for the poor, the oppressed, those on the underside of the wealth and power of the world–we must commit to it. Not a flaky, fly-by-night commitment, but a real, intentional commitment that actually costs us.
A commitment that demands much of us, not just our fleeting notice.
Rainn’s tweet beautifully critiques our present situation, but it also calls us to be more. I don’t want to be the kind of person who moves from cause to cause due to the fact that I don’t have the wherewithal to actually give my blood, sweat, and tears to something that matters.
I don’t want injustice to win because Anthropologie has a sale. And I bet you don’t either. So, we must choose.
Awareness over ignorance.
Engagement over indifference.
Intention over randomness.
So, thanks for the tweet, Rainn. We need to be reminded of what matters most.
In his book, The God We Never Knew, Marcus Borg says the following:
“Our images of God matter. Just as how we conceptualize God affects what we think the Christian life is about, so do our images of God.
Ideas (which include both concepts and images) are like families: they have relationships. How we image God shapes not only what we think God is like but also what we think the Christian life is about.
The point Borg is making here is so crucial, and I don’t think we understand how important, how totally life shaping, our image of God can be.
If our image of God is hostile–vindictive, vengeful, looking for any reason to condemn us to an eternity of suffering–then it is more than likely that we will begin to embody hostility toward others. Our judgments will be swift and harsh. Those we deem as ‘outsiders’ become targets of our vitriol and anger. We become hostile, we conform to the image of God that we hold.
So too, if our God is indifferent–not angry, not vindictive, just absent–then that will form a particular identity in us. If God doesn’t care, why should we? If God turns a blind eye to the need and suffering of the world, why shouldn’t we join him? If God doesn’t have our back [so to speak] then why shouldn’t we put ourselves first, get all we can, take care of our own needs first, maybe even at the expense of others. When our image of God is one that is distant, detached, remote, then we come to embody these same characteristics in the most selfish ways imaginable.
But, if our God is generous, compassionate, merciful, kind, and good–in a word, Love–then those things will come to permeate our lives, just as the hostility and indifference of those other images do. This is the image of God Jesus lived with and lived through. Notice how Jesus views God, and in turn, how he is calling us to allow this view to shape us as well:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. [Luke 6v36, NIV]
Jesus’ God is merciful. That same word can be translated as ‘compassionate’ as well. God, for Jesus is compassionate. He isn’t hostile toward us, or indifferent. He is compassionate. He suffers with us. He meets us, weeps with us, embraces us. And Jesus’ expectation for his followers, then and now, is that we would take this compassion and mercy which we’ve been so graciously given and give it to others.
Our images of God matter, because [as Rob Bell says] ‘we shape our God and our God shapes us’. What we believe about God becomes the lens, the filter through which we see and engage the world.
How do you view God? Have you thought about the image of God you have? Does it make you a better neighbor for the world, or worse?
The truth is not all images for God are equal. Not all are good. Some images of God need to be resisted and rejected, and some are so beautiful that they compel us to embrace them, or better, to be embraced by them.