In the Present Tense

October 29, 2009

Telling or Asking?

Filed under: Bible study, Evangelism, Present Truth — edoutlook @ 7:02 pm

Over at Adventist Today, I got into a discussion concerning my article there, “Turn Out the Lights.” In the comment section, I made this suggestion concerning retaining more young adults:

One step we might take is to start listening, and asking questions ourselves, instead of assuming we already know what others want, what they mean, or what they are saying.

Which elicited this interesting response:

In evangelism, Ed, we don’t wait for people to “ask the right question” because sinful man often does not know what question to ask.

Anyone interested in the rest of the discussion can read it there.

The reason I bring this up is not that I disagree with what my respondent wrote– quite the contrary. It is precisely my experience that in evangelism we rarely, if ever, ask any questions of those we seek to reach. And, surely, sinful people do not necessarily know the questions they “need” to ask. But I’m not certain that other sinful human beings — or are evangelists sinless?!! I don’t think so — are so all wise as to know precisely what someone else should be asking. That idea makes me more than a little uneasy.

My first impulse is always to go back to basics–back to the beginning, to the Bible, to the record of how God does things. And when I do that, do I find more telling— God, after all, does know what people need–or more asking?

The Bible shows that God does both. But what fascinates me is how often God begins with asking. God, who knows everything.

In Genesis 3, for example, when Adam and Eve have sinned, and hidden from God (now there’s a sign of sin degrading our reasoning process, imagine hiding from God), God surely knows what has happened, and where they are. Does He start by telling them their terrible mistake? No. Gen 3:9 indicates God asks, “Where are you?”

And when Adam replies that they are hiding because they are naked, God does not say, “Oh, ho! You’ve been a bad boy!” Instead, God asks another question “Who told you you were naked?”

And then, when Adam explains that he ate the fruit his wife gave him, God asks yet another question. “What is this that you have done?” Only then does God tell them the consequences.

And this pattern is repeated throughout the Bible. When Cain kills Able, God asks, “Where is your brother?”

Jesus, God with us, demonstrates the same behavior. A pastor friend of mine from another denomination wrote his dissertation on the questions of Jesus. And there are so, so many.

Jesus at 12 in the temple: Didn’t you know I would be about my Father’s business?

Jesus in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: Why are you so afraid?

Jesus to the man at the pool: Do you want to be healed?

Jesus to Peter: Who do men say that I am? Who do you say that I am?

Jesus to Judas in the Garden: Do you betray me with a kiss?

When I see how often God, Who knows all, asks rather than tells, it persuades me that perhaps I, who know so little, should get in that same habit.

What do you think?

P.S. Please forgive me for taking this opportunity to wish a Happy Birthday, today, to my delightful daughter Elise!

October 14, 2009

Idealism or Immaturity?

One thing that our study of the Bible reveals to us is that–I know this will sound shocking–God is not an idealist. How can I say that?

First of all, God does not have to imagine perfection. He knows what it is, and precisely how far short even our best efforts fall. As our examination of God’s dealings with humans in the Bible demonstrates, when it comes to human behavior, God is not “all-or-nothing.”

Seeing what we now consider the deplorable condition of women in the days of Moses, God did not demand equal rights and equal status for women immediately; rather, he commanded an improvement that would make a difference for the better.

In the same way, God did not demand that Israel go from unlimited retribution to forgiving 70 times 7. Instead he limited retribution to “an eye for an eye,” as opposed to  being avenged 77 times (See Gen 4:24).

God’s actions in the Bible contrast strongly with many who claim to represent His views today. For them, it is indeed all or nothing. I regularly receive a newsletter from an explicitly Christian periodical that continually instructs me as to what God wants me to do concerning certain political issues (and no, it’s not “Focus on the Family”). They’re continually telling me that I live in a selfish, unjust society. Apparently they think that’s news. It seems to me that’s just the condition of sinful human beings.

Seeing human society as imperfect, they demand it become perfect, immediately. They claim to represent God when chanting “What do we want?” “Social Justice!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!”

That’s supposed to be an expression moral courage. But it sounds more to me like a tantrum. I have seen many a 5-year-old demanding something they thought would improve their world. They always want it NOW! We don’t consider that idealism, but immaturity.

As it happens, nearly 20 years ago I was instrumental in changing what I viewed as an unjust law in my state of Iowa, that effectively prevented families from teaching their children at home. For years, people had been demanding that the law be changed NOW! And those lobbying the legislature demanded total and complete freedom, with no accountability whatsoever to government. I sympathized with the goal, but found the methods objectionable–even counterproductive.

A number of us went to work in a much different way, working at the grassroots, informing people, helping them understand how their legislators thought and acted. At the same time, I lobbied the legislators, introducing them to cordial — not shouting– constituents who wanted to homeschool. It took time and effort, almost none of which gave the immediate feeling of moral superiority of a demonstration, and received minimal media attention.

And the absolutists–who wanted absolute perfection, NOW!–opposed our efforts all the way. Did we achieve perfection? Of course not. That’s not available in this world. But it’s interesting. The very people who asked the Governor to veto our bill 20 years ago want to take credit for it now!

I like to think what we did more closely resembles God’s approach. We didn’t insist on perfection, NOW, from a group of imperfect people, the legislature. We did what we could to get the most improvement in conditions. Instead of demanding perfect justice, we did our best to minimize injustice. No one today denies that we made things better for families; and we never claimed we achieved perfection.

There is a tendency today to contrast whatever exists, or whatever happens,as a result of decisions, with some ‘ideal.’ In some quarters this is hailed as ‘idealism,’ and to be encouraged. But the Bible reveals a record of continual, gradual improvement in human conditions.

Yes, at the 2nd Coming, God will erase all injustice, and bring in a New and Perfect Earth and Society. But that is His work, not ours. Until then, while we strive for continual improvement, we should not delude ourselves that we can, by our efforts, bring anything like heaven on earth. That is just another form of legalism, of self-righteousness. We need to remember that, absent the merits of Christ, our righteousness is as filthy rags. Until He comes, this will remain true individually–and as a society.

October 3, 2009

Jacob’s Ladder

Filed under: Bible study, Law and Legalism, Present Truth — edoutlook @ 3:15 am

There are many, many more lessons to be learned from the life of Jacob. But the one that strikes me most forcefully is the one that involves Jacob’s ladder.

Everyone knows the story.

10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway [d] resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it [e] stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

Gen 28:10-18 (NIV)

But why did this happen? Why did God favor Jacob with this vision, and this promise?

Jacob had done nothing to deserve it. Indeed, he had conspired with his mother to deceive his father, had stolen a blessing that belonged to his brother, and was running for his life. Far from being a high point, morally or in his walk with God, it was one of the lowest points in his life. Jacob did not deserve such an affirmation from God.

But that’s why it’s called ‘grace.’ Grace comes from the Greek word that means ‘gift.’ The oft-quoted theological definition of grace is ‘unmerited favor.’

If there was ever a person who did not merit favor, it was the scheming, deceiving, theiving Jacob on the run from his brother’s justifiable anger. Jacob deserved many negative things, but not this tremendous vision of God’s glory and watchcare.

And notice, there are no ‘ifs’ in God’s declaration. He doesn’t say ‘if you do this,’ or ‘if you avoid that.’ He just affirms and blesses Jacob.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the notion that we must earn God’s approval. But we cannot earn it. We can only accept or reject it. And grace comes to us, as it did to Jacob, unbidden. And it comes not at a time when we deserve it, but when, like Jacob, we desperately need it.

Let that be our prayer. Not: God, I’ve been good so give me. . . .

That’s what legalism and self-righteousness is about.

Instead, we pray: God, You are good, and my need is great.

That’s what grace is all about.

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