Monday, December 17, 2007

Context is Everything (Part 1)

If there's one thing I understand, it's the hesitation of those who don't understand God. All too recently, that was me. The thing is, it makes sense to want to understand God before you submit to Him, just as you'd want to understand the benefits of a health club membership before joining. But life's journey is not a small matter. Since few of us ever acknowledge the importance of salvation, the fate of our souls after death, it makes sense that most people won't likely study it or ever make an effort to gain the understanding that might lead to a satisfying life. Heck, a lot of us even have an aversion to it. Again, I know what that's like. Believe me.

However, things are what they are, and the Bible remains one of the greatest insights into God's nature. That too has been greatly misrepresented in mainstream culture. I've said this before, and I will surely repeat it to many curious folks, but if we approach scripture with an agenda--other than learning about God's teachings--we're not likely to walk away with an honest impression. A few months ago, when the scale was tipping, when I felt the ground giving way beneath me, when I was so disgustingly unsatisfied with my "independant life", I tried something dangerous. I wanted to strike a compromise in life. I wanted to continue as I had been; I wanted to incorporate God into my life without accepting all His gospel. I was mildly familiar with the teachings of Jesus Christ, and I certainly understood the principles of fellowship and good will, but I was complacent in my sin and wanted to coalesce it with a spiritual avenue I was about to pursue. I opened my Bible randomly to this passage:

Deuteronomy 17: 2-5
2 If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the LORD gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God in violation of his covenant, 3 and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars of the sky, 4 and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, 5 take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death.

"Aha!" thought I. "Surely, those passages were written by evil hands with ulterior motives." My logic was that, where Jesus Christ would have ministered to those who wandered from the straight path, this law was suggesting that they should be ushered into death. Instead of restoring these people into a good place with God, they were being thrust into the grave. Not only that, the only one who would stand to benefit would have been Satan. If the nature of existence is a dichotomy of good and evil, and if we ultimately find ourselves serving a righteous master or an evil one, then those who had transgressed and were killed prematurely (i.e. before making reparation) would ultimately serve under Satan. I told myself that these harsh sentences were very convenient for Satan, because all he had to do was lead people astray in front of their peers, and that the law would seal their fates. Ergo, the law was wrong.

Ditto Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. How could entire cities be put to ruin? What I didn't know about them was the atrocious acts the people committed. Not the way we look at extreme crime like murder or rape, but these people made it their standards. God wasn't into gratuitous death; He was into annihilating corruption. He even said that He wouldn't destroy those cities if as few as 10 good people could be found within their walls. That's just how bad it was, and that's precisely the half of the story that seldom got told among my God-reproaching peers.

Why am I telling you this? Many reasons. You might say I have a false sense of bravado in my faith, but having read the events that lead up to these laws, I would defend the above logic with every ounce of my intellectual prowess. Personally, I don't see any value in pussyfooting around the hard stuff. These kinds of judgments are surely a stumbling block for newcomers, and all I can honestly tell you with a perfectly clear conscience is to read these books, in their entirety, for yourselves. There is so much that happens in Genesis and Exodus that can be done justice except for the text itself. There are so many examples of God's blessing that I couldn't possible repeat them all for you. There was a time when I thought Old Testament God and the person of Jesus Christ were nothing alike, and, as surely as I am alive and typing this, I am utterly horrified to have ever thought those things.

Let's consider some human examples before I try to settle the above severity in your mind.

First, how do you vote? Do you vote at all? Have the media and your situation dulled your sense of initiative to the point where you think all politicians are corrupt, therefore your vote means nothing? If you do vote, on what do you base your decision? Do you read the party platforms? Do you watch televised debates? Do you read one or two articles in the paper? Have you determined that you generally share the socialist views of liberalism or conservativism, and, as such, are willing to accept the rest of what they stand for? Did you know that both camps have an utterly deplorable record when it comes to many social issues, such as the environment?

These are big, big questions, but if you cast a ballot without understanding the extent of its meaning, you're no different than me a few months ago when I approached that passage from Deuteronomy. This may sound infantile, but why would you vote alongside your friends or by a journalist's view if you wouldn't follow these people off a cliff? You shouldn't submit to anyone else's opinion, especially if it's formed on a weak foundation. But don't you think you owe it to yourself to be accountable to yourself, not them? Don't you think that handing over all your tax dollars and the management of your country is a very big deal, one worthy of extra time and conscientious consideration? And yet, it's a pittance when held against the only thing you will ever truly possess: your immortal soul. The one thing that is you. I don't know about you, but when I didn't nurture my soul, I felt terrible. I remember feelings of intense longing and depression, even when my situation was pretty decent.

One more point before I return to scripture: Suppose you planted a garden. Let's say you planted row upon row of seeds that sprouted to life, and let's say you cared for them day in, day out. You'd water them religiously, cast protective nets on top of them. Let's say that you were seriously dedicated to their survival. I mean seriously. You weren't the gardener that pitches scarecrows at the corners of your garden; you're the gardener that sits beneath a blistering sun to manually chase scavengers away from your babies. Suppose, after all these efforts, that one of your plants becomes ill. Suppose it sprouts, for whatever reason, a spore that latches onto nearby plants and corrupts them, so that none of the infected specimens bears fruit anymore. What would you do? Would you make the intellectual argument, as I did above, that something in existence has an inherent right to live out its life, that it should be free to express itself, even if that means acting out in a way that is so unlike its creator? Would you stand back and let it destroy the rest of the civilization? Would you? Would you watch it all fall into ruin for the sake of not intervening?

Here's just a fraction of what I didn't read or know about when I decided certain passages and arcane laws were evil:

Deuteronomy 4: 9-14
9 Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. 10 Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, "Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children." 11 You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. 12 Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets. 14 And the LORD directed me at that time to teach you the decrees and laws you are to follow in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.

That's Moses speaking to the tribes of Israel on behalf of God. He's telling them about God's law. See, God is a holy God. We sometimes forget just how different we are from Him, how none of us are worthy of His grace, and, in spite of that, He always tries to teach us how to live well. Not only that, I'm reading the book of Proverbs right now in which King Solomon describes just how satisfying it is to live well. You may think earthly things are to be revered, just as I used to, but if you haven't made a sincere attempt to live a wholesome life, then you aren't really in a position to make a fair assessment of the differences. It's a fact. Having tried both, I can speak to the benefits of God's teachings. I feel wonderful all the time. My life has meaning, and I appreciate just how blessed I really am. Ask me about it sometimes.

Back to the matter at hand: God always makes the first effort, just as He did on behalf of the Israelites. As I said above, you need to read it all for yourself, but here's a snapshot: when His people were enslaved in Egypt, He sent 10 plagues against the Egyptians to establish His authority and to convince them to emancipate the Jews; He led His people through the desert en route to freedom, concealing them in a cloud by day and appearing as a fiery light by night; He parted the sea so they might cross it as if on dry land; He provided food for all those who embarked on the pilgrimage, including the bread of Heaven and quail for people to eat when they griped about the lack of variety; He spilled water from a rock at Meribah so His people could drink; He defeated all the other races that tried to impede the Israelites' progress, etc.

Now, I don't know about you, but I really am baffled by some of that stuff. Don't get me wrong, I believe every word of it, but here's what gets me: how could anyone witness those things and not completely submit to God? This is just how compelling temptation is. This is just how stiff-necked human nature is. Even those people dissented. In case it's unclear, in case I seem a lot more holier-than-thou than I'm intending, let me spell it out: I ain't perfect. Not even close. I struggle every day with things that try to ensnare me. And I haven't forgotten just how demoralized I used to be. Television programs did a great job illustrating why. They used to have little angels and demons appear on characters' shoulders. You must have seen that image at some point. There was one thing about those scenes that was misrepresentative, though. They showed those little guys appearing in a puff of smoke, then disappearing after they pleaded their cases. In truth, they're ALWAYS there. They're always speaking suggestions to your subconscious. It's a never-ending battle. In many ways, you can't ever win it. But you can keep from dying. The rewards for being a good solider, however, are so blissfully amazing that none of us could ever do them justice in words. That's all I knows about 'em.

Funny thing is, God may have created the world; He may have set limits to physicality, but He doesn't have to abide by them. Here's a passage that probably seems negligible to people (though I don't really know for sure). Anyway, the writer in my loves this one:

Deuteronomy 8: 4
4 Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years.

Big deal, right? I don't know. To me, that seems physically impossible, but the fact is these people wandered for that length of time, and I know they didn't pass by any shops on the way. There were no malls or kiosks, and they certainly wouldn't have been welcome at any, should they have actually met anyone who might have helped them. They were a hated people, and, because they were God's people, they survived absurdly impossible circumstances. It happened.

And yet, if you feel the way I once did, you'd rather live out a meaningless life that doesn't call you to account. You'd rather die a permanent death and not have to answer for your deeds. But, if you've ever believed a word I've told you, you have to make it this: the spirit inside me has animated my life. God's Spirit has forever replaced any drug, any artificial pleasure in flesh that once brought me momentary distraction. I feel invigorated by this stuff, and I am not afraid of the harder questions. That's why I'm writing about the more extreme things today: I am so utterly confident that if you sat down and read the first five books of the Bible, in their entirety, you would see that God's punishment is minor when held against the behaviour that incites it. You would see that, when people failed to live good lives, God handed them a means to visibly demonstrate their faith. Some of them are very ritualistic, and God doesn't need any offering or any covenant with us, but we do. We need to have ways to purify ourselves and to be made right with Him because we are so utterly fickle. That's why He added this disclaimer to the first passage, which appears immediately following it:

Deuteronomy 17: 6-7
6 On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. 7 The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you.

Next time, I'll explain why you shouldn't do the reverse of what I did. Believe it or not, there are some passages that are seemingly friendly that are, in fact, quite ironic.

Okay, fine, here's an example:

Job 6: 14
14 "A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends,
even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

Remember, it's not what Job is saying, but the context in which he means it. More to come.

Disclaimer: I have discussed some of the laws God handed to Moses that aren't modern Christian practices. All arguments presented are meant as intellectual debate and not necessarily a direct endorsement. It is my sincere goal to validate the scriptures, as I know them to be the true Word of God (inspired by Him and written through His servants). I further attest to their authenticity through His works in my heart. Having said that, I want to make it utterly clear that Jesus Christ is every person's Judge and that no human will decide your ultimate fate. A few of the passages I cited above reflect a time when humans were offered different commands than we enforce now, and there are many reasons for that. I hope I have explained some of those differences, but it would certainly benefit the reader to study all aspects of the Christian faith before formulating an opinion (myself included). This blog continues to serve as an evolving log of my journey with God. Feel free to consider my ideas, but understand that I make no pretense to suggest they serve as a substitute for the actual gospel.


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