Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Church Authority

May 10, 2022

An interesting – if too vague – article on the necessity of Church authority. By this, the author basically means every professing Christian ought to submit themselves to the authority of a church body – a local Christian congregation. Church membership as a whole continues to decline in the Western world, even as reported rates of theism in America remain very strong. Clearly there seems to be a trend where people believe they can believe in Jesus without being part of a Church. This article – rightly – questions this assertion and boldly questions such rationale.

I like his terminology – theological anarchist – for those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ but refuse to submit to the authority of the Church. The typical rationale – the risk of abuse of power within the Church – is not a valid rationale as the author rightly points out. Jesus established the Church not to be perfect but to be the place in this world where the faithful can be fed and nourished (albeit imperfectly) towards their eternal place in the perfect creation that is already inbreaking. Sometimes it is not possible to be connected to a community of believers because of intense risk and danger. However it’s interesting that it is in exactly such conditions the Church seems most resolute and permanent. Not as an institution but as the reality of Christians gathering together to sustain their souls by the promises of God conveyed in the reality of brothers and sisters willing to risk this short, frail, mortal coil to affirm the equal reality of what all believers are supposed to be anticipating. Japanese Christians had to hide for a time but did continue to meet. The same happened in China and the USSR and other places where Christianity and the Church were suppressed or outlawed.

What remains as a rationale for avoiding submission to Church authority is something else, something far more personal. The author’s language is very strong here, offensive even. But isn’t the refusal to submit to Church authority equally offensive? Isn’t the assertion that no congregation is good enough for me offensive, even if the person hasn’t thought about it like that before?

I think the article can be a bit misleading in the title. It led me to expect a discussion about the exercising of church discipline and authority over members as opposed to the need and mandate for submission to Church authority vis a vis membership or attendance or however you want to name serious commitment. Committing to a community of faith is often, tragically, only a commitment of convenience, lasting only as long as the individual happens to agree with what is said and done and asked of them, and terminated when it suits their personal preferences as opposed to for reasons of heresy or theological error.

Of course this is a dominant problem in America and the West where individualism is reaching absurdist heights, and the Church is not exempt from these problems. Good but competing models such as democracy are often absorbed into congregational polity. Sometimes they can be good. Sometimes they can be harmful. But most dangerous is when they are confused with the Church, with the Gospel, with God’s will and work in our lives and world which is only and ever in Christ and not in the well-intentioned creations of any other person or group.

The Church is not -as some insist – part of such a subset of human-created ideas and institutions. The Church is Christ’s command and creation (Matthew 16:18). It is not perfect, but it will be, just as every individual who is part of it is not perfect but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ one day will be. As surely as I am not perfect, no congregation is perfect. That does not excuse me from the necessity of being part of one. To profess an invisible Lord while refusing to submit to that Lord’s visible, though imperfect Church is problematic in the extreme.

As a note, the questions and answers with Biblical citations at the end are from the Westminster Larger Catechism, crafted for use by the Church of Scotland in 1647 and followed by many Presbyterian church bodies. I don’t agree with all of the statements printed at the end of this article (I’m not Presbyterian!), but the author feels they help support some of his assertions.

Hospitality, Meals & Scripture

May 9, 2022

I’ve had a long interest in the intersection of hospitality, meals and Scripture. The Bible frequently uses the language of food and feeding to teach spiritual truths, and hospitality is not only repeatedly described throughout the Bible (Genesis 18, as just a single example), it is also prescribed (Hebrews 13:2 as just a single example and related most likely to Genesis 18).

I finally verified something I suspected for years – I have access to a theological database called Atla (originally short for American Theological Libraray Association). So now I can start to research what others have said on this topic as I continue to draw my own conclusions from the Word.

The first article I read can’t be accessed without paying for it (unless you also have access to Atla). It’s by a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina by the name of David W. Priddy. The essay is entitled Eating with penitence: An essay on the local church eating responsibly (sic) and it was published in the Review & Expositor, a quarterly Baptist theological journal.

Priddy’s thesis deals with what the local church can do towards food reform and agricultural renewal. He posits three key issues. Firstly, a high regard for Word and Sacrament; secondly, examining the role of meals in Scripture (particularly the New Testament) and specifically in association with themes of judgement and a call to humility; and thirdly, the importance of continued remorse over sin (penitence).

Although at times abstruse, Priddy does a good job outlining these key issues, and I concur with most of the ideas he presents. Although we come from different denominational backgrounds I suspect we’d have a lot in common theologically, at least on this particular topic.

The only difficulty I had with the essay was his disdain for the history of some property owned by his congregation. His difficulty reflects modern notions of contemporary remorse (penitence) as well as potentially the appropriateness of some sort of compensation for past injustices (penance) although he stops short of such an assertion here. He relates how a 200-acre plot of land and large home was donated to his congregation well over 100 years ago (perhaps as long as 170 years ago). The problem isn’t the property per se, though Priddy has ideas about how it could be better put to use in food reform and agricultural renewal. The problem is the man who donated it to the church owned at least ten slaves and apparently sired children through at least one of them (and it’s implied that it was far more). The congregation’s fellowship hall is named after this man, something Priddy clearly finds offensive and problematic.

However in the little he says in the essay, it’s hard to know whether Priddy has investigated the donor’s penitence. The life of faith is indeed a constant one of confession and absolution, of contrition as well as accepting the gracious forgiveness of God, something Priddy highlights admirably in his brief discussion of historic liturgical formulations. Yet the presumed damning evidence of the congregation’s benefactor all those years ago leaves little room in Priddy’s words or spirit for the idea of forgiveness either sought or granted, the idea that the offending donor might have in fact been penitent, which may have spurred his donation of land to the church as an act of penance.

Priddy speaks a lot about penitence but very little about absolution and this is most clear in this real-world application. The Church must speak this loudly in the face of rising intolerance in cancel-culture. The irony is that culture has discarded Church, the Bible and God, and with it the only worldly assurance – and demand – for forgiveness and absolution. In lieu of this we are now daily on trial by a culture that rapidly evolves in it’s ideas about what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, and that views any past sins of either omission or commission as equally damnable and irredeemable. The psalmist might these days say If you, O Culture, should mark iniquities, O Culture, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3, modified). The answer is no one, and unfortunately Priddy conveys a similar unwillingness to accept the possibility of penitence or penance if the sin is great enough, and therefore denies effectively the possibility of forgiveness and grace – certainly in this world and if so, then perhaps in the creation to come.

Pastors and congregations do have an opportunity to encourage members to reflect more on the choices they make as consumers (in this case, specifically as consumers of food products). While I don’t have the basis Priddy apparently does to label the entire food industry as essentially evil, I recognize wholeheartedly there are some major problems that affect land and health. Congregations have the opportunity to read Scripture with an ear towards how these topics are discussed, avoiding the temptation to simply apply Biblically-specific verses and situations to modern-day issues, yet recognizing the Church is continually called to contrition and penitence as well as to joyfully proclaiming the forgiveness won for us in Christ. Failure to do either inevitably leads to darkness.

I’m excited by the prospect of continued research and academic engagement, and grateful my seminary provides this benefit to alum, particularly now that my work has taken me to places where obtaining physical books (including my own professional library in boxes in storage) is either impossible or unreasonably expensive!

Reading Ramblings – March 13, 2022

March 11, 2022

Date: Second Sunday in Lent ~ March 13, 2022

Texts: Jeremiah 26:8-15; Psalm 4; Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

Context: As we give thanks for reconciliation to God the Father through faith wrought by God the Holy Spirit in the Son of God’s redemptive work, we must also recognize such reconciliation will put us at odds with the assumptions and practices of the world. Daring to take God at His Word will often produce mild or massive ripples which can upend plans, relationships, careers and lives. While this is not what we set out to accomplish we cannot predict how and where and when Satan may move against us through worldly philosophies, personages, and powers. This should not surprise us. We have been warned.

Jeremiah 26:8-15 – Jeremiah has the decidedly unpleasant duty of speaking truth to power – in this case power being not only the Judean monarchy but the hierarchy of the prophetic ministry, an institution intended to provide God’s Word and guidance to the king. The problem is they are not giving the king God’s Word, but rather providing words of their own. Words to comfort and assure and encourage. Jeremiah is placed by God the Holy Spirit in direct opposition to this, a position which elicits swift rebuke and the threat of execution. Jeremiah’s response to such threats is not to go back on the Word he proclaimed but rather to acknowledge both the truth of the words he has spoken as well as the power wielded by his adversaries to end his life. Death is better than unfaithfulness. The God who gives life is also capable of sustaining and protecting it but Jeremiah does not ground his steadfastness in any assurance he will be spared. They might kill him but it will not change the Word of God nor will it make his adversaries’ position with God any less dangerous. In fact it will place them under even more judgment! Jeremiah’s words are therefore not simply contentious but ultimately – as the Word of God – aimed at the conversion of the heart and repentance not simply a foreign policy change or a shift in domestic agendas.

Psalm 4 – Words perfectly appropriate to Jeremiah in his situation though penned long before he was born. How many of God’s faithful have taken refuge in this psalm, its words filling in for their gasps and cries and inarticulate pain? The speaker clearly recognizes the difference between the power of God and the transience of human power, even though human power can wreak incredible suffering within its allowed spans and spheres of influence. Does such suffering deny God’s existence? Hardly. Evil has been dealt with in the resurrection of the Son of God. Revealing the defeat of evil in tangible terms is at God’s discretion and timing. This is ultimately good, though we might wish his timing were closer to our own preferences. Yet we know that what God allows and the waiting He bids his faithful endure is ultimately to his glory and towards the salvation of as many as possible (2 Peter 3:9). We ourselves are undoubtedly beneficiaries of his gracious patience! This is to be our peace and solace in the midst of suffering rather than rejecting the reign and will of God to suit the passing whims of the world.

Philippians 3:17-4:1 – How much news have you watched in the last two weeks? How about the last two years? Where are your eyes, your ears, your thoughts, your fears? What are your hopes and aspirations for yourself and your loved ones? Safety? Security? Protection from the threats of the world – from pandemics and recessions and even nuclear war? Should our hopes and aspirations be limited to the perspectives of nightly newscasters and pundits and experts, whether in lab coats or three-piece suits? Or are we called to a greater hope? A hope that transcends the passing ups and downs of this world, even as we are caught up to some extent in those ups and downs? It isn’t that we don’t have better places to look and listen! How many have gone before us in our own lives? Faithful in the midst of wars, depressions and sickness? Do we prefer to look elsewhere to greater examples? More impressive? More impressive than what we are promised in and through and by Christ? More enduring? Think carefully about what and who you put into your ears and eyes.

Luke 13:31-35 – The last two years have been an incessant call to live in fear. To take the advice of this person or that agency. Good intentions have driven most of the world into a state of heightened fear and paranoia in the hopes that we might preserve our lives. It is not wrong to love our lives and seek to be wise in how we use them. After all, they aren’t ours – they are gifts of our Creator! Nor is it wrong to use the minds God has given us to understand his creation better and to wisely seek to utilize the blessings woven into it to heal and restore. But to live in fear day after day? As though the powers of this world microscopic or global have any real, lasting, permanent power? As though we are not heirs to an eternal kingdom? To eternal life – free from the ravages of either ‘blind’ circumstance or calculated cruelty? Lent calls us to remember that not even Satan and sin itself can keep us from who we are in Christ, and that while we must struggle against these very real and active enemies just as we struggle against the forces and powers of this world, the battle is already won. The victor declared. The enemy vanquished. We are privileged to live in this reality here and now, in the midst of a reality that transcends the reality those more powerful in the world would prefer us to think ourselves victims in.

Well You Can Just Rock Me to Sleep Tonight

March 4, 2022

And in case you’d like to stay awake a little longer tonight silently contemplating things you never thought about before as well, here’s this little article on whether or not Superman – were he real – should be baptized.

As the article indicates, the main factors the author uses to consider this are based in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, some 900 years later arguably still the Roman Catholic Church’s greatest theologian. I appreciate the attempt to provide a consistent, coherent answer to the question while addressing some very legitimate questions. The author isn’t the first to ponder this possibility, as I’ve noted before. I’d prefer to lose sleep if/when we actually discover alien life to which we might apply such questions as this (as opposed to microbes or other forms of life we deem baptism inappropriate for). But it’s nice to be reminded others are being more proactive in their theology.

Reading Ramblings – First Sunday in Lent

March 3, 2022

Date: First Sunday in Lent – March 6, 2022

Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-13; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

Context: Context is so important! Before we can realistically take inventory of our sinfulness and confess and more importantly repent to God, we need to see how far we are from who we should be. We must be reminded our sin is not just the occasional slip-up in language or thought or deed but a fundamental disjunct in who we are. Sin requires not just a few touch-ups here and there but a core-level refashioning. Only God can accomplish this and it begins in repentance. The readings emphasize the perfect relationship we were intended for with God, a relationship that constantly recognizes and depends upon God first and foremost as the provider of all things (Deuteronomy 26), as the protector from all evil (Psalm 91), as the source of all salvation (Romans 10) and as the only one capable of resisting the allure of evil (Luke 4). We are dependent upon God for our existence, our sustenance, and our salvation. In this context we see the gulf that separates who we are from who God created us to be, and our aching need for a Savior to rescue us.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 – God does not need your money. His Church usually does, but God does not. Tithing is commanded not so God has what resources He needs – He is the Creator of all things! Rather tithing is a reminder to us of who we are and what we have, and to remember God the Father as the source of both our identity and whatever worldly goods we possess. This passage interests me in the ritual aspects. First the declaration to the priest – God has fulfilled his promises to me. He has given me what He promised to, and therefore I am not only able and willing but glad to bring him the firstfruits, evidence of His gracious provision! This continues further, though. I am just one in a long line of those whom God has created and watched over and blessed. My blessings are not an anomaly in the history of creation (even my particular familial line within it) but simply a continuation of God’s great goodness. This all culminates not in grumbling but in celebration. What a blessing, to be able to return a small portion of the vast blessing God has poured into our lives!

How ought this context change our hearts in tithing? How might the Church today better communicate this context properly to people? I remember being shocked when making a home visit to a housebound member one time. She liked to reminisce about when she joined the Lutheran church decades ago after marrying because her husband was part of the denomination. The minister explained tithing using the analogy of the dues you pay at a country club. Although the intention was good and it resulted in a lifetime of faithful and generous giving, I cringed to hear such an analogy! Tithing is a joy and privilege, and the amount given is a secondary matter to the celebration that should precede and infuse and follow the giving!

Psalm 91:1-13 – We sometimes lament Adam and Eve’s Fall as though it were inevitable, as though it was just a matter of time until Satan wore down their resistance and they ate the Forbidden Fruit (similar to how C.S. Lewis imagines temptation on an unfallen world in the second book of his Space Trilogy, Perelandra).

But is that a fair assessment? Did Adam and Eve not have at their disposal the protection of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, had they only sought that protection rather than relying on their own reasoning (Genesis 3:6)? Both the psalm and the Gospel lesson show clearly temptation and evil can be resisted and protected against. Not perfectly now, not after the Fall disrupts things, of course. But the power and protection of God is something real to trust in and rely on not simply when all other resources are exhausted but as a primary and first line of defense. We must trust in God’s wisdom in the midst of our sinfulness and sinful creation, as clearly He does not always rescue those who place their trust in him from the devastation of personal sin or the sin of a fallen world (such as the terrible situation playing out in Ukraine at the moment). Yet his protection and promise do remain sure – whatever fate we may meet in this world can never separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:18ff).

Romans 10:8b-13 – In the midst of Paul’s exploration of the role of the Jews as God’s chosen people he affirms once again the nature of salvation in Jesus Christ is a matter of confession, not of lineage or personal effort. This is part of the error of the Jews – seeking by their own efforts of piety and holiness to either ascend or descend as they imagine God wishes them to. Rather, they need only trust and confess not what they do but what God has done in Jesus Christ – sending him from heaven (descending) as well as raising him from the dead and back to heaven (ascending). Everything is accomplished in Christ! Our reconciliation and justification with God the Father is complete and finished. While our life of faith remains to be lived out in a life of ongoing sanctification, this is only possible because of the actions of the Triune God first as well as moment by moment on our behalf.

Luke 4:1-13 – Like Adam and Eve, Jesus can rely on the Word of God to refute the temptations of the devil. He does not need to evaluate Satan’s claims or assertions on their own merit, but rather trust completely that what God has said is always and perfectly true and right. Any suggestion to the contrary can therefore be immediately dismissed from consideration. I believe these were indeed real temptations to Jesus, who most likely knew what lay in store for him at the end of his earthly ministry. Matthew 16:23 and Mark 8:33 demonstrate the reality of these temptations, as well as the real possibility that Jesus – according to his human nature – could succumb to them. But He does not. He does what Adam and Eve did not – focus not on the suggestions of Satan but on the Word of God alone. Satan recognizes his defeat and chooses not to prolong the engagement but rather find another moment when Jesus might be weaker and more susceptible to his suggestions. Apparently 40 days of fasting in the desert is not enough to deplete Jesus’ strength to the point He would choose to forsake the Word of God for the lies of Satan!

Reading Ramblings – Ash Wednesday, 2022

March 2, 2022

Date: Ash Wednesday – March 2, 2022

Readings: Joel 2:12-19; Psalm 51:1-13(14-19); 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Context: The season of Lent begins, a season of repentance and remorse, self-examination and sincerity. This undertaking is not arbitrary. It functions within a larger context of the linear nature of history, a history extending from Creation, through the Fall, and to a Day of the Lord which will mean judgment as well as grace. Repentance is the acknowledgement that if not for God’s Son incarnating at a fixed point in our linear history, judgment would be our rightful due. But in Christ – and particularly his suffering and death – our sentence of death is laid upon him. So we examine and repent but not in uncertainty, but rather in the assurance that our faith in Christ and reliance on his perfection rather than our own is what makes all the difference in our linear history that ends with the Day of the Lord and continues beyond history into eternity. Such contemplation is indeed joyful, and therefore we should comport ourselves as those who are assured of forgiveness in Christ and already recipients of the mercy of God the Father.

Joel 2:12-19 – This is a powerful passage, often quoted only partially. Small wonder the latter verses would receive more attention, decidedly more positive and hopeful than the bulk of the early chapter. Yet God’s grace is only fully appreciated when one considers the alternative – the destructive judgment we are deserving of in our sinfulness and selfishness. Even our repentance is sullied with sin and self-preservation, incomplete at best. It is not the quality of our repentance but rather than magnanimous nature of God the Father that spares us. Our haphazard contrition is hardly admirable, but barely appropriate. The hero of this scene is not the repentant sinner but the merciful Creator who bestows on his creation his continued good gifts day after day – grain and wine and new oil, necessities for day to day life to be sure, but also representative of God’s Sacramental, saving gifts of bread and wine in Holy Eucharist and oil which anoints us as the Father’s wayward but reconciled children. Ponder the entire chapter. Judgment is coming. It will be truly horrendous – more horrendous than the most barbarous of human behavior because it is true and right and necessary and therefore holy. Against the backdrop of war this week in Ukraine, such verses take on a brutal reality. Our rationality has not overcome our sinful nature, and judgment is coming for those who flaunt the Lord’s wisdom in favor of their own.

Psalm 51:1-13(14-19) – The initial 13 verses are the frank personal inventory of a sinful person. His sin is only too obvious, too glaring to overlook or ignore. Yet the speaker is constantly hopeful. His sin can be washed away. His brokenness can be knit back together. His sin is ultimately first and foremost against God, and yet it is this God who can remove the stains of that sin eternally. What beautiful hope intertwined with such pained contrition and confession! The latter verses emphasize the sinner’s response to the grace and forgiveness of God. What a joy and privilege to declare not just God’s greatness but his goodness and mercy to others! In our culture burdened by hopelessness and despair in not measuring up against the laws of science and technology as well as influencers and celebrities, what a joy to be able to speak of peace, of joy, of assurance that we are infinitely valued! How incredible to assert that no less than the eternal, divine Son of God himself spilled his incarnate blood on our behalf! What greater worth could ever be bestowed upon us or earned by us?!

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 – Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is full of mixed emotions. Sharings of his sufferings, references to chastisement, calls to forgiveness and to acceptance of his ministry among them and since them. Here, he calls the Corinthians to reconciliation to God himself. This is a serious matter and Paul feels at least some of the church in Corinth is at risk from slipping away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ they first heard and received from Paul, back into unbelief and apostasy. Their repentance is to be real and true and present, not something of the past lightly held and so easily discarded. In order to make sure Paul is not an obstacle to this he has endured many things, suffered many things, surrendered many things. By the world’s standards he would amount to a failure, hardly the victorious, hardly the celebrity, hardly the success. But God’s standards are not the world’s. And in ways that are no doubt as baffling to Paul as to the Corinthians as to us, the very suffering and death of Christ ensure immeasurable victory and reconciliation to those who will receive it. It is possible to reject confession and the forgiveness that comes from it. To do so because of personal pride and worldly standards risks an eternal loss and infinitely greater riches.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 – The sermon on the mount started in chapter 5 continues here. Jesus instructs his disciples on how they are to carry out their ministry and lives. They are to live in contrast to the ostensibly holy people of the day, eschewing their public hallmarks and to seek satisfaction not in praise received from others but in the peace and promise of God himself. What they do they are to do in joyful obedience to their heavenly Father. As He richly blesses them they are to be a blessing to others, seeking no other reward than the approval of their heavenly Father. Likewise when they engage in fasting they are not to be obvious about it, so that everyone might realize they are fasting and applaud their spirituality. Rather, they are to act as though they are not hungry, seeking not the praise of others but the blessings of the fasting itself in their spirits.

This may lead us to consider receiving the ashes of Ash Wednesday as somehow inappropriate. And perhaps it is. Certainly being outwardly in mourning is Biblical (consider the decrees of the King of Nineveh in the book of Jonah). But if the ashes become for us a source of pride, a means of judging those around us as either as spiritual or religious as ourselves, then we’d be better off skipping the imposition and doing a bit more meditation and prayer on the meaning and nature of repentance. The ashes are not a mark of pride in something we’ve done, like attend Ash Wednesday service. They are rather a reminder of who and what we are, regardless of how the world sees and judges us. We are sinners, and as such of our own merit we are headed towards the grave and dust and ashes, to be rightly forgotten. But by the grace of God the Father in Jesus Christ, who suffered in our behalf on the cross – the shape of the ashes on our forehead – our future is most assuredly different! Not because of our pious posturing or even our heartfelt regret, but entirely because of Jesus himself, and because of the faith instilled in us by God the Holy Spirit. There is no part to claim in all of this for ourselves. Only glory and honor to be given to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have accomplished our salvation against the raging and plotting of Satan and our own, blackened hearts!

Speaking Clearly

January 27, 2022

Though not Roman Catholic myself, I found this resource provided by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to be well-written. It speaks as to Church teaching and policy on issues of gender and sexuality at a time when certain cultural minorities are seeking to redefine these concepts and demand universal acceptance of these redefinitions across all of society.

I appreciate the even tone that does not condescend or insult. It speaks clearly and with the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and two millennia of doctrinal development based on the revealed Word of God in Scripture. It makes no apologies for this Word or the resulting doctrines and practices, while still seeking to be considerate of those who may be confused in their personal experience of their gender and sexual identities. It speaks positively about what the Church does and has taught on these subjects rather than reactively against a particular situation or incident. In doing so it proposes to provide guidance going forward that must be of great help to various Catholic institutions grappling with these issues.

What’s the Moral?

January 22, 2022

I read this short book summary and can’t stop thinking about it.

I’m not so interested in the anecdotal story but the conclusion drawn from it at the end – in general, that people should choose ethical behavior in case there is a possible, undetermined and unknowable material benefit to them. In other words, rather than responding to a given situation based on an internalized ethos, people must be encouraged to rationally process all of their options and then select one based upon possible personal benefit.

It sounds reasonable enough. But it’s troubling and I assume indicative of larger ethical and moral issues challenging our culture right now. More and more, people do not have an underlying moral and ethical framework which dictates to them the appropriate course of action in any number of possible situations. As such, morality and ethics often gets boiled down to a matter of personal benefit. Actions we once considered moral and ethical in and of themselves (not stealing, returning lost items when possible, etc.) now are only opted for when a maximum personal benefit is evaluated.

Years ago when I was teaching ethics in technology at university I discovered this troubling reality. Students were quick to affirm that shoplifting a sweater was wrong, but they saw no such problem with illegally downloading software or movies and video games. Their explanation was that they felt they were far more likely to get caught physically shoplifting an item, whereas the odds of them being caught and then prosecuted for digital theft were slim to none. Their definition of the right thing to do was determined solely by personal benefit. They rationalized digital theft as really of no difference to the producers of the content (who were already rich) and justified by their own current impoverished circumstances as students.

I was raised however with a different set of criteria, a criteria that still guides my actions and decisions often at a subconscious level. This criteria is a codified and unified system identifying some actions as right and others as wrong. My personal benefit in any given situation is rarely a factor. There is simply a right course to be followed. While I could follow the wrong course – and at times have – I would do so knowing what I was doing was wrong. I might try to justify it on any number of subjective grounds but I would still know such attempts were ultimately inadequate and the reality remained that I was doing something I should not do, whether I personally benefited from the decision or not.

This system of criteria was embedded in me through my religious upbringing as a Christian. It wasn’t a matter of economics. Certainly finding a wallet with money in it might have been very advantageous to me as a young person, but I understood clearly that this was not the primary consideration. The primary consideration was whether or not I could return the wallet and everything in it to the rightful owner. Certainly there might be a temptation to keep the money, justifying it as a small loss to the owner but not nearly as severe as someone more dishonest who might attempt to steal more by utilizing whatever debit or credit cards were inside. But that temptation – whether heeded or not – was recognized and categorized as exactly that. The right course of action was clear and not dependent on whether someone might be watching me or not, or whether I would benefit more or less.

A morality or ethics based purely on economic considerations can hardly be called that. Economics can justify certain courses of action based on personal benefit, but cannot ensure that such personal benefit is uniformly present in any given situation. What results is a very situational and subjective approach to morality and ethics. If I’m as positive as possible there won’t be any negative consequences to my actions, my actions become permissible and even defensible. This excessively complicates our actions and makes them externally unpredictable.

Economics is a poor substitute for Truth, even when economics might approve of a course of action I would personally prefer, but which Truth dictates is not permissible. Yes, there are times when doing the right thing might result in further benefit than peace of mind. This is because the wisdom of God the Creator is woven into creation and cannot be completely eradicated or eliminated by our sinfulness. The truth that honesty is the right choice sometimes plays itself out in unforeseen benefits, like being approved for a loan. But even if it doesn’t, I benefit from a clear conscience and the joy of knowing my choice to deprive myself whatever benefit my wrongdoing might have brought makes the other person’s life better and easier.

However my choice is not justified by this emotional or spiritual reward. This is not a form of spiritual economics. It is not karma from Eastern religions nor is it an attempt to earn a less tangible reward as Islam would suggest, stacking up enough good deeds to outweigh my bad deeds. Rather, it is an understanding that this is who I have been made to be – someone who is able and willing, albeit imperfectly – to recognize and live the way I and all of creation was intended to live. My opting to do the right thing without regard to my personal benefit is in gratitude for the reality that my sinful (selfish) and broken self has in fact been redeemed not by my good efforts but rather by the incalculable sacrifice of the Son of God, Jesus, for me. I am now free to respond not in fear but gratitude. Not in a calculated self-seeking but in love for the God who saved me as well as those around me who I hope are also brothers and sisters in Christ.

This is not an alternate set of evaluations and computations in any given situation, but rather my condition. The air I breathe, so to speak. And I’m also still free and prone to rejecting this beautifully clean air for contaminated and unhealthy air, so to speak. I’m free to act against what I have been shown is right. But I do so at risk to myself and others, rather than benefit.

There’s an economic reversal only God is capable of!

Hard Words. But True

January 8, 2022

If you are responsible for raising children right now, read this. Or read it if you know someone responsible for raising children. If you take your Biblical Christian faith seriously and need to guide young people towards their future, ready it. It’s blunt. And maybe bluntness is something we need a bit more these days.

What Cancel Culture Can’t Account For

January 5, 2022

A short article, but a miraculous one in our climate of cancel culture and the scorched-earth ideologies and tactics of whomever wields influence at the moment. The article reports how former inmates with the once-imprisoned Bill Cosby still try to keep in touch with him because of the positive impact he had on their lives while he was behind bars.

The author struggles with what appears to be this impossible paradox – a man imprisoned for accusations of sexually assaulting incapacitated women – could still have wisdom to impart and be a benefit to anyone. Because by today’s standards, this shouldn’t be possible. Someone who commits a crime or violates the accepted or promoted values of the moment deserves to be destroyed. Deserves to have their honorary degrees revoked, their accolades trampled, their achievements obliterated. The idea that a deeply flawed human being could at the same time actually be someone capable of doing good to others doesn’t hold currency in our culture today.

St. Paul would disagree, though. Read the latter portion of Romans 7 (actually, read ALL of this letter, but the most pertinent part to this discussion is in Chapter 7 for my less patient readers). St. Paul is not trying to exonerate himself. He is not insisting that he does not sin, or that his sin should not count against him. Rather, he acknowledges full well the reality of his sin, the severity of the sin, his deserving of the full penalty of the law for that sin. He realizes that his intentions are not enough to satisfy the requirement of the Law. And he recognizes he is doomed under the Law if left to himself. He is totally dependent on being rescued, redeemed, restored by someone external to himself (vs. 24-25).

I’m not defending what Cosby may have done. I’m not arguing he should not be punished for those crimes if they occurred. I simply hope to remind people that we are incapable of perfectly fulfilling the law. Either laws we create for ourselves or the Law given to us in Scripture upon which all of our laws ultimately derive whatever validity they might have. As such, punishment must come. As such, all of us to varying degrees deserve punishment. And as such, all of us must pray and plead not simply for justice and obliteration but mercy. Because whether we’re guilty of gossiping or shoplifting or murder, most every one of us also has moments where we are capable of doing some good – large or small – to others. Therein lies our humanity and our love for tragic heroes.

It’s not hard to punish. But it’s hard to punish while still desiring the best for the person being punished rather than simply wishing their suffering for reasons of revenge.