Suffering, Hardship, and Certainty

Sometimes the bible sucks. Not the whole thing, mind you, just parts of it. There are parts of it that really, thoroughly suck… at least, from a selfish American perspective. 1 Peter 2 is one of these passages that calls us to things that we just don’t want to do. Peter starts off the chapter well enough by reminding his reader’s that they’re not actually alone (remember that the book was written to Christians spread throughout Asia-Minor and currently undergoing persecution). However, then he gets into issues of obedience, specifically obedience in the face of suffering.

As Christians we are going to suffer. Paul makes that perfectly clear in 2 Timothy 3 when he tells Timothy that those who follow Christ will suffer. Of course, for many this has led to the question: since I’m not suffering right now, does this mean that I’m not really following Christ? Of course not, but… maybe. The fact that Christians will suffer does not mean that all Christians will suffer at all times in all places. Christians are not promised constant suffering, nor are we promised universally equal suffering. We are simply promised suffering. If you consider yourself a Christian and you have never suffered for your faith, then the above may be a valid question. However, the fact that you haven’t suffered yet doesn’t mean that you won’t suffer in the future. To assume a constant or universally past quality in this would be a mistake.  That being said, Christians will suffer persecution. This persecution may come at the hands of people who disagree with us, people in authority over us, or people who hate us and are powerful enough to make the authorities look the other way (certainly this is far from a complete list), but it will come.

Not every Christians suffering will be equal. One Christian my be bullied in school, another may lose a promising career, another may be beaten, and another may have he hands and feet amputated. However, any suffering for the sake of the cross is a reflection in our lives of the suffering of Christ, and thus a thing of honor in which we should rejoice. This is a part of Peter’s message in 1 Peter 2. Of course, he also reminds us that there is a difference between suffering in general and suffering for the cross. If you are imprisoned for murder, you are not suffering for the sake of the cross, you are suffering because you killed someone. If you were lazy in school and thus have lackluster opportunities, then you are not suffering for the sake of the cross, you are suffering for you laziness. However, when we do suffer for the cross, it is a wonderful thing… this doesn’t mean it’s a pleasant thing.

I am always amazed by the (generally very young) Christians I see running around singing and praying and talking about how they want to be broken. I am often tempted to add to their prayer’s something like ‘God, please make so and so’s girlfriend dump him and kill his grandmother…’. Anyone who honestly, truly wants to be broken is insane. I have been broken, multiple times. Consider the meaning of the word here: to be broken, at it’s most basic, means that a thing no longer works correctly. When I am broken, I stop working. Being broken… hurts… to an unendurable degree. No one in their right mind finds this desirable. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t necessary. There is a huge difference between wanting to be broken, and being willing to be broken. If I truly trust God, then I must be willing to allow him to break me, because I know that being broken is the path to being better, and I want to be better.

Now that I’ve finished my rabbit trails, 1 Peter 2 calls us to submit to those who would persecute us. This is antithetical to the American mindset. An American, even most American Christians, is convinced that his/her rights and freedoms are paramount. However, 1 Peter 2 calls him to cast aside his rights, even in the face of unjust actions on the part of those in authority over him. American’s value independence and freedom to the point of making selfishness a virtue. However, the scriptures claim that we should think of ourselves as less than others, give of ourselves by putting others first, and allow ourselves to be treated unjustly and thus rejoice in sharing the sufferings of Christ. This is a hard shift to make.

A few years ago, I was fired from my job for unjust reasons (I think I’ve shared the story before). The company that fired me only gave me half of my last paycheck. They had deleted the rest of my hours. It took about a month… maybe a month and a half… to get everything worked out, and at first the company didn’t appear to be willing to handle the situation at all. For a few weeks I didn’t think I would ever be seeing that money, money that I sorely needed. I had a number of friends tell me that I should sue the company, and I wanted to. I had my schedule, and I had kept track of the hours that I worked (the company was notorious for losing hours). Moreover, I had a desire for vindication. However, I prayed about the issue repeatedly, and repeatedly God told me that I was not only not to sue them, I wasn’t even to mention the possibility. No suggestions or threats to create leverage or put an emphasis on getting things worked out. Even after mentioning this to my friends who suggested that I sue the company, they continued to push me to sue… I should mention that all of these friends were Christians. They cared about me, and they wanted me to take the ‘wise and reasonable’ course of action. However, in doing so they encouraged me to flout God’s specific will. They put human reasoning and my rights above the glorification of God, and I honestly lost a lot of respect for several people because of that experience.

God is trustworthy. Whether we are in times of plenty, times of hardship, or times of persecution, he is faithful to care for us, and he has not forgotten us. He has been, is, and always will be faithful to work everything to his glory and our good. This is something that we are all to prone to forget, and we shouldn’t be.

Suffering and Weakness

You’re all ridiculous. I hope you know that. I’ve said it before and I’ve no doubt that I’ll say it again: I don’t write anything worth reading. My random thoughts are not far off from a madman’s ravings, which inevitably implies that all of you are following a lunatic. At least I’ve kept my post count above my follower count for a while. I think that means I’m winning, but honestly I’m too tired to be sure right now. However, I do hope that in my insane ramblings I at least keep good company. Peter and Paul are both rather depressing authors of the New Testament at times (many times). Between the two of them we are exhorted (repeatedly) to rejoice in suffering and weakness (Consider 2 Corinthians 12 or 1 Peter 3 if you need examples [though really the entirety of 1 Peter will do]), two things that are fairly anathema to the American way. We don’t rejoice in suffering and weakness. In fact we don’t even approve of suffering and weakness. According to the American Church at large (much like Job’s friends) if you are suffering then you must be a bad Christian, and weakness simply isn’t tolerated.

Suffering is, apparently according to the Gospel of the US, God’s way of telling you that you are a sucky person, and if you weren’t such a sucky person then he would be giving you many and varied blessings like he does to all the non-sucky church-goers. This, of course, flies in the face of scriptural teaching and 2000 years of Christian tradition, but who cares, we’re Americans!

… … …So, I might be in just a little bit of a mood this morning… slightly… I blame it on the fact that I didn’t get any sleep again last night. After a week’s worth of wonderful rest (yes the alliteration is intentional) I had another night of sleepless torment, temptation, and failure. After I’d finally given up on sleep I turn to scripture to find this waiting for me: boast in your weaknesses! Well… I have plenty of weaknesses to boast in. I’m prideful, arrogant, supremely confident in my own intelligence (which is, admittedly, modest at best), lustful, foolish, insecure, and terribly, terribly afraid. Oh, and I tend to be pretty lonely most of the time as well. I generally console myself that it’s because I’m a smart, deep thinker and most people can’t keep up with me (what a crock… did I mention that I’m arrogant? I think I must be pretty hard to be around at times).

My bad mood aside, honestly looking back over the past few months I think one of the major lessons God has been trying to teach me is to find joy in my weaknesses. Paul was a pretty incredible man, and he certainly had a lot to boast about, but in 2 Corinthians 12 he talks about a thorn in the flesh that God had given him to keep him humble. Some scholars argue that this was some physical deformity (which they inevitably attempt to identify as buggy eyes, bowed legs, albino skin or some such), but others connect this thorn in the flesh with his rant Romans 7:14-25 and conclude that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was some issue of sin that presented him a continual and humiliating struggle (of course they also feel the need to identify this, often as a sexual issue, though only Paul’s staunch stand against sexual sins provides any support for this). I tend to side with the latter as I have trouble seeing a physical deformity being of much shame to Paul (given that he had been beaten, stoned, drowned, etc repeatedly I would imagine that he had several deformities). However, for a man of Paul’s stature a struggle with sin (which we already know from Romans 7 he had) would certainly be very humiliating.

We are all weak. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, we all suffer from many and varied weaknesses. As I write this my mind is drawn back to Desperate Housewives, which (as I’ve said before) is a surprisingly good and surprisingly uplifting show. There are two couples  (well, one couple and half of a couple) that, in many ways, exemplify what the church should and should not be respectively. First, Tom and Lynette are two imperfect people who accept one another’s imperfections and choose to continue in love regardless. One of my favorite scenes revolves around this couple. There is a portion of the show in which Lynette is tempted to cheat, and when Tom discovers this he confronts the man who is in the process of seducing her. Tom doesn’t threaten the man (well… much), but instead points out this (I’m paraphrasing here): “Have you thought about what’ll happen if she does slip and spend the night with you? It’ll destroy her. She’ll hate herself. And you think I’ll leave, but I won’t. I won’t go anywhere. I’ll stay right here and love her as hard as she hates herself, and we’ll get through this, because that’s who we are.” Honestly, Tom and Lynette are a fairly good example of the kind of undying, complete, self-sacrificing, gracious, imperfect love that the church could potentially show to one another. None of us are perfect people. None of us are even good people. However, when we recognize our own weaknesses and lovingly accept the fact that others are just as weak, we can show the grace that God has shown us. Does this make the actions that come out of our weakness good? Of course not, but it does mean that sin causes grace to abound.

The second character is Bre Van DeKamp Hodge. Bre is an excellent example of the faux perfection that the church often exhibits. She has her moments of true goodness and goes though some hard things, but generally she is unwilling to accept any weakness in others, even when that same weakness is all to apparent in herself. She does genuinely try to help people, but she is generally unwilling to show either grace or love, and this is a problem. Where Tom and Lynette forgive easily and often (as we should), Bre rarely forgives anything.

Bre seems to assume, as many of us do, that grace equals a lowering of standards, and this isn’t true. My students often tell me that my standards are too high and that I need to lower them. However, as I tell them, this is not going to happen. However, what will happen is the chance (if they seek it) to try again. To rewrite papers, seek advice, improve their abilities to meet my standards, and all of this I am more than happy to do. Similarly, we cannot expect God to lower his standards. It’s simply not going to happen. However, we can expect him to let us try again, and we should be able to expect that of one another as well.

Not My Law

As Christians we’re supposed to place God’s law above man’s, right? Absolutely, but in practical terms, what does that mean? According to the modern church in America, or at least the way we act, that means to pursue a vigorous, staunch, often demeaning and dehumanizing political campaign against anything with which we happen to disagree.

Abortion is immoral. Therefore it should be illegal in any and all circumstances, no matter what the populace has to say about the matter. Homosexuality is immoral. Therefore homosexual couples should hold a lower legal status than heterosexual couples, including a lack of access to combined health insurance, a lack of inheritance rights, a lack of power of attorney, a lack of tax breaks, etc, etc, etc. These are the two major issues right now, but certainly not the only issues.

However, what does placing God’s law above man’s law do to man’s law? In declaring abortion to be murder we effectively announce our dismissal of American law. Murder is a term that is defined by law, and American law does not define abortion as murder. Thus, when we declare that abortion is murder we remove ourselves from the conversation by declaring that American law is unimportant to us.

All in all, the church today expresses an extreme pride, self-interest, and obsession with temporal power in our political stances that puts us very close to the excesses of the medieval Roman Catholic church. It doesn’t matter what the bible actually says, what matters is that we are in control! It doesn’t matter how we treat people, as long as they do what we want! This does nothing to edify the body, or to advance the kingdom or glory of God.

“But wait!” You say, “aren’t we supposed to defend God’s law and his word?”

I challenge you, find me any place in scripture that commands us to defend God in any way? We are commanded to obey God repeatedly. Peter commands us to be ready to give an account of our faith. However, no where are we commanded to defend God. God is God and if he wants to be defended he is perfectly capable of assigning a thousand legions of angels to that defense. Our job is not to defend God or his laws by forcing others to obey.

“But wait!” You say, “doesn’t that mean that there’s no point in apologetics?”

I ask you, since when was apologetics the defense of God? There is every reason to pursue an apologetic defense of the faith. The task of apologetics is not to defend God, or his law, but to defend the rationality of Christian belief. In light of questions like: Can God be real? Is the scripture trustworthy? Did Jesus really die on the cross? We must have an apologetic response. This is a part of what Peter meant when he commanded us to be ready to give an account of our faith. To answer reasoned questions with a reasoned and thoughtful faith is very different than spewing thoughtless rhetoric and pursuing a legal divine mandate of Church rule.

In too many ways the Church resembles Senator Palpatine’s description of the Jedi in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, we have held political power in this nation for a very long time, and we are loathe to give it up. However, make no mistake, the attempts to legislate marriage, sexual conduct, the handling of pregnancy, etc is less about the rule of God and more about the fear of the church. It shows a lack of trust and an extreme cowardice.

Does this mean that there is no homosexual agenda bent on attacking the church? Of course it doesn’t, though it would be ridiculous to assume that all homosexuals are a part of this agenda. Certainly the nation is becoming more hostile towards Christianity, and persecution is coming. However, Peter does not tell us that when persecution comes we should fight for our power and rights tooth and nail, even if it means destroying the other side. Instead, Peter tells us to rejoice that we may share in the sufferings of our lord!

How much of this sharing and rejoicing do you see in the modern church? Do we gleefully welcome the coming persecution as a chance to join in the suffering of Christ and show the true heart and resilience of the Christian faith? Or are we too busy trying to make the pain stop and make everyone to agree with us, regardless of whether they actually want to?

To those Christians who can’t see past their noses, and certainly not far enough to love their neighbor and their enemy, I would say: Get the log out of your eye!

To those who would see the Christian faith persecuted, hurt, injured, and destroyed, I would say: Bring it on! Do your worst and find out just what our God is made of. Come and see the love of Christ through the blood of his people.

To those who stand somewhere in between I would say: Watch, think deeply, seek truth, and find your way. If you want to see an example of the Church righteous under all threats and enemies, look at the early church that bore many and varied persecutions in love. Look at the anabaptists who were persecuted, tortured, burned, and drowned by Catholics and Protestants alike. Look at the Christians of Nazi Germany who took Jew into their homes and hid them, despite the risk to themselves. Who spoke out against the regime in love, despite the certainty of punishment, who acted not to destroy the government, but to protect the people, and who did not flee the consequences of that action.

This is what we should be. A face of courageous love and truth that stands against hate and violence, not a face of hate and violence that seeks to oppress those who disagree. We should be better than we are.

You Think You’re Better Than Me?!

Christian exceptionalism pisses me off. American exceptionalism also pisses me off, actually… exceptionalism in general pisses me off, but Christian exceptionalism really gets to me. The idea that because I’m Christian I am therefore somehow better than others has done more damage to the cause of Christ than possibly any other single heretical belief, and it is a heretical belief. Scripture has nothing good to say about pride, and a lot good to say about humility, so why do we spend all our time thinking about how wonderful we are as Christians?

In the beatitudes Christ tells us that the meek shall inherit the Earth. Proverbs tells us that God destroys prideful men. Zephaniah tells us that those who are meek follow God. Peter and Paul both tell us to humble ourselves, repeatedly! Today, I had someone tell me that because he grew up in a Christian household he didn’t fall for crap (in context this was a discussion about how Americans simply take in information without assessing it). He may have meant that his parents taught him to analyze the information that was presented to him, or he may have meant that Christians have a natural immunity to crap. If he meant the former then I applaud his parents… but I’m guessing he meant the latter.

The idea that being Christians somehow makes us inherently less gullible, more virtuous, less responsible for our actions, or more worthy than others is utter hogwash. Many of the Christians that I meet have no real conception of their own sinfulness. They may say that they are sinful, may even mouth the words about being utterly wicked and needing God’s grace to save them, but if you look at their lives, especially at the way they look at others, talk about others, and act towards others, they don’t believe it. They are interested in judging people, interested in looking down their noses at people, interested in proving that they are better than others, but they aren’t interested in loving people or in helping people.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to be above all this. I’ve done my share of judging, and I still do sometimes, to my shame. However, I think a lot of people confuse my unwillingness to take their bullshit excuses for their sin as judgment, and it’s not. I have plenty of my own bullshit excuses, and I generally won’t take them either. Actually, I know there are a few people who think that my calling them on sin is the same as my judging them for that sin, and I have no place to judge anyone. I’ve been a thief, I’ve tried to kill people, I’ve left some people permanently hurt, I’ve looked at truly massive amounts of porn, and at some truly and deeply sick porn. I am a prideful, lustful, jealous, wrathful, foolish, and ultimately destructive man. I’ve done things that I don’t like to think about, and certainly don’t like to talk about because I am ashamed of them, and I should be ashamed of them… well, perhaps not anymore. I am forgiven and redeemed, and that’s what matters. I won’t let the people I care about sin and not say something, but I also won’t stop loving them because of that sin. Our sin can’t change God’s love for us, and so it shouldn’t change my love for people. It took me a long time to learn that, and I’m still not perfect at it. There are too many times that hurt proves my love for someone to be phileo love and not agape love.

Being a Christian doesn’t mean that I’m better than anyone else, it just means that my sinfulness is covered by Christ’s righteousness, and that God isn’t going to stop working until he makes me worthy of that righteousness… and trust me, that process thoroughly sucks sometimes.

There is nothing that makes me better than anyone else, and there are probably plenty of things that make me worse. That might not be entirely true… humility is not simply being down on yourself, which is what we turn it into far to often. Humility is about seeing the truth, and letting yourself go. In Romans 12 Paul tells us to think of ourselves as we ought to think, and to think with sober judgment. Humility is knowing where we fit, what we can do, what we should do, and what we are worth. It goes hand in hand with honesty and integrity, and it doesn’t have either a high view or a low view of self. It’s not worried about self.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? We’re so worried about ourselves, making ourselves look good, making ourselves feel good, that we forget how to be humble and loving. Even our selflessness becomes selfishness because we focus so much on feeling selfless that we forget to actually care how someone else feels, and that in itself is selfish.

Anyway, that’s probably a rant for another time. Go out and give two craps about someone else.

Cowardice and Conviction

Have I mentioned that I’m a coward? I choose to be honest about my life, beliefs, and failures and choose to do so through an anonymous blog, and yet even here I find myself beginning to worry about what kind of reputation I’m starting to build.

Will people who read this blog think well of me? Will they judge me for my flaws? Will they respect me for my positions? Do I come across as intelligent and learned? Is it clear that I think deeply about important things? Even though I’m completely anonymous here, I still worry about these questions and a thousand others. Even anonymously I have to convince myself to be honest! What if I accidentally offend someone? What if something I write is taken the wrong way?

Still, I started this blog so that I could journal about my thoughts, desires, fears, and… well, I had a fourth when I began this sentence. I wanted to be honest with myself, and that is often the most difficult person to be honest with. I have this view of myself as an intelligent, scholarly, kind, caring, selfless person (and I can say for sure that the last adjective at least is completely false) who seeks after Christ and always puts other before himself. I want to see myself as good and lovable (I think we all do really), or I want to see myself as a worthless, miserable bastard who’s completely selfish and doesn’t give a wit what anyone thinks of me.

Of course, neither of these images is true. I am fairly intelligent (though probably not as smart as I like to think), and I do try to be kind, caring, and selfless. I’m a pretty good sport, and I’m fairly hard to offend, but I’m also a selfish, needy, know-it-all. And, as I mentioned at the beginning, I’m a coward. I’m too much of a coward to generally even admit to myself that I’m a coward.

I fail to focus on Christ every single day. Sometimes I start off well, but inevitably my focus falls away from Christ. I get obsessed very easily, and it tends to be pretty hard for me to get my focus back where it belongs. Ultimately, truth is, I fail repeatedly in every possible way and I am desperately in need of God’s work in my life to make me… even someone worth knowing.

The thing is, I think that all of us (if we’re really honest) will say this about ourselves. Much as we like to convince ourselves that we’re good people, ultimately we’re not. We’re wicked people who are lucky to have anyone in our lives. We’re wicked people who are lucky to have a God who loves us enough to put up with us, and ultimately it’s that love that we’re trying to live up to!

This is what I was trying to say yesterday, I think. My focus should be on God because it is God who is the source of my every good and my every joy. Whenever my focus trends away from him, I find myself listless and unsatisfied, endlessly rushing headlong after whatever job or woman or thing I think will make me worth something. But there is no job (not even teaching at Harvard or Oxford), and there is no woman (not even this lady I like) that can make me worth something. Why? Because they have exactly the same problems that I do! They fail… repeatedly!

Remember the story of Peter when Christ came traipsing across the sea of Galilee. As long as Peter kept his focus on Christ, kept his trust in Christ, he waltzed across the waves. However, as soon as Peter let his focus drift away, and tried to make his own way, the waves overwhelmed him and he dropped headlong (… well, probably footlong if we’re going to be literal) into the water.

There are always going to be plenty of problems waiting to drag us down into the deep. Whether they be bills or promotions or demotions or rejections… it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is to keep your eyes on Christ, and let him bring you everything that he knows you need.