The Most Misunderstood Word In The Bible

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Do People Get What They Deserve?

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In a non-zero-sum game everyone can be a winner.  It is a non-competitive or competitive circumstance where all participants can achieve optimal results and be successful.  In an abundance of resources and opportunities and assuming equality of abilities this is the case.

zero-sum-game is a circumstance where when someone gains another loses. This is true of sports where there is a score kept and a winner and loser at the end. It can be true of the marketplace when two people desire the same property but only one can possess it. It is true of any limited resource.

The right-wing or conservatives prefer the non-zero-sum explanation.  They assume that all things are equal besides effort then they are free to look the other way at those who have not achieved what they have.  This is not always uncaring or completely cold-hearted either—these people have worked hard, often have overcome obstacles (while playing by the rules) and believe others can as well.

However, the left-wing or progressives tell us, and rightfully so, that it is not that simple.  We can certainly say “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” and yet what does one do when life gives you rocks?  I suppose then you throw the rocks at those telling you to make lemonade?

Those who argue that life is largely a non-zero-sum experience and that those who put forward an adequate effort are too quick to dismiss differences in circumstances—they often do not appreciate providence of their own advantages enough.  Sure, people reap what they sow, but can we assume that everyone has the same soil, seeds and weather to work with?

Do people get what they deserve?

We like the idea of karma, that people get what they deserve and everything we have was somehow earned.  This absolves us of responsibility to those with less and allows us to enjoy our advantages in life without guilt.  This is an explanation of things that works for those who are relatively successful and have basically gotten what they want.

Many religious people, to cover for their lack of compassion, go a step further and assume that disability and disaster is a result of sin.

That is why Job’s friends added insult to injury and accused him of having some hidden sin because of all awful things that happened to him.  They were wrong for their assumption that he deserved what he got.

People getting what they deserve is not the reality that Jesus describes.  When asked who’s sin caused a man’s blindness he answered that it was nobodies sin and used the opportunity to bring glory to God by healing the man.  He also used a couple events as a basis for a rhetorical question and answer:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1‭-‬5)

His answer seems to go directly against those who try to attribute calamity to God’s judgment and see success as a sign of God’s favor.  He muddies the water for the sanctimious religious elites with their simple (and often self-congratulatory) black and white explanation.  He defies their people should get what they deserve logic:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43‭-‬48)

It is interesting that the parallel account in the book of Luke uses “merciful” rather than perfect.  Assuming that they are both a paraphrase of the actual words of Jesus and accurate (as opposed to one being unreliable) we can probably combine the two ideas to approximate the correct message.  I believe we are to be perfect in our mercy or perfectly merciful like God.

The message that seems clear in the teachings of Jesus is that nobody gets what they deserve.  He says that unless people repent they too will perish—that neither sunshine nor rain is distributed by who deserves or does not—and with this undermines those who want to put all blame for failure on the individual.

Furthermore, there is no excuse for indifference.  Even our enemies, people who deserve our contempt for things they have done, we are told to treat as we do those who are deserving of our love.  We are to be perfectly merciful because we can do nothing to deserve God’s love and yet are loved despite that.

That is the essence of the Gospel, to do unto others, not as they deserve, but we want God to do to us.  We will be shown mercy we we show mercy and judged as we judge.  If we live by the sword then we can expect to die by it as well.  If we forgive others then we will be forgiven by God.

If nobody gets what they deserve, then what?

Truly believing in the goodness of God is not about crowing on social media when things go right.  No, that is only triumphalism covered in religion and brings no glory to God whatsoever.  Again, some good people suffer terribly for their righteousness while many evil people in the world are both materially and socially successful.

A big bank account or beautiful girlfriend is not proof God’s goodness or else Job’s friends would have been right to torment him further trying to find a hidden sin.  Success is only proof that circumstances tilted in favor of the outcome you desired and attributing it to God’s favor is only to dance on the backs of the bruised.

True thankfulness to God is using the means we are given to help others.  Those with loaves and fishes didn’t thank God loudly then gorge themselves in the presence of the hungry crowd.  No, they responded to the call of Jesus, gave up what many would argue they were entitled to through their foresight and by their sacrifice we have the miracle of five thousand being fed.

It is on us to be an answer to prayer using the means provided to us, being an answer to prayer—that is our thankfulness to God.  Your success or failure in an endeavor says nothing about God’s plan.  Only your willingness to step out in real faith, the faith of going outside of comfort zone and sacrificing for those who deserve judgement, is evidence of God’s goodness.

True repentance is realizing that you deserve nothing and treating others as if they deserve all of your love.  If we truly appreciate God’s grace we will show it in humble actions of service rather than pompous claims of God’s goodness to us.  It was the Pharisee who stood on the corner thankful to God at the expense of others and was condemned for his pride—he knew nothing of God’s goodness:

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)

Sadly many conservative Mennonites and other religious fundamentalists are like that Pharisee.  Even in their thanking God they are self-congratulatory and can barely hide their self-righteous pride under the pretense of praise—evidently they forget pride is the first sin.  In context of the passage above it was the man who prayed “God have mercy on me, a sinner” who left justified before God.

Those who know they are undeserving do not boast in God’s goodness towards them.  No, they share it with others by helping carry the burdens of others who were less fortunate than themselves.  True faith is not about bragging about things we do not deserve—it is about our self-sacrificially serving those who do not deserve.

Perhaps God is not multiplying our effort today, like he did in the Acts church, because we pretend to be thankful for His goodness in our words and yet withhold grace from those whom we feel do not deserve?

Maybe God could turn our zero-sum game into an over-abundance when we let go of our own calculations and plans to trust Him?

So, anyhow…

Shut up about your good life—people already know!  Instead, thank God by being an answer to prayer to someone who didn’t have your advantages.  

Actions speak louder than words.

Truth and Hypocrisy

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In the midst of this age of information overload is it any surprise that deep thinking people give up on the idea of discernable truth?

Competive and contradictory claims assail us from all angles. Advocates on all sides are seemingly equally convinced that they see more clearly than those who of a different perspective. 

We would be persuaded, they say, if we just opened our minds, examined the facts fairly and were honest with ourselves.  But, despite their confidence, to me often all sides seem to lack a clear perspective and bring a bias that is only obvious to those on the other side.

Hypocrisy in Action

How is it the same people who want to string up leaders as war criminals are the same who demand only compassion and understanding for a woman who aborts a life because pregnancy is inconvenient?

How is it that gun owners and passionate pro-lifers are some of the same saying that we should judge all Syrian refugees as a potential terrorist and protest to keep them out rather than value them as individuals as they demand for themselves?

Everyone is convinced in their own minds.  Everyone believes that they think rationally and most can give reasons for what they believe.  But somehow everyone, including some very smart people on both sides, cannot agree on everything and oftentimes we vehemently disagree.

Even those who claim the same religious texts as their guidebook to life arrive at vastly different conclusions about what it says—often with perspective each claiming they are authentic and the others are the imposters.  Both come with carefully crafted theologies and neither side shaken from the moorings of base assumptions that lurk somewhere outside the realm of their conscious thought.

Muslims see terrorism as the result of western intervention.  They can point to the fact that terrorist organizations like Islamic State and al-Qaeda were nurtured to life or a direct consequence of foreign policy decisions of the United States of America.  Many Americans, by contrast, see radicalization as a genetic flaw of Islamic faith and downplay their own responsibility.

We tend to see only the noble intentions of those who share our own particular ideological alignment.  The same people who demand absolute accountability for others are often the most creative at manipulating the evidence in order to absolve themselves of even shared guilt.

Meanwhile, with a smug satisfaction (that I cannot know is genuine or facetious) I sit here thinking I know something and maybe I do?

Could it be that none of us can claim to have a complete picture of the truth and that all of us share some in creating this flawed reality?

I know it is more comfortable to assume our perspective is infallible and the we ourselves have no major fault.  It is easy to outsource blame for the problems of the world, wash our own hands of responsibility, and pretend it is moral to distance ourselves sanctimoniously.  However, isn’t that exactly what is wrong with the other side?

I say we all resolve all the more to clean our own side of the street.  Lead the world by making no excuses and being an example.  If you wish for people to be open to your own perspective try to see theirs.  If you do not wish to be judged wholesale by the actions of a few bad actors then do not judge others that way.

Truth in Action

I believe there is truth to be found, but it is not something we profess so much as what we practice.  The truth is the love that we live and not a proposition that is only possible when others do our bidding.  Truth is our walk in consistent love not our words in hypocritical judgment.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:1-5)

Do we give up on describing truth?  No.  I believe that there is some value in trying to put truth into words and arguing for what we believe is right and good.  However, we must always speak in humility and be as brutal to ourselves as we are to those who see things differently.

Vaccination and Causes of Nepal Earthquake

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There was an earthquake in Nepal several weeks ago. 

Most would probably agree that earthquakes are caused by sudden movements in the earth’s crust and are satisfied with a scientific explanation.

However, some are not satisfied with that and turn to more creative interpretations of the ground shaking phenomenon.  One man, an Iranian cleric, claimed earthquake is linked to promiscuous women and gave Islam as the solution.  Another woman, a Hindu, offered this explanation: “Rahul Gandhi eats beef and goes to the holy shrine without purifying himself, the earthquake was bound to happen.”  And, finally, a US pastor, wrote linking topic of pagan shrines and the earthquake. 

So, three different people representing three different religions and three different reasons why the earthquake happened.  However, all three have in common a similar logic.  They share an idea that one thing was happening (promiscuity or meat eating or paganism) and therefore the next thing (an earthquake) thing happened.  It is the logic of correlation implying causation.

Those who study logic recognize the potential logical fallacy.  The correlation does not imply causation in this case nor does it in others like it.  It is completely possible that the earthquake would have happened regardless of what people did or did not do.

And, until a person can provide good research that links one to the other, it is not reasonable to conclude a link exists between earthquakes and immorality.

Blaming Vaccines For Childhood Developmental Problems

Vaccines have become fodder for the same type of thinking that blames immorality for geological phenomenon.  If a child is vaccinated and later a disability or medical condition arises some parents will attribute it to the vaccines. 

Parents trust their own perception.  From what they can recall the problems did not begin until after the vaccination and therefore must be somehow linked to the vaccine.  In their search for a link many will take anecdotes as evidence and proof of a link.  Unfortunately, even a hundred anecdotes showing one thing happened after another is proof of nothing besides sequence of events and not even suggestive of a causal link. 

It would be no different from me telling a story of how a friend changed the oil in his car and two weeks later the engine blew up.  Sure, there could be a link between an oil change and problems that develop later in a few cases.  For example, if the mechanic left the oil plug loose, the plug fell out, the oil drained and without lubrication the bearings seized. 

However, that doesn’t mean a recent oil change caused the headlights burn out in your own car.  Even if a dozen other people had mechanical breakdowns happen within weeks of an oil change there’s still no proof of link.  And the same is true of vaccines and disabilities or medical conditions that develop later on.  The link we make between two events is not proof that one caused the other. 

Yes, there is a possibility vaccines have sides-effects or unintended consequences, but that doesn’t justify the assumption that anything that happens after a vaccination is caused by the vaccination.  A link needs to be established that explains step by step how one leads to the other or it is nothing but speculation. 

A Desperate Search for Explanation Leads Misattributed Blame

It is understandable that a parent would blame something like vaccines for anything bad that happens afterwards.  The idea of sticking a child with a needle seems unpleasant and unnatural to begin with.  Add to that the general mistrust of educated people and profitable endeavors in some circles.  But, be that as it is, sometimes seemingly healthy children hide problems that would develop later on whether they vaccinate or not. 

I know a family who had a child that appeared healthy and later died after a series of seizures.  Since the problems started some time after being vaccinated they decided not to vaccinate their future children.  Their unvaccinated second child was completely healthy.  If I stopped there that could be mistaken as evidence.  But, sadly, it wasn’t that simple, their next two unvaccinated children developed the similar problems to the first vaccinated child.

Most of us probably understand the absurdity of trying to pin blame for an earthquake on eating meat or unislamic behavior or pagan shrines.  But many do make the mistake of confusing correlation with causation in other areas.  We need to be aware of our own vulnerability to this type of thinking and be on the look out for the fallacy: Correlation does not imply causation.

As enticing as an explanation is, bad logic does not trump good science, and we need to know the difference or we will be blown about by the winds of our feelings and intuitions.

Sailing Beyond Safe Waters

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I’ve been on a journey of faith.  I have left the comfortable waters and ventured to territory of expectations where few would dare to go. 

Many people claim faith.  But oftentimes what some call faith is actually the safe harbor of religious tradition and cultural obligation.  They never go beyond what is reasonable to themselves or their peers, they live within reasonable boundaries and never question the limits of their own reasoning or grow beyond it.

It requires a small degree of faith to sail in a harbor and some skill too.  But, going beyond the harbor, sailing beyond the navigational charts, trusting that inner compass of promised lands over the horizon and beyond sight, that requires true faith.  It is a faith for a journey that can’t be planned in advance, a journey where provisions could run out, where there is no shoreline to see, where storms arise and hope can seem distant or even an impossibility.

Some days I do long for the simplicity of that harbor I left before starting this journey.  I pray that my faith will lead me to the place of solace that promised to be right over the horizon.  It becomes hard to believe your own eyes when a sight of land at a distance has too many times before become a mirage.  The food has become stale, the rations have been diminished and the ship has been in better repair.

Storms of fear and doubt come and go.  It is hard to distinguish friend from foe in a place where true colors are often hidden and only discovered after a cannon blast has ripped a hole in your side.  There are days of pleasantness, a good tailwind and clear skies.  There are days of fog, days of doldrums, dark nights, moments of terror and times where all seems hopeless.

Still, one has little choice, one must continue to sail on in faith because the harbor is too far gone to return back. You continue ahead knowing only in your heart that is land ahead.  It is a faint glimmer of hope in a vast empty ocean, but it is a hope that cannot be lost. 

So I continue in faith…

What is God?

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“The question is: is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science ‘God’, but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions.”  (Stephen Hawking)

Professor Hawking is one of the most intriguing men of our time.  He is known for his work in the field of physics and was popularized by a book, “A Brief History of Time,” that reached a broad audience.  He is undoubtedly a brilliant mathematician, he can reconstruct the universe in his mind using numbers and formulas, and has basically proved that the universe (including time) had a definite beginning.  But Hawking is agnostic, he sees a big impersonal ‘God’ when he looks into the expanse of space and is probably right about what he sees.

A Small View of God

Many people (religious fundamentalists and atheists especially) subscribe to a small view of God.  They confine God to simple ‘black and white’ human moral or logical thinking (theirs) and essentially demand a God on their level.  But if God is the creative force behind the entire universe, then God is bigger than the universe and also bigger than any of the concepts of morality or logic in the universe.  A big concept of God is a God that transcends universal moral categories and exists above or beyond all human reasoning.  A God bigger than scientific law or religion.

Finding God in Our Humility

Picture humanity as an infant, this earth as our playpen and the universe the house over our heads.  We can see the room, we can speculate about other rooms and theorize about some sort of reality beyond house.  We know house is predictable, the temperatures fall between certain parameters, schedules are somewhat consistent and yet we see through a foggy window that there could possibly be more than the house we are in.  God is like the parent who can come and go, lives beyond the playpen and our childish mind.

Finding God Beyond Our Own Dimensionality

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But my concept and understanding of God goes beyond that have a celestial parent or personality.  I believe Biblical personification of God is simply an attempt to explain what is inexplicable.  Still, I do believe God can give himself personality to relate to us and is more than some vague life force or abstraction.  I believe God is a spirit or mind, but one that dwells beyond the rules of science that govern the dimensions of this universe.  In other words, God sees the Tesseract of our limited dimensionality and exists beyond all dimensionality.

Finding God Beyond Material Reality

I know this might not appeal to those with the materialism perspective who do not feel inclined to accept reality beyond their ability (or the ability of their scientific instruments, mathematics and logic) to see.  But science has many limits.  We cannot scientifically prove our own consciousness exists and still accept it as reality.  Not everything of our reality is provable by experiment or calculations, some things we must just know and accept as reality, the reality of our consciousness one of those things and the idea of greater consciousness another.

Finding God Beyond Cold Calculation

“Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.”  (Stephen Hawking)

Professor Hawking and other theoretical physicists seek a ‘unified theory’ for their science, an explanation for the paradoxical discoveries that upset a simpler idea of the universe, but the day it is found (if these ‘dice’ were left within our reach) there will be more questions unanswerable by science.  Questions of why, of purpose and morality are probably beyond math.  Why we do not believe it is immoral for a cat to eat a mouse, both sentient beings, the cat remorseless, and yet to kill becomes an issue of morality for us.  Why care if the weak are exploited?

A Unified Theory of God

We are sentient, we are also moral creatures and our morality needs to enter the grand equation or we are left with little more than cold calculus that starts with star dust then ends with the heat death of the universe.  We know there is something more just as we know we consciously exist and therefore we need a bigger view of God than Hawking’s.  We need a God so big he can be personally involved or, in other words, a unified theory of an intimate and big God.  Consciousness, morality and science offer us a place to start a pursuit of God, but we need to pursue further…

The Personal and Intimate God

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”  “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”  The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”  Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”  (John 4:19-26 NIV)

Looking Backwards and Beyond the Universe for God

Many search for God, but do they look in the right place to find God?  The religious are like this woman who met Jesus, they seek God in physical objects like places, rituals or books.  The scientific mind looks further out, they search the universe for answers down to the tiniest particles and up to the lights of the sky.  But both are looking outward to find God and truth.  Could it be our mind is the closest possible connection we could ever have to the realities beyond the material, mathematical and time universe?

Finding God in the Moral Mind

If the entire universe can be compressed to the size of a point as small as the period at the end of this sentence, then a God big enough to be simultaneously small is not such a big leap.  So perhaps Hawking, like that woman talking to Jesus, is looking in the wrong direction to find the person of God?