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What Did Jesus Do to the Law?

We are no longer under the guardianship of the Law, but rather are made-right with God by faith, through love, working (Galatians 3:24-25):

“So the Law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”

Some people, however, would like it if we as Christians are still under the guardianship of the Law.

This includes:

  • Christians who would like to selectively cite Leviticus so that they can cudgel other people with judgment.
  • Anti-Christians (people who go after Christianity as false and bad) who want to claim that Christians don’t take their religion seriously and/or are bound to follow Laws that no longer make sense in our cultural context (indeed, many of those Laws we’d call rather bizarre and unacceptable, requiring faith in a ‘time-and-culture-limited’ ancillary context).

By far the most popular passage cited in support of this is Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The incorrect reading of this passage often employed by anti-Christians will contradict Paul’s statements about no longer being a slave to the Law, especially in Galatians and Romans.

Anti-Christians have an explanation ready for this: “Yes, Paul contradicts Jesus.”

This rides along with a popular “Pauline conspiracy theory” meme, which claims Paul hijacked Christianity from the original Apostles and changed it considerably from the original teachings of Jesus.

The text, especially when primed with the idea that Jesus is talking about maintaining the guardianship of the Law, very easily yields that incorrect reading if we’re not careful to answer the following 2 questions:

  • (A) What did “fulfill” mean?
  • (B) Why did Jesus go out of his way to say this? What was his intent?

(A) Fulfillment

The word for “fulfill” here is pleroma.

Pleroma means absolute filling-up to completion, even to excess, such that it was sometimes used as an idiom for patched clothing.

It is one of the most theologically significant words in Christianity, leveraged in assertions about God’s sovereignty, Jesus Christ’s Godhood, and God’s ultimate plan in Romans ch. 11.

Jesus came, therefore, to absolutely complete the Law.

Imagine the Law as a cup that demands to be filled; Jesus came to fill it up, up, up, right up to the brim, and even spilling over.

And what is the means by which Jesus would do that?

By instituting a moral reformation, restructured entirely upon love (Galatians 5:6,14):

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith, through love, working (pistis di agapes energoumene). … For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

In other words, through Christ, the entirety of the Law can be satisfied/completed/pleroma’d just by loving others, and doing so passionately, wisely, genuinely, patiently, mercifully, and self-sacrificially.

This is the means by which “your righteousness can surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.” Faithful love “practices” all of its commands, so to speak. Teaching faithful love “teaches” all of these commands, so to speak.

Notice “so to speak.” A flat, surface reading really does seem like Jesus is not fulfilling the Law, but holding us to fulfill it ourselves, as before. And yet, he says he came to fulfill the Law!

The resolution here is this “so to speak” replacement of how fulfillment of the Law — down to the tiniest command — “works” under the New Covenant.

It’s a bit confusing, to be sure. This article wouldn’t exist if such confusion didn’t exist. Indeed, many things Jesus said were confusing, and interpretations of his teachings and parables are debated among Christians to this day.

Given this confusion, we wonder, “Why did Jesus say this, then? Why did he put it this way?”

(B) Intent

The answer is that the Law stands to convict us as sinners who fall short, in a general and broad sense. Jesus wanted everyone to feel convicted. He wanted people to marvel at the impossibility of fulfilling the Law themselves.

Jesus wanted to provoke this: “How could my righteousness surpass even that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law!?”

Which, of course, is a great question.

This is also why he kept hammering on keeping the “tiniest command.” Many of the religious elite who antagonized Jesus — frequently Pharisees and teachers of the Law — saw themselves as having fulfilled the Law themselves. But they had a tiny problem: Many had unjustly divorced and remarried, and were adulturers under the Law. As such, “the Law stands to convict” was the means by which Jesus could tell them and convict them, “You are Lawbreakers, too. You, too, need what I’ve come to offer.”

(A) + (B) = Correct Reading

When we answer those two questions, we can finally read this passage correctly, and understand that we can bear the Law’s burden — an otherwise astronomical impossibility — by taking advantage of what Christ offered:

  • Through Christ, the Law is completely satisfied, completely taught, and completely practiced, down to the tiniest command, by faithfully loving others.

It can seem a bit strange that you could get credit for various commands you’re only doing “by love-proxy.”

But that’s the correct reading, as the next section will help make very obvious.

Rebuttal of “Pauline Conspiracy Theories”

Since Paul most clearly articulates in what ways the Law lingers (and in what ways it doesn’t) under the New Covenant, Paul is “inconvenient” for those who’d prefer the incorrect reading, insofar as the incorrect reading would be very problematic for Christianity.

As such, these folks often argue that Paul is radically out-of-sync with Jesus and the original Apostles — that he “hijacked” Christianity and changed it.

This assertion requires imaginative fantasy about first century church history, but more humorously, requires simply not reading the Bible, where the correct reading is supported by Jesus elsewhere and by epistles from the original Apostles, including James, John, and Peter.

Jesus taught that all the Law and Prophets “hung on” loving others (God and neighbor) (Matthew 22:36-40):

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus made it clear that the Law stopped being proclaimed with John the Baptist, because the imminent Kingdom of God (under the New Covenant) was the new paradigm. But Law would continue as a convicter, especially against the self-righteous who were technically adulturers according to the Law (Luke 16:16-18):

[Jesus spoke to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law sneering at Jesus, saying,] “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.

It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law: ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'”

Jesus made similar remarks, later, to the chief priests and elders at the Temple (Matthew 21:31b):

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors [known as grifters in that culture] and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John [the Baptist] came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

John, one of the original Apostles, made sure we understood the love-based architecture of the New Covenant (1 John 4:7-8, 18):

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. … There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Peter, Jesus’s prime Apostle, supported Paul as a brother and explicitly endorsed Paul’s articulation of the New Covenant (2 Peter 2:15-16):

“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”

James, also an original Apostle, home-runs — or touchdowns, or whatever sports analogy you please — the proclamation of the Law’s fulfillment in love (James 2:8-10, 12-13):

“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. … Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

That “Royal Law of Freedom” is love, and its power — through Christ — to completely fulfill the Law in teaching and practice, every jot and tittle, up to the brim, and overflowing it.

This is why we listen to Paul: Because Paul was just conveying, explicitly and eloquently, what Jesus taught and the original Apostles reiterated, and the exciting, beautiful, brilliant New Covenant that Christ instituted (Romans 13:8-10):

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.”

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A Problem with Speaking “Truth in Love”

Love is great.

But truth is great, too.

What do we do when the two appear to be in conflict?

The answer for some believers is to “speak truth in love.”

But is this reliable as an M.O.? Are we actually equipped to do this consistently?

First, it’s important to dissect what “truth in love” actually means.

The phrase comes from Ephesians 4:14-15.

“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

This is “truth against gullibility,” ferried by loving concern for the health of the church.

It is a very specific kind of truth. It’s not an affirming truth, but a discerning or, more specifically, judgmental truth.

It’s a truth that calls-out and puts-down and, as such, must be buttressed with love to avoid being discouraging or overtly offensive.

We can imagine it a bit like this:

judge1

In an ideal world, when we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” we’d see this:

“A delivery of judgmental truth with a balancing portion of patience, compassion, understanding, mercy, and tenderness.”

But this idealism is confounded by…

One Weird Psychological Quirk

This quirk is called validation-seeking.

Our inner piping works with several different neurotransmitters, two of which are dopamine and serotonin.

  • Dopamine is correlated with feelings of anticipatory excitement and stimulation; problems with dopamine are correlated with a bleak lack of hope.
  • Serotonin is correlated with feelings of satisfaction and well-being; problems with serotonin are correlated with prospective anxiety and retrospective guilt.

Excitement about prospects, combined with our desire to minimize past guilt and future anxiety, makes us extra-prone to seek self-securing “proofs.” We want external praise from bosses, loved ones, and even strangers, in service of a feeling of being “well-equipped” to tackle anything.

When someone insults us, it stings precisely because it threatens our future.

It can make us doubt our attractiveness or our intelligence or our knowledge — and we need attractiveness to charm people, intelligence to figure things out, and knowledge to know how the world is. Heaven forbid we are repulsive, stupid, or ignorant!

And these insults hurt all the more when they’re done in front of others.

We worry, “What if the others think I’m repulsive, stupid, or ignorant? They won’t want to be my friend,” or “They won’t offer me the good assignment,” or “They won’t want to go out with me,”
etc.

It’s one thing to feel like we have the “mining tools” to excavate whatever “gold mine.” That feels good. And when those tools are threatened, we react very poorly.

But we’d also like to find that the “other person’s tools” are subpar, or that she can’t mine opportunities like we can.

In other words, it helps our self-confidence when other people — especially those with whom we are not close — are revealed to have faults.

The last sentence should resonate with most of us.

  • It’s what makes gossip so addictive.
  • It’s what makes “this generation stinks” narratives so stimulative to parent generations.
  • It’s what cultivates “us-versus-those-idiots” political and culture warfare.

When someone we don’t care about or actively dislike stumbles, we delight in it, as it validates our lives (our choices and character) through the invalidation of their choices and character.

But why does this matter?

The Hidden Weight

It matters because, thanks to these neurochemical patterns, there’s a hidden weight of “love for judgment” attached to the scale.

That is, whenever we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” our secret “love for judgment” tilts the scales, and the “judgmental end” far outweighs the expressed patience, compassion, understanding, mercy, and tenderness.

judge2

When the hypocritical teachers in Jesus’s day went after sinners — like prostitutes and grifters — I’m sure a large number of them convinced themselves that this was a loving judgment; “I indict because I care.”

The Solution

When we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” we express an imbalance, just like that expressed by the teachers that Jesus
verbally assailed.

We imagine that we’re doing this:

judge1

But what actually happens is this, making the whole structure unbalanced:

judge2

In other words, “practice judgmental truth in love” leads to “express judgmental truth with little love at all.”

The solution is to “practice love overwhelmingly“:

judge3

This is uncomfortable for us, because it seems like we’re loving too much. Our loss-aversive fear and worry of “excessive tolerance” and “slippery slopes” makes us terrified of how unbalanced we imagine the final expression will be.

But when we “practice love overwhelmingly,” our innate predilection towards judgment magically makes up the difference — without us even trying! — and the final expression is a balanced “truth in love”:

judge4

It’s not that Jesus didn’t care about virtuous behavior, it’s just that his M.O. was always “accept first.” He openly invited the “classic” sinners, as well as hypocrites with hidden sins, to rush in to the Kingdom of God.

It’s no mistake that Jesus says the greatest commandment is love (Matthew 22:36-40):

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

It’s no mistake that Jesus’s “sheep/goat” judgment is based on expressed, charitable love (Matthew 25:37-40):

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”

It’s no mistake that Paul says love fulfills the Law and prophets (Galatians 5:6b, 14):

“The only thing that counts is faith, through love, working [Gr. pistis di agapes energoumene]. … For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

It’s no mistake that Jesus mandates a “plank-removal” prerequisite to judgment (Matthew 7:4):

“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?”

It’s no mistake that Paul lambasts those who hypocritically judge unbelievers and hedonists, as if they themselves were completely faithful and pure (Romans 2:1):

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

It’s no mistake that Paul explicitly declares love superior to faith (1 Corinthians 13:13):

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

It’s no mistake that John predicates true faith on expressed, merciful love (1 John 4:7-8, 18):

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. … There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

It’s no mistake that Paul gives us only one continuing debt — that of loving others (Romans 13:8-10):

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

It’s no mistake that James lauds the “royal law of freedom” — loving others — by positing that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:8, 12-13):

“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. … Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

These aren’t typos.

The specific admonitions to specific audiences in Scripture are not our “highest pillar.”

Niddling legalism and culture mores — even those declared universal, like Paul’s opinions about gender and hair length — must always be subordinate and subservient to the royal law of freedom.

It’s one thing to recognize this “king love” hierarchy in the Kingdom of God.

It’s another to express it.

And to express it truly — to fight past the human propensity for self-validating hypocrisy and judgment — requires overwhelming love-driven practice.

To hit the target with a weak bow, one must aim shockingly high.

So aim shockingly high.


For a thought experiment that explores the disruptive force of love under New Covenant morality, read “The Fourfaced Writ.”

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Burning Channels: Four Ways Evangelism Undermines Evangelism

When I was a product manager on social games, we enjoyed several different avenues of direct communication to our players, like e-mails or mobile push notifications. These we called “channels.”

In order to remind players that our games existed, we took advantage of these channels and sent messages. Up to a certain point, the more frequently you sent messages, the higher rate of average user engagement you’d receive in return.

The problem was that in order to fill that “air time,” you’d be forced to send more and more messages that wouldn’t be considered meaningful. It would start to come across as spam. Eventually, players could get so annoyed that they’d either block us, or they’d mentally ignore our messages. We’d have “burned our channel.”

Remember “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?”

“There was a shepherd boy who was so bored that he cried, ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ to feign an emergency, summon the town, and prompt some excitement and attention. The town showed up, and the boy claimed that the wolf fled just before they arrived.

Each time this happened, the town’s trust in the boy eroded more and more, until eventually they concluded that the boy wasn’t trustworthy.

One day, a wolf really did show up, and the town ignored the boy’s cries.”

The boy, in this story, also burned a channel — his avenue of receptive communication to the town.

In the former case, the catalyst was true information that lacked value to the receiver. In the latter case, the catalyst was false information (which thereby lacked value to the receiver). Notice that whether the information is true or not is not important for catalysis; rather, the catalyst is whether the information has or lacks value to the receiver.

Put another way, “Can the receiver trust that the information being conveyed is dependably important?”

There are 4 big ways for communication to lack or lose value to the receiver.

  1. It is completely non-resonant; it’s aggressive, offensive, confusing, or eccentric.
  2. It’s seemingly worth less than its postage. As with the case of spamming to players, there’s some resonance, but the updates are too anemic and/or non-novel.
  3. It’s a “wolf cry“; the information is knowingly deceptive or disingenuously toes the line.
  4. It’s a “shadow cry.” What if the boy, each time, really did think he saw a wolf’s shadow flitting along the tree line at the edge of the field? The boy’s paranoia and excessive panicking over shadow problems would similarly burn his channel to the town, even if he isn’t trying to be malicious.

The endeavor of Christian evangelism has been guilty of all 4 of these communication blunders.

That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that these blunders burn channels.

1. Non-Resonant Evangelism

Paul saw evangelization as a process of slavish bowing to resonance in order to convey the Gospel therethrough.

1 Corinthians 9

“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Evangelization wasn’t a prideful bulldozing. It wasn’t a juggernaut, let alone a state-sponsored and state-funded juggernaut.

It was a crawling appeal, in person, for the cause of Christ.

Consider Paul’s evangelization strategy with the pagans in Athens:

Acts 17

“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god.’ So you are unaware of the very thing you worship, and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. … He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by human design and skill.'”

The controversy and confrontation was there, such that “some of them sneered,” but it was full of shrewd parleying along vectors of shared resonance.

This aligns with Jesus’s command for evangelization in Matthew 10: “Be as shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves.”

Paul recognized the Athenians’ genuine sense of spirituality. He quoted their own poets. And he appealed to their reason, arguing how a genuine deity wouldn’t need anything, let alone need to be graven into visibility — rather, a genuine deity would be known by his power, found through genuine seeking and finding.

duh

Anti-atheism is now a business. Under the auspices of evangelization, and/or “fighting fire with fire” against the New Atheist luminaries, some notable Christians have taken it upon themselves to launch acid volleys at anyone who dares doubt the “obviousness” of our God — our God, who is invisible and must be sought.

Books, blogs, Twitter accounts, seminars, and conferences are being filled with what amounts to choir-preaching that reaches very few atheists at all.

Acts 17 says that some Athenians sneered, but some became followers.

What is the response from unbelievers when faced with aggressive charges of nihilism, amoralism, immoralism, or outright stupidity?

90% sneer?

99% sneer?

99.99% sneer?

I’m probably lowballing it still.

And when I hear, “But that notorious New Atheist is acerbic, too!,” I must ask, is that person’s behavior to what we should aspire?

When the reputation and impression of Christ is on the line, we shouldn’t be weaponizing our witnessing, nor should we be banking on the efficacy of excessive eccentricity. God wants to meet people where they’re at, and we’re called to help foster that rendezvous.

2. Spam Evangelism

Dropping millions of leaflets from the sky is a great way to get raw volume. But are recipients more likely to read and absorb the content, or are they more likely to gripe about the litter in their lawn?

tip

Whether one’s evangelical “carpet-bombing” is in the form of something as benign as bumper stickers or as insulting as tip tracts, cheap volume floods and destroys channels.

Think about it. Which is more effective?

  • A bumper sticker with “WWJD” on it, or a co-worker exemplifying patience and wisdom?
  • A tract on a car window, or a commitment to volunteer work?
  • A billboard with a scary Bible verse, or an invitation to church?

Now, this isn’t a zero-sum proposition, as if doing the latter precludes the former. But the former things are so cheap — and thereby ubiquitous — that they can mold what following Jesus “looks like” to nonbelievers.

And it looks like spam.

Folks aren’t deeply reached through sterile, inauthentic ad blasts.

3. Crying Wolf

You can convince a lot of people that you’re healing people when you’re not. False faith healers are exploiting people all around the world, giving false promises of recoveries of which they are obviously uncertain.

But there’s another kind of faith healing: Healing bank accounts.

osteenSome — like Pat Robertson’s 700 Club — insinuate that by sending them money, miraculous wads of money will start showing up in return.

Others — like Joel Osteen — giftwrap “The Secret” positive thinking in vaguely-Christian clothing. From his book, “Your Best Life Now”:

“Each day, you must choose to live with an attitude that expects good things to happen to you. … Friend, that’s what faith is all about. You have to start believing that good things are coming your way, and they will!”

And what if they don’t? What if no miraculous money wad pops into their mailbox? What if they don’t get that promotion or that new house? What if monetary success and security is not at all a guarantee for every believer, and the “Prosperity Gospel” is a load of garbage?

What happens, of course, is that the disappointed folks will stay silent or stop attending, and the successful folks will stay hooked.

Such a result is great for business, if we’re talking about the publishing and broadcasting businesses of Robertson and Osteen.

But not so good for the health of the church.

Like crying wolf, crying “Monetary success is headed your way!” is dishonest and reckless. It hooks plenty, but it burns the channel of genuine, healthy communion with Christ and his church.

4. Crying Shadow

Apocalyptism — the idea that the world is getting worse and that we’re on the precipice of a collapse — is extremely dopamine stimulative. However frightening such a situation might sound on the surface, it’s actually an exciting narrative that provides many folks with a sense of existential meaning and self-validation.

Apocalyptism subsists on a perception of “shadow wolves” — that any tree-line movement is from vicious, drooling wolves, planning their imminent attack.

In the case of Christianity — at least, American Christianity — it’s most often in the form of overblown “Culture War” memes in a grand persecution narrative.

churchstate

Consider the following facts:

  • Increasingly, government institutions are being barred from praising God as part of their official state business.
  • Department store employees are commonly instructed to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
  • States are overturning, as unconstitutional, bills that outlawed same-sex marriage. [EDIT: Since this writing it has become the case that, in the United States, any person can now legally marry his/her life partner.]

These facts are easily woven into a persecution narrative that’s powered by the fuel of apocalyptism. And the paranoid alarmism about these facts is, in turn, crafted into what the general public perceives Christianity to be “about.”

But these three facts are, at the end of the day, rather trivial, regardless of where you stand on they’re being good or bad.

Even if these facts are considered lamentable (which is debatable), they frankly aren’t that big of a deal compared to the horrors, injustices, vice, idolatry, laziness, violence, and wanton selfishness that pervade our culture.

And, thus, the outrageous focus on “Culture War” drama burns that channel of authentic Christ-seeking. Outsiders can’t depend on Christian expertise on moral issues because the high-volume, apocalyptic kind of Christianity is so obsessed with trivial things.

In these cases, the boy does think a wolf is stalking his flock from the tree-line. But that doesn’t change the fact that the town has learned, rightly, to ignore his paranoid cries.

Self-Control

It’s hard to articulate the virtue of self-control when it comes to something that is, in proper doses and proper method, a good thing.

We humans generally have trouble leaving food on the plate, even when we’re full.

That’s why it can be useful to put vice and virtue in terms of fables or parables, like Highlights for Children‘s “Goofus and Gallant.”

goofus

As we weigh evangelization strategies and how bad ones might burn bridges and damage the mission for Christ, Goofus and Gallant provide for us an easy way to envision which strategies are praiseworthy.

Regarding non-resonant evangelism, Goofus:

  • … Brags about how he is saved and everyone else is going to hell.
  • … Goes out of his way to insult those who disagree with him.
  • … Is needlessly offensive to those of other religions.
  • … Puts non-believers into pigeonholing boxes.
  • … Gossips about other groups with which he is unfamiliar.

Whereas Gallant:

  • … Finds common ground.
  • … Recognizes the good in contrary positions while staying honestly critical.
  • … Is strikingly courteous and charitable.
  • … Is warm and polite.
  • … Is patiently articulate and slow to anger.
  • … “Walks” more than he “talks.”

1 Corinthians 10

“I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”

Regarding spam evangelism, Goofus:

  • … Leaves a tract instead of a tip, while brazenly assuming his waitress isn’t a believer.
  • … Litters driveways and windshields with literature, causing more irritation than interest.
  • … Plasters his car with loud, aggressive slogans unlikely to intrigue anyone.
  • … Pays for billboards that make people more afraid of Christianity than attracted.

Whereas Gallant:

  • … Searches for opportunities to reach non-believers in meaningful ways.
  • … Acts in service of people individually rather than as a group to be pelted.
  • … Finds creative ways to avoid offense and irritation while prompting interest.
  • … Engages folks with authentic, personal witnessing, even though it takes longer and targets fewer.

Galatians 6

“Each one should carry their own load… Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Regarding crying wolf, Goofus:

  • … Promises that life will be easy with Christ.
  • … Assures folks that any suffering will yield payoffs in life (Zophar’s fallacy).
  • … Guarantees that giving to the church will yield monetary dividends in return.
  • … Insists that some fortunate event must have been due to God’s miraculous blessing.
  • … Insists that some unfortunate event must have been due to God’s miraculous judgment.
  • … Insists that some amazing natural wonder or mechanism must have been due to God’s miraculous, exceptional intervention.

Whereas Gallant:

  • … Preaches a hope in a downward payoff for any suffering in life.
  • … Paints a realistic picture of the difficulties but peaceful promise of the Christian faith.
  • … Stays reluctant about reckless prophesying, encouraging others to admit the mystery of the intricacies of God’s plans.
  • … Searches for natural explanations for the amazing, natural phenomena of God’s creation, rather than rushing to, “God zapped this!”
  • … Helps folks make wise, responsible decisions given our stewarding role on Earth, rather than fatalistically punting on decisionmaking.

2 Corinthians 8

“For we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man.”

And regarding crying shadow, Goofus:

  • … Gets worried about the extrication of church from state.
  • … Sees “agendas” around every corner.
  • … Thinks state sponsorship of gay marriage is a “top 10” issue to which to devote his attention.
  • … Imagines Satan’s visage behind anything with which he disagrees.
  • … Imagines Satan’s visage behind anything he hasn’t taken the time to research or understand.
  • … Falls for “news entertainment” that hooks people into paranoid, apocalyptic narratives.

Whereas Gallant:

  • … Understands that the Kingdom of God needs no theocratic representation.
  • … Recognizes that of which he’s ignorant and which deserves close, critical investigation.
  • … Is skeptical of “news entertainment”; he checks his food before eating.
  • … Is earnest and diligent about keeping Christ’s message pure and undefiled by the image-crafting of commercial interests that seek to exploit Christians and the Christian “brand.”
  • … Prioritizes important problems like violence, sickness, poverty, laziness, injustice, and oppression above trivial things like how department store employees send good December tidings to customers.

Romans 12

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Like chocolate, there is such thing as too much evangelism, even though evangelism is good.

“Too much” is when our ministerial message is crafted haphazardly and broadcasted brainlessly.

“Too much” is when we find ourselves enthralled by numbers games, lazy carpet-bombing, and manufactured culture controversies.

The ministry of Christ, to which we’re called to passionately and carefully pursue, is a ministry of the heart. Let’s not get carried away by the loud, aggressive, reckless patterns of this world, however tempting that too-much-chocolate can be.

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Kicking Baal Out of Schools

You live in the United States. In the Constitution, it says that congress can make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

One of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, described this amendment as a “wall of separation between the church and the state.”

You go to a state-run public school, which must conform to this Constitutional maxim.

First Day of School

It’s your first day at this school, having arrived in a new town after moving.

You get on the bus and are driven to school. The bus parks, but the door hasn’t opened yet. The bus driver is sitting there, silent.

A student in the very front stands up. She is wearing a strange conical hat.

“All who worship Baal Hadad as master and lord, raise your hand in reverence!” she shouts. All of the other children raise their hands and look around.

Several notice that you’re not raising your hand, and begin to whisper and murmur to one another. Soon, everyone is talking about you, and looking at you like something is completely wrong with you.

You really want to leave. Why isn’t the bus driver opening the door? You stand up and walk hurriedly down the aisle.

“Let me off,” you shout at the bus driver.

“Of course, you’re not captive,” says the driver, and opens the door for you.

But Soon…

You go to your first class. The bell rings for class to start, but the teacher is sitting silently at her desk, reading.

Like on the bus before, a student up front, wearing a conical hat, stands up and addresses the students.

“Let us now sing praises to Baal Hadad, king of the heavens!” he shouts.

He begins to sing. The other students join him. You don’t want to be a part of this.

You get up to walk to the teacher, who is still reading silently. As you do, the other students stop singing, and stare, aghast that you would interrupt the worship. They give you horrible looks and scoff.

You ask the teacher to be excused.

“Of course,” the teacher says, and gives you a pass to read in the library until the lesson begins.

You come back 10 minutes later, and the teacher has already started teaching. You rush to take your seat.

This happens in several subsequent classes. Sometimes singing, sometimes a creed recital, sometimes a prayer, sometimes a “meditative moment of silence.”

Similar things happen at lunch.

You go to an assembly. Same thing.

Each time, no school faculty is directly involved. They just sit silently while the students lead the Baal-worship. And each time, when you ask to be excused, you’re allowed.

Legal Action

This is a horrible state of affairs that clearly violates that “wall of separation” of which the Jefferson wrote. This town of Baal-worshipers is transparently and cynically incorporating Baal-worship into their public school system by using a “back door” of “periods of inactivity” + “student-prompted actions.”

You decide to hire a lawyer and try to put a stop to this.

The resolution is that if public school faculty has reasonable knowledge that a student plans to perform religious rituals for reasons other than pure, curricula-driven education, they have to stop it. Otherwise, they are giving official permission, even if it’s veiled under the auspices of “faculty passivity” and “student freedom.”

The Supreme Court hands down this decision.

To violate this decision is to violate the Constitution.

The Social Aftermath

The incorporation of prayers and worship and creeds to Baal disappears at your school.

Now, instead of getting dirty looks from students for asking to be excused, you get dirty looks from students and their parents.

They blame you for “kicking Baal out of schools” and falsely complain that the school has “banned prayer.”

Conclusion

State-run institutions should not be complicit in the worship of deities, because not everyone believes in those deities.

As Christians, we should be passionate about making sure that everyone is treated with charity and equity, and not attempt to force our beliefs on others through state-run institutions.

Prideful shows of allegiance, intimidating social pressure, and ostracism do nothing but sow resentment and discomfort in non-believers. This is trivially obvious when you craft an imaginary situation in which you’re in “their shoes.”

 

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True Scotsmen and True Christians

“No True Scotsman” is a rhetorical trick where you modify the definition of something on-the-fly to rebut someone’s claim of an exception.

  • Let’s say I proclaim, “All Scotsmen love haggis.”
  • A person might say, “I’m a Scotsman, and I hate haggis.”
  • I could then claim, “Well, then you aren’t a true Scotsman. True Scotsmen love haggis.”

Some Christians pull a version of this maneuver when confronted with the deplorable and regretful actions of various historical Christians.

It works a bit like this:

  • Dave says, “Christians always do good things.”
  • Jill says, “How can you say that? What about the forced conversions, burning of heretics, and wars of religion we see perpetuated by Christians throughout history?”
  • Dave replies, “The people who did those awful things weren’t true Christians.”

This isn’t to say that this is always a trick. Sometimes, the intent isn’t to perform a rhetorical evasion, but to clarify the particular sense of the word they were originally employing.

In the above, it may be that there are two definitions at play:

  • Jill’s definition of “Christian” is probably in the sense of outward and visible declarations of belief and/or allegiance. In this way, many people responsible for unimaginable atrocities have declared belief in Christ and themselves to be Christians.
  • Dave’s definition of “Christian” is probably in the sense of an inward and relatively invisible state of an individual and her genuine relationship with Christ, which ostensibly prompts her to act charitably as she is being sanctified by his Grace. When a person commits an atrocity, then, it is a spike of evidence that they are not a Christian in this sense.

I believe that Jill’s approach is much better than Dave’s; Dave’s hinges on “unclear genuineness” which is toxic for communication.

Bibliopsychology: Why the Servant Did Nothing

  • “You were just trying to help. But you ended up doing more harm than good.”
  • “Your heart was in the right place, but you just made things worse.”

There’s something uniquely depressing about these sentences. It turns out, it’s the same mechanism that makes you feel sad when an opportunity is lost, or when your reputation is damaged.

You depend on yourself to have a decent understanding of the world — the state of the world, and how it works. When something unexpected and bad happens as a result of something you thought you were doing right, it throws into question those things on which you were depending.

The result is confusion, anxiety, and a desperate retrospective evaluation of what went wrong, or what you could have done differently.

Needless to say, that process usually isn’t very pleasant. And thus, undergoing that process is a “loss” in and of itself. You don’t want to feel that way.

You’re sitting on a bus, riding to work, when a moaning young man falls out of his seat. He pulls himself up, kneeling on one knee, eyes closed, and holds the bar in front of him. He doesn’t look so well.

A part of you wants to go to him, lean down next to him, and ask him if he’s alright, maybe help him back into his seat. But what if he yells, “Get your hands off of me!”? What if he says, “I don’t need your help!”?

There are so many people watching. He’ll probably be okay.

“I’d sure be an idiot if I went to help, only to come across as patronizing in front of everyone.”

“I’d sure be an idiot…” is the beginning of a sentence that indicates loss aversion is at play.

Loss aversion is a psychological phenomenon where we are doubly afraid of perceived losses than we are eager for perceived gains.

Gambling games leverage this by using various tricks to flip loss/gain perceptions upside-down, and make you be loss aversive about future hopes, e.g., “I better not walk away from the slot machine… I’d sure be an idiot if the very next pull was the jackpot.”

You’re afraid of being embarrassed.

You’re afraid of the anxiety.

You’re afraid of the unpleasantness of dwelling over and over again on the incident if it goes badly, for days or weeks.

By “you,” I really mean “me,” since that bus incident happened to me a few years ago.

After a few minutes, the bus driver found place to pull over, got up, and came back herself to check on the young man. He simply moaned, allowed her to help him up, and got back into his seat.

I was closer to him. I wasn’t busy. I was just loss aversive — I was afraid. And I allowed myself to be the “priest” who “passed by on the other side.”

Everybody else on the bus was guilty of the same negligence. But, privately, I was more embarrassed with myself than I would ever have been if the young man had reacted badly. My critical faculties were appalled at what my lower-order faculties — those selfish, “now”-driven impulses to which we feel enslaved — had allowed to occur.

I was completely ashamed. How on Earth could I let that happen? The Good Samaritan story is one of the most resonant and famous of Jesus’s teachings. What kind of Christian am I? What kind of human?

I dwelt over and over again on that incident. I was anxious about its implications. I was confused about how I could have failed so plainly.

But wait.

Isn’t that I was afraid of in the first place?

The unpleasantness of dwelling on a bad memory, anxiety, and confusion?

It was!

What this realization meant was this: Like in a casino game’s design, I can flip my loss aversion upside-down as it suits my higher-order interests. I resolved that when a similar situation happens again, instead of fearing the riskiness of commission, I would fear the riskiness of omission.

And fearing the riskiness of omission is another way to say, “Be doubly eager to commit your charity.”

I’m talking about psychology, loss aversion, dopamine stimulation — but Jesus was onto it the whole time.

We’re not called to sit there and bank on the supposed “amorality” of omission.

That earns a justified “You lazy servant!”