Is killing in self-defense a sin?
As a follower of Jesus Christ, you are supposed to do everything in your power to self-defend doing the least possible damage. Killing should be “prioritized last” on our list of options, and the manner of self-defense we employ should not recklessly catalyze a “killing” conclusion.
This makes us and our families more vulnerable — when in immediate danger — than someone who is willing and eager to kill any assailant.
The previous sentence bothers some folks enough to rationalize violence in their minds. This anxiety can affect even us Christians, who are called to radical love and peace, even at the expense of our property, welfare, and lives.
The debate within Christianity is mostly tension between deontological morality and consequential morality.
Deontological morality is where “rules rule.”
About what rules are we talking here? Jesus told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, and showed by example what that can mean: martyrdom.
Many believers thereafter, and I’m sure plenty of their family members, too, followed that example to their graves.
Consequential morality is where “results rule.”
We can vividly imagine situations in which an otherwise ill action is the right action in terms of consequence.
For example, James praised Rahab for saving lives through deception, and we praise those who used deception to save Jews from Nazi investigators.
The clearest statement of New Covenant consequentialism comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:23 — “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable; all things are lawful, but not all things are constructive” — after he relaxed a moral rule (forbidding the eating of idol-sacrificed food) held sacrosanct by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.
Some of us — for better or for worse — extend this “justified means” to allow killing in certain circumstances.
Now, consequentialism is how morality “works,” if “morality” is defined as “right decisionmaking on lofty or grave issues.” Or, at least, that’s the assertion driving this post!
But there are two big problems with pure consequentialism:
- First, it has a subjective appeal to make. A particular person’s interest set might be wildly out of sync with the interest set of society in aggregate.
There is no “objectively right” interest set under consequentialism, because the question of “rightness” in turn makes an appeal to an interest set. Is Madeline consequentially right to defend herself and her family if her actions unintentionally spark a war? Well, depends whose interest set we’re using, right?
Madeline may say, “I don’t care! My family’s all that matters.” Under consequentialism, it is not foregone that humanity “ought be valued” at all, let alone society vs. me (some New Atheists propose otherwise, and are flatly mistaken).
- Second, we’re notoriously terrible at understanding the full consequences of our actions.
A more plausible version of the above “sparking war” example would have Madeline not at all fathoming that defending her family would spark a war!
To solve these two problems in practice, a two-fold solution is employed:
- An agent can force his interest set upon another agent. The more powerful he is, the more he is able to do this.
This power can be in numbers — i.e., a town against a serial killer — or can be in raw ability — i.e., God against the wicked.
So, an interest set is forced. It helps if these forced interests are not popularly thought to have subjective roots (even though they do).
- Once we have an interest set, we can simplify moral action using rules.
Instead of permitting a person to think for himself when contemplating whether stealing bread is justified (Surprise! He very often thinks it’s justified!) we tell him “You are forbidden to steal.”
Occasionally, this will cause something bad to happen, but a good (as defined by the interest set) rule will be generally profitable (as defined by the interest set) when followed by everyone all the time.
So, morality is simplified into rules. Assuming these rules are good (that is, generally consequentially profitable), it helps if morality is popularly thought to be “primarily about rules” (even though it isn’t) so that folks don’t think their rule-breaking is ever justified (even though it can be).
Now, we don’t simplify everything into rules; consequentialism is still how morality “works,” and we can make most decisions day-to-day by applying observation, reason, and prediction.
But for very impactful actions whose consequences are numerous and incalculable, we say to ourselves, “Only an expert should feel entitled to violate this rule” (trivially true) and “No human is an expert” (trivially true). The “free truth” that pops out of these trivial truths is, “No human should feel entitled to violate this rule.”
Further, we’re more inclined to “rule-ify” something if we notice that individuals are weirdly quick to take certain actions at the expense of everyone else. That is, for highly-tempting actions.
We can see Jesus employ this practical solution in his radical advocacy of nonviolent response:
- An interest set is forced. Our own interest set, including the safety of our families, is made subordinate to the will of God and the good of his Kingdom, and his good purposes for the whole world.
- Knowing that violent response is high-impact and highly-tempting, the morality thereof is simplified into rules.
It remains false that “the ends never justify the means” — under consequentialism, means are justified (or not) by their many ends — but extrapolating the impact of killing people to defend ourselves and our families is astronomically above our “non-expert” paygrade.
As such, we’re “no longer allowed” to think completely for ourselves about killing people.
Put simply, God’s interests reign supreme and we are non-experts. And so we’re called to be hyper, hyper reluctant, exhausting every other option, even if it means our families are at greater risk because we try warnings before punching and punching before shooting (so to speak).
We recognize that “results rule,” but we reject pure consequentialism and find rule obligations very useful. This is what compels us, in humility and obedience, to resist violence under the banner of Jesus Christ.
The following talks about the intersection of deontology and consequentialism through the figure of the “Angelic Ladder,” introduced by pivotal 20th-century Christian philosopher of language R. M. Hare:
- The Angelic Ladder (with video)
The following talks about why “the ends can’t justify the means” is false in theory, but why it’s super-useful and, for most of us, practically true when it comes to very-ill means:
- Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 1 (with diagrams)
Last summer, we talked about how the claim, “If universal reconciliation (like through purgatorial hell) were certain, then free will would be destroyed,” reveals the incoherence of libertarian notions of free will.
At that time, I gave brief support to a direct rebuttal. That wasn’t really the primary thesis, though; the primary thesis was that “this whole thing” served as a good red flag “alert” that libertarian free will is just a logical wildcard (useful in rhetoric and conceptually-evocative, but mostly incoherent and ultimately confusing).
It turns out, however, that this rebuttal wasn’t very well-crafted, and I needed to do a better job of showing clearly why that original claim is false.
Hopefully I can do that irrespective of what kind of “free will” we’re talking about or in which we believe.
In this thought experiment, we’re going to pretend that Patricia is the only human being. God created Patricia and called it done. Patricia is the whole of the human race.
Patricia sins and undergoes the Fall, and is in need of reconciliation. To accept God’s offer of reconciliation, she must exert her “free will,” whatever that might mean. But she hasn’t done it yet.
God turns to an angel and declares, “Patricia will eventually be reconciled.”
One of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation, and this has destroyed her “free will.”
- God’s has knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation, and this has not destroyed her “free will.”
- God doesn’t have knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation; he’s just guessing or hoping.
I think most Christians (who aren’t Open Theists) would bank on option #2: God’s knowledge of Patricia’s eventual reconciliation has no effect on her freedom or lack thereof.
In this next thought experiment, we’ll pretend that Patricia and Patrick are the only human beings. They Fall, they need reconciliation, and they must exert their “free wills” to accept it.
God turns to an angel and declares, “Both Patricia and Patrick will eventually be reconciled.”
Again, one of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of both Patricia and Patrick, and this has destroyed their “free will.”
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of both Patricia and Patrick, and this has not destroyed their “free will.”
- God doesn’t have knowledge of their eventual reconciliation; he’s just guessing or hoping.
That Christian from the previous thought experiment, who banked on option #2, has no justifiable reason to change his mind here. Adding a second individual changes nothing.
The trick, of course, is that God’s statements were statements of universal reconciliation in both thought experiments.
And we can just keep adding people to the thought experiment — adding Adam, Eve, Tatum, Steve, Theresa, Bree, you, me — until we arrive at the total real population of human souls.
Thus, if you’re the sort of Christian who believes that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of a particular individual does not destroy “free will,” then you’re burdened to also believe that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of everyone — if he had such knowledge — would likewise not destroy “free will.”
This argument should work no matter what you mean by “free will,” as long as you’re a “Green Christian.”
Even Vague Promises are Promises
But what if you’re not a “Green Christian?” What if you’re an “Orange Christian?”
(In this case, you’d probably be an Open Theist; you deny God’s certainty of future will-contingent events.)
Let’s revisit the second thought experiment, the one with both Patricia and Patrick.
This time, though, God turns to an angel and declares, “One of these two will eventually be reconciled; the other will never be reconciled.”
In this case, where no specific declaration is made about the destination of any particular individual, the options mutate slightly. We find that one of the following must be true:
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person, and this has destroyed the “free will” of both Patricia and Patrick.
- God’s has knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person, and this has not destroyed the “free will” of both Patricia and Patrick.
- God doesn’t have knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of at least one person; he’s just guessing or hoping.
Option #3 doesn’t seem so bad with only Patricia and Patrick in play.
But when we add the rest of humanity into the thought experiment — Adam, Eve, Tatum, Steve, Theresa, Bree, you, me — option #3 remains annoyingly unchanged.
In other words, for “Orange Christians,” God isn’t sure that even one person will be reconciled. It may be that, in the end, literally everybody will (in exercise of their “free will”) spurn God at the last moment.
He can play the odds, of course. “What are the chances,” a future-uncertain God might ask, “that everyone will duck out at the last moment? Pretty slim!”
But it remains possible under that paradigm. The final apocalyptic expectation may be a disaster. The New Jerusalem may be empty of citizenry.
Put simply, under option #3, God supplied us with vivid promises, and there’s a possibility that he may be proven a liar.
Either Bail Out…
That “liar possibility” is a reductio ad absurdum against option #3.
If we don’t think there’s any chance that the City will be empty — if our confidence in God’s revelatory imagery is more than just “he’s pretty dang sure some folks will make it” — then option #3 must be rejected (in favor of, say, option #2).
And if option #2 is accepted, then one is burdened to admit that God’s knowledge of the eventual reconciliation of everyone — if he had such knowledge — would not destroy “free will.”
… Or Bite the Bullet
If a person does not “bail out” of option #3, then they must bite the bullet on the possibility of a complete eschatological failure of God’s plan.
“But that’s so implausible as to be silly,” such a person might say.
But now the trap is sprung; any “probability against” this silly result can be employed as “probability against” a failure of universal reconciliation (by, say, an Open Theist who believes in universal reconciliation).
Put another way, under Open Theism, the contradictory force of universal reconciliation vs. “free will” is equal to the contradictory force of “at least somebody will be reconciled” vs. “free will.”
That is, “an infinitesimally insignificant amount of contradictory force.”
If you’re a person who asserts option #1, then there’s no “free will” regardless of whether universal reconciliation is true. As such, universal reconciliation represents no “additional invalidating power” against “free will.”
Otherwise, you’re left with either option #2 or option #3. Whichever of these other routes you take, a confidence in universal reconciliation can coexist with “free will” — regardless of how you define “free will.”
- For those of us who believe God knows the future with certainty, that confidence can be a complete confidence, and “free will” remains undestroyed.
- Under Open Theism, that confidence can be a near-complete confidence — akin to the confidence one has that at least somebody will be reconciled — and “free will” remains undestroyed.
- We can use Compatibilism — through the “heterophroneo” — to reconcile Scripture’s statements on sovereignty and freedom.
- For a big primer on purgatorialism, see the Purgatorial Hell FAQ. Included is additional discussion of free will, and how incoherent views of free will can allow “modal scope fallacies” to emerge.
Why is belief in libertarian free will popular?
We’ve explored before how the popularity of an idea is a function of that idea’s memetic virulence and resilience.
- Memetics Pt. 1: Introduction, and the “Fitness” Snag
- Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths)
- Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem
- Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis
The truth or falsity of such an idea is irrelevant for popularity except insofar as that truth or falsity helps or hurts virulence and resilience.
As such, “Um, because it’s correct, DUH!” is not the “easy answer” to our question!
(1) It’s the Default Feeling
As we’ve asserted several times on this blog, libertarian free will is not a “real thing.” It has several different definitions, but all definition attempts so far have been either non-positive abstractions, or vapid, or incoherent, or simply analytically false.
Our assertion, in other words: “We don’t have it. God doesn’t have it. Nobody has it. It’s not a ‘thing to be had.'”
So, what is “it”?
Libertarian free will could be described as an amorphous conceptual blob that roughly encapsulates 3 things nearly all of us feel “by default” and “in our guts.”
- First, we cannot sense the emergence of our thoughts from their underlying causes. Choices seem “ex nihilo,” or “made out of nothing,” because we lack this sense.
It’s similar to how our depth perception stops discriminating at a certain distance, giving a starry sky the false appearance of being a dome.
- Second, we surprise ourselves, and others surprise us, with our thoughts and behaviors. Choices often “seem spontaneous.”
- Finally, those of us with well-developed frontal lobes and vivid spatiotemporal faculties often imagine “multiple future worlds” floating out there. Using our imaginations, we “fill up” these “worlds” with likely details as a way to help us make decisions.
Thus, choices can seem like they elect a “world” into being, and the other “worlds” are still floating there. Prospective hypothetical thinking (“What happens if I do this?”) gives rise to counterfactual hypothetical thinking (“What would’ve happened if I hadn’t?”), giving us the false impression that we have the ability to “have done other than what we have done.”
So, libertarian free will is something like “My decisions have some measure of being uncaused and spontaneous, and they elect between really possible worlds.” Different advocates will quibble about the definition, but generally seek an end result wherein, “I have absolute culpability for my choices and I really could have done otherwise (I don’t just imagine being able).“
(This definition seems meaningful until we demand articulation of “done otherwise.”)
And right from the outset, thanks to these feelings, libertarian free will has a huge “head start” on any competing meme by being the one held “by default” by most of us.
(2) Kochab’s Errors are Sandbags Against Competition
Since it’s the default feeling, any competing meme is a “world-rocker.”
And as we’ve discussed before, when our “worlds are rocked,” they tend to be “TOO rocked,” and we conclude — or worry about concluding — zany conclusions that shouldn’t actually follow from the new information.
This we called Kochab’s Error, and the story of Kochab gave us an amusing way to think about it.
Here are a few Kochab’s Errors that act like “sandbags” against a rejection of libertarian free will:
- “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t be held responsible for our actions.”
This comes from a “buck stops here,” folk idea of responsibility that we know — when we spend some time noodling — doesn’t make any sense. Folk responsibility doesn’t come together philosophically and, for us Christians, doesn’t come together Biblically.
For evidence of the folly of folk responsibility, check out the article, “Holding Folk Responsibility Responsible.”
- “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t practice genuine love.”
This is likely the oldest Kochab’s Error related to libertarian free will in Christian theology, first asserted by 2nd century apologist Justin Martyr. And it’s been a common defense — though non-cogent — of libertarian free will ever since, repeated even today by popular speakers like Ravi Zacharias and others.
These speakers claim that “genuine love” is predicated on risk. For reasons why this is not the case, check out the article, “Genuineness by Association,” on this blog.
- “Without libertarian free will, we’d be robots or puppets.”
This is the most “Kochab” of the Kochab’s Errors, since it represents a severely irrational non sequitur from an acceptance of adequate determinism. We’re surprised that Kochab’s rethinking of the size of our world would affect the distance between two cities; it is similarly nonsensical to imagine that we “become” something lesser upon adequate determinism “becoming” true.
Consider the following thought experiment. Let’s pretend that God decided that on half the days of the year, humans would have libertarian free will. On the other half, their choices would be adequately deterministic (that is, our wills would be strict functions of who we are at a given moment).
How would we be able to tell which days were “on” and which were “off”?
The answer is, “We couldn’t, because the presence or lack of libertarian free will is 100% indiscernible and nonfunctional.” Think of it. The thought experiment above could very well be the way of things right now, and we’d have no way of knowing!
Put simply, whether or not adequate determinism is true, we can make the two benign assertions: First, that we have thoughts and emotions. And second, that robots and puppets do not. Everything else, like whether we make choices through biological mechanisms and/or whether our behavior is back-traceable to external causes, should be discussed on their own merits, without pejorative nicknames therefor.
For more, check out the article, “Does Determinism Make Us Robots?,” on this blog.
- “Without libertarian free will, all events would be reducible to God’s will, and God would be the author of evil.”
Whenever we talk about reducing, we need to make sure we aren’t radically reducing, and blasting past checkpoints of meaning that we know are important.
What’s the important checkpoint here? The reduction-stopper at play is the phenomenon of “deterministic chaos.” Because of the way our universe works, authorship “evaporates” over time unless deliberately reasserted. As such, things can emerge that cannot meaningfully be called God’s authorship, and we find it useful to draw a distinction between “primary causation” and “secondary causation.”
As you can see, each of these sandbags takes hard work to drain.
The whole endeavor requires scaling the scaffolding of things like ethics, semantics, and metaphysics.
Who has time for that?
Who has the patience?
Who has the driving interest?
Some folks do, but the vast majority of us don’t. As such, the memetic sandbags remain for almost everybody.
The Resilient Cocktail
The end result is an idea cocktail that is very resilient.
- First, it’s held by-default. It’s intuitive, even if it isn’t coherently articulable. It’s “gut true,” even if nobody can define it in a way that makes positive sense.
- Second, it resists competition by means of an array of Kochab-driven sandbags. This is especially true for us Christians, since some of these sandbags are traditional and theological.
And thus, libertarian free will remains extremely popular, irrespective of its truth or lack thereof.
It’s possible to talk about our free will while rejecting libertarian free will. We can do this through “compatibilism.” To see how this approach works using Scripture, check out, “Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo.”
It is not necessary to accept Calvinism under Christian determinism. For a helicopter view of the “sovereignty situation,” see “The Big Three Sovereignties.”
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:
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,”
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.
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.”
When we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” we express an imbalance, just like that expressed by the teachers that Jesus
We imagine that we’re doing this:
But what actually happens is this, making the whole structure unbalanced:
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“:
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”:
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.”
The Book of Job is one of the most important of the entire Bible, and is a prerequisite to all discussions of Christian theology, particularly theodicy.
Unfortunately, two erroneous interpretations of Job’s theses are by far the most popular.
Job the Hero: The Sunday School Interpretation
In Sunday School as a child, the Book of Job was presented to me as the story of:
- Satan’s challenge to God,
- Job’s suffering as a result,
- Job courageously refusing to curse God through the suffering,
- and God rewarding that fortitude with recompense and a happy ending.
This is the story of Job in the shallow end of the Christian pool. Take a gander, for example, at Christian heavy metal band Tourniquet’s take on the story:
Bad Friends: The “No Heroes” Interpretation
The other popular “take-away” from Job is that when someone is suffering, words only make things worse, and each person who talked to Job was wrong.
Job’s friends Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are indeed rebuked, in the end, by God himself. And Job’s complaints against his friends would seem to serve such a thesis.
Ravi Zacharias wrote in his recent book, “Why Suffering? Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense”:
“[A ‘negative reality’ emerged in] the colossal failure of [Job’s] friends. They were at their best when they took time out of their own lives just to be with him, saying nothing. The moment they began to give their own observations for why Job was suffering and offer their suggestions for remedying his situation, Job’s pain intensified. To be loved and feel cared about is what someone who is hurting needs from friends.”
Zacharias sees the problem of Job’s friends remedied only by God’s ultimate arrival:
“So the failure we see in the story of Job is the failure of friendship. Then comes the answer of God. God’s answer was not propositional, but relational. And that is what Job most needed. He simply needed to know that God was with him through his ordeal… that God had not abandoned him.”
The Problems With These Interpretations
The former interpretation accounts for Job chapters 1, chapter 2 verses 1 through 10, and chapter 42 verses 10 through 16. As such, it is missing about 40 chapters of content.
The latter interpretation has completely jettisoned the most overlooked prophet in the Old Testament: Elihu.
An Overview of Job
Job’s 42 chapters contain the following:
- An introduction to Job’s predicament.
- Job arguing with friends Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad about whether Job is righteous vs. whether God is just.
- Elihu arguing against both Job and Job’s 3 friends.
- The Storm of God arriving and boasting of His transcendent power, wisdom, and justice.
- The conclusion: Job repents, God rebukes Job’s 3 friends (not Elihu), and Job is given recompense (as far as it can be called that).
Notice how much material Elihu provides, material never thereafter rebutted, left to be punctuated by God himself. Isn’t it odd that he is so often forgotten, bundled as “just another friend” alongside Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad?
Elihu as Prophet
Elihu is not a shy character. He’s a young upstart, and makes no apologies about the wisdom he brings to the table:
“I thought, ‘Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.’ But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding. It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right. … My words come from an upright heart; my lips sincerely speak what I know. The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life. … Be silent, [Job,] and I will teach you wisdom. … Hear my words, you wise men [Eliphaz, Zophar, Bildad]; listen to me, you men of learning. … So listen to me, you men of understanding. … If you have understanding, hear this; listen to what I say.”
All this, and God does not rebuke him like he rebukes everyone else.
Because Elihu really is providing us with truth and revelation.
He really is confronting Job, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad and correcting their bad theology.
“Bear with me a little longer and I will show you that there is more to be said on God’s behalf. I get my knowledge from afar; I will ascribe justice to my Maker. Be assured that my words are not false; one who has perfect knowledge is with you.”
This isn’t some joke.
This is prophecy.
Elihu is on the scene to resolve the dispute, chastising both prior groups and offering the correct theological perspective.
Job’s Lamentation Theology
The calamity that befalls Job — and for which God is superordinately responsible (he deliberately gave permission to Satan here, after all) — prompts Job to regret the day he was born. He claims personal righteousness, and thus his misfortunes must be indicative (given that superordinate responsibility) of injustice in God, given that justice means, “He repays everyone for what they have done; he brings on them what their conduct deserves (Job 34).”
Job laments the fact that he cannot approach God personally with the case for his innocence; he yearns to do so! His friends aren’t “buying” that case, but Job surmises that a person lives that could vindicate him.
Job doesn’t relax God’s classical attributes. He fully endorses God’s omnipotence and superordinate responsibility (Job 12), as well as his cosmic wisdom (Job 28).
As such, Job’s theodicean solution — his “lamentation theology” — is to indict God’s benevolence.
“There is no justice,” Job says.
The Karmic Folk Theology of Eliphaz, Zophar, & Bildad
Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad have different emphases, but repeat some similar themes, and since are all rebuked, can be treated as a group.
Their argument is as follows: Since God is just (“He repays everyone for what they have done”) and superordinately responsible for what happens to a person, then if something bad happens to a person, it must be in response to something that person has done. Eliphaz articulates this “common sense” karmic folk theology:
“Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.”
Bildad, for example, jumps to the conclusion that Job’s sons must have been sinners, too:
“Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.”
Every time Job insists that he’s innocent, his friends go the opposite direction: Job must be super wicked, and trying to hide it. Zophar says:
“Though evil is sweet in [a wicked man’s] mouth, and he hides it under his tongue… [it] will turn sour in his stomach [and] become the venom of serpents within him.”
As Job proves adamant in his own defense, his friend Bildad retreats to that classic “catch-all” of total depravity: As a human, you are so beneath God that you are a worthless maggot and deserve whatever happens to you.
“How then can a mortal be righteous before God? How can one born of woman be pure? If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less a mortal, who is but a maggot; a human being, who is only a worm!”
Eliphaz weaves a powerful figure: A wealthy man, portly and happy, brought down to shriveling, sickly misery.
Elihu’s Rejection of Job’s Lamentation Theology
First, Elihu sees it within human capacity to discern God’s justice in the abstract, even if we don’t know how it plays out day-by-day. He rejects the idea that God’s goodness and justice are completely inscrutable, as if something without human-appreciable meaning.
“For the ear tests words as the tongue tastes food. Let us discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good.”
Elihu further defines justice (“He repays everyone for what they have done”) and rejects the notion that God would pervert justice.
So, Elihu joins Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad against Job’s claim of innocence.
“His eyes are on the ways of mortals; he sees their every step. … Should God then reward you on your terms, when you refuse to repent? … [We all agree that] Job speaks without knowledge; his words lack insight. Oh, that Job might be tested to the utmost for answering like a wicked man! To his sin he adds rebellion; scornfully he claps his hands among us and multiplies his words against God.”
Elihu’s Rejection of Karmic Folk Theology
But here’s where it gets interesting.
Elihu agrees, Job has sinned, insofar as Job arrogantly indicted God for injustice, speaking “of things [he] did not understand”; Job’s plea, laden with such “empty talk,” was brazen, reckless, and cheap.
But he rejects the notion that man is a “maggot” who deserves whatever befalls him. The transcendence of God to man does not make man despised, but rather, makes man’s wickedness less impactful to God:
“Look up at the heavens and see; gaze at the clouds so high above you. If you sin, how does that affect him? If your sins are many, what does that do to him? … Your wickedness only affects humans like yourself.”
Instead of a “despised mankind” narrative, Elihu crafts a narrative in which God has an instrumental purpose for all he does:
“God is mighty, but despises no one; he is mighty, and firm in his purpose.”
In this way, God’s justice is comprehensible, but the intricacies of how that justice will be made manifest are mysterious. God is not a flayer; he’s a teacher:
“Who is a teacher like him? Who has prescribed his ways for him, or said to him, ‘You have done wrong’? … How great is God — beyond our understanding!”
It’s less about “vengeance,” but instead about correction, forebearing as long as that purpose has hope:
“He tells [the sinner] what they have done — that they have sinned arrogantly. He makes them listen to correction and commands them to repent of their evil.”
He recrafts Eliphaz’s tale of the sickened man into a narrative of redemption:
“Someone may be chastened on a bed of pain with constant distress in their bones, so that their body finds food repulsive and their soul loathes the choicest meal. Their flesh wastes away to nothing, and their bones, once hidden, now stick out. They draw near to the pit, and their life to the place of the dead.
Yet if there is an angel at their side, a messenger, one out of a thousand, sent to tell them how to be upright, and he is gracious to that person and says to God, ‘Spare them from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom for them — let their flesh be renewed like a child’s; let them be restored as in the days of their youth’ — then that person can pray to God and find favor with him, they will see God’s face and shout for joy; he will restore them to full well-being. … God does all these things to a person — twice, even three times — to turn them back from the pit, that the light of life may shine on them.”
Christ as Victor
We’ve talked before about how the existential dilemma of Ecclesiastes — ultimate meaninglessness — received a practical solution in Christ as conqueror of death.
In Job, we see the dilemma of justice, where the wicked may enjoy the peace of death without their due repayment, and where the playing-out of God’s justice may involve the unrewarded — in life — suffering of the faithful.
Christ, as conqueror of death, is also the final judge. The final judgment is not for God’s edification — Elihu correctly explains that God doesn’t need to hold a tribunal — but for ours. And through that process, all “loose ends” can be wrapped-up entirely:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
Elihu as Bridge
From the Jewish Encyclopedia:
“[Elihu’s] meaning is ‘He is my God’ [in the sense of] ‘He remains my God and does not change.’ … [His] argument is as follows: God is the educator of mankind, who punishes only until the sinner has atoned for his sin and recognizes his wrong-doing. Then God has attained His object, to ‘bring back his soul from the pit, to be enlightened with the light of the living.’
Elihu, therefore, holds a middle ground, maintaining that God neither ‘takes away judgment,’ nor sends suffering merely as a punishment, but acts as the educator and teacher of mankind.”
Elihu is our “bridge” to Christ. His is a theological response that unites justice and mercy — not by conflating them, but by employing them as part of a single grand plan.
His is a rejection of pure retribution and an embrace of prospective instrumentality, an exaltation of a God who is mighty, despises no one, and is firm in his purpose.
Elihu, who heralds the Lord Himself:
“Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;
God comes in awesome majesty.
The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.”
As we’ve talked about before, we humans have the funny tendency to be “too rocked” by world-rocking revelations.
In other words, proposals that dramatically shift our way of thinking can prompt us to — accidentally — go too far and conclude things that are vaguely related, and seemingly entailed by the new revelation, but not actually entailed by the new revelation.
We called this Kochab’s Error, and Kochab’s story helps us beware his Error.
Determinism is the idea that everything that happens is the definite result of a set of causes. Given a single set of causes, a single effect must emerge — unless and only unless sheer randomness intervenes.
This is a rather benign position. Imagine watching the universe from the outside, and Maurice chooses apple pie over chocolate pie. Then, imagine rewinding the universe, including everything within Maurice, to seconds before that decision.
He’ll make the apple pie decision again, of course.
“Of course” proceeds from the rhetorical question, “Why wouldn’t he?,” entailing the fact that if nothing about Maurice were altered on the second go, then he likewise wouldn’t decide differently.
Our decisions are products of our constitutions — “who we are” — at the moment of decision. So unless randomness intervenes, Maurice will always choose apple pie on each “repeat.”
And thank goodness! The prospect of Maurice choosing differently from one go to the next would be horrifying — it would mean that our decisions were not dependable products of our constitutional “factories.”
(The prevalent interpretation of quantum mechanics has there being intervening randomness at very tiny scales. Behavioral determinism under this interpretation is sometimes called “adequate determinism,” since it isn’t perfect determinism.)
A Common Response to Determinism
The very common response to hearing about determinism, however, is that of revulsion. That’s because we have several “default” perceptions:
- Others surprise us, and we even surprise ourselves, and we have a hard time predicting any individual’s behavior with accuracy. Thus, decisionmaking seems very “spontaneous.”
- We lack a sensation of the emergence of our thoughts from that of which they’re caused (if indeed they’re caused, and not random).
- The way in which most of us contemplate our available avenues — by imagining multiple prospective “worlds” sitting just ahead in time — gives us the sense that there really are multiple prospective “worlds” floating out there, like an array of multiple roads from a single junction.
Determinism exchanges that feeling of spontaneity for the recognition of a “hidden” non-spontaneity, and seems to bulldoze all but one of those “multiple roads.”
And thus, we see the following very common reductio ad absurdum: “If determinism were true, we’d all be robots!”
Being a Robot
Being a robot entails all sorts of unsavory things:
- The lack of consciousness.
- The inability to have emotions.
- The inability to love.
- The inability to express interests and values.
- The inability to find meaning in things.
- The inability to creatively express one’s self.
- The inability to come up with novel inventions and innovations.
- The conformity to simple rules.
- The inability to vividly imagine multiple prospects and choose between them according to feelings, intuition, and reason developed from a lifetime of experience.
Notice that each of the above are not things that could describe us, even under determinism.
As such, “We’d all be robots” is a Kochab’s Error. Calling us “robots” under determinism is absurd, trampling on all sorts of real, true things about ourselves that we enjoy and express.
To put it simply, if we ask “Could a robot make poetry/artwork/symphonies/etc.?” and the answer is “No,” then we’re not robots under determinism.
A Common Christian Response to Divine Determinism
When God’s involved, determinism has an extra complication: Everything ultimately traces back, through the domino-chain of causes and effects, to things God set up.
Thus, rather than calling us “robots,” a common response is, “If divine determinism were true, we’d all be puppets!”
Clear Non-Puppets Under Determinism
Most who say that humans have “libertarian free will” — a kind of “true spontaneity of decision” that precludes prior causes somehow (the “somehow” is never positively articulated) — do not apply the same quality to lesser animals.
And yet, our experience with lesser animals is not that they’re “God’s puppets.” Particularly when we think of our mammalian pets, we observe creatures with unique dispositions, desires, decisionmaking faculties, methods of contemplation and projection, feelings, and surprising (almost spontaneous!) behaviors.
Those aren’t the actions of puppets.
The story of Christian the lion is of genuine love, not an illusory veneer atop puppetry:
Further, even if someone says libertarian free will extends to lesser animals, would they apply the same to water against rock?
Imagine a cliff face being eroded by crashing waves over thousands of years. With each beat of the ocean, the face is slightly altered.
Does the deterministic procession of those water molecules against the molecules in the rock mean that each alteration — every nook and cranny throughout its history — is the hand of God in studious, meticulous action?
Such would be an extra conclusion beyond mere determinism.
Though under determinism God instantiated the universe — and each emergent item in the universe owes itself ultimately to that instantiation (and any subsequent intervention) — this doesn’t mean that God is consciously micromanaging absolutely everything.
Just as we don’t consider every cliff face at every moment God’s deliberate and micromanaged puppetry under determinism, nor the behavior of every Fido and Mittens in households around the world God’s deliberate and micromanaged puppetry under determinism, we aren’t burdened to consider the behavior of humans God’s deliberate and micromanaged puppetry under determinism.
The Gardener set the borders and rules and seeds of his garden from the get-go.
He also knew precisely how it would turn out in the end.
As the garden grew, there were blossoms and fruit, but also some thorns and weeds. But the Gardener was pleased to allow some such things to emerge.
Because although he didn’t have a taste for thorns and weeds, he did have a taste for letting his garden bloom chaotically — orderly, but messily and naturally — without constant intervention.
Did he intervene on occasion? Of course. Sometimes the thorns and weeds would be too much, and sometimes he wanted certain plants to know his personal care.
The degree to which he “let grow,” and the degree to which he intervened, proceeded from his total interest set expressing itself in action and inaction through time. And the deterministic chaos emergent from “letting grow” means that even under determinism, God is not a micromanager.
But if he knew precisely how it would turn out in the end, why do it at all?
Because it was in the Gardener’s taste to actualize his garden, not merely imagine it.
He really did want plants to grow.
He really did want shapes, forms, and stories to emerge.
He wanted to create a garden, and so he did so.
Christians who are libertarian free will incompatibilists — those who think there’s no sense of free will under determinism — have a typical answer when we ask them about whether God specifically micromanages the needles of each pine tree (a deterministic procession) or the thoughts and behaviors of my dog, Kirby (a deterministic procession): “No, he doesn’t.”
They’re ready to answer this for non-humans; they generally find it cogent, sensible, and satisfying.
This should likewise satisfy for human thoughts and behaviors under Christian determinism.
- Because we each have a “natural will” — a will wrought, knitted, and cobbled from an incalculably large and unique causal recipe — and
- because we can talk about the degree to which that will is free from gross intrusions, oppressions, and manipulations, and
- because that will yields obedience and rebellion, horror and symphony,
we are in no meaningful sense robots.
For more about how Biblical compatibilism solves the age-old puzzle of freedom vs. sovereignty, see “Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo.”
For more about the authorship of evil under divine determinism, see “Is God the Author of Evil? Semantics of ‘Want/Will.'”
For more about how determinism does nothing to preclude “genuine love,” see “‘Genuineness’ by Association.”
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.
- It is completely non-resonant; it’s aggressive, offensive, confusing, or eccentric.
- 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.
- It’s a “wolf cry“; the information is knowingly deceptive or disingenuously toes the line.
- 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:
“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.
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?
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?
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.
Some — 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.
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.
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.”
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.
- … 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.
- … 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.
“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.
- … 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.
- … 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.
“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.