the Bible and the news

John R. W. Stott is one of the favorite evangelical writers during my lifetime for good reason. And one of his books, Between Two Worlds, speaks of holding the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other, so to speak. He used to go with friends to films and afterwards discuss them together. The idea is that we need to keep in touch with the world, really try to understand it, even in a sense be immersed in that, while remaining in God’s word day in and day out.

I think this is probably more challenging today, given the polarized world in which we live, in which media outlets give entirely different takes on the same story. It’s not easy to find outlets which give someone a basic understanding of what’s happening without interpretations which add meaning beyond what might really be present. Editorials to give insight have their place. But basic, straightforward reporting, and allowing divergent voices to have their say is essential.

And that’s especially important for me, given my limited time. I rule out medias which shout or sensationalize. I want civil conversation, and discussion of issues, indeed dialog. That is challenging nowadays, since it seems like people gravitate toward the former, and seem bored with the latter. Nevertheless, that is the track especially we Christians should insist on. As we try to sort out what is really going on, and discern what underlies that, and what stakes are involved.

When one remains in the word, and keeps reading all the way through it, one will see that what happens in society is indeed important to God. The Bible isn’t just about me and God, period. But it’s about God and us, me included, God and the world.

So I try to keep tabs on something of what’s going on, and sometimes offer my thoughts on it, though not on this blog, as a rule. From listening and reading myself, and from considering the thoughts and wisdom of others. While all the time wanting to major on God’s word, remaining in that. Knowing that God is at work in my life, in our lives together, and in the life of the world. In and through Jesus.

 

Advertisements

not crossing certain lines

…train yourself to be godly.

1 Timothy 4:7

I think one of the most important things even we older Christians can do today is to train ourselves to be godly. What godliness means might to some extent be up for grabs, since different theological schools will emphasize different things. Really godliness is beyond us, both in really understanding it, and certainly in applying it. We have the Spirit along with scripture, the word, and the church, particularly those who are examples to us in this. Only God can give us light in both helping us see, and be changed, as we are enabled to walk, or live in the light in Jesus as found in scripture.

Here in the United States, we live in a precarious time. Much division and even some hate seems to more and more embed itself and even mark our culture. And we Christians are not above being taken into it and yes, becoming a part of it. It is hard, because there are certain issues that we feel strongly about. Abortion, and then depending on our views, other matters as well. We need to apply scripture and the gospel to critique our views. There are some matters that people will end up disagreeing on, including Christians with each other.

What we need today is the discipline to stay on track, and not get off onto rabbit trails which end up not helping anyone at all. Addressing certain matters such as injustice, and being “pro-life,” along with other contentious issues like environmental stewardship, even government, the church and state, etc. We also need to determine that there are certain lines we simply won’t cross, along with the discernment to know what those lines are.

More often than not the best wisdom is simply to remain silent (Proverbs 17:28). To listen, to gather our own thoughts, and above all, to seek God’s wisdom with others. And to keep doing that. To learn to be reticent to speak. Then God can help us to know better just when we should and must speak out. But our emphasis must always be on Christ and the gospel and never on anything less.

trouble knows no boundaries

Mortals, born of woman,
are of few days and full of trouble.

Job 14:1

Job was a God-fearing, God-honoring man, who had been eminently blessed by God, and was a blessing to many. We know the rest of the story, and it’s not altogether good. In fact it makes little sense in our eyes, considering the backdrop of the story, God even bothering to deal with Satan at all, and especially as in this story.

But the point is: trouble knows no boundaries of any kind in this life. We might be able to avoid some problems, and there are basic steps to prevent trouble itself, like simply making sure a roof is on the house, or eating healthily and exercising. But life is more or less a trouble shoot, from start to finish. It seems like we just go from best case, trying to prevent one problem, to trying to solve the next problem. I notice that in my factory job. With machines, and how they’re working, or not working.

So the point is that we need to learn to expect and accept this fact of life, as hard as that is. To definitely appreciate the seasons or intervals which seem relatively trouble free, and be ready to deal with the rest. Through prayer, and with what wisdom the Lord gives us.

In the case of Job, we know he persevered, and God was full of compassion, and blessed him in the end. Though the story still leaves a gaping hole for me in trying to understand the point of it all. Yes, Job did demonstrate faith in God, and that’s what we’re called to do as well, even when we don’t understand, and life is hard for us. Life rarely falls out like some fairy tale with a happily ever after ending. And Job surely still had to deal with trouble even after he was healed and again had seven children. The hurt of losing the seven previous children could never be fully healed in this life.

And that’s the point. We may not, and will not understand at times, or ever. But we have to trust God and go on. Believing in God’s goodness, and persevering in our faith and trust in God, yes, in spite of. Job didn’t even understand the backdrop, what was going on behind the scenes, thinking it was God who inflicted him with the loss of his children, his health, and his wealth. We know, yet are often bewildered and perplexed, and especially uncomfortable, even perturbed with what we face.

But such is life. We might as well get used to it and go on. In the help God gives us to go through every part of it. God can, and as we trust in him, will help us to the very end, in and through Jesus.

 

patience in the face of suffering and oath taking

Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.

James 5:7-12

In light of James’s warning to their rich oppressors, James tells these believers to be patient until the Lord’s coming. Some say James expected the Lord to come within that generation. Maybe so. I’m not sure we can insist the language found here and in other places has to be interpreted that way. I think not. I would rather see it as God’s judgment being soon given the brevity of life, and that it’s imminent in that it could happen any time. And when life is done, judgment is next (Hebrews 9:27). Of course the judgment spoken of here is at the Lord’s second coming. Bear in mind that the future brings not only the resurrection of the righteous, but of the unrighteous, as well (Daniel 12:2).

James point to the farmer as an example of the kind of patience these Christians in faith are to exercise. There is a process which seems to take time along with God’s working. So patience is a necessity in this, yes, “in the face of suffering.” And with that in mind, James now points to the prophets we read of in a good chunk of the Old/First Testament (Hebrew Bible) who spoke in the name of the Lord. Suffering was their lot, as Jesus pointed out later. Persecution and martyrdom. Not easy, when you read their story. Speaking God’s message and living as God’s people will not go unchallenged in one way or another. And lest we think it’s only about identification with God before the world, it may be about our testimony in holding to God’s goodness and faithfulness in the midst of adversities of any kind, as Job did, even as he presented his case to God. And we remember the end of that story. And I want to just soak in James’s word after these points:

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

These words those believers needed to take to heart, and we do too. We wish this for our enemies as well, but if they refuse to respond to this kindness and goodness of God (Romans 2:4), and don’t accept God’s mercy on God’s terms, their end will be according to their deeds. But yes, we need to soak into these words, and let these words soak into us. God’s mercy for us, and for others, yes even for our oppressors. And yet judgment will come, and that too is a word of encouragement, particularly to those who face evil in the form of persecution.

And then James adds a word on oaths. I think it’s in line with making much of taking an oath, as if you are bound by it in a way that you are not bound when simply speaking. God wants our word to be as good as gold so to speak, completely reliable even if not bound legally, morally, and spiritually by taking an oath. Does that mean we can never change our minds, and take back our words, or break our promise? As a rule we shouldn’t. But there may be circumstances when we need to change, or may want to. Which is why we need to choose our words carefully in the first place, if we speak at all. We need to weigh everything in light of what we previously stated and the context. We have enormous freedom, I think, but it needs to be with Spirit-led wisdom. We want to be sure our witness of Jesus is not affected. We want others to see Jesus, and receive for themselves the good news in him. God has what appears to be a change of mind in scripture at times within his unchanging character. There does seem to be some genuine give and take in God’s relationship with people. And God swears an oath as well, we read both in the Old Testament and in the book of Hebrews. So oath taking is not intrinsically evil or wrong. It is the kind of oath taking being done in Jesus’s day and afterward that is evil. As if such an oath is binding in a way that one’s word is not. For God’s people, followers of Christ, there is no place for that attitude or practice.

 

wisdom as skill in living

Put your outdoor work in order
    and get your fields ready;
    after that, build your house.

Proverbs 24:27

Life isn’t easy, nor is it foolproof. It sometimes seems like a crapshoot for sure. There are all kinds of self-help books to help people not only deal with problems, but navigate all different aspects of living. And knowledge is at our fingertips now with the internet.

Proverbs is the book known the most for wisdom in scripture. A significant part of the meaning of wisdom in Proverbs is simply skill in living, as reflected in the psalm quoted above. And we have the phrase, “the wisdom of Solomon,” captured well in what Solomon faced after he had received the wisdom he had asked for from God (1 Kings 3).

Remember that Solomon asked for this wisdom so that he could serve God in carrying out his duties as king, to govern with discernment, and know the difference between right and wrong. And Proverbs tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (used almost interchangeably in Proverbs, basically synonymous there). And also that to know God is to have understanding (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Psalm 111:10).

So Proverbs is not at all a self-help book. And biblical wisdom has nothing to do with being worldly wise. I think of Jesus’s words, which I take not to be a rebuke against the righteous, but actually stating that God’s people can gain some wisdom from what unrighteous people do, but within the fear of the Lord:

For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

Luke 16

Jesus goes on to speak against the love of money in that context, certainly not holding up worldly wisdom as a virtue at all, but saying, I think, that we can learn something good from them as those made in God’s image. Such is the compelling, interesting aspect of wisdom within scripture, that it is complex, and something we are going to have to keep working on the rest of our lives, all within the fear of God, with faith in God.

James captures this theme of wisdom well, that book of the New Testament considered probably the closest in some ways to Proverbs:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

James 1

We are reminded here that wisdom from God is down to earth, for life, and skill in living. But it is always and forever bound and intertwined with the fear of the Lord. Apart from that one will inevitably drift into again what is called, worldly wisdom, even as sadly, Solomon did.

Let us be inspired by reading and meditating on Proverbs, and the wisdom we find in scripture, learning from God for life, in and through Jesus.

James 3:13-18

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

James 3:13-18

 

a good plan and what is not, according to James

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

James 4:13-17

Planning is good, and especially planning with good in mind, as in having others in mind. James’s words here are not at all undermining the value of planning. But as in the wisdom tradition we find in Proverbs, James is simply stating that in the end it is God who will determine not only the outcome, but whether or not it takes place at all. All must be subject to God’s will.

It is often a matter of wanting to be in control, in fact that is the default attitude of so many of us much of the time. I think of entrepreneurs. And of course it’s not wrong to be one. A good one will plan and yet be able to adjust with the flow of things, and figure out what it takes to be successful. And yet behind that can be either an unwillingness, or more likely, not even taking into account any possibility that God might want something entirely different.

James chalks that up to boasting in one’s arrogant schemes. And we can be sure that such plans are not in line with God’s will. There is the lack of humility in acknowledging God and God’s will. And there’s the lack of appreciation for just how uncertain life is, both in terms of what might actually happen, and whether or not one will actually live to see it. It is as if someone is taking the place of God in their own attitude. Certainly not the mind of Christ whose delight it was to do God’s will, and submitted to it even when it was against his will as he did in Gethsemane.

James is warning believers, but he’s also encouraging them to submit their plans to God. That those plans might have value in God’s eyes, so that God may see them through.