Many conservative Christians want to be loving toward their gay neighbor but struggle to be affirming because of their understanding of scripture. In this book, Matthew Vines, an Evangelical gay man, draws on recent biblical scholarship to make a strong case that one can hold a high view of the authority of scripture and also affirm gay marriage in the church. While my understanding of scripture is not as conservative as Vines’, this book is very well written. In addition to clear, research based arguments, Vines also shares moving personal stories. And he doesn’t just cover the six verses in the Bible that specifically address homosexuality but also explores the biblical concept of marriage as a sanctifying covenant, the spiritual gift of celibacy, and the importance of reason, tradition, and experience when interpreting the Bible for today. If you are a conservative Christian that wrestles with the issue of homosexuality, I highly recommend this book.
In 2013, I hired a guy named Casey to be the Worship Leadership for Shepherd’s Community UMC. My wife, Emma, and I became great friends with Casey and his wife, Cindy. Early on, they shared with us that they had lost a baby at birth, a little girl named Selah. Upon hearing this, I felt compassion but didn’t give it much thought until it came up in other conversations. From my perspective, their loss didn’t affect the way our friendship developed or how I saw them as people . . . until they invited me to a gathering called Compassionate Friends.
If you’re not familiar, Compassionate Friends is a support group at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL for parents who have lost children of all ages. My first encounter with them was around Christmas time when I was asked to deliver a message for their holiday gathering. Casey, Cindy, and Emma were also asked to lead worship, so it was an opportunity to serve together. Upon arrival, I felt like a fish out of water. How could I possibly speak to this group of people when I didn’t share their unique loss? I was fearful of having no credibility or unintentionally offending them with presumption.
I am happy to say that all went well that night. However, the greatest blessing for me was the opportunity to gain a better understanding of my friends, Casey and Cindy. Prior to that night, I really didn’t get it. I did not understand the full significance of their losing a child, and how this event deeply shaped them as people. As I stepped into their world and watched them interact with others who were suffering a similar heartbreak, I began to understand an important part of their identity.
Has this ever happened to you? You thought you knew almost everything about someone but were missing something important. something that you could only discover by stepping into their world.
Resurrection as Disorienting
Well, this happened to the disciples too in their relationship with Jesus.
According to the gospels, Jesus told the disciples that he was going to die and be raised from the dead by God, but by all accounts, they just didn’t get it. It is not that resurrection was a completely foreign concept (it already had a history in their native religion, Judaism), but when Jesus talked about it they did not understand the significance of what he was saying. It did not seem to affect how they saw Jesus or how they lived their lives . . . until they discovered an empty tomb.
This was a confusing, disorienting, and terrifying discovery. Since we know the whole story as recorded in scripture, we tend to see the resurrection as the solution to all life’s problems, but this was not the case for the early Christians. Their experience of the empty tomb did not function as a solution but created a whole new set of problems that, up to that point, they did not have. At first, they did not understand what was happening—they did not get it.
The Original Ending of Mark
It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples. We forget that no one in the ancient world had their own copy of the Bible. We forget that there was a time when the early Christians did not have the New Testament because it had not been written yet. Furthermore, we forget how these books came to be, one at a time, and that even after they were written the early Christians had limited access to a few handwritten copies passed around in house-churches. For these reasons (and many more), it’s difficult for modern people to read the gospels from the perspective of their original audience. However, there is much to be learned by this imaginative effort.
For this article, I am most interested in the Gospel of Mark, which was the first gospel to be written. At the time of composition, there was no Matthew, Luke, or John. Furthermore, the oldest manuscripts of Mark end at chapter 16, verse 8. If you have a study Bible that is informed by modern scholarship, the textual notes will alert you to this fact as well as the two different endings that were added later.
For whatever reason, after the Gospel of Mark was written, the early church was not satisfied with its original ending. Thus, a short addition was added in which the women tell the disciples about the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus appears to them. As time went on, this ending did not satisfy either, because the early church came back and added an even longer ending, which made it sound more like Matthew and Luke.
Remembering that there was a time when the earliest Christians only had one gospel, the Gospel of Mark, let us try to hear the original ending without filling-in the blanks with the additions or other gospels.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. [THE END.] (Mark 16:1-8).
Do you see why the church may have found this ending inadequate, especially since there were no other gospels to fill out the story? The truth is, we probably do not like this ending either. However, there is much to be learned if we try to imagine that we are hearing this gospel for the first time, that this is the only gospel we have, and that this is the only ending we have. What could this teach us about the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection?
Resurrection as Invitation
As mentioned above, the empty tomb by itself does not answer questions, it raises questions. According to the story in Mark, it evokes fear, amazement, and confusion, leaving the women stunned and asking, “What in the world is going on here?” The empty tomb and the claim that Jesus has been raised from the dead created a problem for the earliest witnesses. It apparently raised so many questions and evoked so much fear that they refused to tell anyone about it!
Knowing their initial response, the man in white apparel gives them further instruction: Go and tell the disciples, and then go to Galilee, because the risen Jesus goes ahead of you and “there you will see him, just as he told you.” If they want to see the risen Jesus, they must leave the empty tomb and go to where he is—ahead of them.
Importantly, Galilee is not a town or a city, but a region. It is the region where Jesus spent most of his time serving the poor, marginalized, vulnerable, and rejected. So, the angel seems to be saying: There is only one way for you to begin to understand the empty tomb, one way to begin to understand what resurrection might mean, one way to trade your fear for wisdom—to personally encounter the resurrected Jesus for yourself. And the only way that you can do this is to go where he went, to do what he did, and to serve who he served. If you do this, then you will encounter Jesus and will finally start to get it. By serving the friends of Jesus, you will come to know in the deepest part of your being that, somehow and in some way, Jesus is still alive and at work in this world.
As it was with the disciples, so it is with us.
However, just because the claim, “Jesus is alive,” strikes us as true does not mean that we have it all figured out. What is interesting about deep truth, wherever we find it, is that it creates a weird experience in which we believe that something is true, but we are not exactly sure how it is true. Why? Because the most profound truths of the universe are beyond human understanding, beyond human categories, language, and explanation. In this way, the dawning awareness that something is true serves as an invitation to a process of discovery in which we gradually get glimpses of what this truth might possibly mean.
According to the Gospel of Mark, this is what the divine messenger does for the women who discover the empty tomb, at least in the original ending. He doesn’t answer all their questions or give them miraculous knowledge. Rather, he invites them to a way of life in which they can (1) come to believe that the resurrection is in some sense true, and (2) enter a process of discovery that will help them see how it is true. In my own experience, when we gain this kind of deep insight through personal experience, how something is true can be surprising. It might be true in a way we never expected.
When Christians say that Jesus was raised from the dead, they are saying that Jesus is still alive and at work in the world today. He is still out ahead of us with his friends, abiding with the poor, outcast, rejected, and vulnerable—with those who suffer. If we want to encounter the risen Christ, if we want to understand him and his resurrection, then we must go where he went, do what he did, and serve the people that he served. We must step into his world and see it as he does. This is the only way that anyone can make sense of the resurrection and truly come to believe it. Just like I could not really understand Casey and Cindy until I stepped into their world and served their friends, I cannot truly come to know Jesus and his resurrection until I imitate his life in ministry to his friends. It is in their eyes that we meet the risen Christ, come to believe that he is still alive today, and get glimpses of what this might possibly mean.
The resurrection is an invitation to a way of life that ends-up being a process of discovery.
Gracious God, as I learn the stories of Jesus, empower me to go where he went, to do what he did, and to serve the people he served so that I may come to believe and understand his resurrection.
(This post is the fourteenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)
Sally met Peter when she was in her mid-30s. When dating, he showered her with affection, and although she was not initially attracted to him, he eventually won her over. Unexpectedly, his personality changed on their honeymoon when he screamed at her for sleeping late. The verbal and emotional abuse escalated and turned physical as he demanded routine intimacy, often against her will.
Sally’s only support system was the church she regularly attended. Eventually, she opened-up to Christian friends and counsellors, but instead of helping her exit an abusive relationship they told her to forgive him and try to make it work. Eventually, Sally left Peter, seeking help through the legal system. She also left her church, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother. Ten years later, she still suffers from the trauma of abuse. If only she had heard one good sermon on domestic violence or had one Christian counselor help her find a safe way out.[i]
Using Scripture to Perpetuate Violence
Given all that we know about domestic violence today, it’s astonishing to me that there are still Christian pastors and leaders who use a handful of verses in the Bible to encourage women to endure abuse. They often start with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce:
It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)[ii]
Then they reference prohibitions in the New Testament letters:
To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband . . . and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10).
In good patriarchal fashion, they wrap-up their arguments by citing verses commanding wives to be submissive to their husbands:
“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church . . .” (Ephesians 5:22-23).
In some of the most egregious cases, some pastors misuse 1 Peter 3:1 to convince women that they can convert their abusive husbands by simply submitting to the violence as an act of love and humility:
Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1)
By pulling these kinds of verses out of context and flatting them into absolute moral rules, some of the very people entrusted with the good news of the gospel come to facilitate evil.
Thou Shalt Not Blindly Assent to Authority
I realize that the story of Sally and Peter is an extreme example, and that most mainline Christians would be appalled by the idea of using scripture to excuse abuse. However, these kinds of stories are real and can help us see a more pervasive problem in religion: the idea that people should blindly follow rules and refrain from questioning the religious leaders that teach and enforce them.
To illustrate the point, let’s return to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). What changes when we raise the simple question, “Why?”
Why does Jesus offer such strong prohibitions of divorce, especially when men during that time were permitted to divorce according to Jewish law? This kind of question encourages us to consider the historical, cultural, religious, and literary context of Jesus’ words, as well as the overarching message of his gospel. In the light of these considerations, we discover the possibility that Jesus was trying to protect women in a patriarchal society.
In ancient Palestine, women were considered the property of men. As children they were under the authority of their father, but growing-up they were expected to get married and have children, preferably male children, to carry on the husband’s family name. This is where women found most of their value in the ancient world, and those who could not have children were often considered cursed by God. But to find a husband and earn her father a good bride price, a woman needed to be a virgin. Of course, all of this changed on the wedding night when the marriage was consummated, and she became the property of her husband.
Now imagine several years later that her husband grows tired of her or falls in love with another woman, provoking the temptation to divorce. Importantly, he was the only one who had this option because women didn’t have the legal right to seek a divorce in the ancient world. Nevertheless, what would happen to her if she were abandoned by her husband? Since she is no longer a virgin and already deemed unfit by her ex, no reputable man would want her. If she were lucky, her father or eldest male relative might allow her to come home, but this was not a guarantee because of the shame that her divorce would have brought on the family. Even so, she would have lived a life of perpetual shame. If going home wasn’t an option, she could have been reduced to begging or prostitution. In short, if a man abandoned his wife in the ancient world, it would have had life-altering negative consequences for her (and possibly her children).
While not perfect, things are very different in America today. Legally, women have rights that are equal to men. They can own property, get an education, pursue a career, choose to get married or remain single, initiate a divorce, choose when and if to have children, live independently, and largely determine the trajectory of their own lives. While divorce is often emotionally, spiritually, and financially devastating, women can and do find ways to recover and go on to enjoy happy, healthy, independent lives. But this was not the case in ancient Palestine—it was a different world.
Then Jesus comes along and says, “Men, don’t divorce your wives. I know the law gives you this right, but if you want to be one of my disciples then I’m telling you stay married and keep your promise to protect your wife from the dangers of a world that can be cruel.” In this way, Jesus is not so much offering an absolute moral rule that applies to every person in every situation in every generation. Looking deeper into his historical-cultural context, we see how he may have been trying to protect women in a patriarchal society, which is consistent with his overall message and treatment of women in the gospels. In a world where women had few rights as the property of men, Jesus saw them as equal in the eyes of God and suggested that men should not participate in their objectification and oppression by availing themselves to a one-sided, patriarchal form of divorce that caused long term damage.[iii]
When seen in this way, the spirit of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is diametrically opposed to the way that some fundamentalist Christians have used his words to excuse the abuse of women. Indeed, this is one example of how human interpreters can really mess things up when they insist on a naive, flat, literal reading of the Bible that ignores its historical, cultural, and religious context. What’s even more concerning is how such misinterpretations can become requisites of faith as religious leaders equate them with the infallible word of God and command blind assent.
Jesus was fully aware of this persistent temptation in religion, which is why he questioned the religious leaders of his day and their interpretations of sacred texts. Repeatedly, throughout the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . .” (Matthew 5:21ff.). It’s like he was saying: This is how the religious leaders have interpreted our sacred texts for years, but don’t blindly assent to their authority and mindlessly capitulate to their rules. Rather, look deeper and you will see that in most cases specific moral rules are applications of larger ethical principles addressed to a specific group of people in a specific time and place. While the rules may have been life-giving in one context, they can prove to be death-dealing in others.
Life in the Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience
When specific moral rules are disconnected from the larger ethical principles from which they derived, we lose the reasons behind those rules. Purposeful action becomes meaningless acquiescence, and living faith is reduced to dead moralism enforced by religious authoritarianism. The antidote is a life awake in the power of the Holy Spirit—a close, loving, vital relationship with the living God. While God speaks to us through sacred texts, and even through religious leaders seeking to faithfully interpret these texts, God speaks to us in other ways too.
In the United Methodist Church, we believe that God speaks through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and that all four are important to consider when evaluating moral and religious claims. When we remember that the Bible must be interpreted and that are interpretations are sometimes mistaken, it becomes clear that vital faith requires us to question how the Bible is interpreted and used to derive religious and moral claims. [iv] Listening for God’s voice at the point where the spirit of the gospel intersects with the best of Christian tradition, reason, and experience can help us in this endeavor.
Life in the Spirit of God is awake, alive, thoughtful, and critical of all absolute claims uttered by human beings. Instead of blind assent and meaningless acquiescence, we are encouraged to question religious authority and test religious claims according to the Spirit of the gospel and what we know to be true through reason and experience, both of which are progressively illuminated by the Holy Spirit as we practice a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and mature in our faith.
Be bold and courageous in questioning religious authority in the pursuit of truth. If a pastor or religious leader tells you to believe something that everything else in your experience tells you is wrong, then there is a good chance that it is wrong! In the least, be willing to think critically and entertain questions. If your church teaches that faith requires blind assent and discourages you from raising questions, then you should consider finding a more open-minded and safe spiritual home. True faith will never require you to park your brain at the door or deny what you have learned in all other areas of life. While this kind of authoritarian strategy may temporarily give you the false security of belonging to an exclusive tribe, eventually it will require you to betray yourself and lose the living connection with God that makes our transformation in love possible.
This is especially true when we find ourselves on the first path of the Quadratos, when we are trying to navigate change and are faced with fears of the unknown. Instead of retreating to the illusion of certainty or mindlessly doing what we have always done, we can find the wisdom, courage, and strength to question religious claims as we seek a more integrated knowledge that broadens our horizon of understanding and facilitates our journey toward wholeness.
God is not only big enough to handle to your doubts and questions but loves you enough to encourage them.
Gracious God, as we hold fast to the teachings of Jesus, help us to know the truth in a way that sets us free (John 8:31-32).
(This post is the sixth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)
[i] Baird, Julia. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” ABC News, 23 January 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028.
[ii] In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t even make an exception for infidelity: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)
[iii] One thing that really bothers me about Jesus’ prohibitions (and does not support my argument) is his command for men not to marry divorced women. Since divorced women were so vulnerable in the ancient world, this would seem like a very compassionate thing for a man to do. Why not allow men to make personal sacrifices to help vulnerable women without being condemned to deadly sin? Remember, according to Jewish law, men and women both could be stoned for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).
[iv] As Paul Tillich once said, doubt is an important element in faith.
The movie, Wonder, is an inspirational story about a 10-year-old boy, Auggie Pullman, who suffers with Treacher Collins syndrome. After being taught at home most of his life, he started public school for the first time upon entering fifth grade. This required him to leave behind the astronaut helmet that he wore to hide his facial deformities. Sadly, he was ostracized by nearly the entire student body, but quickly became best friends with a boy named Jack Will. On Halloween, while everyone was dressed-up at school, he overheard Jack make fun of his deformities and tell the other boys that he was only pretending to be Auggie’s friend. Feeling betrayed, Auggie had a breakdown after arriving home.
His mother, Isabel, offered comfort by saying, “You are not ugly, Auggie,” who replied, “You just have to say that because you’re my mom.” She responded, “Because I am your mom, it counts the most, because I know you the most.” Since Isabel knew her son better than anyone else, she could see the truth about Auggie, even when he couldn’t see it himself. When the other kids were cruel, it was important for her to remind him that he was a good, kind-hearted, smart boy with a great sense of humor. When Auggie felt ugly and rejected, he needed her to speak truth into his life. Despite continued bullying at school, the words of truth spoken by his mother gave Auggie the strength to be his authentic self. As a result, other kids were also enabled to see below the surface of his deformities and accept him as a friend.
The truth that Auggie’s mother spoke reminded him of his true identity and encouraged him to live into that reality. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus does something similar for us in giving the beatitudes (5:1-12).
Remember that the Gospel of Matthew was written to a group of Jewish Christians who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. This was truly a paradigm shift in their thinking that resulted in big changes to their religious beliefs and way of life. It launched them on a new journey that took them into the heart of an emerging reality that Jesus called the kingdom of God. The decision to live in this new kingdom inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, meant to live under the reign of God in accordance with God’s values. However, these early Christians soon discovered that these values were diametrically opposed to the upside-down values of the world. In their very efforts to align their lives with God’s ways of life, they came face-to-face with fierce resistance, and instead of feeling blessed many felt cursed.
As the author of Matthew drew on the words of the historical Jesus to compose his gospel, the beatitudes became an occasion to remind these early Christians of their true identity in Christ and to encourage to them to keep the faith during times of difficulty. It’s like we can hear Jesus saying: While you might feel cursed when evaluating your circumstances according to the value system of the world, when seen according to the values of the kingdom you are truly blessed by God because you are living in the truth. Therefore, remember who you are and remain faithful. God looks upon you with favor and will vindicate and reward you in the end.
In this way, Jesus’ words gave encouragement and hope to a group of Christians who were struggling to find meaning in difficult circumstances, which were caused by their commitment to God’s way of life. In addition, the beatitudes revealed the marks of authentic discipleship, which not only confirmed that they were on the right path but also provided ongoing direction for their spiritual journey. With each pronouncement of blessing, Jesus says, “I declare by the power of my word that this is who you really are in the eyes of God, so remember who you are, be encouraged, and live into this reality.”
As we meditate on these pronouncements of blessing, Jesus can do the same for us. So, let’s turn to the beatitudes themselves to remember who we are and see more clearly who God is calling us to be.
The Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). The poor in spirit are those with no spiritual qualifications, charisma, or influence. No one would think to ask their opinion on religious matters or call on them to pray or teach a Bible study. According to the religious elites, these people were spiritually bankrupt and excluded from salvation without their rituals, teachings, and intercessions. Then Jesus comes along and says: God’s kingdom is open to you. Far from being excluded, God eagerly awaits your entry. While the “holier-than-thou” may look down on you, God sees your value and uses your spiritual poverty to reveal an important mark of authentic discipleship: humility. Those who are poor in spirit know that they cannot be saved by religion. Rather, they are entirely dependent upon God and find their identity, security, and hope in God’s saving action. Consequently, they are truly blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5). Like Jesus, the meek are “gentle and humble in heart” (11:29). The world says, “Assert your will and leverage your power to take what you want,” but the meek renounce the coercive, domineering, and violent ways of the world. In so doing, they expose the dark side of power and the damage it does to human beings. While the meek look foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, Jesus says, “these are the ones who demonstrate real strength and who are truly blessed.” When God finishes the new creation, the meek—not the domineering, forceful, manipulative, or violent—will inherit the earth. You can mock them all you want as impotent and impractical, but God will vindicate and reward them in the end.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (5:7). Like meekness, mercy is often seen as a sign of weakness. The world says, “If you are merciful, people will take advantage of you. If you don’t want to become a doormat, show strength not mercy.” But according to the value system of the kingdom, the merciful reflect the compassionate heart of God. By making the truth of God’s love and forgiveness real in this broken world, they show themselves to be true disciples. While the world may crush them for their kindness, Jesus says they are truly blessed because they reap what they sow—divine mercy.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (5:6). In this pronouncement, Jesus blesses people who sincerely pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth at it is in heaven” (6:10). They long for God to right-wise this fallen world with love, justice, and peace. They ache for the time when God will vindicate His people, especially those who are marginalized and oppressed. Based on this hope, they actively seek to extend the reign of God’s righteousness in the world around them, even at great cost to themselves. Since God is faithful, their hope is not in vain—their hunger for justice will be satisfied when God’s redemptive work in creation is complete.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (5:4). In this pronouncement, Jesus is not saying that mourning, in and of itself, is a virtue. Rather, like those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is blessing people who lament the present condition of God’s people in a world subject to sin, evil, and death. According to Jesus, the truly blessed refuse to resign themselves the present condition of the world but mourn the fact that God’s will has not yet been done “on earth as it is in heaven.” They are blessed because they will be comforted by God’s ultimate victory.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (5:9). Note that Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the peacekeepers,” those who fear conflict and sweep it under the rug. Nor does he endorse the kind of peacemaking done by the Romans at the tip of a sword. Rather, he pronounces blessing on those who are courageous enough to engage the incredibly difficult work of reconciliation. Peacemakers work to eliminate hostilities between enemies in hopes that they may be restored to friendship. While the bullies and conflict avoiders of the of the world try to sideline the peacemakers, Jesus says, “In the last judgement, they will be claimed as God’s children.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (5:8). Purity of heart is not about avoiding what some consider impure thoughts, but about single-minded devotion to God. Rather than dividing ourselves among several different loyalties, which will inevitably require us to compromise our values, our ultimate loyalty to God subordinates all others. This means that when the value system of the kingdom comes into conflict with the value system of the world, the kingdom always wins. Instead of serving two masters (6:24), we learn to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (22:37). We how to live with “undivided heart” (Ps. 86:11). While the world may see the pure in heart as naïve, Jesus says that they are blessed because they will see God in the feast of the new creation.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-12).
As we have already seen, the value system of the kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the value system of this present world. As disciples of Jesus try to imitate his life by being humble, meek, and merciful; as they hunger and thirst for justice and lay their lives on the line for reconciliation; as they act out of a single-minded devotion to God, they meet fierce resistance. In their imitation of Christ, their very life shines light in dark places, exposing the violence and injustice of the wicked, who, in turn, try to extinguish their light. One strategy for this is persecution: using power to silence, smear, discredit, dominate, oppress, imprison, punish, torture, and even kill. People who experience these sufferings may appear to be cursed by God when seen through the eyes of the world, but according to the values of the kingdom they are blessed because they suffer for the truth. While the powerful may make their lives a living hell on earth, Jesus says, “their reward will be great . . . for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Summary and Challenge
These words of Jesus, reminding us of who we are and encouraging us along the way, are important as we navigate change on the journey to transformation. When all the evidence suggests that we are cursed for embracing a cruciform way of life, we need to evaluate our circumstances in light of the value system of the kingdom. This is no easy task, because challenge, discomfort, and pain cause us to lose perspective, especially since the value system of the world seems to be our native language. But if we see ourselves through its distorted lenses, we are easily discouraged and tempted to give-up and turn back.
In order to cultivate the courage, strength, and hope to keep moving forward with Jesus, we must find ways to stay focused on the value system of the kingdom. We do this by developing a daily discipline of prayer and meditation on scripture (especially the teachings of Jesus). We do this by sharing life with the friends of Jesus who are marginalized and oppressed. We do this by declaring the reign of God’s righteousness in worship and allowing every aspect of our lives to be an expression of God’s glory. We do this by learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love.
Focusing on the value system of the kingdom of God sharpens our ability to see the world and ourselves as God does, which is encouraging when all hell breaks loose. By meditating on the beatitudes we are reminded who we are, given direction for our journey, and empowered by renewed vision and hope.
Gracious God, when I’m blinded by the value system of the world and begin to think that I’m cursed, remind me of who I am in Christ and help me see the world in the light of your coming kingdom.
(This post is the fifth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)
 My understand of the beatitudes is informed by E. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes [NIBC], 178-180.
“I can’t take any more heartbreak.” Zach was a man that struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and a deep fear of being alone. Over the course of many years he had learned to deal with these feelings through serial monogamy. Bad feelings were triggered by a break-up, after which he would quickly go on the hunt. Eventually, he would meet someone new, whose attention and affection would sooth his discomfort. However, the bad feelings always came back after the newness of the relationship wore off, which compel Zach to act in possessive and controlling ways. Predictably, within several months the relationship would unravel, throwing him back into the anxiety and loneliness he was trying to escape. After several years of this vicious cycle, he was sitting in my office at the end of his rope.
I suggested that Zach devote himself to a season of singleness. Instead of focusing all his attention on finding the perfect partner to banish his loneliness, perhaps he should go inward to discover the wounds that were driving his pain. “Zach, as long as you are self-medicating with women, you will never see the roots of the problem, and they will continue to control you behind your back.”
What Zach needed was to find a way to abide with his pain long enough to understand it and to develop some tools to work through it. Instead of compulsively trying to get out of discomfort, he needed to feel it, reflect on it, pray about it, and talk about it. Unfortunately, Zach didn’t act on this counsel, but immediately jumped into another dating relationship, starting the self-defeating cycle all over again.
How often are we like Zach? When experiencing discomfort or pain, how often do we compulsively do things to distract and console? We know in our heart of hearts that this is a fruitless, even self-destructive, way of handling things, but the scream for soothing is louder than the whisper of wisdom.
But wisdom teaches that if we want healing and transformation then we must find a way to deal with the temptation to circumvent emotional and spiritual pain.
How the Temptations of Jesus Can Help
We find wisdom for this part of our journey in the temptations of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11). As we focus on this passage, what’s most helpful is not a literal interpretation of the specific trials, but an understanding of the dynamics of temptation revealed by a symbolic reading of the story.
After Jesus had been fasting in the desert for forty days, the “tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’” (4:3). In this way, Jesus was tempted to grasp something readily available to him and transform it into something else that would satisfy his hunger.
At first glance, we might not be able to see ourselves in this part of the story, but if we look more deeply it becomes clear that we too face this temptation. Discomfort and pain trigger cravings that we try to satisfy by misusing God’s good gifts. For example, the Bible says that wine, in moderation, is a divine blessing that makes the heart merry, and Jesus’ use of wine in the Last Supper elevates it as a symbol of forgiveness and the full reign of God’s righteousness on Earth. Unfortunately, many abuse this good gift by using it as an emotional anesthetic. Likewise, God gives us sexual intimacy to nurture deep and abiding love, but many transform it into a strategy for escaping pain. Through fantasy and objectification, human beings become objects that can be consumed to satisfy selfish hungers and sooth discomfort. Even emotional gifts like anger can be used to cover-up fear and hurt. God gives us the capacity for anger so that we can recognize and respond to injustice, but we transform it into an obsessive form of negative excitement that hides our fear and brokenness.
Indeed, virtually every good gift of God can be converted by the sinful use of power into a strategy for escaping emotional and spiritual pain. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (4:4). Jesus refuses to misuse people and things to deliver him from discomfort but endures these experiences as necessary for the life to which God had called him.
Then the tempter led Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus responds, “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (4:5-6).
How often do we try to get God to perform a magic trick that will exempt us from the natural consequences of our own actions? The temptation of immature and false religion can be seen in our attempts to leverage God’s love and faithfulness to get miraculous relief from pain. Of course, there is nothing wrong with expressing our desires to God, and God certainly works in mysterious ways to help us through difficulty, but mature spirituality always gives way to the prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, Matt. 26:42).
Nevertheless, when wrestling with the negative consequences of their own actions, religious people sometimes spiritually and emotionally regress. “God, what have I done to deserve this? I have been faithful to you, so if you love me, if you are faithful and just, then rescue me from this pain!” Some even act as if the request for a magic trick is completely selfless: “God, miraculously deliver me from this bad situation I’ve caused for myself so that unbelievers will come to know your power.”
In this way, we put God’s love, faithfulness, and power to the test, while indulging ourselves in magical thinking, entitlement, self-righteousness, and self-deception. Instead of focusing on doing God’s will, we try to get God to do ours.
Finally, the tempter took Jesus “to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world . . . and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9). According to the story, the devil had the kingdoms of the world to give because he, in some sense, ruled them. Interestingly, to worship the devil in this case meant to accept that he was the rightful ruler of this world and to endorse his methods and strategies. He was essentially saying, “Jesus, if you accept the world on my terms and play by my rules, then I can make you successful beyond your wildest dreams. But you must put your faith in me and do it my way.”
As odd as it might sound, “worshiping the devil” in this way this also is a temptation for us. We are encouraged to figure out how the world works and then leverage our power within this system to gain worldly success at the expense of others. If you can accept the brutal facts about how the world works, curry favor with the rich and powerful, leverage the right resources, and intelligently navigate the politics of it all, then you too can be the envy of all your friends and banish all your anxiety. This will require you to compromise or sacrifice some of your most deeply held beliefs and values, but the payoff is incredible!
Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (4:10). When we are tempted to capitulate to the value system of the world and accommodate our lives to escape pain through the acquisition of success, Jesus says, “It’s a trap.” Worldly success does not magically heal your pain and make you happy. There are more miserable successful people than you might imagine, and while they appear to have everything you’ve ever wanted, deep inside you can hear the crickets chirping in their souls. Without deep spiritual transformation, they are invariably haunted by the question, “Is this all there is? Is this what I practically killed myself for?” (“Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)
Illusions that Drive the Dynamics of Temptation
These trials of Jesus in the desert disclose three things that perpetually threaten to derail our journey toward transformation, and at their core they disclose the same compulsion: to escape discomfort. All of us are tempted in innumerable ways to leverage our personal power to escape pain, compulsively grasping for things and experiences that promise immediate relief. We do this by transforming God’s good gifts into various kinds of anesthetics, leveraging our relationship with God to force a divine magic trick, and sacrificing deeply held beliefs and values to attain worldly success.
But the temptations only work if are duped into accepting three assumptions.
- All forms of discomfort and pain are unproductive and bad.
- We can circumvent discomfort and pain and still get everything we want.
- There are shortcuts and magic tricks that if shrewdly applied will give us immediate gratification.
Of course, these assumptions are false.
Experience teaches us that not all the discomfort and pain we experience is bad. In fact, spiritual and emotional growth require us to abide with these feelings to learn the lessons they teach and to tend to the inner wounds that drive them. At the beginning of our Bible story, we read the words, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). Jesus was baptized by John and given a vision of his true identity and mission, and before his shirt was dry God drove him into the desert. Why? Because abiding in this lonely and uncomfortable place was necessary for him to become in reality what God had already declared him to be. Likewise, God leads us into desert places and exposes us to challenge and pain to create the necessary conditions for healing, freedom, and transformation. We cannot experience lasting change without working through our pain (which requires us to cultivate the virtues of longsuffering and forbearance).
Finally, experience teaches us that there are no shortcuts and magic tricks for receiving the gifts that make life worth living. It takes time to develop loving relationships. It takes time to develop character and cultivate virtues like faith, temperance, patience, kindness, humility, and courage, all of which are necessary for a truly happy life. It takes time to attain wisdom, develop our gifts and talents, and find the best ways to share them with the world. It takes time to let go of ego and live into the reality of your true self in the unity of all things. The tempter says, “You can bypass the pain and get it all now if you’re willing to misuse your personal power.” But, Jesus says, “Be true to yourself and faithful to the life which I have called you. Trust God’s goodness, faithfulness, and timing, and God will give you abundant life.”
And Jesus would know, because after enduring temptation, God eventually gave him everything the devil offered ahead of schedule (Robert Capon, The Romance of the Word, 192-195). The devil tempted him to turn a few stones into bread, and Jesus would later multiply two fish and five loaves to feed 5,000 people (by any account, a much greater feat). The devil promised relief from hunger, and Jesus would later feast with his disciples and talk about the heavenly banquet that he would host for all eternity. The devil promised the ministry of angels, but as soon as Jesus sent him away, “suddenly angels came and waited on him” (4:11). The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and a few years later God raised him from the dead and made him the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
If Jesus had taken matters into his own hands and used his power for immediate gratification, it would have corrupted the very gifts that God had promised and would have led to his downfall. But he waited for God and received them in ways that no one, including the devil, could take away. God promises the same to us. If we are willing to abide in a desert place, God will use it in God’s time and in God’s way to transform us in ways that lead to abundant life.
How do you deal with discomfort? What happens inside of you in response to feelings like sadness, fear, loneliness, guilt, anger, anxiety, or boredom? Do you compulsively try to get out of pain, or have you learned how to stay with it long enough to get curious about the lessons it can teach? Do you distract and console or do you allow yourself to feel, reflect, pray, journal, and talk about it?
Which of the three strategies illustrated in the temptations of Jesus do you most frequently employ as an escape hatch? Do you misuse your personal power to transform the good gifts of God into anesthetics? Do you leverage your relationship with God in hopes of a divine magic trick? Do you abandon your most deeply held beliefs and values in executing strategies for worldly success? What would it mean for you to recognize at least some of your pain could be a pathway to spiritual transformation?
God, give me the strength to abide in my pain long enough to learn the lessons that only it can teach.
(This post is the fourth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)
 The name of the person has been changed to protect his identity.
When was the last time you experienced a big change?
For me it was a few years ago. After living alone for ten years, I was remarried in August 2015. My wife, Emma, had an estate sale, packed-up her belongings, and moved into my home with her two small children, Evie and Isaac, who I loved as my own. This was a big change for everyone involved, including my two older sons, Jobe and Jackson, who returned home for visits.
Six months later, just as we finished unpacking the last boxes, I received a call from my District Superintendent who said, “Mark, you’re moving to Cocoa Beach to become the new Pastor at First United Methodist Church.” Before we could even establish a new normal as a blended family, we had to relocate and start all over again with new jobs, new friends, and new schools for the kids.
These two major changes evoked a host of feelings, including fear.
The Gift of a Paradigm Shift
There are many stories in the Bible that help us deal with fear, but one of my favorites is the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 2:1-23.
As a recap, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem in search of the newborn king of the Jews. When Herod got word of this, he freaked out because he was already the king of the Jews. The prospect of a new king was a direct threat to his seat of power, so he decided to eliminate the threat by killing the baby. After calling all the religious leaders together and learning that the child was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod lied to the wise men, saying, “Go and find where he is, then come back and tell me, so I too can go and pay him homage.” The wise men found the baby Jesus and honored him by giving gifts to the family: frankincense, myrrh, and gold. These specific gifts are important to understand an important lesson in the story.
Remember that something horrible happened to the Jews in the year AD 70, their temple was destroyed. The one thing that gave meaning and value to the whole world–the center of religious, cultural, political, and financial life–was demolished. This led to a massive loss of meaning as they struggled with the question, “How can we make sense of the world anymore?” Some Jews thought that the destruction of the temple signaled the end of the world. Others thought that God would rebuild the temple if the Jewish people would perfectly keep the sacred covenant made with their ancestors.
In contrast, the author of Matthew had a different view, which he symbolically communicated by his account of the gifts brought by the wise men. According to Alexander John Shaia, frankincense and myrrh were essential components in the most important temple rituals and were as costly as the gold of the Temple’s vessels (Heart and Mind 82). Myrrh was an aromatic resin added to the oil used for royal and priestly anointings, and frankincense was burn during the highest sacrificial offerings. By having the magi give these gifts to Jesus, the author of Matthew symbolically transfers the components of the old physical Temple to Jesus, the Messiah and emissary of a new inner temple. The author is essentially saying, “Don’t focus on the physical rebuilding of the Temple but on how God is building a new temple inside of you!”
This was a paradigm shift that required a new spiritual journey to make sense of it all.
A Call to Radical Transformation
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as calling us to new life, and a call to new life is a call to radical transformation—a paradigm shift in our thinking and believing, a spiritual revolution. The most obvious example is found in John 3 were Jesus is recorded as saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (v. 3). The call to new birth is a call to new life. The implication, of course, is that we must leave our old life behind. We are called out of the familiar and comfortable and invited into a space that is foreign and challenging, which typically evokes fear.
As human beings, most of us are afraid of the unknown. However, we also experience times when old ways of thinking, believing, and doing no longer work. This creates a tension between the impulse to move in a new direction and the impulse to remain in familiar territory. Eventually this tension forces a decision. We can either turn backward and to try to recover a lost past, or we can face our fears and move into a new future.
Jesus calls us to move forward by calling us to new life. He also helps us see that we can muster the faith and courage to navigate change if we understand that this is precisely how God intends to transform us, and also that God will guide and redeem every step we take, even those that lead us into dangerous territory.
Abiding in Dangerous Places
If the story of Jesus’ birth is any indication of what God may expect of us, we must prepare to abide in dangerous places.
Shortly after Jesus was born, God called Joseph to take his family to Egypt, the place where his ancestors were enslaved and abused. This must have been a terrifying prospect, but it was necessary to protect the newborn King from Herrod’s murderous plot. Like the holy family, God sometimes calls us to scary places to protect the new birth happening within.
This means different things for different people.
Sometimes we are literally called to relocate to a risky place. Think, for example, of men and women who feel drawn to dangerous mission fields in places like Central America, Africa, or the Middle East. Listening to their stories, it’s clear that God radically transforms people who make personal sacrifices to help others. Sharing life with people in dangerous places can give us a radically new perspective and exponentially grow our faith.
For others, the call is more symbolic. Some people are called to scary emotional places. If we struggle with old wounds that keep us stuck in dysfunction, our transformation may require us to abide in scary emotional places to work through memories of loss, neglect, abuse, or moral failure. Some are even called to scary spiritual places, to a time of great questioning, doubt, and even loss of faith. Tradition teaches that most people experience a crisis of faith before a genuine spiritual transformation.
Sometimes We Can’t Go Home
In my own experience, the journey to transformation is long and challenging. As we see the light at the end of the tunnel, our hope is often to go home, even if in a different way. This is the journey of the hero, which we see, for example, in Greek Epic Poems such as Homer’s Odyssey. However, we sometimes discover that we cannot go home because home will not nurture the new birth emerging within. Home no longer fits who we are.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary and Joseph are from the region of Judea and probably lived in or around Bethlehem. This is very different from the story told in Luke where they lived in Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem late in Mary’s pregnancy because of a Roman census. However, a careful reading of Matthew suggests that the Holy family already lived in Bethlehem and experienced a home birth. This is an important detail because after living as refugees in Egypt, they were hoping to return home after the death of Herod. However, this hope would remain unrealized because Archelaus, son of Herod, assumed control of Judea and presented an ongoing threat to the baby Jesus. Thus, God warned them in a dream not to go home, but to build a new life in Nazareth, which was considered a dumpy little town in the region of Galilee.
Sometimes we too make a hard journey only to discover we cannot go home. Again, this means different things for different people. Sometimes we get the feeling that we, literally, cannot go home. Think of how many young people go off to college, experience transformation, and decide to move to a new city after graduation. As we grow and change, we sometimes need a new start in a new place, so we can build a new life that fits who we’ve become.
For others this is more symbolic. Some people cannot go home emotionally. When thinking about the true meaning of home, we usually focus on our most important relationships, and as we experience transformation we often discover that we cannot return to these old relationships in the same way. Some relationships need to end, and others need to be redefined by clear boundaries. As we renegotiate old relationships and nurture new friendships that support our new birth, it often becomes clear that we cannot go home emotionally.
Likewise, many can’t go home spiritually. Sometimes we must walk away from (or drastically reinterpret) what we were taught in the religion of our youth. The old ways of thinking, believing, and acting just don’t make sense anymore; they don’t fit who we are and what we have come to see as beautiful, valuable, and true. Sometimes these old beliefs even prove to be hurtful, exclusionary, and death-dealing, requiring us to actively resist them. This often requires us to find a new church, a new denomination, even a new religion. Sometimes we cannot return home spiritually.
Faith and Courage
Every aspect of this journey requires enormous faith and courage, gifts that God is ready to give to those who have open hearts and minds.
First, God gives us internal resources. In Matthew 2, we see that the magi followed a star, which is an enduring metaphor for a spirit that guides us. The English word “disaster” literally means “dis-star,” and to be separated from your star is to be separated from a deep, inner wisdom (Shaia, Heart and Mind, 82). Likewise, angels in the Bible are messengers that God uses to communicate important things to human beings. Understood symbolically, they can also represent a deep inner wisdom.
From a Christian perspective, we often speak of the Spirit of Christ living in us. Since Christ resides in the deepest part of who we are—what is often called the soul—Christians are encouraged to go deep inside themselves to meet Christ there, so that we can hear the wisdom he whispers. Most often this happens in stillness, solitude, and silence as we pray and meditate on scripture.
In addition, God sends us external resources. Just as God sent the magi to the holy family, God sends us wise people who bring good gifts to support our journey toward transformation. Often these people are the ones we least expect, people who are foreign, strange, different, weird, even disagreeable. They could even people be people of a different religion or no religion at all. (Remember, the magi were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia.) The messengers God sends can come in the form of close friends or passing acquaintances, and their voices can come to us in personal conversations or through their writings, songs, art, or films. Furthermore, the gifts that God gives to us through them take different forms. Some will be small, like a piece of the past resolved, and others will large, like the call to new life.
Whether these gifts come from within or without, we can trust that they will be powerful and precious. They will give us the faith and courage we need to start the journey, to travel through dangerous places, and to build a new home to support a new life. However, to receive them we must keep expectant watch, and when divine messages come we must be attentive so that their wisdom can unfold as we travel.
Have you heard the invitation to new life? Have you mustered enough faith and courage to take the first step? Have you been willing to go to those scary places that require more personal and spiritual work? Have you met the challenge of building a new home? Where are you in all of this? Have you been able to find the faith and courage you need to walk the road of transformation?
God, give me the wisdom, faith, courage, and support I need to continuing walking the path to radical transformation.
(This post is the third in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter four in Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)
Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.
Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.
This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.
I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.
But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.
Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.
The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.
And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.
Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.
After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?
The answer was simple: fear.
These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.
As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.
It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.
(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)
Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.
It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.
People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or excluding LGBTQ persons. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)
Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.
My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.
- Mark Reynolds, “A Course in Understanding the Bible.”
- Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today (HarperOne 2014).
- Peter Enns, “The Bible for Normal People,” Podcast.
- James M. Efird, How to Interpret the Bible (Wipf & Stock 2000).