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Thursday, May 16, 2019

What Was the Pillar of Cloud and Fire?

QUESTION:  I’m really struggling in reading the Old Testament.  It’s hard, so much that seems weird or wrong!  What I am I supposed to do or learn with all this?  A problem from Numbers 9:15-23, I am trying to understand the Cloud of the Tabernacle.  I do get that this is God working thru a cloud.  However, I don't understand why the verses speak of how the cloud stays overnight, or can go on for a few days, a month, or a year in verse 22.  Was this for 'obedience'?  Especially when it said it could linger there for a year.  How in the world can they stay inside for a year?  It doesn't speak of how long the cloud was there from beginning to end.  Nor does it say the purpose.  Was there something going on in the region that God was protecting the Israelites? 

ANSWER: Thanks for your question.  As you read the Old Testament keep one thing in mind:  you believe in its inspiration and authority ONLY because Jesus did.  Jesus is the lens through which we Christians read and understand the Jewish Scriptures.  Our whole faith is built on what God did after this, in fulfilment of all this.  It’s a set up, and an opening act; it’s not giving us the whole story of who God is, but rather it’s anticipating the full work of Jesus. 

And so the laws especially must be read through the lens of a post-Law covenant which we have in Christ.  This is the record of God’s agreement with one people, the Gospel is a record of God’s agreement with ALL people.  The early apostles were clear that what you’re reading here are “shadows” of the good things we have in Christ.  Read Hebrews 10:1-18 and 1 Cor 10:1-6, to set your mind in a correct posture for your reading of the Old Covenant.  These are not our laws nor our covenant, these are now examples for us, illustrations of the Christian life, inspiration for our journey.  Inspired by the Holy Spirit and useful for correction and training?  Of course!  But only when “used properly” – as Paul says in 1 Tim 1:8.

This won’t take away all the difficulties you read about, but it will help you hold them with a looser hand, as you rest in the knowledge that whatever else God may be, and whatever he was up to with the Israelites, He cannot be different than what I see in Jesus who said, “The Father and I are One”.  Whatever God was up to must have always been pointing at Jesus.  Whatever confusion comes from how God acts in the early stages of biblical revelation, clarity is found in Christ. 

A good article to help you with the Old Testament is:

So about Cloud of the Tabernacle in Numbers, no one knows what that was.  I think you are right that the point of the Cloud moving is simply that the Israelites are learning obedience.  God says go, we go, and it doesn’t matter if we only set camp for a day.  Likewise, God says stay, we stay, even if that’s years at a time in one location.

The other reason for this direct physical manifestation of direction was likely so that they built their trust in Moses as God’s servant.  Moses received so many direct communiques from God that maybe a resentment would build in the people (as it would toward a cult leader, for example).  We know this happened in the Community from time to time (Number 12:1-2).  How can we trust you, Moses, if you’re the ONLY one getting the “messages”??

Now, God disciplined Aaron and Miriam for rebelling against Moses, but that’s only because that they failed to accept the very public confirmations of Moses that God gave, which is exactly what I’m talking about.  To be skeptical of a prophet dictating from God without such confirmation is actually a GOOD reaction, not a bad one!  Historically, with Mohammed in a cave or Joseph Smith with the angel Moroni and golden tablets, few in those movements really challenged the veracity of the messages.  It was just, “trust me, God speaks to me, and you listen.”

Well, unlike those false religions, true religion always has multiple vehicles to attest to the revelation.  True religion is done out in the open.  Biblical faith is built on events, not merely ideas.  With Jesus, we have 4 gospels and the record of hundreds of witnesses to his resurrection.  And when God was calling the people out of slavery he used Moses in a special way – yes – but he did not shy away from proving himself publicly and openly to the WHOLE community.  The point would be to give them confidence that in fact it was God leading them and not just the hair brained scheme of one man, Moses, getting revelations in secret.

So at Sinai we see God proving himself in thunder and provoking awe in Ex 20:18-19, to ALL the people.  So much so, the people want LESS proof, not more!  When was the last time you heard a person say, “I want God to stop talking to me so much in public acts that prove his godhood and power”??  Well, the cloud is another device just like this (a more gentle one perhaps!) that again proves to the community that God is leading them, not Moses.

As to why they moved so much, no one knows.  It seems arbitrary.  Some speculate that the cloud and fire refer to the volcanic activity of the Sinai range.  If you’ve been to Hawaii and observed the active volcanoes there, you know that during the day, all you see of a live volcano from a distance is the smoke, but at night you don’t see the smoke, but rather the fiery glow of molten rock.

Some would therefore say hovering “over the tabernacle” should be read as a euphemism for the connection between the mountain of God and God’s direction to the congregation.  I don’t know if that’s the right way to see it, but it may mean the movement of the pillars were tied in some way to something going on geologically in that region and as you speculate, might therefore have been about their safety.  Other references to the pillars of cloud and fire seem to indicate it could not be connected to the Mountain of God, but was truly mobile, a supernatural phenomena of some kind (Ex 13:21).

The main lesson of the cloud remains a very simple one:  when God says “go” we go.

Finally, I think you might be confused by the KJV reading of verse 22.  When it says they “remained in their tents”, that means more accurately, “They stayed at that campsite and did not move on” as long as the cloud remained over the tabernacle. They did not literally stay “in doors” for months or a year at a time!!

The NLT helpfully renders the verse like this:
Num 9:22-23: Whether the cloud stayed above the Tabernacle for two days, a month, or a year, the people of Israel stayed in camp and did not move on. But as soon as it lifted, they broke camp and moved on.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Does God Love Satan?

QUESTION:  You say God wants us to love our enemies.  But does God love his enemies?  Specifically, does God love Satan?

ANSWER: It's unquestionable that God certainly loved Satan (past tense), for Christians have always held the idea that Satan was God's highest creation.

A Scripture that speaks about this intimate relationship (I make the case for why this may still be informative about Satan even if the immediate context is about a Babylonian king here) is this:
Ezek 28:12-14
You were the seal of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
You were in Eden, the garden of God.
Every kind of precious stone covered you:
carnelian, topaz, and diamond,
beryl, onyx, and jasper,
sapphire, turquoise and emerald.
Your mountings and settings were crafted in gold;
they were prepared on the day you were created.
You were an anointed guardian cherub,
for I had appointed you.
You were on the holy mountain of God;
you walked among the fiery stones.

Clearly, deep love is implied in the honor and position given to this anointed Guardian Cherub.  God is love (1 John 4:16), so how would he not love this creature?

But even after he rebelled against God, God must still have loved Satan, simply because God continued to grant his Enemy life and existence. He even allowed him to come into his presence and converse and challenge God. (Job 1:6).  The freedom God has given him up to this day shows God loves even this enemy.

You may counter, that this implies that God is evil, for he loves a being of pure evil.  But Satan is not pure evil.  Satan has a will bent on evil and he is totally, morally corrupt.  But the fact that Satan has a will, is good.  And Satan has personality, and power and intelligence, all of which are good. What God loves in Satan is what still remains of God (which is good), despite the monstrosity of his evil deeds and his complete depravity.

However, since Satan's will is utterly and unalterably set against God - his very name means "Adversary" - he's a different kind of enemy than humans can ever be. We are to love all human enemies because God sees every person as redeemable. God can reclaim any person and He specifically uses love to do it (Romans 2:4); that's why we wants us to love our enemies.  By love we are engaging in God's chosen battle strategy for all his lost human enemies (Matt 5:45) - the ones he died for, while they were still his enemies (Rom 5:10).

However, we get no sense from Scripture that the fallen angels or their Leader are redeemable, so their rebellion must be final. So with demons we would never seek to bless them (that's what love does) because blessing can never turn them.  In fact, blessing them (in whatever way that's possible) may actually help them turn us away from God!

Therefore, neither we nor God are obligated to love Satan by the same principle of blessing by which we love human enemies.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

How Should I Deal with Guilt?

QUESTION:  When I read the Bible at times something's that I read convict me and I feel sad and I feel that I am letting Christ down by not doing what it says in the Bible.

ANSWER: Thanks for the question.  What you're struggling with is common to most Christians at one point or another.  In a word, it's guilt.  

Each person, Christian or non-Christian has a sense of being accountable to God for their behavior.  The Christian's sense of "oughtness" magnifies exponentially as he/she comes under the conviction of the explicit instruction of our Faith for how to live – the black and white guidelines, moral precepts, commandments, in the Bible, on top of the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.

Here's how I resolve the feelings you're talking about.  I keep in mind that once I've let the moral commandments of the Bible bring me to that place of conviction, that's about the moment where those same commandments have fulfilled their duty and I need move on to something better.  

That better thing, is the Spirit of God inside me. 

What I'm referring to you can read for yourself in Romans chapters 1-8 which I'd encourage you to do this week.

To summarize, the Bible says the Law - both the internal law of your conscience and the explicit instructions of the Bible - have not been given to help us feel right with God.  If you look to the rules in the Bible to help you feel good about yourself before God, you're going to be a mess, because the exact opposite will be the case.  The Law was given to "increase the consciousness of sin."  (Romans 3:20, 5:20) 

You need to hear that.  

The Bible's moral codes (the Law); that is, the stuff you're reading in there that you're supposed to do, but you don't do perfectly... was not given to absolve your guilt.  It wasn't given as the path to be acceptable to God.  The law was given to increase your sense of sin - to highlight the truth that you are spiritually dead and fallen out of relationship with God.

Well, guess what?  It sounds like the law has achieved it's goal in you!  You feel conscious of sin, of letting Christ down.  You are vitally aware that God is holy and you are not, that there are areas where you do not measure up, that you have not done what God has explicitly asked you to do.  

OK, the Law's job is mostly done. 

You need something else at that moment:  a reminder of what our Faith in Christ is all about.  It's not about Law but about Righteousness.  For in Christ the bible says, (Rom 3:21-22) a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made available. 

You must understand that what righteousness means is simple 'being right' with God.  If you are righteous then, the relationship with God is fixed.  





He accepts you.  You are friends.  He's not mad at you anymore.  If you thought you could be right with God by doing all the stuff in the Bible, then you would always remain insecure about your future with God because it depends on your performance.

But if God himself - who holds the moral code in his hand, who Himself gave us the Bible which convicts you so strongly, who is the primary party offended in all our sin - if this God himself declares you “not guilty”, they how can you remain sad any longer?  You've been rescued by amazing Love that knows you can't keep the law, and has decided to carry your debt, pay your wages and declare you "right" through the sacrifice of Christ.

Read this:  Rom 8:31-33  
"If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies." 
 Are you hearing this?

We've received this grace by a humble faith and faith alone.  You didn't earn this gift.  It's free.  Now, that doesn't mean we go about grossly offending God with impunity.  Paul carries on his argument with these words:
Rom 6:1-2  "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  By no means!"
In Christ we are called to obedience out of gratitude for the gift we've received.  We seek to obey, just like we were seeking to please God before we knew Christ but in a new way:  the way of the Spirit, not the way of the Law.  The Spirit's way is as a way of saying thank you.  The law's way is a way of trying to gain favor.

Jesus showed us how this works when he allowed a very notoriously sinful woman to anoint him and fawn over him in front of some religious leaders.  They thought that the way people get right before God is by never doing anything bad, so they were indignant about this display of affection.  

Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee
But Jesus gave them an illustration... If two people owe a man money and he forgives both debts, who will love the man more?  The one who owed him the most, obviously.  So Jesus points to the woman and says, Luke 7:47  
"Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven — for she loved much.  But he who has been forgiven little loves little."
He wasn't saying the indignant men didn't NEED to be forgiven much.  They just had no SENSE of needing to be forgiven much because they were self righteous. The woman on the other hand, knew of her great debt and in being forgiven of it, she was not self righteous, she was "God-righteous".  That is, she didn't declare herself righteous, Jesus did.   In response she lavishes great love on Christ.  

This is Jesus' way of spelling out how a true Christian must go about their business of obeying God.  It's a gratitude response of love, not an anxious earning.

So if you as a Christian now fail to obey Christ in a given area, you have not fallen out of relationship with Christ.  Because that relationship wasn't ever, nor can it ever be sustained by you being good enough.  So get off that works treadmill!  It's a no win situation, which Paul expounds on Romans 7.  It's a defeated life of never measuring up. 

What you need is grace - in two ways.

First the grace of forgiveness. Ask for it, and receive it whenever you don't do what Jesus commands, whenever you feel convicted or sad that you sinned and let Christ down.  This is not a surprise to him.  This is why there had to be a cross.  He knows what you're made of.  But that doesn't mean he wants you to keep on doing this, because he wants victory for you.  He made you for Freedom and Life!

Second you need the grace of the Holy Spirit inside who now gives new power to help you walk in a new way of life.  Your job is not to beat yourself up over failure, but to daily submit your will and thought processes to the Holy Spirit.  

Rom 8:6 says, "the mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace..."  If you walk in daily moment by moment friendship with the Holy Spirit, as a sort of continual conversation, you will find his power to bring life and peace, more victory and less moments of "letting Christ down."

Watch out that you don't become trapped again to a religion of works.   That's why you turned to Christ in the first place; because you could not measure up on your own.  And one of the things you surrendered was the pride of thinking you could make God happy or love you more by how "good" you were.  Ironically that way of thinking, though filled with deep longing to be "good enough" leads to terrible anxiety and fear and increased sin. How?  Because outwardly might look OK to others, but from God's perspective, inwardly you're dying with guilt and fear which are antithetical to the life of Christ.

Leave that whole way of thinking behind and say to yourself I'm an adopted son or daughter.  God is my Father who accepts me.  I AM righteous - it was given to me as a gift, and the law no longer has power over me, to condemn me, because I died to it.  I live now by the Spirit of Christ living in me.  Not perfectly, but more and more as I call on him and submit my will to him.  Use the law only as a clarifier of what God's will actually is for you - not as a judge over you - and then resolve to live in that will by the power of the Holy Spirit out of pure love and gratitude for his amazing, relentless forgiveness.

Paul sums it up in Rom 7:4:  
"So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God."

Should A Christian Date a Non-Christian?

QUESTION: I’ve been dating a guy for over two years now.  He feels like the man I'm supposed to marry. The issue is, when we got together, we were both atheists. Now I’m a Christian. So I’m not sure what to do. I feel no conviction to leave him, especially since our meeting seemed so providential.  But I also know that the Bible commands us to not be unequally yolked.  I’m really confused. I’ve tried to talk to God about this but he hasn’t yet given me any clear sign about what to do.

ANSWER:  Thanks for your question. You’re certainly not the first Christian to run into the conflict of "love versus religion."

First, you’re not married to your boyfriend yet, so you have time to work this out. However, as you say, you are not just idly dating for fun and games, you are actively thinking about the future and a marriage partner, and that is a mature way to look at dating. So it's smart to look down the road now, before rings get on fingers, and wonder about potential issues from the spiritual mismatch you currently have.

Secondly, this issue is bringing before you the even larger issue of how you hear from God and find his will for your life.  In this case, you seem to be clear about the guiding biblical principle, but you are looking for an inner, personal leading from the Holy Spirit to confirm or negate this principle for you.

But do you need such inner prompting? The issue is a good one for your future discipleship in many areas, not just this one: how should Scripture should inform our discipleship?

The way to look at it is that if God has already spoken on a subject, and I’m waiting around for him to give me an inner prompting to confirm, I’m not really trusting Him.  I always say to people, if we are waiting for God to speak to us, just know he’s not going to contradict himself, and give you a private nudge in contradiction to his explicitly given Word.

Now, I realize that finding the explicit direction from the explicit Word is not always easy.  But on this question, I think that moral guidance is clear:  God's perfect will is that Christians share a common spiritual foundation and Christian worldview with their spouses.

Most Christians will quote the verse you're alluding to, to establish this: 
2 Cor 6:14-15: Don't team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness?
This probably applies to marriage, but many people I’ve talked to point out that the context does not talk explicitly about marriage.  It's broader than that.  True enough. So can we establish that God’s mind on this is clearly that Christians ought not to marry non-Christians? Yes, I think we can.

In two other ways. First, this is guidance inside of the Mosaic command (Deut 7:3-4) “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.” This had nothing to do with racism, as many claim. It had to do with the potential falling away from true Faith that might come from a spiritual mismatch, as Moses makes clear in the very next verse: “…because they will turn your sons away from Me to worship other gods.”

Second, turning to another passage in the New Testament that is explicitly about marriage, Paul says to single women:
1 Cor 7:39: …she is free to be married to anyone she wants—only in the Lord. 
Meaning clearly that when we have a choice who we marry, we must marry “in the Lord” - another Christian.

Now, there are those situations when you don’t have a choice to be married in the Lord – like if you and your boyfriend had gotten married when you both were far from God, and then you turned to Jesus, God would still want you together, for sure.  (This is assuming he didn’t want to leave you after your conversion.)  But you are not married, and you do have a choice.

I know this might be hard to hear, but I do think the moral principle for disciples is that when they can, they marry a fellow believer, someone who shares their devotion to Jesus and his Kingdom.

Maybe it would help you to know WHY God would repeatedly come back to this idea.  The reasons, which I'll get to below, will stack up more later in marriage than they do now.  Now, in the flush of young love, you can imagine your compatibility on all the other stuff, your mutual attraction overcoming all.  And maybe, I dare say, you hold out the hope that your boyfriend comes to Christ - maybe through your influence.

I don't deny this has happened many times, I know several Christians who came to faith after their marriage and through their Christian spouse.

But those examples of success in winning over a non-Christian spouse don’t overturn the reasons for the rule to not marry one if we have the choice. Paul will talk to disciples married to non-Christians who are intent on leaving the Christian because of the spiritual mismatch. To the Christian who is determined to fight to keep them from leaving precisely because they might be the way they get converted to Jesus, Paul says “let them leave”, adding:
1 Cor 7:16: For you, wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband?
So the hope of conversion, though real, is not enough to overturn the concern the Scripture has for marriages that share the beauty and goodness of a common spiritual foundation in Christ.

Back to the reasons:

One, when children come along, the blueprint for how they ought to be raised will be a source of constant tension. Not only that, the children will also be far more apt for spiritual confusion if one parent thinks Christianity is simply false.  Hiding that secret contempt for the Faith would be even worse.

Two, the use of family finances is deeply related to worldview and money is already a source of tension in most marriages – spiritual mismatches exacerbate this already contentious area.

Three, the disciple grows deeper in love with Jesus every year, and to not share this most important part of your heart and your values with your spouse becomes a point of deep, deep loneliness.

Four, the disciple needs space and time and freedom to pursue what God wants, and, while the non-Christian can be OK with that, their lack of similar devotion presents a constant negative pressure on the devotion of the believing spouse… Giving, serving, attending church, fellowshipping with other Christians, prioritizing mission, sharing your faith – all this Christian activity is either tolerated (best case) or actively resisted (worst case), making the maturing of the Christian more difficult, for a lifetime.

I don't think this means you must break up immediately (if you're not married, you're not in violation of the biblical principle).  But I do think that this relationship needs to be offered up to God, like Isaac was by Abraham.  Note God’s protective rule and reasons in your mind and heart, and commit today that there will be no future inside of your control, where you will marry someone who doesn't share your love for Christ.  Then, I would simply pursue Jesus overtly and devotedly – now.  Don't hide it or put a cap on it to “make him less uncomfortable”.

It’s unfair to you both to cover the issues with a spiritual mismatch now, because they are coming like a freight train later.  So don’t work around them now.  Be you – a disciple of Jesus - fully and without apology.  It goes without saying, I hope, that you walk in Christian chastity as part of that.  Talk about Jesus, about what you’re learning, about what being His means to your heart, to your future, your priorities - without being overbearing of course.

If you do this, I predict one of two things will happen. One, your boyfriend will start to actively wonder (as may you) if compatibility in other areas can overcome lack of compatibility here. The relationship may very naturally unwind.  Let it.  It will still hurt, since you feel so drawn to each other, but God has something better, I assure you!

Or two, your boyfriend may (because of watching you) start to investigate Jesus in a way he never has, and who knows where that might lead!  This hope has to be put below your devotion to Christ, however.  And if the days show no movement here, know that every week and month your hearts become more entwined, the harder it will be to walk out your commitment to Christ's protective, loving rule: only marry "in the Lord".

It may be the heart confirmation you’re seeking doesn’t happen until Jesus knows you’re willing to follow his explicit command, wherever. Like Abraham and Isaac, Abe doesn’t get the miracle of God’s comfort until he showed he was willing to follow God’s command all the way.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Should I Respect Someone Who Isn't Respectable?

QUESTION: You taught about unconditional love and respect, but how can I respect someone who isn’t respectable?  It seems to me that respect is something you earn.  How do you respect a Charles Manson?

RESPONSE:  It's important to distinguish between the value of how one is acting and the value of the person.  The way a person acts may be, in all honestly, worthless.  But does that mean the person is worthless?  No.  That person, foolish and self centered as they may be, is made in the image of God, with will and freedom and a moral center, an immortal soul and nobility. These are gifts, you don’t earn them or work for them, they are just the value that you carry because God made us in his image.  A person is a magnificent creature, a thing of awe and beauty - no matter what.

It’s due to this inherent worth, that in marriage we can love an unlovable wife or respect a disrespectful husband.  Because it is based on their worth as children of God.   It may help you to look at it like this:  I am not respecting this man, so much as I respect the God who made him “fearfully and wonderfully”.  (Ps 139)  He made ALL men this way and there’s not a person you’ve locked eyes with who doesn’t carry the stamp of God, and therefore also an inherent worth and incredible value – they matter.

So there is no time at which they become someone whom you are “allowed to” or “ought to” disrespect.  They may have done disrespectful things and this happens – often!  Those things are not to be honored, or respected, nor tolerated indefinitely (see my example below).  

Of course, we should be long on tolerance for disrespectful or unlovable behavior, since everyone carries the disease of sin as equally as we carry the Image of God.   And that's another reason why just don’t ever have that moment where God says, “OK, now treat this person disrespectfully, because they deserve it!”

So then we shouldn’t say that love or respect should be earned.  What we are probably trying to say is that is it is foolish to trust someone who has been untrustworthy.  Yes, it is foolish to trust an untrustworthy person, since they will put you at risk by their established bad behavior.  But even with trust (as opposed to love and respect) to rehabilitate a repeat offender, trust cannot always be earned, it must sometimes be given as a gift. 

So the Christians gives love and respect and sometimes yes, even trust, unconditionally.  

What a terrible world we would live in if I only got the respect or love that my actions at any moment deserved.  Certainly there would be times that I would get praise and honor and reward, but then, I’d have just as many times as I’d reap shame and dishonor.  And then what kind of person would I turn into?  A miserable one either way, because I’d be proud and judgmental when I receive honor or I’d be shameful, guilty and fearful when I fall out of favor.  This is the yo-yo world of just desserts, of Karma, for every action an equal and opposite reaction, and it’s a world that God’s grace in Christ was meant to save us from.

But what should we do when disrespectful or unloving behavior happens, and affects us deeply?  Here’s what we do:  Don’t condone or ignore.  Also don’t treat this as a justified opportunity to become sarcastic, critical, shaming, withdrawing or vengeful – because “they deserve it”.  We have no right, because God commands respect and love unconditionally.  Instead, we approach such bad behavior with the truth in love.  We truthfully point it out (after proper self examination Matt 7:3-5) and we do so in love (Ephesians 4:15), always ready to forgive (Matt 18:22).  The language we use, is respectful, and the treatment is loving, because the person who has failed us is still valuable to God.  We respect God by respecting them, yes, even a murderer.

Now, if there’s no repentance, no honorable acknowledgement, no confession, no humility, we are not called by God to continue to expose ourselves to reckless and sinful behavior indefinitely.  This is where we say, "trust must be earned."  Paul tells Christians to “warn a divisive man once, warn him a second time, after that have nothing to do with him.” Titus 3:10.   The respect is given in the gracious confrontation and love is shown in the repeated warnings (we don't just dump people after one offense).  

But we may have to protect ourselves if the man of dishonorable character and actions won’t have the respect for himself (or God) to see correction as a gift and return to love and relationship.  So even as we may distance ourselves from disrespectful and dishonorable behavior, even if we cannot trust them, we are continuing to honor and respect that person!  How?  By giving them the honor of correction.  And the honor of honesty.  And finally we give them the honor of a choice, the honor of freedom to do as they please.

Great example I saw recently:  A man's wife left him for another man.  It was ugly, unloving behavior.  But she’s valuable to God, made in his Image, and my friend treated her like that, even after she ran off.  It was a struggle for him, of course, but this showed me it’s possible to honor a dishonorable person.   How did he do it?  He didn’t vengefully dump her.  He patiently sought good counsel and invited her into reconciliation talks.  He didn’t flame her out or seek immediate divorce.  When she showed some signs of life, he welcomed them.  He treated her nicely in their post-separation conversations, even when she was clearly still shacking up.  He didn’t maliciously seek to keep her from her son, or her stuff still lying around their house, or even half of his retirement!  All that is loving and respectful behavior towards someone engaged directly in unloving and disrespectful behavior.

At the same time, this did not go on indefinitely.  After 2 years of total abandonment, as a sort of a last act of cowardice, the cheating wife didn’t even have the decency to make official what she had clearly, already done, which is divorce her husband.  Too lazy?  Too cheap to hire the lawyer?  Who knows.  So my friend finally made official what only his wife made possible – the end of their marriage.  His action showed that we don’t simply ignore disrespectful behavior, nor do we fail to protect ourselves from it when the time comes.  We just believe that we don’t treat people at every moment as their actions deserve, and in this way my friend imitated God most beautifully. (Psalm 103:10)

And thank God for that, because, as one teacher once said, “great marriages are populated by two great forgivers.”

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

What Do You Think of The Person/Human Position In Abortion?

QUESTION: Advocates of Abortion make the case that we only need to consider the freedom, rights and autonomy of the mother because the fetus, might be human but it isn't really a person.  What do you make of that?

ANSWER: I think the distinction has to be made, because abortion on the face it is inhumane.  Everyone everywhere knows, "I was once a fetus."  Therefore, we know instinctively the right we grant to end pregnancies is fundamentally granting the right to (hypothetically) end, me.  But I don't want to be ended, not now, nor even and perhaps especially when I couldn't resist or express my desire to live, when I was most vulnerable and voiceless.

So abortion apologists have always had to work around that very instinctual, visceral repulsion most have to abortion on demand.  We all know why women and men want to end pregnancies and our hearts go out to them.  Babies can be deeply, profoundly, unwanted, inconvenient, ill-timed, because of the threats a new life poses to physical security, career, romantic interests, financial health, etc.  But to grant a right to end a life during pregnancy even for all these exigencies, requires an argument powerful enough it can overcome that respect for life so deeply embedded in our law, and in our consciences, and in our desire for self preservation.

This supposedly is that powerful argument: that a fetus is not really a person with a right to life.  It may be human, a distinct and unique individual entity, but not a person.  Therefore it can be killed, especially in light of the impacts unwanted pregnancy have on individual women's lives.  This personhood argument has two advantages. One, it tries to get around the personal empathic response to abortion by saying, you need not identify with the fetus, because the fetus isn't one of us.  It doesn't have a will or desires.  It isn't conscious or sentient like you so there's no need to imagine yourself as a fetus because it isn't a "self".

Human Embryo - 30 Days
The second benefit of this argument is that it tries at least, to stay up to speed on the science of fetology.  As I made clear in this post, abortion arguments used to center on the idea that the fetus was an "indeterminate cluster of cells".  Though this is sometimes repeated today, it rarely is by people in the know, since science tells us abortion is never accurately described as the removal of a "cluster of cells" - in two ways:

First, because all abortions, even the earliest are never done on a fetus during the first month when it is microscopic in size and lacking the basic embryonic shape we're all familiar with. 

Second, because the human embryo is always, from conception on, a differentiated, separate organism, with its own DNA, its own blood type, its own existence.  It is not the woman's body, it is another body.  A human body; that is exactly like any human body, different only in size, and development.

Ignoring these facts, I saw a meme recently with pictures of an raw egg, an acorn and a silk worm with the tag lines, this is not a Chicken, a Tree and a dress, respectively.  Then the picture of an egg cell with a sperm cell next to it, "this is not a person."  The level of naivety or intentional ignorance involved in this argument is staggering.  No one makes the argument that an unfertilized egg is a person or even a human!  Show a chick in the shell, or a seedling or a dress in any stage of development and compare to an embryo, and the argument is fairer, but then, of course, the argument falls apart!

But there's the larger problem.  Obviously, most everyone agrees that the "merely human" fetus turns into a person at some point.  But when?  Even many abortion advocates know that there is no moment post conception that can be pointed to, to mark the dividing line.  Some concepts are thrown out to define personhood, such as "self awareness" and "sentience", but if these are what makes a person someone with rights, then there are stages and states of adult life where personhood must disappear - can you kill an adult who loses sentience or self awareness or self-consciousness or memory?  But more troubling is simply that these concepts of "personhood" are as absent in babies as they are in fetuses - making them eligible to be killed by the same criteria.

If you think this is a fear mongering tactic, it's actually a simple assessment of the logical end of the argument for abortion from personhood.  No less a thinker than Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer has said:
Peter Singer
"The liberal search for a morally crucial dividing line between the newborn baby and the fetus has failed to yield any event or stage of development that can bear the weight of separating those with a right to life from those who lack such a right."
He's right.  In this way he agrees with pro-life advocates that there is no ontologically significant difference between the fetus and a newborn. True, there are differences of size, location, dependency, and development, but these are morally irrelevant.  I agree.

But rather than realize the flaw in the personhood argument, because there's no line inside the womb that marks the "dividing line", he doubles down on the personhood argument and admits that not only can we not assign personhood to a fetus at any clear stage of gestation, we can't grant personhood to newborns either!  He goes on: 
Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons.
Accepting that "personhood" is tied to a suite of mental abilities, Singer is forced by implications of that premise to reject birth as a relevant dividing line between person and nonperson.  So, he boldly calls us to lose the taboo against infanticide - a word abortion supporters are usually loathe to use:
“We should certainly put very strict conditions on permissible infanticide, but these conditions might owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than to the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant.”
In other words, killing babies should have restrictions, but more because of our sentimental attachment to babies, than to the inherent wrongness of the act.  As abhorrent as this may sound, full marks for logical consistency.  Once the value of a human has been reduced to personhood, and personhood has been expanded to a set of traits that bequeath value, this is a rational landing place.

Of course, abortion advocates don't follow Singer's logic publicly because it would likely erode public support, to put it mildly.  Already, pro-choice people are rarely fans of abortion, and a majority see their support as something of a Faustian Deal - sell a piece of your soul to get the promised liberation for women and a world of only wanted children. Most want some restrictions on abortion. 

But I suspect that just behind the rhetoric about wanting abortions "safe legal and rare" and behind the agnosticism about when a fetus becomes a person, lurks Singers utilitarian definition of personhood.  

I say this with increased confidence these days, after the recent spate of abortion laws passed to protect and expand abortion "rights".  No more compromise language in these bills, no more sense of abortion being a "difficult decision between a woman and her doctor" and certainly no thought that a line exists past which it would be morally indefensible to end a pregnancy.  No, these bills have sought to protect the right to kill a fetus up to the point of birth.  And they remove penalties for doctors who do not give care to abortion victims born alive.  Is there another word for watching a living, heart-beating infant on a sterile tray, and letting it die, other than infanticide?

These bills have unmasked that behind abortion is Singer's logic, acknowledged or not.  Of course the Ben Sasse bill was voted down (the one protecting children born alive after an abortion)!  Because everyone knows the deep incongruence and absurdity of allowing a doctor to kill an organism one minute and literally the next minute being forced by law to administer life saving care to that same organism.

But, in choosing consistency, those who killed the bill also chose a chilling kind of acceptance of infanticide over and against the more popular acceptance of a woman's right to chose pregnancy or not.  In the case of a botched abortion, all the popular battle cries remain inviolable, as the mother gets to end a pregnancy, she had the choice.  Yet if life saving care won't be required for a breathing infant outside the womb (no matter what its prospects), it seems there is one more battle cry they missed telling us about: we want the right to a dead baby.  That this doesn't seem the horror that it is, is only possible because personhood in this case is defined, not as viability, nor as sentience, nor as consciousness, but finally as the mother's desire for the baby to live, or not.  If it's inside or outside her womb, heart beating and moving, if she doesn't want it alive, it doesn't get to live.

The personhood argument suffers from deep, deep subjectivity.  Every line it could appeal to is arbitrary:  like the presence of brain waves, or capacity for relationship, or memory, or oxygen in the lungs or looks or heartbeat or consciousness.  The problem is any time you draw any line other than the inception of the child, you end up arguing for a right to kill people outside the womb.  That should scare all of us.

So, either human life has intrinsic value or it only has instrumental value.  If the latter, the bright red line ceases to be the anxious question of "when is a baby a person?".  The bright red line is in reality the unquestioned, unrestricted right of a person to end pregnancies whenever and however they choose - or even, as we've seen with Singer, to end the lives of small children.  When that is publicly admitted, as Singer has done, the veil of moral ambiguity around abortion will lift (for most of us I pray) and this holocaust just might be mitigated or, dear God, end altogether.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

What are Your Beliefs About Birth Control and the Right to Choose?

QUESTION:  What are you beliefs on birth control and the right of women to have control over their own bodies?


The Creation mandate God gave in Genesis is where he called humans to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:27).  Some Christians believe this command teaches us that sex should only serve the cause of procreation and thus any expression of sex that doesn’t lead to children is wrong, and so also would be birth control.

But Scripture has much more to say about sex than that one command.

In 1 Corinthians 7 for example, the apostle Paul talks to married couples about sexual intimacy.  And he calls them to not deny sexual intimacy from one another and to be mindful the other’s needs in that area, especially as the culture is so loose with its sexual mores and provides constant temptation to unfaithfulness.  In that whole discussion of sex, children are not brought up (except for a cryptic mention in 1 Cor 7:14).

The Song of Solomon also is a celebration of married sex which is enjoyed for the sheer joy of increased oneness, intimacy and the mutual pleasure it brings.  When Hannah is depressed because she can’t have children, in 1 Sam 1:8, her husband Elkanah tells her that their love and union should be more important than the children who may or may not come from it. 

So sex in Scripture plays a vital role in marital health beyond the utilitarian function of procreation.  Sex is a gift for intimacy and bonding between husband and wife with children as the glorious byproduct of the union rather than the specific goal of it.  Therefore, it seems clear that God grants couples the freedom to determine the size of their families.

The specific subject of birth control is not really considered in Scripture, probably since in the ancient agrarian cultures where it was written, a large family was often your retirement fund and social security.   The only person in Scripture shown to use a crude form of birth control is Onan in Genesis 38:9.  He is condemned by God, not because all birth control is evil, but rather because he is selfishly withholding from his wife the very retirement/social security which a child would bring.

Many cultures in history have practiced other more cruel forms of birth control, which amounted to forms of population control by dealing with unwanted children who could not be afforded or who were born the “wrong” gender, or who threatened political rule.  Killing of babies in battle and infant sacrifice was normative in ancient Canaan, and the Romans abandoned unwanted children so regularly they had identified public places where the “waste” could be dropped off.

Clearly, it would be preferable to have no children than to have children that you let die or actually kill.  The Biblical imperative to provide for one’s offspring makes this very clear indeed (1 Tim 5:8).  If you have limited resources (which most do) some form of birth control is simply a part of being a shrewd manager of the life God gave you.  And isn't it true that even those who believe birth control is wrong, nevertheless still at times practice a form of birth control (abstinence) for this very reason?  If all birth control was bad because the creation-mandate demands that we procreate as much as possible, even abstinence would be bad, and I don't think anyone takes that position.

Therefore, if sex is for other purposes than procreation and if responsible stewardship of limited resources honors God and shows high character, we mustn’t condemn birth control based on the creation-mandate alone.   Couples should be free to use birth control to limit the number of children they have or not have them at all, based on their own pasts, their stage of life, their level of resources, or their calling from God for other ministry.

However, if the choice becomes normative (in the developed world childlessness is reaching crisis proportions) out of pure self interest in order to maintain a more self-indulgent lifestyle, I would be (and am) deeply concerned if the Church followed suit.  Countries whose governments are paying for couples to have babies because it’s threatening their societies, show us that there is an enduring wisdom and moral imperative inside God’s creation mandate to have kids.  In other words, it is part and parcel of the others-oriented, selfless loving call of the Christian gospel, that parenting should be honored and considered normative (while not mandated) for disciples.

About your second question:  The simplest form of the women's rights argument in favor of abortion goes like this: a woman has the right to decide what she can and can't do with her body.   A fetus is part of a woman's body.  Therefore that woman has the right to abort a fetus they are carrying.  Of course the fundamental flaw in this argument is premise 2: the fetus is NEVER a part of a woman's body, as her appendix is or any other 'part'.  The fetus is, from conception, a wholly unique individual, with it's own DNA, it's own blood type, it's own unique existence.

It is, in fact another body.

This scientific fact is in keeping with the value and personhood God places on in-uteri babies throughout Scripture (Deut 21:22-25; Ps 139:13-17; Jer 1:5; Lk 1:41-44).  And so the general rule of corporeal autonomy becomes an argument against abortion rights, not for it.  If women should have control over their bodies, then it stands to reason that no one should have a right to usurp control over someone else’s body.  But with a fetus, that is, in fact, what we have: someone else's body.  To kill somebody else in the name of exercising bodily integrity, is obviously incoherent.

Of course, pregnancy is this amazing state of being where the bodily autonomy of two distinct individuals may come into direct conflict with each other.  Until we find a way to incubate life outside of wombs, this conflict is inevitable and I suspect God would always want it so.  Why?  Because the radical dependency of life at its earliest stages underlines the radical nature of selfless love which God wants to define all of us (Matt 22:39) because these qualities of love define God (1 John 4:16).

So my view of abortion comes down to this:  You have two individuals with the right to life and liberty because they’ve both been made in the image of God.  The less powerful life may be inconvenient or present risk to the more powerful life and so their rights are in conflict.  As in all life, the more powerful is in position to be the “oppressor” of the weak, but love calls us to care for the weak, to defend the cause of the fatherless and the helpless.

In short, love and moral law calls for the one in power to sacrifice for the one who has no voice and no power (Ps 82:3,4).  If God calls us to this way of thinking for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, I can’t see why we change this way of thinking when the potential victim of oppression is in the womb. 

Freedom for others isn’t convenient to me.  Love isn’t easy.  Here’s what love is however:  1 Cor 13:4-8, “Love is patient, love is kind. …it is not self-seeking, …It always protects, …Love never fails.”  And so I think abortion is simply a horrible failure to love.

The only argument against this position is to posit that the womb arbitrarily makes any body inside it not true a human individual with rights of their own.  No one thinks that my right to bodily integrity gives me the right to usurp someone else's similar right.  So arguments must be made that a fetus is not a person, or as Christians we might say, not endowed by God with his Image.  Clearly alive, clearly human, clearly another body (scientifically these are inarguable facts) but not a "person".

But the "personhood" argument fails every test of science, morality and logic.  When does “personhood” fall on a human body?  Conception is the only objective choice.  Every other line we might draw is deeply arbitrary:  When brain waves are present?  Heartbeat? Fingerprints?  Oxygen in the lungs?  A spinal column?   Looks?  Sentience?  Ability to feel pain?  Age of Viability (which is getting younger as technology improves)?

These arbitrary lines are actually fault-lines - because the side of the line you stand on has seismic consequences.  We are talking about the line between life and death, the line between constitutional protections and no protections; between taking an innocent life and a benign surgical procedure.

Yet, before the legal arguments get rolling, the unalterable biological fact is so obvious it gets missed: human life begins at conception and continues until death.  The science of fetology wasn't around in 1973, the year the Roe v. Wade decision was made, so maybe we could imagine the fetus was some undifferentiated cluster of cells then.  Not anymore.  The idea that what is killed in an abortion isn't "human" has largely been dropped.  I mean, what else is it in there if it’s not a human? It’s not a dolphin!  This is how human persons begin:  small, helpless, a distinct organism, from one single cell.  There is no magic moment post-conception where “God’s Image” or “personhood” (and thus human rights) falls on them after the fact – at least none that any of us are qualified to judge.

If it's human but not a "person", does this make the birth canal magic?  What pixie dust powers it must have to confer on a previously value-neutral biomass (morally akin to a pancreas) the precious, protected status of “human being”!  Because this is patently absurd, everyone making abortion arguments really knows it is not about the personhood of the fetus at all – abortion is finally about procreative freedom.  Of course, procreative freedom matters – but does it matter more than life?  

I know this is a hard answer to a controversial question.  But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Christians today oppose abortion.  Christians have felt strongly about abortion since there have been Christians.  Abortion was pandemic in ancient Rome and the Didache, a very early manual for new Christians, instructed disciples thus: “do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.” They were guided by their Christ who said, “if you have done it to the least of these brothers of mine, you have done it to me.” (Matt 25:40)

With that ethic of love as our guiding value, Christians ought to still be first in line to defend the cause of the fatherless and the innocent and to sacrifice for them – and to support women who are pregnant in harsh circumstances who are called upon by Love to sacrifice the most to care for “the least”.