Come to the Dark Side (we have logic)

There’s a theory in much of the evangelical church in the United States that political liberalism is incompatible with Christianity. Talking to some people (especially where I live in Texas) you get the impression that it’s our Christian duty to support the free-market laissez-faire capitalism promoted by God’s chosen agent on Earth, the Republican Party of the USA.

I apologise for the facetious tone, but that’s often how it comes across. Most of the people I know here who believe in Jesus honestly think that being a political liberal as a Christian is either succumbing to the Dark Side or serving two masters, and that right-wing economic policy is somehow intrinsically godly.

If you’re a capitalist on the ruthless Ferengi-like American model, you’re perceived as a good Christian. If you’re a known liberal, fellow-believers sometimes assume you’re a pagan and want to share the Gospel with you.

Interestingly, that statement about serving two masters and the impossibility thereof was made by Jesus in the context of Mammon, the desire for and worship of wealth and the only false god Jesus ever directly named. I don’t know about anyone else, but to me this is sounding like capitalism’s worship at the altar of gain far more than anything left-leaning.

I don’t believe that the Bible prescribes any economic system as inherently Christian or God-favoured, but with the assumption among so many US Christians that “left-leaning follower of Jesus” is an oxymoron, I thought I’d take a critical look at some of the Right’s assumptions in the light of Scripture.

Personally, I find the right-wing notion that the way to relieve poverty is to slap poor people about the face and yell at them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to be at best a little humanistic, preaching a “gospel” of self-effort and economic self-salvation that has more in common with Islam or Atheism than with Biblical Christianity. It’s no wonder so many struggle with the theology of grace alone; their right-leaning bootstrap economics both reinforces and is reinforced by the soteriological idea that you have to earn it.

By Republican ideology, it’s your own fault if you’re poor. If you were motivated enough or worked hard enough or invested enough or saved enough, you’d be a wealthy entrepreneur the way God intended. So the best way to help you is to cut off all support from the outside so that you’re forced to rely on your own resources to pull yourself up.

Even discounting the complete ignoring of the idea of systemic injustice and a system that benefits the already-wealthy, I fail to see what human self-effort has to do with the Good News about Jesus Christ. The point of the entire Bible, Old Testament as well as New, is that we can’t do it ourselves. Because of sin, we don’t have the internal resources in ourselves, and whereas all other religions are basically God or prophet slapping us around the face and yelling at us to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, Christianity is the story of a God Who stoops down to become like us, in order that He might make us like Him.

In this sense the Gospel is fundamentally leftist; opposed to the Satanic notion that we can bootstrap ourselves into righteousness.

Furthermore, the Scripture lists our internal disposition to sin as only one of our problems. There’s an evil world-system under its false god the Devil, keeping people divided in prejudice and hate, in bondage to oppression and injustice. Satan loves prejudice because God looks at the heart rather than the outward things. He loves injustice and oppression because God is just and the way of God is freedom from oppression. Systemic injustice is characteristic of what we expect to see in a sin-dominated world, and it is our duty and privilege as followers of the One who died to set us free to fight injustice, battle prejudice and work toward the uprooting of systemic evil, much as William Wilberforce worked to outlaw the slave trade.

The battle won’t be finally won until the return of the King, but we still have to seek His Kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth now as it is in heaven.

As far as I can tell, capitalism is always on the side of the rich. By right-wing ideology they’ve earned their place at the top, and we should desire to emulate them.

By contrast, the Bible portrays God as almost always on the side of the poor and the weak: “He has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich He has sent away empty”. “Not many of you were rich, not many of you were of noble birth”. All those psalms that talk about how good the wicked seem to have it now and God’s impending judgment on them for acquiring wealth sinfully. All those proverbs warning the rich to remember compassion and not put their trust in riches; all those other proverbs pointing out that just because you’re wealthy doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s because God blessed you. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20f) is practically Das Kapital for followers of Jesus, and declares woes to the rich and those that have everything now. The Kingdom of God is at hand! With economic justice for all.

Scripture warns that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Capitalism declares that the love of money is an unalloyed good and promotes industry and enterprise. We need to be careful here. Biblical Christianity doesn’t have a place for the sanctification of greed for material gain.

Jesus was born to a couple so poor they could only afford the very least sacrifice for a firstborn required by the Law. One of the signs of the Kingdom that John the Baptist was told by the Lord to look for was that the Gospel is preached to the poor. James warns the early church not to idolise the rich or show partiality to them. “It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”.

And yet with all this’ American Christians nearly universally fawn on business-owners, elect millionnaires to high office (often seemingly simply because they are “successful” – at least in acquiring wealth), and favour policies to take money from the poor and give it to the rich (because they’re presumed to be “job creators”). Exactly the opposite of what Luke’s Beatitudes tell us should happen as the Kingdom comes.

The early church under the leadership of the Apostles and the guidance of the Holy Spirit instituted a communistic-like system in which each one contributed according to his ability and each one partook according to his need. This may be communism without the atheistic and state-dominated elements, but it is communism of a sort, just like an Israeli kibbutz.

No-one is saying that there isn’t a temptation on the economic and political Left to look to the state (or the government, or one’s fellow human beings) to do for you what only God can, but isn’t there just as much of a temptation on the Right to think that we can pull ourselves up to righteousness, that we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-Saviour? The Right isn’t necessarily any more Christian than the Left is, nor is the Left necessarily any less Christian than the Right. Both are human constructs invented by fallen men. God’s Kingdom, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, is not a matter of Left and Right, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

I’m not saying that you can’t lean to the right and follow Jesus, but I am saying that it’s at least equally possible for one’s faith to influence one’s politics in a left-leaning direction.

In fact, I’d say there might be more that the Left have closer to God’s way right now than the Right. Concern for the poor, wage equality for women, proper stewardship of God’s world. International relations based on diplomacy and peacemaking rather than threat and military might. Even the desire to allow illegal immigrants some sort of amnesty seems more in line with Jesus’ concern for the woman caught in adultery as a person as opposed to the Pharisees’ heartless legalism and political games with a life at stake.

Like someone who came here illegally, the woman wasn’t an innocent party; she’d been caught in the act. The Law was clear, and she’s on the wrong side of it.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily an exact parallel in all respects, but the conservative tendency to exalt law at the expense of people strikes me as rather Pharisaic.

I’m not fully comfortable with all the positions taken by the American Left on everything, but political morality is far more than the one-dimensional issue of whether or not you favour legal abortion that so many Evangelicals seem to treat it as.

So I put this out there as a deliberate challenge to the assumption that right-wing politics is synonymous with righteousness and the way of God and that the Left is intrinsically opposed to Christ. I’ve been deliberately provocative at some points simply to shake up the false idea that Right=moral, Left=immoral. I hope it provokes thought rather than offence for the sake of it.

I look forward to the day when followers of Jesus can rise above their political differences and recognise all who put their trust in Him as sisters and brothers.

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…And A New Earth

One of the last ideas communicated by the book of Revelation is the creation of “new heavens and a new Earth”, free from the corruption of sin and evil. We’re treated to the image of Zion, the celestial New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, the nations streaming to it, the kings of the world bringing their glory into it. No more crying, no death, no mourning. The tree of life bringing forth its fruit in twelvefold season, its leaves employed for healing the nations. No longer any curse.

But what is it actually like?

Human beings are an active and dynamic creation of God, and even in the very beginning before the Fall were given tasks to do. The painful toil of futility and frustration is the curse of the Fall (along with domination and despair in relationships), but work itself is good, and relationships are good. Human beings would get bored without something to do. So what do we do in the eternal Kingdom? If there’s something to do, if there’s work, what work is there and what is it like?

This is where all of our traditional images of heaven and perfection fall down. All that sitting on clouds playing harps, or strolling about a garden doing nothing… It looks sort of boring. Even the massive worship meeting before the Throne day and night seems in our humanness like it would wear a bit thin after a while. What do people in the new heavens and the new earth actually do?

Bear in mind that this is extremely speculative, but I thought I might try to take a look at what might be, in a world without the taint of sin…

~~~

One of the roots of our contemporary issue with the traditional images of paradise restored is that almost invariably they date to a time when work for nearly everyone literally meant exhausting and painful physical labour. When God says to Adam in Genesis 3 that “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread”, that was the literal truth. When your life is a choice to work like a slave in the fields or to go hungry, is it any wonder that heaven was depicted as rest and ease?

Our contemporary world’s expression of painful toil is somewhat different. Shorter on the backbreaking physicality of toil, perhaps, but probably longer on futility and frustration. I ask you, is there much that’s more mind-numbingly futile than data entry or tollbooth-manning or parking attendanthood or any of the other yawnsome mental gruntwork jobs we’ve invented?

If work is going to be restored to its pre-Fall grandeur, it’s going to partake of the characteristics of those original tasks: it’s going to be real, significant, worthwhile, connected and engaging.

In other words, it’s going to become art; it’s going to become worship.

The original commission given to Adam and Eve was to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it”. They were placed in a beautiful garden as their home, to work it and take care of it, but their mandate was as broad as the whole earth, as challenging and significant as subduing the wild cosmos, and as connected and interpersonal and fun as being fruitful and multiplying, and as intimately in tune with the Lord as walking with Him in the cool of the day.

I’m not certain, but I think one of the important casualties will be the compulsive aspect of work.

No more workaholics, but that’s not really what I’m referring to here. No; what I mean is that no-one will be forced into a job of work, either by other people or by the simple circumstance of needing to earn their daily bread. We’ll be creatures of perfect generosity and without the dark self-centredness that would take advantage of that. It really will be ok. Besides, with the curse of futility and frustration – thorns and thistles when you try to grow grain and grapes – over and done, work will be glorious and significant.

With no sin to pervert hearts and give rise to hostile or criminal behaviour, there will be no need for soldiers or policemen or security guards, when the curse of the Fall is overturned the growing of food will be as simple as reaching out one’s hand to reap the bounty of the new creation, and when the lion lays down with the lamb there will be no need to guard our livestock from predators, but there’s still a lot of human activity and work left open.

There will presumably still be rain and snow and winds and heat, so there will still be a need for houses and other buildings. I’m in luck; my job of construction continues into the New Earth. I’m not going to become unemployed.

But what will vanish is all of the petty tyrannies of “and you’re going to build it this way, because I said so and I’m in charge”, all the untrustworthiness and lack of scruple in cheating and “how much can we get away with?” and sheer blind stupid.

There won’t be any more generic McMansions or buildings so ugly that today they’d win design awards. Every building a work of art, harmonious, well-situated and well-built, with the drains and the plumbing working properly and no stupid petty annoyances like staircases that are just that much too steep or kitchen counters that are too small for all the stuff you want to put on them, or cabinets designed for people 3″ taller than you are.

We’ll build for beauty, but it’ll be a livable beauty maximising function as well as looks. And our public buildings even more so.

With perfected bodies there’s some question over whether we’ll need doctors or medical practitioners. No disease, infirmity or old age will be in a position to affect us, but perhaps there might still be the possibility of accidents? I’m withdrawing judgment on that, but most of the mess of our contemporary pharmaceutical industry with its dubious lists of side-effects and its profiteering from other people’s pain will look very different if it exists at all.

But we’ll still need to eat, and we’ll still presumably need shelter (hence buildings) and we’ll still presumably need clothes at least occasionally.

Without the capacity of the heart to lust or to feel ashamed, nudity loses its status as a morally-questionable state, but if cold and heat and precipitation continue, it’s conceivable we might need clothing to make the bearing of environmental conditions more commodious.

If there are clothes in the new heavens and the new earth (beyond the white robes which might be literal or symbolic) I can’t imagine that they’d be uncomfortable or ill-fitting or be sold only in unflattering shades and cuts simply because that’s the fashion. Entirely probably there will be a lot more individuality and variation in what is worn and what is available to be worn, and just as with buildings, they’ll be created as if each one is a work of art, without the shoddy workmanship or second-rate materials of so much of our contemporary mass-production.

And we’ll still want to travel and get places. If you’re going to live forever and so are the people you’re going to see, in a sense it doesn’t matter that it’s going to take you years to walk from Brabant to Beijing, but I’m sure there are going to be instances in which time really is of the essence and we just have to get there quickly.

There’s that Divine teleportation of Philip the deacon after he baptised the Ethiopian eunuch, travelling over 40 miles by being carried by the Spirit to “appear” at Azotus, but we have no way of knowing whether that will be something we can all access at will (our human wills being perfectly synched to the Divine Will) or whether it was a special act of God for a special purpose.

It’s possible we’ll all be footbound or using Philip Airways, but human beings are vastly more creative than that, and any moyorcyclist will tell you there’s a very real pleasure to be derived from a machine and the open road, and I don’t think the Lord is against that pleasure.

I can’t really see that there wouldn’t be the opportunity of all sorts of modes of transportation, if only for the joy of their operation. Bicycles and trains and motorbikes and cars and trucks on the land, gliders and aeroplanes and dirigibles and helicopters and things we haven’t even invented yet in the air.

I can’t imagine that they’d be polluting, so fitted with clean-burning engines that ought to be no problem for immortal scientists and engineers with Divinely-guided faculties to work out and make efficient.

And the roads! No potholes, for a start! I cannot imagine that the penny-pinching, good-enough attitudes that allow such things here would continue there. When we build roads and railways, we’ll build them properly with good materials, and they’ll be designed for the loads we know they’re going to get, not for the cheapest we can get away with. In the New Jerusalem, gold is a paving material; I don’t believe cost is an issue here.

Rockets? Spaceships? Travel to other planets and other stars? I have no clue, but why not? Maybe “fill the earth” doesn’t just mean the Earth, but the cosmos?

Boats – well, there’s that troubling statement that “there was no longer any sea”, but lakes and rivers still put forth the possibility of boats. Besides, I personally believe that statement’s more than a little symbolic. Jews were even worse sailors than the Romans were, and “the sea” was viewed as a tumultuous, deadly, evil place. It stood for chaos, anarchy, trouble in the world. No more of that. No more national and international chaos out of which demagogues and dictators arise and which evil people use to propel themselves to power. One Kingdom, belonging to the Lord.

This leads directly on to the question of social and political arrangements.

We know that Jesus Christ shall reign on the earth, and we with Him, but over whom, and how in practice?

Frankly, my imagination fails here, and I can no more speculate on what Heavenly political/administrative arrangements will look like than I can conceive what the colour green smells like. Without the fallen craving of power for its own sake, without evil and sin to be restrained or injustice to be combated, how will we be governed if not by general goodwill?

And yet administration is listed as one of the spiritual gifts, so we can anticipate that there might still be a need for some sort of formal human governance.

Similarly, the new earth’s economic system is beyond my personal imagining? Perfect communism with a population that actually works responsibly and with one another’s best interests at heart? It’s possible, despite the assumed equivalence of right-wing political economics with the way of God that’s currently fashionable in America.

Or some sort of Divine capitalism with business owners who always have both the will and the ability to do the right thing by their customers, their employees and their investors, who won’t take advantage or game the system. Much as those of us toward the Left might not want to admit it, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s not capitalism (or communism, purely in economic terms) in and of itself that’s corrupt and anti-God, it’s the darkness in our hearts that it lets loose and enables that is the problem. No more darkness, no more problem.

I’ll tell you one thing, though. This false choice between providing jobs for one’s citizens and not despoiling the planet will be gone. We’ll work out ways to nurture and tend God’s green earth while we do our regular work. We won’t need to choose between affordable and green.

I know that God is concerned about economic issues – there’s more in the Bible about money than there is about preaching – but my imagination simply fails. Can we own anything if “the Earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it”? Will there be such a thing as money or trade?

I suppose so, given its prominence in the Scriptures, but it won’t look anything like the current contemporary abortion.  And it’s entirely possible there won’t be.  There’s enough else in the Bible that’s just instructions for how to live in a fallen world, after all.

And what of the sciences? I don’t believe they’ll be allowed to languish. Those who study the Creation and its physical underpinnings will be truly “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”, and we won’t have any issues about funding or tenure or academic rivalries or deliberate distortions for gain by others, nor yet the dull predation of an ignorant media more concerned with spin and headlines than with the truth of the matter.

Heh, even advertisers will be telling the whole truth, and if their profession survives that stroke then more power to them!

All of this is not to step aside from the very important truth that the new cosmos is Theocentric. I’ve approached the idea of the new heavens and the new earth from a rather humanistic (small “h”, in its old sense of “concerned with the human”) perspective, but one aspect of our society, particularly our Western society, that will have to change is the Humanistic (capital “H”) notion that man is both the measure and end of all things.

God is on the Throne, visibly and acknowledgedly. Our lives will be spent before His face in the contemplation and worship of Him.  This is clear and unquestioned in the Scriptures.

But what is worship? What does it mean to live life coram Deo – before the face of God?

The old monastic communities had at least this much right: labore est orare, to work is to pray. And our modern worship-leaders have rightly reminded us time and again that what happens when we get together in our church buildings every Sunday is not worship – or rather, not the whole of worship. Worship is a heart-response to the Lord God, and it’s no accident that the Hebrew word for it is related to a word meaning “to come towards to kiss”. And that can and should be happening as much in our daily work and interactions with colleagues and friends as it does in our corporate singing on the Lord’s Day.

We don’t see and experience that but here and there, now and then in this world, but then…? Then we shall be before His face day and night, with no veils between us and the Majestic One, knowing fully even as we are fully known.

But even the great multitude before the Throne and the Lamb is not the whole of worship. There will be those who, before the Throne and face of God, build buildings or write poems and stories and music or prepare and serve delicious food or run and jump, sail boats, pilot aircraft or make new scientific discoveries.

These things are part of the image of God as Creator, and I simply refuse to believe that we will be less in touch with that image there than we are here.

Finished

It’s Labor Day weekend here in America.

Most countries that acknowledge a Labour Day-type holiday do so on 1st May, but that was way too Communist for the United States when the holiday was established, and I have a suspicion that these days most Americans don’t even know it’s any different overseas.

A day celebrating labour – work and workers – is quite appropriate to the latent workaholism of US culture; indeed, the minor irony is that it’s celebrated with a day off.

As I’ve mentioned before, Americans love the idea of hard work. “Working hard or hardly working?” my father-in-law will sometimes greet people; smugly boasting that you’re hardly working is not considered a normal reply.

In a lot of ways this is an excellent trait. The present administration notwithstanding, Americans normally excel at getting things done, and laziness is far from common due to its status as perhaps the cardinal cultural sin. It’s easy to forget in these days just how revolutionary the American Dream really was: with hard work and initiative anyone can rise to the top; you don’t need the titles, breeding or aristocratic patronage of the old autocracies of Europe. Amazing!

However, when it comes to the Christian doctrine of justification by faith and not by works, this cultural predilection can work against the understanding of the truth.

I comment almost every time my church starts a new published Bible study about the high profile always given to the matter of grace and works and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. To me it seems a little odd; this is such a basic Christian doctrine that is it really necessary to rehash it every single time? We’re saved by grace, through faith. We understand. We understood last time.

It strikes me today, though, that perhaps I haven’t given the writers enough credit for knowing their audience.

My British-born cultural mindset gives far less pre-eminence to the idea of hard work. I’d never heard “Working hard or hardly working?” as a greeting or even a serious question before I came to the States, and the cultural acclaim given to entrepreneurs and businesspeople is something that just leaves me cold. Yes, yes, well done and all that. But not everyone can be an entrepreneur or be fortunate enough that their venture succeeds, so what about the rest of us?

In short, just because I don’t feel I need to rehash grace and works again doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people who might. This central tenet of American culture is working directly against the notion of grace. It’s rather like my instinctive “how is that fair?” question over God’s selection of Jacob rather than Esau. My own culture’s valuing of fair play and justice is baffled by the apparently arbitrary, unfair-seeming choice.

Americans value hard work, and the idea of receiving something as a gift and not being expected to work like an ox to make up the debt strikes at that. But such is the truth. It really is a free gift, not something you have to repay, not something you can repay.

I’m told that the only time the Bible ever tells us to “strive”, it’s “Strive to enter His rest”. And a lot of Americans aren’t very good at rest.

With the US’ excellence at getting things done and acclaim for those that do, however, I wonder whether you Americans might not have a greater appreciation, once you stop trying to earn it, of the effectiveness of Jesus’ finished work.

Here is a Man whose life-work really did get it done. He did the job, he put an end to the power and guilt of sin. He brought many sons to glory, as the song puts it. He destroyed the power of the devil, and snatched the keys of death and hell. He accomplished the task for which He came into the world: reconciliation between holy God and sin-stained humanity.

The work is finished. The book of Hebrews says that “having provided purification from sins He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven”. Secure in the knowledge of a job well done, He kicked back and put His feet up. It’s done. He completed the work.

So let’s hear it for getting it done.

The Better Sacrifice

I don’t often make our church’s midweek Bible study, due to conflicts between the time it starts and the time I get home from work.

I did last week, though, entering midway into a study of one of my favourite sections of the Bible: the early chapters of Genesis.

I’d missed the studies on the first three chapters covering the Creation and Fall, and jumped right in with the story of Cain and Abel.

I’m not going to comment right now on the actual historicity or not of this section of primeval history. Whether and how it should be harmonised with what most scientists tell us about Darwin’s theories and all the palaeontological discoveries we’ve made is a separate question, but in a sense, if you don’t treat these chapters as “real” in some sense, you’re going to miss the point of most of the rest of the Bible.

In short, God might have used evolution to create the world and even progressively stamped the Divine image onto increasingly manlike beings, but the theology of salvation and the very underpinnings of the Good News require a Fall of some sort from an original state of grace, otherwise they don’t entirely make sense. The Bible doesn’t tell us that humanity’s problem is that we’re ignorant of the right thing to do or that we need someone to show us the way; it tells us that knowing what is right, we do not do it.

For the Bible to make sense, the first few chapters of Genesis have to be true on at least a spiritual and theological level. Whether they are also true in the sense of being an accurate historical description of real events is a separate question.

But for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to treat it as a factual account, even if there are some questions about precisely what genre these passages belong in.

The account of Cain and Abel begins some time after the exile from Eden, when Adam and Eve have started having children. The way Cain’s naming is written, Cain might have been their firstborn, but there’s nothing specifically written either way. Eve names him “Gotten”, saying “With the help of YHWH I have gotten (or brought forth) a man”. As an interesting aside, I find it fascinating that this is the first name-giving by someone other than Adam. Adam was the one given the job of naming all the animals in chapter 2, and Adam names Eve, both as to her kind (“ishah”, “woman”; “taken out of ish, man”) and personally (“Eve”, “Breath”, “Life-giver”). Up until this point, it’s been Adam that has told the rest of Creation what it is. Now the focus shifts, and it’s the one Adam calls Lifegiver that gives the names to the next generation.

Many traditions have portrayed Abel as Cain’s younger twin, but all the Bible says is that he was born “afterwards”. There could have been years between them for all we actually know.

Anyway, there’s time in between the notification of their birth (important in the light of the Divine command to “go forth and multiply”) and the rest of this account for them to grow up and become at least young men, and given how much fun God designed sex to be, I don’t expect Adam and Eve were hanging about on the going forth and multiplying. This will become important later, but undoubtedly Cain and Abel had numerous siblings; even without multiple births a pregnancy a year over 100 years of life (Seth, Abel’s “replacement”, was born when Adam was 130) gives 50 offspring from Adam and Eve alone, and those children can potentially start having their own kids at 15-20. This is no Western-style nuclear family with only the named individuals in it.

Simply put, we aren’t told how many years elapsed between Cain and Abel’s birth and the first murder, but it was enough for Cain to grow up and become a farmer and Abel to grow up and become a shepherd.

This is the central tension of almost every preindustrial agricultural society there’s ever been, encapsulated right here. Growers of seed and keepers of livestock. I hesitate to say that this is where all the tension comes from, but it’s an interesting observation that Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, not the Good Farmer.

There’s an awful lot in this passage that isn’t said, including the reasons why Cain’s offering was rejected by God, but so long as we keep in mind that we are speculating, it’s perfectly ok to read between the lines a little.

“In the fullness of time,” the Bible says, Cain brought some of the produce of the ground as an offering. This may just mean that in the course of things once the seed was ripe and the harvest was in, but the Bible does often use this phraseology for Divinely-ordained times, appointed times for an aspect of His unfolding rescue plan for humanity. And if that is the intended sense, it might imply a time that God had set for them to bring an offering.

The priestly sacrificial system and Law wasn’t formally codified until Mount Sinai, but this isn’t the only foreshadowing of aspects of the Law’s requirements. Noah had to be able to differentiate clean and unclean animals somehow so he would know how many to take into the ark, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built altars and made sacrifices, and even God Himself had to kill something to provide the “garments of skins” with which He covered Adam and Eve.

It doesn’t especially matter whether this offering was a spontaneous gift or a commanded requirement, but the difference between Cain and Abel goes deeper than what they offered.

If this is a commanded sin-offering, God had established the pattern that something has to die for your sins to be covered, but the Sinaitic Covenant prescribed other kinds of offering than sin-offerings alone. The short answer is that we don’t know.

However, the language used in each case shows an important difference in attitude between the two brothers. Cain brought “some of the fruits of the earth”; the tone suggests that he didn’t take much time or care over its selection. At best, this reveals a jobbing, good-enough attitude which is going to fulfil the letter of what’s required but will do no more. At worst, it’s a surly passive-aggressive resistance to doing what God has asked for, possibly a heart greedy for “his” possessions that “he” had produced from the ground, perhaps an ugly mistrust of God’s goodness, care and provision.

Abel, by contrast, brings “fat portions from the firstborn of his flocks”, the best of the best. If his offering is a token of the attitude of his heart, Abel is a man whose relationship with God is of the highest importance. Who gives to God first, trusting Him to meet his needs.

Cain’s offering looks like the response of a man who thinks he’s really giving something to God. Here, Lord, have some of this grain that I made grow out of my own land with my own two hands. It may be significant in more ways than one that his name is Gotten. I did it; it’s my stuff; I’m doing God a favour by letting Him have some of what I earned. Cain, we might say, is the original self-made man.

Abel, on the other hand, gives like someone who knows that everything is the Lord’s anyway. He’s unstinting, his is a relationship of trust in God’s ability and willingness to take care of him. The firstborn of his flocks, and fat portions of it – the best part, in a time before the current Western obesity epidemic – coming before YHWH with blood on his hands because he knows he doesn’t have any right on his own merit.

And now we’re foreshadowing Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The one came to God proudly listing off all the things he’d done to earn the favour of the Almighty, the other not even looking up to heaven, pleading for mercy because he’s a sinner.

And just like in Christ’s parable, it’s the man with blood on his hands that is looked on with favour. The one who trusts not in what he can do or bring, but in God’s merciful character.

And Cain gets mad.

Offended that God wouldn’t favour the offering that he’d worked so hard to produce, he reveals the legalistic religiousity of his mindset. Obviously God ought to be pleased, right? He said to bring an offering, and I jolly well brought an offering. I’ve done what He said; I deserve to merit His favour, right?

Sorry, Cain, but grace doesn’t work that way. We’re all flawed, imperfect, ungodly, sinful. We all fall short, and not one of us has anything to offer of our own. God’s favour is unmerited, otherwise grace is no longer grace. It’s gratis, free, not to be earned. God cannot be bought off and will not accept the fruits of the red earth (“Adamah”, ie Adam, that is, man). Truly, “nothing in my hand I bring,” as the old hymn puts it.

And so God lovingly challenges Cain. “Why is your face downcast? If you do well, won’t you also be accepted? But if you choose not to do well, sin is crouching at your door like a demon. It wants to possess you, but you don’t have to give in to it. You must be its master, not be mastered by it.”

Cain, you know I’m not interested in the offering for its own sake. It’s you that I want, not your stuff. Do well, offer to Me what bears My image, and you will be accepted with love and mercy. The offering’s not because I need it, but because I desire relationship with you, and that’s been broken by the sin that came into My world when your father Adam chose to disobey. Something has to die to cover that sin, Cain, and Abel understands this. Come back, Cain. It’s not too late; you don’t have to walk any further down this dark path.

And Cain hardens his heart.

This often seems to be the response of the religiously legalistic when confronted with the righteousness of faith. In a foreshadowing of every act of persecution and religious violence from the Pharisees to the Taliban, via the Crusades and Stalin’s purges, Cain decides that his righteous brother is the problem, and no more brother = no more problem.

And even after he commits the first murder, still God comes after him. Like His incarnate Son, God seems to like asking leading questions; the faux-innocent “Where is your brother Abel?” allows Cain a moment to decide whether he’s going to face up to what he’s done or try to wriggle out of it.

Adam and Eve pointed the finger of blame everywhere but at themselves, but at least they did not contest what they had done. Cain goes one worse. He lies, trying to pretend that not only did he not do it, but that he’s not even sure what’s been done.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” I’ve got enough to do being responsible for me and my righteousness, now you think I can be responsible for my brother too? He’s an adult, let him be responsible for himself.

But YHWH pierces this self-serving smokescreen, saying “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground!” I know what you did; I’m not asking because I don’t know, I’m asking to try and help you.

Cain fails even where Adam does seem to succeed. Adam accepts his punishment, watches meekly while God kills something to cover the nakedness of his sin. Cain’s still trying to argue with God, like he knows better than the Omniscient One. “You’re driving me away from my livelihood, I’m going to be a restless vagabond, and anyone who finds me is going to feel no compunction about killing me!”

And so once again, the Lord in His patience and mercy reaches out, putting a mark on Cain so that no-one would kill him out of hand, lest they suffer the sevenfold vengeance God decrees. The form this took is not clear, but the consequence is. God is even concerned not to let anyone else take Cain’s life, just in case he should repent later.

And yet, we see that even then, Cain’s still trying to squirm out of the consequences of his sin. God told him he would be a homeless wanderer on the earth, but not four verses later we read that Cain is building a city named after his son Enoch.

Now, various people have famously fluffed the answer to “where did Cain’s wife come from?”, because “he married his sister” is incest in our modern world and we don’t like the implications.

But this is one of those times at which it only makes sense if you consider all the implications of an act of special creation.

In the beginning, God did not create mankind with a whole host of genetic defects. This is why incest is so categorically a bad idea; it’s one of those commandmemts that has a solid biological basis. Having children with a close relative is so terrible because it doubles the chances of all of the various accumulated genetic weaknesses and defects producing something really catastrophic.

Biologists call this “genetic load”, and it’s one of the subtle problems caused by any population bottleneck.

But Adam and Eve had no genetic load. In all likelihood, incest didn’t become an issue until the Israelites were in Egypt, and the accumulated damage of centuries upon centuries of harsh solar radiation, chemical damage and just general mutational effects was sufficient to make it deadly.

So yes, Cain, and Seth, and their brothers and sisters and offspring, married close family. It couldn’t be any other way, and it wasn’t the problem many people seem to think it was.

Cain’s descendents seem to have become worse and worse, until Lamech, seventh from Cain, becomes the first polygamist and is so ruled by the idea of revenge that he’s prepared to kill in response to being struck.

And yet there’s hope. “In the fullness of time” Eve bears another son, which she understands as being a sort of replacement for Abel, who was killed. His name is Seth, which means “Granted”, or “Given”.

And that right there says it all, really. The offspring of Cain are the lineage of Gotten, of I-did-it, of humanistic pride and self-righteousness and religious legalism. Seth’s line are the children of Granted, of He-did-it, of the righteousness which is a gift of God and is by faith.

Walls: Getting Your Head Round Nehemiah

Nehemiah is an easy book to get your head around in a lot of ways. The story’s pretty straightforward: royal cupbearer hears sorry state of Jerusalem, takes life in hands by appearing sad before the king. King commissions aforesaid cupbearer to go and do something about it. People rally around said cupbearer and begin work; inevitable opposition arises and is roundly trounced. Cupbearer institutes religious reforms. The end.

But in other ways it’s an odd book to read, particularly as a Gentile.

Over two and a half millennia later, we don’t really get why the wall of Jerusalem being broken down and its gates burned with fire is such a big deal. I at least am disturbed by some of the apparent racism of Nehemiah’s religious reforms, and unsure of why it matters that the people had taken foreign wives.

In the modern world of controversial border-wall proposals, is “building the wall” really the sort of signal we want to send?

All in all, the book is quite Jewish. I have difficulty viewing most of Nehemiah’s religious reforms as anything other than proto-Pharisaism, and several earlier parts of the story, for example the opposition to the building, seem to have lost something in translation.

The earliest chapters of Nehemiah are the least troublesome. Nehemiah hears that Jerusalem’s wall is broken down and its gates burned.

The previous major Biblical event being the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish nation, part of me always comes to this and says “well, duh?”. What do you expect? The Babylonians just got done burning it. Aware of later history with the Maccabees, the Romans and Masada, we’re apt to read back onto this the troublesome and rebellious nature of the Jewish province, and think to ourselves that no ruler in their right mind is going to let anyone arm such a dangerously secessionist piece of turf.

This, of course, is telescoping about six hundred years or so of history together. It had been over 70 years since the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, and under normal circumstances the wall would be the first thing to be rebuilt, because until it was complete, everything you built was vulnerable to every raider or bandit in the region.

In the ancient world, walled cities were the norm. Your city wasn’t more than a large village unless it had a wall, and until it did, it was at the mercy of everyone.

More than mere security, a wall around the city was a mark of identity; a “this is us” statement that distinguished the “safe” area inside the city from the dangerous barbarian wilds beyond.

It’s difficult for us to adjust our thinking enough to cope with this ancient-world truth; in our day it is the inner city that is the dangerous wilderness, and “the countryside” holds an almost mystical reverence. We want wild spaces and pristine landscape; in an Iron Age era where there were lethally dangerous animals living within long bowshot of the city walls, plus raiders and other human predators, the city was the good part. Untouched wilderness didn’t mean “unspoilt”; it meant “unsafe”.

And Jerusalem’s wall had remained in ruins for over two generations, because, so we are told, the local provincial governors had a vested interest in keeping the Jews down.

It seems, on the face of it, difficult to fathom their thinking. Another walled city on an important trade route would mean another safe haven for merchants, and being able to say that your province held 87 walled cities rather than 86 would have been a symbol of status as an important governor. It would even pay for itself eventually in increased trade revenues into the royal coffers.

Sadly, though, not all rulers make decisions on the basis of logic and reason. The governors only had to answer to their Emperor, not to their subjects, so they had less pressure to be reasonable, and even today there are rulers and politicians who make decisions on little more than whatever whim fills their heads that moment. And aggressive war is one of the least amenable to reason of any national decision. In 1939, for example, Germany’s biggest trading partner was France. It didn’t, economically speaking, make sense for the Germans to attack. Similarly, it doesn’t quite make sense to me that there was so much official opposition, but I take the Bible’s word for it that there was.

The wall, then, was a statement of identity. Jerusalem’s wall-less state should be viewed as a physical representation of what was in danger of happening to the Jewish nation. Any other nation in history, once removed from its ancestral homeland, has eventually lost their identity and become subsumed into another. Under different circumstances, the American colonists developed an identity as something other than subjects of the British crown. Away from “home”, “home” begins to be somewhere else, and identity changes. Or is lost altogether.

God had a vested interest in that not happening. These were and are still His Covenant people. Besides, no Jewish nation meant no Son of David, because at the time He was yet to come.

Sanballat and Tobiah’s opposition may not entirely make sense with the limited data we’re given, but we can read onto them every tyrant or oppressor who has ever persecuted one group in order to increase their prestige in a different group. Tomas de Torquemada and the Jews. Tamerlane and the Central Asian churches. Modern far-right groups and Muslims. It doesn’t have to make logical sense. “They” are the real Bad Guys; you go off and hate them, and ignore the tyrant’s rule closer to home.

Maybe walls aren’t a good symbol in the post-Resurrection world, where the end goal is people “from every tribe and nation and people and language”. We don’t want to be putting barriers in people’s way, or decreeing “pagan-free zones” within our churches. This is self-evident. And yet, are we building walls of hatred towards Muslims, or anyone else for that matter?

Christ died for these individuals. He has not given us the right to push them away.

But a metaphorical wall as a token of identity… Yeah, it’s actually important. We should not let go of who we are in Christ, nor of Whose we are. Guarding our heart, as the Proverbs puts it, is a vital duty, because if we lose heart it’s all over.

This wall is built brick-by-brick from the knowledge of God and what He’s done for us.

I still have questions about the sort of signal this wall-building sends, but it’s not at odds with the character of God as revealed by the rest of the Bible.

And then those religious reforms.

This is probably the part of Nehemiah that I’m least comfortable with. It looks rather racist, at least in the Eurasian sense of nationalities rather than the American sense of black and white. And in part it certainly smacks of the birth of the Pharisee movement of Jesus’ day; the idea that doing is what earns you favour with the Lord.

What’s the deal with these other nationalities? Nehemiah seems fully prepared to decimate, or at least exclude, a sizeable chunk of the nation, just because they’ve married foreigners. As far as he’s concerned, the right thing to do is for these marriages to be dissolved.

And I have a problem with that.

What about all those women and children? Where’s the compassion of the Almighty? Why were these foreign marriages so wrong that the pain and trauma of destroying families was preferable?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense coming from the same God that we are told “sets the lonely in families” and Who opens faith in His Son to all who call on Him, no matter their ancestry.

And yet, as I’ve said before, if I’m going to take the Bible seriously, I don’t get to pick and choose which bits I trust. There’s nothing figurative about this, and the tone of the passage is that Nehemiah was acting righteously with the sanction of God. I can’t dismiss it just because I don’t like it. Something makes it fit with what I know from the rest of Scripture about the character of God.

Was this something particular for the Jewish nation and not specifically for Gentile Christians? Was there something specifically wrong with the nationalities involved? Was this just something like God making sure of the bloodline of the Messiah? Was this a particular instruction for that time and place, a part of God’s national Covenant with Israel?

Certainly I think that probably plays into it. In the Covenant with Israel, God works nationally, with the entire 12-tribe nation. Involved with that are several uncomfortable things, like apparent genocide and the waging of aggressive wars of conquest. Things that don’t fit well with our modern sensibilities trained in multiculturality and the fact that God loves everyone.

Tribalism in the Bible is something we have to reconcile with. I personally am more or less of the opinion that it was a fact of ancient life that God worked with and through even though it wasn’t His best will, rather than an end in itself, but passages like this do challenge that opinion. At least where the Jewish nation are concerned, perhaps there’s more to the seemingly-tribalistic “Jews good, foreigners bad” mindset than simple Iron Age-ness.

The Jewish nation were the nation through whom God had promised to send Messiah, and no Jewish nation at that point would have meant no Messiah. There’s a prominent strand of Scriptural interpretation that seems to view most of the difficult passages of Old Testament Scripture through this lens, and it does make a sort of sense. I believe there’s more to God’s Covenant faithfulness to Israel than the mere preservation of the Messianic bloodline, but I suppose it’s possible that if the Jews had been permitted to intermarry willy-nilly with surrounding nations that the line of the House of David might have become so diluted that the prophecies of Messiah would have been rendered meaningless.

This seems like a nice, neat explanation, but I’m still uncomfortable with it. I feel like it implies unpleasant things about God’s character: effectively, that He’s a rather Macchiavellian Deity more concerned with His plans than with people.

I know this isn’t so, which is part of why this interpretation sits so poorly with me, but how else do you reconcile the apparent righteousness of Nehemiah’s actions with the character of a loving God who accepts everyone regardless of their background?

Thinking about it, I believe we have to remember that the Jewish nation wasn’t defined primarily by ethnicity. It has never been a closed set; to this day it’s possible to go through a certain process including the covenant act of circumcision (for males) to bind oneself to the national Covenant of God and become a Jew.

It’s true that God will accept anyone into His Kingdom regardless of their background, but there are steps you have to take to be added to the Kingdom. You have to believe in Jesus the Messiah and His finished work of salvation, trusting Him with your life to the extent that He’s in charge. You have to renounce sin – all the destructive self-centred behaviours and attitudes that separate us from God and from one another. You have to become a citizen of His Kingdom.

The fact that these were characterised as “foreign” marriages tells us that these people hadn’t bound themselves to God and His Covenant. If the Jewish nation was (and is) defined first and foremost by its Covenant relationship with God, there literally cannot be any “foreign women” that are married into the nation but retain their own gods and practices.

Religiously speaking, you aren’t allowed be half a Jew and half something else. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. Similarly, you can’t be half a Christian. Either you have a New Covenant relationship with the Lord, or you aren’t actually in His Kingdom. He doesn’t grant citizenship privileges to those who are still foreigners.

If anyone ought to know this, it ought to be me. I live in the United States as a legal permanent resident, but I’m not a citizen. I don’t get to vote in US elections, I don’t get to stand with my hand over my heart during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I’m not a citizen.

It’d be convenient to become one, but I’m still in the place where I cannot in good conscience swear an oath that includes renunciation of allegiance to “any other nation, prince or potentate”. And in my heart I’m still loyal to my Queen and my Country, and I don’t see that changing.

Similarly, citizenship in God’s Kingdom is one thing or the other. As Jesus said, you can’t serve God and Mammon both, neither can you hold onto the old things you pursued and reverenced: beauty, strength, worldly power, fame or whatever your personal idols are.

And now I believe I get the point. It looks harsh. It’s unpleasant. But there’s no other way. God will not allow people who won’t be His into His Kingdom. Ethnicity or nationality as we think of them today are not the issue. Look at Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Naaman… No; the issue is “Who are you going to worship?”

The Temple of Mars

In commenting on my friend Luke Skytrekker’s recent post, in which he wickedly skewered the whole military-industrial profiteering machine, I drew out one of my points of comparison between the US and my native UK: namely that “America seems to be culturally more inclined to worship at the temple of Mars than the UK does” (I’m paraphrasing myself).

I’ve talked about this as a point of difference before (at least twice), so I don’t especially want to do another “compare and contrast” exercise as the focus of this post. But the comment, together with some of the things Luke said, got me thinking. (Luke, you dangerous man, you. Look what you’ve started! :P)

I live in Texas, in the heart of the South’s Bible Belt, surrounded by people who consider themselves staunch Christians and who would probably be shocked at the notion of worshipping Mars. That’s, like, a pagan god. We’re Christians, don’t you know?

That’s not quite what I mean, and most people will get that, but better I say it unnecessarily than cause needless offence.

I’m using Mars here as a convenient symbolic handle for war and warlikeness, martial vices and virtues and all the cultural aspects of America that reflect them. And I can see quite a few; I’m not kidding when I talk about cultural worship of Mars.

Firstly and most obviously, there’s the guns. Now, I know I have a bit of a thing with firearms – specifically I have problems with the idea of taking the life of another person – someone for whom my Saviour gave His life, but anyone will tell you that the United States of America is a resolutely weaponed country. The Second Amendment, and all that.

As someone who still doesn’t really believe in an unrestricted inherent right to possess tools of killing, the American love of stuff that makes other people go boom is a rather uncomfortable aspect of US culture. Even when you have no intention of actually killing anyone or anything, many of you target shoot for sport. Bearing arms is what separates the warrior from everyone else, and the United States is the only country I’ve ever been in that specifically delineates this as an inherent right of the citizen. It’s distinctly Martian.

The USA was even born in war. Well I know this, having just survived another Fourth of July as a Brit in America. The American Revolutionary War forms a powerful common popular-historical source of imagery which has no parallel in the land of my birth. We Brits may have a lot more history, but with the possible partial exception of the Battle of Britain or the Blitz, there isn’t any single time period that even comes close to providing a comparable source of universally positive imagery and references. America, born in revolution, midwifed by battle. We’re definitely in Mars’ metaphysical territory here.

Then there’s the current cult of extreme reverence for veterans and military service. Now, there’s something healthy and positive about honouring those who have laid their lives on the line for King and Country (or whatever you Americans lay it on the line for. Constitution, maybe), but I do wonder sometimes if we aren’t in danger of taking things too far. Failing to properly honour veterans seems like the cardinal sin of the current secular pantheon, to the extent that some of our preferment of veterans sometimes seems almost idolatrous.

Mars, I’m sure, is very happy, but I do sometimes wonder what it has to do with the Prince of Peace that so many claim to follow.  I’m sure there’s some historical reason for this, possibly in reaction to the way soldiers were treated after Vietnam, but I’m just waving a yellow flag of caution here.

It goes deeper than surface expressions like the prominence of the Revolutionary War or the love of weapons, though. Americans, as I said in my post during the last Olympic Games, love a contest and will turn anything and everything into a competition. It’s hardwired into the American psyche: the competitive drive to prove oneself faster, stronger, bigger, richer, more powerful, better than one’s opponent. The ancient Greeks called it aristeia, the challenge of single combat between two great warrior heroes, such as between Hector and Achilles in the Trojan War. I’ve referred to it as the Cult of the Winner; the American psychological need for success and victory. It doesn’t matter how you get there; if you’ve made it to the top you’ve earned it, you obviously deserve to be there. Even if you cheat or engage in dirty, gutter tactics, there’s a certain amount of shrugging of shoulders and telling people not to be crybaby losers. It’s the pursuit of victory, probably at all costs.

Not only in the ends of American culture is Mars raised on a pedestal, but also in the means. Mars is rather a god of means: he’s indifferent to his ends, whether the triumph of truth and justice or the plundering of the poor and the liar made lord; he’ll work his bloody, competitive work just as hard for the one as the other. In the thought of the Middle Ages, associated as he was with the planet that still bears his name and the astrological influences it was believed to possess, Martian virtue was a sort of hard, determined courage to do whatever is needed to achieve the goal.

Americans express this virtue in terms of personal drive: “I’m a very driven person”, they say, meaning nothing but positive. You can see it in Christ when He “set His face like flint to go toward Jerusalem”, knowing it meant His arrest and crucifixion, but classically speaking it’s the virtue of Mars. Harnessed rightly and directed towards a Godly end, it’s a glorious virtue that makes possible the facing of adversity and persecution, enabling the martyr to follow in the Lord’s footsteps in the silently courageous suffering of a sheep before its shearers. Ill-harnessed to an ungodly or purely human end, its fruit is a certain hard ruthlessness that will go full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, prepared to sacrifice resources or family or virtue or truth or whatever on the altar of its ambition.

This is the character of Mars. And America has it full strength; tell me if I’m wrong.

I even see a sort of Martian process-orientation, indifferent to ends, in America’s incredible technological ingenuity. The focus on capability rather than ethical or metaphysical considerations has made the USA home to more inventions and breakthroughs and ingenious devices than anyone could conveniently count, indifferent to their potential uses and abuses. Mars in a good way, but also Mars’ weaknesses and disquieting nature.

Mars’ ancient astrological symbol is used by modern biologists to denote the male of a species, just as Venus’ is used to denote the female. This is interesting, because more than anywhere else in the Western world, American culture seems a prisoner of the old futile stereotypes of masculinity. The stupid, hairy, swaggering near-thuggery. The apparent need to “keep the woman in her place”. The old lie that “big boys don’t cry”, the despite of seeming weakness, the divorcement of the man from his emotions. The endless focus on physical strength. Nowhere else in the West are boys still encouraged to “grow up big and strong”. As if mere strength alone makes you a worthy human being.

The true God, the Creator and Lord of the Universe, we are told, did not choose the strong, but He chose the weak, the lowly, the despised. “Bigness” and “Strength” and “Victory” or success in worldly terms may even be a stumbling-stone and hindrance to seeing the power of God released in us. After all, God refused to use Gideon’s army until it was pared down to the 300 dog soldiers who lapped.

Mars has virtues as well as vices. Courage, determination, endurance. Medieval thought made the Sphere of Mars the heaven of martyrs, both because those who achieve a martyr’s crown usually die by violence, but also due to a mistaken linguistic connection between “martyros” and “Mars”. It takes courage, determination, discipline, persistence – all Mars’ qualities – to face persecution or oppose tyranny. The tyrant may plead “necessity” for his cruelties and abuses, but that doesn’t mean there are not sometimes real necessities that require Mars’ virtue harnessed to Divine justice and mercy.

I personally love most of the old martial hymns; they resonate with me on a level that most of the more recent “intimate” worship songs using Venusian love language do not. But the words are “Marching as to war”, not “marching to war”. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and while it is an epic struggle for which we will need all of Mars’ virtue, it’s not anything to do with real physical war or the massive industrial complex that both feeds and is fed by it.

As a follower of the Prince of Peace, I believe we should be slow to reach for the sword, particularly in anger. There are just causes for which to wage war, but we should remember always Whose we are. We serve the “Lord of Peace/Whose pow’r a sceptre sways/From pole to pole, that wars may cease/And all be prayer and praise”. When we needs must fight, we do so without sacrificing honour or losing ourselves. In the end, Mars too has to bow before the true Mighty Warrior.

Heart

“Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they lose heart” -Colossians 3:21

It being Father’s Day, this verse was the text preached on at my church on Sunday. The NIV that I often use puts it differently: “exasperate” and “so that they do not become discouraged”, but I think I prefer the older language in some ways. Losing heart seems so much deeper and more profound than mere discouragement.

I started to think about the implications of this verse. The instruction is clear enough: don’t go out of your way to rile your kids. Be a Good Dad.

But the reasoning is interesting: “so that they do not lose heart”.

Discouragement and losing heart is so easy in this world. All around us there are attacks on our worth, our self-image, our value. Temptations to believe that only if we look or behave in a certain way are we valued and productive. We call a lot of these “advertising”, but they aren’t what I want to focus on right now.

No, what struck me on Sunday was the idea that a large part of a father’s role might be summarised as creating heart in your children.

If “losing heart” is more than just discouragement, building heart is more than just being an encourager as we normally think of it.

I sometimes believe that the spiritual gift of encouragement is the gift most misunderstood by all the various spiritual gift inventory questionnaires I’ve seen; to a one they all seem to envision a middle-aged woman whose gift finds expression in the sending of cards.

This isn’t very cool if you’re a young woman, and even less helpful if you’re a man. By and large, most men don’t express the gift in that prissy sort of a way, if they have the gift. In some cases it can lead to a lot of misapprehensions about encouragement and what it really is.

Creating heart might be a more useful way of expressing what I’m talking about; it has at least the advantage of not having any baggage of which I’m aware.

So what do I mean by “heart”?

Heart as I’m meaning it encompasses a number of different qualities, foremost among them courage, conviction, integrity, hope, fervour, compassion and faith. It’s a valorous blend of characteristics embodied in every true hero, a blend that enables them to slay the monsters, face down the odds, oppose the tyrant, stare death in the face and spit in his eye. It’s also the blend of qualities that reaches out with compassion and aims to make the world a better place, looking beyond oneself to others.

This is what I want for my daughters and son.

Courage has been described as “the first of qualities, because it guarantees all the others”. I’m not sure this isn’t going a little too far, but certainly courage is important, and a vital part of what I mean by “heart”. In the Colossians verse, losing heart is expressed in the NIV as “becoming discouraged”, and courage is at the heart of that word. Many spiritual virtues take courage: it takes courage to show faith, courage to love, courage to show compassion in a world where it’s thin on the ground. The quality is never listed in any Biblical list of spiritual fruit or character qualities, but perhaps that’s by design, because so much of the time we reduce courage to the physical exigencies of the battlefield and the toughness of mind and body that calls for, when much of what I’m talking about here is moral courage.

Conviction and faith are part of what I mean by heart, because unless you have your heart involved then your “faith” isn’t true Biblical faith at all, merely a sort of cold mental assent. Unlike believing in the Loch Ness Monster, simply acknowledging the existence of the Godhead isn’t enough if your life doesn’t change as a result. As a father, I pray that I’m raising my children to be men and women of conviction, knowing what’s right and pursuing it with vigour.

Integrity goes along with this, because heart encompasses the unification of the inner and outer person. It’s the opposite of wearing masks and hiding: knowing who you are as well as Whose you are, living out of your deep inner self with the courage not to hide and the conviction that there is a purpose for which you were created that will take all your God-given powers.

All of this takes Biblical hope. Not the wishy-washy vague feeling we’ve demeaned it into, but the strong certainty that God has plans and a future for me, to prosper me and not to harm me. That if His purpose takes my life, then it’s not the end, but in His economy some things are worth dying for.

Fervouris involved, because you can’t have all of these qualities and not live with passion. And compassion, because unless it’s directed outwards into the service of the Lord and the blessing of other people, what good is it all? No-one wants to be around a fervent, courage-filled person of conviction who hates other people.

A lofty task and a worthy goal, but how do we do this? I hope I’m building heart in my children, but I’m not always very intentional about it.

I guess it begins here, with this verse. Don’t provoke your children. Don’t exasperate them. Don’t aggravate them. Be reasonable, able to be reasoned with. When you have to lay down the law, do so with grace. Set the example you wish you’d had; everyone comes from an imperfect family and a father’s care that had holes in it, but you need not reproduce all of that.

At its most basic, building heart in your kids means not tearing it out of them. We fathers are often considered the disciplinarians, but correction needs to be delivered in a way that makes our kids want to get it right and which builds into them the ability to do so. That means not tearing into them for trifling offences, but it also means bringing correction when it’s due. Our kids aren’t perfect either, and we who might have had harsh parents need to be careful we aren’t becoming so permissive that our children have no boundaries at all.

Something it’s taken me a while to learn is that my kids respond to different things. One of them, physical discipline just makes her stubborn. If you want to get through to her, she needs to understand why. Another of them, the prospect of reward works wonders (ok, so I bribe my kids sometimes. It seems to work). As their father, I have to tailor my engagement with each of my children, knowing that what encourages one may exasperate another, and yet trying to be even-handed in my approach to them. Nothing poisons family relationships like favouritism (look at the book of Genesis); that would be provoking them.

I’m not trying to claim I’m there or that I do it perfectly, because I’m painfully aware of just how far I fall short. I hope I’m building heart in my kids more than I’m making them lose it, but I expect they’ll have their individual hangups from well-meaning mistakes I made. Hopefully none beyond the grace of God, though.