“The Sin of Asking for a King”

I’ve been in I Samuel in my personal devotional Bible reading lately.  It’s been a while since I read it, and I’m finding that just like the book of Judges, there are parts of it that bother me.

The whole book of Judges is laced with stuff that ought to challenge your preconceived notions, from Ehud’s apparently Divinely-inspired assassination of King Eglon of Moab (God’s ok with assassinations?) to Jephthah’s rash vow, to that whole business with the Levite and his concubine, but I’d sort of remembered I Samuel as pretty straightforward.  Hannah’s prayer for a son, Samuel’s dedication to God, his judgeship, the anointing of Saul, Saul going bad, the anointing of David, and the whole “Saul hunting David” thing.

But the other day I was reading in the earlier chapters of the book about the run-up to the anointing of Saul, and I’m becoming perturbed.  Specifically, the whole “asking for a king” thing is bothersome.

The way it’s written, we’re invited to believe that asking for a king was a grievous sin on the order of the golden calf or Dathan’s rebellion against Moses.  We’re invited to believe that God was inherently opposed to the monarchical form of government.

And yet, King David.

More, the tragic testimony of Judges that “in those days there was no king.  Everyone did as he saw fit” points to how bad things were before the monarchy was established and how much better it was now that there was a king.

In this passage (I Samuel 8, and also chapter 12) the whole tone is that the people would be better off under the existing system of Divinely-appointed judges, but the book of Judges says the opposite.  Its whole tone is “look at how bad it was without a king!”

Reconciling this chapter with the rest of the Bible is challenging.  Is God intrinsically opposed to the monarchy or not?

I’m sure Tom Paine and the rest of the American Founding Fathers must have loved this chapter.  Here’s the Bible itself telling you what a lousy and sinful idea monarchy is.  And I have to confess that this may be part of my problem with it.  In my heart and imagination, I’m a loyal Queen’s Man and I approve wholeheartedly of the stability and order that a properly-constituted monarchy engenders.  And here the Bible appears to be telling me I’m dead wrong on all counts, and worse, that my approval of monarchy may be actually sinful.

But then, what do you do with the book of Judges?  Here’s the Bible itself telling you what a lousy and sinful idea not having a king is.

One possibility for how we reconcile these divergent passages is that this reflects the differing perspectives of the different human authors God worked through to write the Bible.  The human writer of I Samuel was obviously some sort of Bronze Age republican who had a dim view of monarchy, while the writer of Judges was a staunch monarchist with a strong opposition to the anarchy of the Judicial period.  It’s as if Tom Paine wrote I Samuel and King Charles II wrote Judges.

It’s possible.  But even in the I Samuel account we get the impression that Samuel’s a lot more upset about it than God is.

Samuel is evidently grievously offended that the people have asked for a king.  He feels personally rejected.  You can see his mind going: “Yeah, I’m not as young as I was, but I’m not falling apart yet!  I can still do this!  And I know I’m not going to live forever, but I still have hope that my sons will turn their lives around and become the judges I’ve always hoped they would be!”

We might see God’s words to Samuel as His comfort to an old man being forced into what he sees as premature retirement.  “It’s not just you they’ve rejected, Samuel; they’ve rejected Me as their King” sounds on one level like God kind of humouring Samuel’s offendedness.

But God does not lie or change His mind.  He doesn’t act deceptively and say one thing to one person and another thing to someone else.  It doesn’t fit with God’s demonstrated nature and character to have Him fibbing to an old man that He also thinks the kingship is a bad idea.

But is that really what’s going on?

Not necessarily.

God may just be pointing out to Samuel that the nation continually rejected His authority over them right back to the days of wandering in the wilderness, so Samuel shouldn’t be shocked that they are rejecting him too.  Samuel is God’s appointed Judge; if they rejected Moses and they rejected Aaron and they rejected God Himself, why would they show loyalty to Samuel?  And God does even now (8:9 and 8:21) tell Samuel to listen to them and give them a king.

Warn them first, God says.  This is a major political change far more sweeping than the election of a different party.  This is a change on the order of Cromwell’s dissolution of the English crown and establishment of the Commonwealth, or the French Revolution (though it’s far less bloody), or the fall of the Soviet Union.  This is what George W. Bush meant by “regime change” – a change of the entire basis of governance.

But if the monarchy is beneficial (God does tell the offended Samuel to grant their request), or at least something God can work with, why do they need to be warned?

They need to be warned because every political system has downsides.  It’s not going to be like it was when we had judges.  You’ll get an end to the anarchy.  You’ll get the stability of knowing who the next ruler will be rather than having to wait around for God to raise up the next deliverer.  But you’ll also get armies and taxes and royal prerogatives and aristocracy.  Don’t expect that it’ll be just like you’ve always known it.

Even modern representative democracy has downsides compared to the monarchy that preceded it.  Representative democracy is worlds better than monarchical absolutism, but no fairytale begins “once upon a time there was a President and a First Lady…”.  The imagination remains monarchical.  Don’t expect all the glamour and pageantry of a monarchy; your President is one of you, no more exalted than your least-favourite neighbour.  It’s not going to look like it always did.

The “sin of asking for a king” (I Sam 12:17-19) may be not that getting a king was inherently wicked, but that the people put their hope in political change to solve all of their problems.

Having a king isn’t going to save you.  Having a revolution isn’t going to save you.  Getting a Labour government isn’t going to save you.  Getting a Republican President and a Republican Congress at the same time isn’t going to save you.  Passing any number of righteous laws is not going to make people obey them if their hearts are committed to doing something else.

If the hearts of the nation and their rulers are to follow YHWH, then any political system or party will work.  If the hearts of the nation and its authorities are not right towards God, no political system or party can fix it.

Don’t put your trust in political solutions for answers to a problem with a spiritual root.  People are sinful.  We’re proud, arrogant, greedy and selfish.  We’re untruthful and untrustworthy; we lie and obfuscate and doubletalk.  We lust and covet, we’re stingy and violent.

The only One who can fix that is the One who died to put an end to it all and who rose from the grave to demonstrate that it was, in fact, finished.


We’re All Broken

“Brokenness” language seems to have become common among followers of Jesus today to describe the human condition. “We’re all broken”, numerous songs declare, or “I was broken, but Jesus made me whole”, or similar.

As an attempt to move beyond Christianese and find a new way to communicate the Biblical truth that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, I’ll grant that something needed to happen. “Broken” may be a more accessible image than “sinful” for people who don’t really understand the word “sin” at all (and often think it means “sex”. Or only “big” things like murder).

If saying “everyone has sinned” has become meaningless to our listeners, then certainly we need to find another way of getting that idea across.

And the modern generation seems to have settled on “broken” as the primary metaphor.

It’s got a lot of things to recommend it, but it’s got some problems as well, and while I’m not suggesting we axe it from our vocabulary, I am suggesting that maybe making it our sole way of describing human sinfulness is not as helpful as all that.

Firstly, though, the good.

“We’re all broken” is, as I’ve said, often more easily understood than “we’re all sinners”. “Sinners” is a church word that people in general don’t understand or have a meaning for. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get various answers according to whatever the current Christian social bugbears are. Homosexual people. Abortionists. Liberals. People having sex. It’s a word of condemnation and the way some people claiming the name of Christ have thrown it around as an all-purpose accusation for anyone who disagrees with them has shorn it of its actual meaning.

“Broken” is better than this. It comes with a meaningful image – we’re flawed, imperfect, in need of repair. The fact that it conjures up an image does aid in communication.

Saying “we’re all broken” may also be perceived as less hostile than “we’re all sinners”. A common complaint of people who are not part of a church is that “Christains are always hostile and telling me I’m a sinner”. And we want to reach people and be heard, not rejected outright. There are ways to communicate the idea that we’ve all done wrong things and failed to do right ones without saying “You miserable sinner!”. If “We’re all broken” communicates this to the person you’re talking with, without getting you dismissed out of hand as another Christian hypocrite, you should by all means use that language.

Then, too, “We’re all broken” places us all on the same side. Christians have often given the impression that “we are the good guys, you people out there are the bad guys”. Us against them. You need salvation, you horrible sinners, but we Christians are just fine as we are.

This hasn’t ever been true, and “We’re all broken” is, paradoxically, an attempt to fix this. We’re aware that we all need rescuing from the desire we all have to do the wrong and not do the right. We’re all in need of forgiveness, restored relationships with God and other people, power to beat our addictions, an end to our habit of using other people for what we can get out of them.

“We’re all broken” is an attempt to find an image that communicates the idea that Christians are no different from anyone else in our need of the rescuing and restoration that only God can do.

But when we use imagery, we do need to be careful that the image produced in people’s minds is the one we want. That’s the power and the danger of metaphorical and image-rich language. It can communicate powerfully, but may have unintended connotations.

In this case, part of the problem is that we are no longer a society that repairs very much. If something is broken, we’re apt to throw it away and get a new one rather than repair it. And while technically this is sort of like what God does (“I will take away your hearts of stone and give you hearts of flesh” etc), the idea that God is going to throw us away because of our sin is not the one we want to be communicating.

Second, because of our societal habit of throwing away broken things, we tend to associate “broken” with “worthless”. Even if we’re talking about a valuable antique, the fact that it’s broken makes it worth less than an intact one. Depending on the extent of the damage, it may be worth considerably less. And this is a huge problem with this language.

“We’re all worthless, but God loves us anyway” is a lie from hell. It’s a seductive one, in a perverse sort of way, because a lot of us are already at least half-convinced it’s true.

We know the darkness within. We’ve all experienced rejection, whether from parents or authority figures or our peers. So much of our social skills are learning to camouflage our weaknesses and pretend that we’re cool; an endless quest for acceptance and worth. We deny it because we know with our minds that it’s self-destructive and unhealthy, but deep down we still half believe the lie that we have little or no value.

But it is a lie, and maybe we need to stop feeding it with our “broken” language.

I have intrinsic value, because I’m a human being made by a good, powerful and loving God in His own image. I have infinite worth and eternal significance – valuable enough and important enough that God couldn’t live without me. Literally.

And we can all put “I” in all of that.

The Bible itself uses a number of different ways to communicate the idea that everyone is in need of the salvation, the rescue that He has provided. The idea of righteous life (“There is not a righteous man alive who does what is right and never sins”). The idea of falling short, of missing the target. The idea of needing to be washed from our dirt, of needing cleansing as from an infectious disease. The idea that we were dead and in need of a resurrection. The idea of a second birth.

“Broken” can be a useful metaphor, but we should be aware of its limitations. Sometimes we may not be saying what we think we are, and we may well need to use a different image.

And that’s the point. There is no one-size-fits-all word we can use to communicate the idea of human sinfulness and need for rescue to everyone. For some people, it may be as simple as saying “we’ve all screwed up in some measure”. For others, the key truth may be that we’re each responsible for our own crap; for still others, that we don’t have to remain a helpless victim of what other people have done to us.

As communicators of the Good News, we need to listen – really listen without condemning, dismissing their concerns, passing judgment or trying to fix it – to the people around us. They aren’t going to tell us their deepest, darkest secrets straight away; we have to earn the right to hear that. And in earning the right to hear where they’re really coming from, we also earn the right to be heard when we say that Jesus can do something about it.

In some senses it’s not easy. It’s going to take time and focused effort; this is the opposite of the “drive-by witnessing”. We have to have real friendships with actual people based on them as friends, not evangelism targets.

But in another sense it’s the easiest thing in the world. It requires no special training to make friends with people based on shared interests, whether that’s quilting or mechanics or Star Wars or LEGO or fishing or sports. It happens on its own, even for us introverts. And when a deep, “spiritual” conversation happens among friends, it happens naturally in the course of friendship, unforced and without a phony sales agenda.

Some people are gifted at building connections with other people very quickly. I’m not; I’m a typical guarded and reticent introvert; it takes time to get to know me thoroughly (though I’ll tell you what I think on any subject you name. My opinions aren’t quite the same as me). But even I can make friends, though I’m seldom sure how it happened. And I usually have a pretty good idea that perhaps saying X rather than Y will raise my friend’s hackles.

That, and actually following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, are all we need to “do evangelism”.

The GPS Blocker

As I’ve mentioned before, I run a construction GPS unit in my day job. And today, I have a problem.

One of the big trucks being loaded with rock to be hauled offsite has a GPS blocker.

There are a lot of companies which put GPS tracking devices in their company vehicles and monitor them for things like speeding, or whether you are where you say you are, or how long you remain stopped in one location, etc. From the company’s viewpoint, it makes sense. Not only does a GPS tracker give you the ability to track your vehicle if it gets stolen, but it helps make sure that your employees are doing what they are supposed to.

However, there are a lot of employees that resent the lack of trust and invasion of privacy this monitoring represents, and so there’s a market for devices that block GPS signal reception.

I think one of the trucks has one, because when it shows up I start to lose satellite reception.

Interestingly, though, I still pick up the Russian GLONASS satellites, but those by themselves don’t give me the precision that my job requires.

In other words, I’m being hampered in my work by something that blocks my access to input from above.

I started to think. Is this also sometimes the case spiritually?

A channel to heaven is blocked, and I’m not hearing the voice of God. I’ve committed a sin, and my sensitivity to the Spirit is muffled. I’ve chosen to pursue a sin, and now I’m vulnerable to believing any lie that justifies it. There’s demonic interference and I’m not receiving the answer to prayer that the Lord has already spoken.

Does this happen? What does Scripture say?

Well, we can see instances in which it certainly does appear that way. Daniel fasted and prayed for understanding of his vision for an extended period before the angel showed up. But the angel says nothing about “because of your persistence in prayer the Lord has heard you”. On the contrary: “As soon as you began to pray the Lord sent me…” But the angel encountered spiritual resistance from outside.

We in the West sometimes don’t like to think about it very much, but there is a very real and dangerous enemy of our souls, who wants to do everything he can to hinder the work of the Lord. Including delaying or stopping answers to prayer. Just like the truck with the GPS blocker came and parked itself where it was interfering with my signal reception, so our enemy does appear to sometimes have the ability to park himself over us and interfere with the channel between us and the Lord. If as soon as you sit down to pray you are bombarded by a flood of sinful thoughts, you might just be under attack in this way. If God has clearly spoken something and it has been confirmed in multiple ways, and yet you’re not seeing His promise fulfilled, you might be experiencing this sort of attack.

Of course, equally, you might not be. We read at the beginning of the Exodus story of Pharaoh hardening his heart, but then towards the end of the ten plagues we begin to read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He was given numerous chances to turn. He even agrees to do it God’s way in order to get rid of the plague, but then after the plague is lifted he reneges on his promises. But then he seemingly gets to a point of no return, and God deliberately makes his heart hard.

Part of this is the spiritual battle going on behind the scenes. The Exodus is not just a conflict between Pharaoh and Moses, it’s a conflict between the gods of Egypt and the God of Israel.

Each of the ten plagues is a carefully-crafted demonstration of the power of YHWH over a different Egyptian god. The Nile was worshipped as a deity, and called “the blood of the kingdom”, and here it is as actual blood. Frogs were sacred to one of the goddesses and you couldn’t kill them. Yet here they became so prevalent that you couldn’t take a step without killing them. Livestock, especially cattle, were sacred symbols of one of the main gods, and here they were dying in the fields. Personal cleanliness and hygiene were sacred duties to the Egyptians, yet here they all are with boils. The sun-god was another major deity; the light-bringer and one of the main ruling gods. And darkness envelops the land. And the highest of the Egyptian gods at that time was Horus, first-born son of the sun-god and ascendent ruler of the morning, who was also in another guise the god of rebirth known as Osiris. And the first-born of all the Egyptians died. Our God is systematically taking on and destroying the gods of the most powerful nation on earth.

There’s more going on than just Pharaoh. From a certain point of view, it’s almost that God needed a hard-hearted Pharaoh in order to fully display His majesty over the gods of Egypt.

But certainly personal sin has effects. You can’t just keep on sinning and expect to maintain an open line to God. By repeatedly choosing sin you’ve given the devil a foothold, and he’s not enough of a fool as not to take advantage of that. Your conscience gets dulled in a particular area, because your habit of violating it has worn it down.

As Jesus Himself said, you cannot serve two masters. He was talking in that instance about God and Mammon, that is, the power of money, but the Bible equally characterises sin itself as another master. If you’re serving sin, you aren’t serving God, because the two are moving in opposite directions and you cannot move in all directions at once.

But part of me isn’t really comfortable with this idea we sometimes have that if we commit a sin, to that degree we make ourselves unable to hear or discern the voice of God.

If that were invariably true, why does any unbeliever repent?

They have an unregenerate nature that follows an anti-God course. They repeatedly choose sin because it is the path of the natural man. By this theory, they ought to be so unable to hear the voice of God that they will never be able to repent.

Thanks be to God, it is not wholly so. We serve a God who is a Communicator. He spoke the world into being. We call Jesus “The Word”. The Holy Spirit “leads us into all truth”. He is more able to speak than we are unable to hear Him.

And He wants to be found. He’s unwilling that any should perish. He delights when sinful people turn away from their wrongdoing and self-centredness and seek Him. Why would a God like this make Himself unable to be heard by those who most need Him?

So I don’t entirely think that personal sin makes us insensitive to the Spirit and vulnerable to believing any lie that will justify it.

I think it’s the reverse. I think the fact that we are choosing to sin shows that we are believing a lie about God. “God’s holding out on you. He doesn’t want you to have this good (poisonous) thing”. “God can’t be trusted to meet your needs. You’d better do it yourself”. “God thinks you’re worthless”. “God wants you to be in pain”. “God is more concerned with your behaviour than with the state of your heart”.

The lies take many forms. But if we’re believing one of them, it functions as a bent towards certain forms of sinning. This may be part of the reason why so much of Paul’s letters are concerned with theology: if we’re believing the wrong things, it will show up in our actions.

These, then, might be the real GPS blocker. And not so much of a “blocker” as a “skewer”. If we’re believing a lie, it can skew our perceptions, throw us off, make us think we’re where we’re supposed to be when we aren’t.

But God is still able to speak. And we’re still able to hear Him, though perhaps we might be training ourselves to ignore.

Out of the Miry Clay

When the snow melts on a jobsite, it leaves behind mud.

All of that water has to go somewhere, and so it just soaks into the dirt, producing mud.

In the sort of North Texas clay that exists where I work, it produces some of the worst sort of slimy, clingy, heavy, semi-liquid mud known to man.

Forget getting around in your 2-wheel-drive pickup truck; it can strand 4-wheel-drive vehicles, and even cause difficulty for things that run on tracks.

It’s one of the weather situations in which I, alone and on foot, can sometimes make better progress than a guy in a truck.

Not that it’s easy even for me. The mud sticks to my shoes, then more mud sticks to that, then more mud sticks to that. I end up with legs resembling golf clubs; great balls of congealed glop surrounding my workboots, so that each foot weighs about 5lbs and swells to the size of a small beach ball.

You think I’m exaggerating? Come and do my job for a day.

In addition, it’s slippery stuff, so that your feet lose a minimum of 3/4 of their regular traction, and it’s like walking on plate glass. Or more accurately, greased plate glass. The only way to walk in the stuff is doing a combination impression of an old man and a duck.

In addition, it’s cold. The pounds of unheated glop around your feet suck all the warmth from your toes, and sit there even after that radiating active cold into your boots.

It always puts me in mind of Psalm 40:

“I waited patiently for the Lord,

He inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me out of the miry pit;

Out of the miry clay”.

In the Psalm, the miry clay is symbolic of the troubles that surround us, and perhaps too of our own sins. Like Texas gumbo mud, they cling to us, weighing us down and hindering our free movement. They age us in the worst way, turning us from lightness and joy to sullen bitterness. Even out of the situation, the mud still clings, smearing itself on anything around that used to be clean.

But the Psalm doesn’t stop with God drawing us out of the mire. He sets our feet on a rock and gives us a firm place to stand.

Part of this necessarily has to mean cleaning the mud from our feet.

It doesn’t matter how good your workboots are if they are covered in slime. The mud will still act against friction, and even if you are set down on a rock, you can still slip and fall if your feet are muddy.

Anyone who has ever stepped from ankle-deep Texas clay mud onto a clean concrete building slab can testify to this.

Jesus doesn’t just take us out of the surrounding mud of sin. He cleans us as well; He enables us to stand.

And if we can stand, we can move freely. We can walk, run, leap, dance.

There’s a freedom that comes with being loosed from the grip of the mire that’s difficult to comprehend until you’ve experienced it.  Similarly, there’s a freedom in His grace, a lightness and liberty in walking free of sin.

In the run-up to Easter, it seems an appropriate thing to dwell on.

The Righteousness of the Pharisees

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus makes the statement that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven”.

It’s difficult sometimes for us 2000 years in the future to grasp how shocking this was.

The Pharisees were the strictest division of the Jewish faith, famous for their piety. This was the group that produced those who, walking down the street, would close their eyes when a woman walked past, lest they be tempted to lust. The resultant bodily injuries as they crashed into walls and things earned them the nickname “bleeding Pharisees”. These were the people who tithed not only their flocks, herds and fields, but their kitchen herbs and spices. These were the people who were known by the unwieldy length of the tassels required by the Mosaic Law to be on their garments. These were the people who were known for long, showy prayers in public, of the sort that made everyone take notice and think “wow, this person can really pray”.

And Jesus says that we have to be more righteous than that? Impossible! It’s like being more conservative than Glenn Beck.

With 2000 years of historic Christianity and Jesus’ teaching about praying and fasting in secret, not announcing your giving, focusing on the inward and not the outward, it’s sometimes hard for us to identify the Pharisees’ outward expressions as righteous, but by the standards of the day, this was what righteousness was considered to be. Doing what the Law required. Even going beyond, just to make sure you had it covered. This is rounding up the amount of tax you owe, and paying it. This is down-to-the-letter adherence to the Law God gave His people.

And Jesus says we have to do more even than that.

Or does he?

The immediate context of the passage is “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”. But then He goes on to start with the Law – “You have heard it said…” – and then say “But I say to you…”

The Law says one thing. And Jesus overturns it or modifies it so radically as to result in a new commandment.

Was the Law somehow imperfect? Were the commandments God gave His people not, then, what He actually meant? If what God always intended was what Jesus said, why not say that in the first place?

God isn’t a liar, nor does He change His mind. Nor does He change His standards.

Something else must be going on here.

What Jesus is doing in this block of teaching, of course, is relocating the issue of sin and righteousness from the actions to the heart. The Pharisees saw sin and righteousness purely in terms of what you do: obey the whole Law and you’re righteous and God will accept you; fail to keep the whole Law and you’re a sinner.

Jesus is basically saying “no; your actions show what’s in your heart”. If you’re a sinner, you will commit sins. If you’re righteous, you won’t. Adultery is not merely the physical act; it begins with the choice of the heart to lust. Murder begins with the choice of the heart to entertain hatred. “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off…” But is it your right hand that causes you to sin, or does sin reside somewhere else? If all it took to be rid of sin was maiming yourself, those who have lost limbs would be completely righteous from that point on.

No; sin resides in the heart. God’s remedy is not an amputation but a transplant: “I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh”. This is accomplished when we agree with God about the problem and its solution, trust Him, and follow His Son.

Or, as we like to say, when we repent, confess our sins, have faith in Him and become His people.

Jesus, then, isn’t calling us to do more in order to be righteous, but to appropriate the remedy He died to provide! To be rid of sin, we must get our hearts changed. The work of Christ on the Cross was once for all. Doing more has never equalled righteousness.

In Your Anger Do Not Sin

There’s a teaching in some circles that Christians should never get angry. The Bible instructs us to rid ourselves of anger and fits of rage, and if we do get angry, some would tell us that it’s because we felt like we were entitled to something and didn’t get it. The solution is to “surrender our rights” to God, thus removing the cause for anger, and remain calm and cheerful with a good Christian smile on our face no matter what. If we’re angry, it obviously means we’re doing it wrong.

I first came across this idea as a teen. There was a news report back then about a Jehovah’s Witness family that were refusing to allow their child to get a life-saving medical treatment because it involved getting a blood transfusion, and JWs have a weird perspective on Acts 15:29 that makes them opposed to blood transfusions.

The thought that a mother and father could be so callous as to refuse life-saving treatment for their own child angered me, and I mentioned this to an older Christian in my church.

Their reaction surprised me. Rather than agree that this was indeed an injustice, they rebuked me for getting upset about it and told me “Don’t be angry”.

I was particularly not good at talking to people as a child, even into my teens, and to this day I don’t react quickly when surprised. I couldn’t put the words together to say what I was actually thinking, and didn’t even fully grasp what their objection to how I was reacting really was, but even then I felt like this whole train of thought was heading in the wrong direction.

Since then I’ve encountered the same idea in other spheres of life. Christians shouldn’t get angry.

Quite what these people make of the cleansing of the Temple I don’t know. Apparently even then, Jesus can’t really have been angry, because we know anger is sinful, right?

Ok, what if they’re right, and Jesus wasn’t really angry even then? Picture the scene: the Son of Man kicking over tables and chasing out the money changers with a whip, and all with a serene, beatific smile on His face. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find that image actively scary. The natural reaction is that either He’s buzzed on something potent and illegal, or there’s something seriously psychotic in His makeup. Either way, He’s hardly the merciful Saviour we know and love.

Anger is a natural human reaction. Because we are told in the Bible on occasion that God Himself gets angry, we do not have a leg to stand on if we insist that anger is always sinful or that Christians should not get angry. For example, in Numbers 11 we read that “the Lord became exceedingly angry” at the ungrateful, complaining attitude of His people when they grumbled about the manna He provided for them and wanted meat instead.

We read also of other occasions on which God gets angry; it’s a mistake to try to paint this as His normal emotional state, but He does, on occasion, get angry. Even in His self-declaration to Moses, He proclaims that He is slow to anger, not incapable of it.

The human capacity for anger, then, is not a result of the Fall but an intrinsic part of the Divine image in us. Had the Fall not happened, there might not have been reason for anger, but there would still have been the capacity for it.

This is because anger is a response to a situation which says “I feel that a wrong has been done”.

The problem we have with anger is not the intrinsic capacity for it, but the appropriateness of when and how we express it.

Because of both His character and His omniscience, God’s anger is always appropriate. He always has all of the facts, He loves everyone, and He is completely righteous and incorruptible even by His own desires. When He gets angry, it is in fact because a wrong has been done, not merely because He feels that to be the case.

Moreover, He is completely righteous in His expression of anger, neither punishing more severely than the situation calls for, and straying into injustice on that side, nor being more lenient than is warranted and straying into injustice on the other side.

Human anger is a bit more fallen in nature. As fallen descendents of Adam and Eve, we no longer instinctively align ourselves with God’s view of things. We get angry about the wrong things, fail to get angry about the right things and express our anger in fallen, destructive ways. That we get angry is not the problem. If you can be grievously wronged – like being raped or beaten – without getting angry about it, it’s a sign that you’re not dealing with the situation. Anger in this sort of situation is healthy and good, because it shows that your moral compass is working. A wrong has indeed been done, and anger is the correct response to that. It is, to coin a phrase, What Jesus Would Do. As Christians, we are called not to remain in anger but to rise above it and forgive, but if a wrong has been done to you or someone you love, getting angry about it can be a good thing.

This, after all, is why God gets angry about sin: it hurts people He loves. He is so incensed about it that He was prepared to die in order to make an end of it once and for all. He can feel wrath – destructive anger – in perfect love. He’s the only One who can, because He alone has all the facts and is not a slave to His anger but Master of it.

This is why the Bible instructs us to get rid of wrath. In our fallenness, wrath is a state we cannot safely enter, because we don’t automatically track with God’s view of the situation and we don’t express our anger with perfect justice and perfect love.

Mostly, though, what the Bible tells us to be rid of is destructive, fallen anger of the kind that enables sin. Fits of rage – flying off the handle over minor infractions, especially the consuming anger that just wants to destroy. Bitterness, which is anger turned inward rather than given vent in any healthy way. Anger directed at the wrong object.

But anger itself is not the problem. We’re in a fallen world, which means that injustices happen. As Christians, we ought to be angry about that, angry not at God because we apparently can do a better job than He and would never have allowed this to happen, but angry at the injustice itself. We should be galvanised by God’s anger at injustice, enough to do something to put a stop to it. Not one of the great reformers of the past – Shaftesbury, Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr, or any of the others – ever did anything to fix the abuses of this broken world without getting angry about them, I guarantee it.

An Aggressive Purity

There’s a certain school of thought in parts of the church that not only should we avoid obvious and evident sins, but that we should also avoid anything that might lead to sin, anything that might have the appearance of sin, anything that might be tangentially associated with (someone else’s) practice of sin.

My own personal first encounter with this was as a teenager listening to youth evangelists talk about sex and Christian purity.

As a Christian teen, there’s a certain amount of vested interest in knowing what you can and can’t do with a girl. We know that the Bible says that sex outside of a marriage relationship is wrong, but what about groping? What about full-body hugs? What about necking? Can I kiss her, even? I wanted to know which precise behaviours were sin and which were ok.

There was a tendency among the youth evangelists I remember hearing to respond to this sort of thought process by asking things like “If the line is ‘no sex before marriage’, is it more pleasing to God to see how close to the line you can come, or to stay as far away from the line as you can?”

Though I didn’t recognise it at the time, I can see now how this unconsciously validates the whole notion of defining sin in purely behavioural terms. If you don’t have one, don’t play with someone else’s. You can be alone in a room with her, but only if you have the door open and there’s someone else in the house. You can kiss for a maximum of six seconds at a time. Looking back on it, a lot of it seems vaguely Pharisee-like. Sin and righteousness are purely a matter of what you can and can’t do.

Some of this is no doubt fairly wise among teens who are, if I remember my teenage years right, a rampaging mass of hormones and hungers. I’m particularly fond of “if you don’t have one, don’t play with someone else’s” as a guiding rule for physical touch between teen couples.

But the truth is a bit more complicated. Really, the idea that sin is just a matter of what you do is actually more like Islam than Christianity. Jesus took the command to not commit adultery and said that if anyone looks at a woman with lust in his heart, he’s already committed adultery.

The point is not that even looking is as bad as the act itself, otherwise you might as well go on and sleep with the woman once you’ve looked. Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, and all that. The point is that sin resides in the heart, not the actions. I could rigorously hold to a precise standard of outward behaviour toward another man’s wife, but if I’m lusting after her while I’m doing it, I have sin in my heart. The idea that you can set a line between “actions that are sinful” and “actions that are righteous” is what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for.

I’ve noticed in recent years that it’s not just youth evangelists and hormonal teenagers who have this sort of thinking, though. And I’m not saying that I think those youth evangelists were Pharisees; they were just trying to keep unruly teens from doing something irrevocable and were a little fuzzy on the implications.

There are sections of the church whose primary driving focus seems to be on avoiding contamination. Hollywood is evil and if you go to movies you are probably subjecting yourself to demonic influence. TV is likewise evil. Drinking wine is at the very least worldly and probably an outright sin. Having gay friends is inviting the spirit of the antichrist. Reading the Qur’an will inevitably make you a Muslim.

The whole idea seems to revolve around a set of rigidly-defined behaviours that are “righteous” and the avoidance of everything else as “worldliness”, which then becomes equivalent to, if not worse than, actual sin.

Certainly there are actions that the Bible always talks about as sinful. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m prepared to take God’s word for it when He says that adultery is always sinful, because I cannot think of a circumstance in which sleeping with someone else’s wife is a loving thing to do to either my own wife or the other couple. I’m going to trust that He knows what He’s talking about when He says that humans can’t do these things and not sin.

But sin resides in the heart, not in our behaviour. Behaviour is just the symptoms; sin itself is the disease. The urge to say “this action is ok, that is wrong” sets us up for a Pharisaical judgmentalism because we don’t do this particular set of “sins”, ie behaviours.

It’s been around a long time, ever since the Pharisees called Jesus a sinner because He healed people on the Sabbath. And probably before that.

And into this context of the behavioural view of sin comes the New Testament account of Jesus and the woman with the issue of blood.

By the Levitical law, the woman who had the flow of blood was ritually unclean. Levitical law was strong on the subject: anyone who had a bodily discharge was unclean, and anyone touching someone who was unclean became themselves unclean. Even the cloth that an unclean person had sat on became unclean and could make you unclean if you touched it.

And here comes this woman with a neverending flow of blood, determined to touch even the hem of Jesus’ robe because she knows He has the power to heal her.

The crowd is jostling around, but somehow she manages it.

And Jesus stops and says “who touched Me?”

The disciples are incredulous. The crowd is touching You. Everyone is pushing everyone else. How can You ask “who touched Me?” The whole world touched you!

He keeps asking, until trembling, the woman comes forward.

I can just see the crowd of men drawing back as she announces what her problem was. Hard faces recoiling from the presence of contamination. Hard eyes calculating the steps they would have to go through to restore their own ritual purity, desperately trying to remember if she’d brushed up against them. This is a bit like coming out as gay in front of the Islamic Council of Iran.

By any normal rules, uncleanness was contagious. If something pure touched something unclean, the pure became contaminated. But this is the other way around. Shockingly, Jesus’ purity reaches out and contagiously purifies the woman, using her faith as its agent and catalyst. Similarly, when Jesus touches lepers, they don’t contaminate Him; He decontaminates them.

If this same Jesus lives in us, I don’t think we need to worry quite as much about being “contaminated” by “worldliness” as we sometimes do.

Yes, of course we need to avoid actual sin. But we sometimes get the idea that if the line past which we are in sin is over here, we really ought to be way to crap over there five miles away or else we’re “compromising with the world” or “in danger of worldliness”.

This is Pharisaism. God said to honour the sabbath day and keep it holy. The Pharisees said that in order to make sure you were doing that, you could only walk a certain number of steps, you couldn’t pick an ear of corn and eat it because that was reaping, you couldn’t cook your breakfast even if you found cooking relaxing, you couldn’t even heal someone if you went about healing by the power of God during the week. Hedging about the commands of God with your own “clarifying” ideas and “so that we stay as far away from sin as possible” extra rules. Specifying in ever-narrower circles exactly what we can get away with and what we can’t.  Sin purely as a matter of actions, not a heart issue.

Maybe one day we can perhaps all agree to let sin be sin. Nothing more, nothing less. Maybe if we all see clearly, we might be able to act a little more like the Saviour.  Less afraid of being contaminated and more convinced of the power of God.