Tag Archives: Christian love

What does Love do about Unjust Suffering?

In the beautiful thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul writes a paean to love. When I was fifteen, I memorized that chapter, and even though my old age makes my memory foggy, that chapter remains a treasure in my heart. I learned it in the King James Version, and that is the version that is most often quoted, even when the teachings are abused, because of its poetic qualities.

The King James Version, however, is not an all-purpose translation. As I learned to understand the archaic language that challenges any contemporary reader, I learned that there was value in using a variety of translations. One reason is the complete impossibility of a “word for word” translation from any language to any language. The “word for word” concept relies on the denotative meaning of a word, but anyone who ever looked up the definition of an English word knows that the denotation of a word may include a long list of varied definitions.

Unwillingness to delve into the usage, the definitions and the clouds of connotation around words may lead some readers of that beautiful chapter astray when they try to apply it to daily life.

Furthermore, we all learned in high school about the difference between the connotation and the denotation of a word, and that connotative cloud makes things even more complicated. Look up the word love for example, and think about the connotative cloud around every possible denotative definition of that word. Right away you will begin to see why even the most faithful, dedicated, and conservative scholars have long conversations when they share the work of translating the ancient manuscripts of the Bible.

This discussion explains why it is valuable to use a variety of translations when studying the deep meaning of any passage. The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is one of the most beloved passages in the Bible, but unwillingness to delve into the usage, the definitions and the clouds of connotation around words may lead some readers of that beautiful chapter astray when they try to apply it to daily life.

Take 1 Corinthians 13:5, for example.

The English Standard Version, today’s direct descendant of the King James Version, says, “[Love] is not irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:5).

The most conversational translation around is The Message, and it not only takes a few liberties with precise language, but it also suffers from the problem of being the work of one man. Nevertheless, it does a good job of helping a contemporary reader see the word resentful more clearly. Peterson translates the final clause this way: “[Love[ doesn’t keep score of the sins of others.”

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What Do We Pray For?

When Christians are confronted with sociopathic evil that is inevitably commingled with political agendas, self-serving ego trips, and true spiritual confusion, how are they to sort through the tangled web of issues and pray with integrity before God?

This is the situation as the nation contemplates the unspeakable wickedness of the bombing at the Boston Marathon. The initial responses to this event have been full of stories we can all admire. A man with both legs destroyed by the bombs was nevertheless able to summon the strength to be a witness and send investigators down the right path to find the perpetrators. The scene of devastation became a stage for heroism and gallantry that every human being could admire and emulate. As tips poured in, investigators worked night and day to find the men responsible. One is dead, and the other is in custody. The fears that locked down a city and held a nation hostage to each new announcement are beginning to subside – for the moment.

But what comes next? What do we want to come next?

This is the tough part. Those who are responsible to bring criminals and terrorists to justice will do their jobs, but the very fact that this comment must include both words – criminals and terrorists – grows out of one of the challenges of achieving justice in this case. There is already a considerable debate, and plenty of rancor on both sides, whether to call this event a crime or an act of terror. The little known of the background of the two men hardly clarifies things at this point, so it will be a while before the terminology is sorted out. It is highly likely that the process of collecting and analyzing the necessary information will be thoroughly colored by the political agendas of officials at all levels and by the same vicious political rhetoric that stirs every issue in the country these days. Everyone will agree that justice must be done, but there will be no agreement whatsoever as to what constitutes justice in this case.

The fact that the two young men were Muslim does not help things. That word by itself raises hackles on all sides of the current social trauma over profiling and the meaning of terrorism.

The fact that comments from family and friends do not paint a coherent picture of the two men makes it difficult even to know where to start thinking about the right thing to do in response to this issue. One of the marathon runners has already publicly stated that she does not believe she can ever run another one, even though she herself was not injured. Marathon organizers for events scheduled in the near future feel compelled to address the very natural security concerns of participants. And people everywhere look over their shoulders at any large group of people, wondering if the two Boston bombers were acting in isolation, or if they were simply the first wave.

How is a Christian to pray about this horrifying and thoroughly confusing event? There is a perfect model for us, and we can trust this model, because it was given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

We must always turn to God before we start jumping to conclusions about any confusing or terrifying situation. Turning our thoughts to him first puts all our earthly concerns in proper perspective.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

We run to God. We want to cry out what we want. When we are hurting, we want relief from the pain and suffering, and when some other person is responsible for hurting us, we want that person punished. We run to God thinking of ourselves, but Jesus shows us that there is plenty of time to talk about our pain and our suffering after we give God the glory due to him. Before we tell him what we wish the outcome to be, we first enter into his plan for the outcome. We stop and look at the situation from God’s viewpoint. We ask for God’s holy purposes to redeem the situation.

When we think of God’s purposes, we remember that God loves all people, that Christ died for all people. Whatever wicked people may do, God still loves them and wants to forgive and heal them, just as he has forgiven and healed each Christian. This thought will change our understanding of justice in this situation.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Now it is time for us to tell God our needs. We are needy creatures. In this terrible time of mourning for the dead and wounded, grieving with families and friends, fearing for the future, we can tell God everything that is on our minds. We are more at peace about it all, because we have reminded ourselves that God is still sovereign and still loving and merciful. We can go to him in our broken neediness, and he will hear us out.

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

This is a very difficult phrase to pray with integrity. Can we really forgive two men who knowingly wrought such murder and mayhem on people who never did them any wrong? Jesus says that we can do this, and Jesus showed us how, as he himself was being nailed to the cross. We forgive. Our forgiveness does not excuse wicked men, but it does pull the poison of vengeful thoughts out of our hearts. True justice can never be accomplished as long as those who have been wronged are unable to forgive the wrong-doer.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

This prayer is the capstone of our ability to forgive. We forgive, and we let go of our need to exact revenge. We say we want justice, but Satan is always in the wings agitating and instigating our need for vindication, payback, and compensation for the damage we have sustained. Jesus says that we must ask God to protect us from Satan’s assaults in order that we allow real justice to be rendered while letting go of our need to pay back wickedness with even greater vindictiveness. We ask God to protect us from Satan’s constant whining that no amount of payback will ever be enough.

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

With this statement we come back to the Lord’s agenda. We state our faith in God’s plan and purpose in all things. We remind ourselves that evil may appear to triumph for a time, but God never permits evil to defeat his purposes. God can and God does redeem the times. We can trust him. We serve him as citizens of his kingdom, we confidently trust that he is omnipotent, that evil cannot win, and that God will reign in glory forever. This statement closes the envelope we opened by saying “Hallowed be your name.”

Amen

How shall a Christian pray in response to something as horrible as the Boston bombing? Jesus has shown us the way.

For news about the persecuted church and the cultural wars in the USA read Living on Tilt the newspaper.

 

A Hymn for Meditation

Spirit of God, Descend Upon my Heart hymnal

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart.
Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move.
Stoop to my weakness, strength to me impart
And make me love you as I ought to love.

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies,
But take the dimness of my soul away.

Teach me to love you as your angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame.
The baptism of the heaven-descended dove,
My heart an altar and your love the flame. 

George Croly

  •  Read the first verse. Can you speak or sing these words with conviction that this is your own prayer?
  • The story of Christ’s transfiguration, the image of Elijah being carried to heaven in a fiery chariot, and the moment when the persecutor Saul of Tarsus was struck down as he approached Damascus are all explosive images of God’s revelation. They all represent transforming moments. How does this hymnwriter wish to be transformed? What sort of transformation do you think you need?
  • Is there anyone you do not love? Cannot love? Don’t want to love? What could change that state of affairs?
  • Think of two things in your life that would be different if you actually made your heart an altar lit by the love of God.

A Hymn for Meditation

In Christ There is no East or West

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;

But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

In Him shall true hearts everywhere
Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord,
Close binding humankind.

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!

Who serves my Father as His child

Is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet North and South;
All Christly souls are one in Him

Throughout the whole wide earth.

                                    John Oxenham

  • If someone accuses you of being a bigot or being guilty of hatred and hate speech simply because you are a Christian, how will this hymn help you to answer respond with loving truth?
  • What must happen if the vision of the first verse of the hymn is to be realized?
  • What is the cord that this hymnwriter considers to be the bond that unites all people?
  • One day Jesus’ family tried to call him out of a crowd of followers, and his response was that he was already with his family. In verse 2, who does the hymnwriter identify as his family?
  • The news inspires fear. News images show warring factions doing real harm to one another. According to this hymn, what must happen to change that news? Where in the Bible did the hymnwriter find his ideas?

 

How do Christians Respond to Restrictions on Religious Expression?

When I was a child, our teachers used to help us survive ugly situations by saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” It wasn’t completely true, of course, but saying that little folksy proverb helped us to feel strong when people called us hateful names. It reminded us of the difference between being physically harmed and being scorned. It did not change the fact that some people in the world are simply hateful, but it did teach us a way to respond to hatred without reciprocating hatred.  

In the book The Cellist of Sarajevo Steven Galloway writes about four individuals trapped by the siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996, trying simply to stay alive while enemy snipers sit on the high ground around the city and kill innocent people every day. Each of the characters travels a unique path to a moment when he realizes that hatred is a choice. It is not necessary to hate people. The characters recognize that hatred rooted in the hearts of the men on the hills enables them to kill with impunity people who have done them no wrong. Each character finds some way to rise above the temptation to respond with equal hatred. Each probes himself deeply looking for a way not to participate in the mayhem. These characters were not motivated to be like Christ. They simply used their God-given reason to conclude that responding to hatred with hatred would only make things worse. 

Christians in the USA who feel the culture closing in around them can be tempted to be scornful, even hateful, toward the people who treat them badly. We know our rights. We won’t take this sitting down. We are actually caught in a trap of competing values when we perceive that our freedom to live our faith is in danger. We are followers of Christ, called to live our faith and make disciples, and we are citizens of the USA, free to believe whatever we like and to practice our faith without hindrance according to the Constitution of the United States of America. On the one hand, our agenda is to share Christ’s love with everyone, and on the other hand, we have rights as citizens. Behavior that grows out of the assertion of citizen rights may not always be consistent with behavior that grows out of a call to Christian discipleship. Citizen activism may be confrontational in a way that is inconsistent with living our faith. What to do? 

If people with no acknowledged faith in anything, the characters in The Cellist of Sarajevo, can reach the conclusion that responding to hatred with hatred will only escalate violent confrontations, people with faith in the Christ who prayed, “Father, forgive them,” as he was nailed to a cross should surely be able to reach the same conclusion. In fact, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he taught his followers to expect opposition from the established religious leaders, the culture in general, and even from the state. He also taught them how to respond. He didn’t simply tell them not to hate their persecutors. Jesus told his followers to love their enemies and pray blessings on those who persecuted them.  

This teaching is not as radical as it sounds if you view it in the context of the whole body of Christ’s teaching. Christ’s message was that the kingdom of God had come near to people. He brought the kingdom near in his person. The Holy Spirit dwelling within every believer brings the kingdom near to every person that believer meets. Jesus wanted his followers to be busy sharing the good news that God loves human beings and wants them to live in relationship with him. It would be pretty hard to say to people, “God loves you and wants you to love him, and by the way, I hate you for not agreeing to do that.” To be sure, there have been people who claimed the name of Christ who behaved exactly that way. That fact points out how much easier it is to claim the name than to live the relationship.  

The problem is that if we truly live our faith, our very behavior is sometimes an affront to the culture. The Catholic Bishops found themselves in that position when the president required Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for health services that are considered sinful according to the Catholic Church’s interpretation of the Bible. For someone to call birth control sinful sounds quite judgmental and barbaric to someone who has just classified that very service as a universal human right. This episode is a reminder to all of us that we cannot assume that people who believe in different religious teachings, or in no religious teaching at all, will respect and admire our commitment to our faith. 

It isn’t easy to love my neighbors on good days. If one of them slaps me, or calls me bigoted or takes me to court for having a Bible study in my home, then I am not naturally inclined to invite them to strike me again. It is not natural to love my enemy. Yet that is what Christ calls me to do. Me. You. Everyone who claims his name. How do we get the guts and gumption to do that? We mature in our ability to live a faithful testimony by engaging faithfully in prayer, Bible study and worship. We can do this in isolation, to be sure, but human beings need connections. We mature more deeply when our private practices are nourished and reshaped by communal prayer, Bible study and worship. We need one another. Jesus said that we must put God above all other loyalties, but after that, we must love one another. 

How do we live in a culture that increasingly prefers all religious behavior to be confined to religious spaces? We do it by doing what Christ taught us to do. When Christians in the first century did that, they were sometimes arrested, and occasionally even killed. So far, nobody in the US has been executed by the state for being a Christian. We can be thankful for that, but we cannot assume that it means that won’t happen. In order to face the future with confidence, we must cling ever more firmly to the promise that Christ will go with us through whatever the future brings. He is the one who holds our future in his hands. We can trust Christ for both time and eternity.

Do you think religious freedom is important? Do you think all the talk about restriction and persecution is silly? Here is someone else’s take on The Preciousness of our First Freedom.