Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. 1 Peter 3:15
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
- What difference does it make that the Lord is one, not many?
- The founder of Islam, Mohammed, claimed that Christians are polytheists. Why do you think he said that? This is supposedly the reason he founded Islam. How would you explain to a Muslim that we believe that God is one God?
- Why do you think Jews consider this verse so important? Do you think this verse has any special importance?
- Why do you think the Lord asks for love in this verse rather than some other form of attachment such as loyalty or obedience? How does a request for love differ from loyalty or obedience or even submission?
- Where in the New Testament do you find an explanation of the love that comes from God? How does that call forth the response of love for God?
- If this verse were hidden in your heart, when might you want to take it out and cling to it?
being rich in mercy,
because of the great love with which he loved us,
even when we were dead in our trespasses,
made us alive together with Christ
—by grace you have been saved—
and raised us up with him
and seated us with him
in the heavenly places
in Christ Jesus,
in the coming ages
he might show
the immeasurable riches of his grace
in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:4-7
- Paul wrote these words to a troubled church. It was a great church, birthed in fire, a fire that burned books of magic spells and potions associated with the culture of idolatry in Ephesus. If someone like Paul came to your town and stirred a lot of people to receive Christ, what would be the major thing citizens would abandon or throw away as they came to faith? To ask the same question a different way, what do you believe most people in your town cry for when they feel hopeless?
- Do you know people who fixate on angels more than they fixate on Jesus? How did it happen? Why do they have so much more faith in angels than in Jesus?
- In the town where you live, do most people claim to go to church on Sunday or not? What do people in your town do if they are not in church on Sunday? Do these things fill up their lives and push Christ out? Or was Christ ever in their hearts?
- Do you observe any hint that people in your town who do not serve Christ believe that they are sinful? If people do not think they are sinful, or as Paul said it, “dead in their trespasses,” what would make them think they need Jesus?
By grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not your own doing;
it is the gift of God,
not a result of works,
so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9
- Do you personally know anyone who believes that he does not need God, or any god? What does that person say is the foundation of his personal strength? Does that person consider that there is anything in his life which he would die for? In different words, is there anything he would die rather than give up?
- Are you saved? What were you saved from? How did it happen that you became saved?
We are his workmanship,
created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand,
that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10
- You may have heard someone say, “I hope this one counts for good stuff, because last time I think I made God mad.” What would you tell someone who said such a thing?
- Since we now know that good works don’t buy heaven, what is the point of doing good works at all?
- Imagine you had hired someone to be your right hand while you worked as a teacher and personal mentor to a dozen people over the course of a weekend retreat. You were scheduled for thirty minutes to eat some food at 8PM on Saturday evening after teaching and consulting nonstop since noon. If your assistant inexplicably brought you a beef taco and chips after you had specifically ordered chicken, would you feel entitled to complain, or would it be proper to eat it without any unpleasantness? Would it be a good work to refuse to abuse your assistant, or would it be leadership to teach him what a big error he had made? What exactly is a good work?
As promised, this post will address the question: In the parable of the wheat and the tares, why is anyone who is not a Christian depicted as evil?
The equivalence between atheism and evil does not exist in the world of relative morality. In the world of relative morality, it would be unthinkable to equate secularism with evil. People who espouse relative morality think that everybody is good sometimes, and nobody should be called evil. Secularism and atheism are automatically equivalent to evil only in the world of absolute morality.
Relative morality operates on the basis of the situation which presents itself. Good is defined in personal terms. Evil is the opposite of good, in personal terms. Every situation is different, and good versus evil is redefined for every conflict. Each individual has the power and the right to define morality for himself in each situation.
The rule of self-defense is a good example of a setting where almost everyone agrees that the target of attempted murder has the right to murder his attacker in an attempt to prevent his own murder. The honor our culture gives to people like policemen and soldiers is due to our cultural sense that anyone who risks death himself or even commits murder himself in order to save the lives of others is on the right side of the conflict. In situations like these, almost everyone believes in relative morality.
Absolute morality, the morality revealed by God through the Bible, says that in every situation, you can distinguish between good and evil by comparing the antagonists with God. God is the measure of what is good. Jesus even said, “There is only One who is good.” By that comparison, every human being is evil. This is the reason every person needs Christ, and whoever receives Christ is made righteous by his righteousness. This truth means that when God sorts out good and evil at the end of time, he will see Christians as good, not because they have done more good deeds than atheists, but rather, because they are covered by the righteousness of Christ. Christians look like good rather than evil, because when God looks at a Christian he sees Christ.
Christ acted on absolute morality when he died on the cross. According to the relative morality of the rule of self-defense, Christ had the right, and even the obligation, to defend himself. By that standard, since Jesus the Christ had the both the right and the power to destroy all his enemies, he should have wiped them out. By the standard of relative morality and the rule of self-defense, it was immoral for Christ to “wimp out” and just die.
Likewise, by the standard of relative morality, if Jesus wanted to defend the world from Satan, it was his obligation to stand in the gap and prevent Satan from hurting anyone. Jesus the Christ, God in the flesh, should have stood his ground against Satan and all his minions, using his God-power to fry them to a crisp and save the world. By the standard of relative morality, Jesus failed, because he did not put a stop to Satan’s ability to lead people to evil deeds.
By the standard of relative morality, Christ should be flying around the world yet today, slashing and burning the encampments of Boko Haram who bomb churches and murder Christians in Nigeria. Christ should still be striking down venal politicians to prevent the arrest and torture of Christians who worship in unregistered churches in countries like Kazakhstan. According to the standard of relative morality, if an activist claims that every Christian ought to be imprisoned or executed for interfering with that activist’s favorite behavior, Christ ought to use his holy and righteous power to remove the activist from the picture permanently. Relative morality says that personal threat modifies the rule that life is sacred, and every individual may choose to interpret the threat according to personal considerations. The absolute morality with regard to life is to do no murder. Christ submitted to death in accordance with that absolute morality.
Absolute morality sets the standard for good by measuring against God himself. God alone is good. By the standard of absolute morality, secularism is evil, because it is ungodly. Hinduism is evil, because it is separated from God. Islam is evil, because it rejects Christ. The behavior of secularists and Hindus and Muslims can be, may be and often is very “good” by the standard of relative morality. They may or may not wreak murder and mayhem. That is not the point. The teaching of absolute morality is that there is no comparison between anything human beings do and the deeds of God. Human beings cannot work their way up the ladder of goodness and be like God. Everything that is not God is evil.
Secularists worship human beings, Hinduism worships many gods, and Islam worships a perverted copy of God himself. One is not more evil or less evil than the others. To call them all evil is simply to recognize that they are not worshiping God. They have all made gods for themselves, which is to say that whether or not they say they have gods, they ultimately worship only self. The very fact that they claim to be able to make their own rules and find their own gods means that they have turned against the only God. By that definition they constitute evil in the world. This is the standard by which God sentenced Adam and Eve to exile from the Garden. They had demonstrated that they preferred self-gratification to a relationship with him. They chose evil over good, and the evidence was their willingness to listen to Satan rather than God and then try to hide.
What are Christians to do about evil in the world? Christians are called to eschew the evil, the mindset that is its own god, yet above that call is the call to love all the people anyway, just like Jesus. Christians are called to be like Christ, to live by the same standard that governed Christ’s behavior. Christians are called to share Christ and the blessing of his mysterious behavior with all people. That is because the mystery of the wheat and the tares is really not about the victory at the end. The mystery and miracle of the wheat and the tares is that tares may become wheat. While the tares and the wheat grow side by side, the wheat can share truth with the tares and the tares may be miraculously transformed into wheat.
Where do you see evidence of people choosing relative morality over the absolute truth of God and his love? What do you do about it? Are you engaged in Christ’s work of transforming tares into wheat?
11 [God said] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1Kings 19:11-13
When it comes to describing God, people struggle. Even biblical people. Even people who wrote down the inspired Word of God. There are not too many places where it is attempted.
In Exodus, when Moses and the elders went up to the top of Sinai, “they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” (Exodus 24:10) In Revelation there is a richer description which says “behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. 3 And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. 4 And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. 5 And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. 6 And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal.” (Revelation 4:2-5)
God’s presence was described much less exuberantly when He appeared to Abraham before the destruction of Sodom. In that scene, God and a couple of angels dropped in for a meal. There are many other scenes in which people encounter God, and the descriptions vary widely.
There is a reason for the wide variation, a reason that transcends any deficit in an individual’s powers of description. The real reason is that God is indescribable. No matter how we try to put him in words, he always transcends and overwhelms them. In the creation story, even though God is never really described, only quoted, we almost see him as a being so much like humans that Adam and Eve felt comfortable walking with him in the beautiful garden that was their home. Yet after they acquired the knowledge of good and evil that they so earnestly yearned for, they felt shamed in God’s presence. So he couldn’t have looked exactly like them.
Isaiah wrote about an experience that was profound and overwhelming, saying that God’s glory filled the temple where he had gone for worship, yet he, too, was stymied in an attempt to say what God was like. We only know that like Adam and Eve, Isaiah felt deeply ashamed in the presence of God, humbled, and unworthy even to serve, let alone approach, God.
This kind of thing is almost certainly what Elijah hoped for when he thought he would see God. He may have remembered that when Moses wanted to see God’s face, God permitted him only to see that God had passed by. Still, Elijah had traveled a long way under adverse conditions. He had arrived at God’s mountain, Horeb. He may even have been thinking about the fact that this is the mountain where Moses had met God. Elijah had been God’s spokesman in a dramatic defeat of Baal and Baal’s prophets, and like a weary child running to his mother, Elijah ran and ran and ran till he arrived at God’s mountain. He was drained. He took refuge in a cave, high on the mountain, and fell asleep.
He was jolted awake by God’s powerful voice, calling out, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah whined a little. He was exhausted. He wanted a little sympathy. After all, the king was searching everywhere for him in order to kill him. God thought his perspective was a bit warped. God said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
It is hard to guess what Elijah felt as he got up and went to the opening of the cave. He saw that a terrible wind was blowing across the mountain, a wind that dislodged rockslides and split the mountain itself, but the wind was not God. Next he felt the ground shudder and probably felt a little sick at his stomach as an earthquake jolted him. The earthquake wasn’t God, either. After that a fire raged on the mountainside. Elijah was expecting the Lord, and he almost certainly thought that God would surely be in the midst of fire and flame, but he was disappointed again.
We are all like Elijah. Remember when Naaman went to Elisha, Elijah’s successor, for healing from leprosy? Naaman was an important military officer in the army of Aram. When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s house, he sent his servant to bring Elisha into his presence to do the healing. But Elisha wasn’t Naaman’s servant; he was God’s servant. Elisha was able to respond to Naaman’s request, but like today’s employees who work remotely as if they were in the office, Elisha did not need to be present to take care of the problem. He could send a message by a servant and continue doing whatever else occupied him at the moment.
Naaman took offense. He didn’t just want healing. He was a needy man who needed for Elisha to recognize how important Naaman was. He said, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” Naaman wanted to be noticed. He wanted a show. How dare this miserable little man send a miserable little servant to send Naaman, confidant to the king of Aram, away to wash in some miserable little river as if he were some simple, filthy peasant.
Lots of people feel that way about God and the things God does. They reject God’s very existence, because God doesn’t meet their standards. He doesn’t act the way they want him to act. He doesn’t do the things they want done. It was completely predictable that when some people expressed their prayers for the parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook, others took the occasion to express their scorn and rejection of God, making God, not the shooter, responsible for the deaths. After the bombing of the Boston Marathon, gleeful atheists proclaimed, “You surely can’t continue to trust a god like this. If he is everything you say, he would have stopped these guys.” And after the terrible tornado at Moore, Oklahoma, unbelievers paraded themselves, saying, “Why didn’t you pray God to save those innocent children?” In other words, they thought that God should put on a show for them and feed their need for attention and do just what they thought he should do.
Sometimes, God must stop us in our tracks and let us know what he is not. He is not a windup toy that we can cling to and play with when we feel like it. He is not a trained seal who puts on a performance at our command. He is not Santa Claus, obligated to bring us toys. He is not a genie we let out of the bottle when we want wish-fulfillment.
God stopped Elijah in his tracks. God came to Elijah in the sound of sheer silence. God revealed to Elijah that He, the Creator and Lord of the Universe, was nothing that Elijah thought he was. God revealed himself by telling Elijah what he was not. A blogger wrote about this kind of experience and compared it to the moment after the end of magnificent symphonic performance. The music has been so phenomenal that the audience is completely transported. The last note dies away in an awe-filled silence that soon erupts in thunderous applause. The blogger speaks of being in that place as “living well in stunned silence.”
This is where Elijah found himself on that mountain. And this is where each of us must come to our senses eventually, maybe more than once. We pray and read the Bible. We worship, and sing and give, even sacrificially. We serve and meet and plan good works. We do all the things that shout a testimony to Christ in our daily lives. We are the wind and the earthquake and the fire, but none of that is God. We can be so deep into all these godly things that we hardly even know God is around. That is when God draws near to us in sheer silence. Stunned silence.
That sort of silence prevails in the room where a child has died. It can fill a house that is suddenly empty because a marriage has collapsed. It can overwhelm one who has reached a professional pinnacle and earned professional accolades in the dark hours of the night when he asks, “Now what?”
God speaks to us most profoundly when we finally breathe out and let go and stop talking and running and planning and thinking and doing. That is where Elijah was. The wind had left his sails. His life balloon was completely deflated. He literally could not envision even one more step forward in this life.
Some people call this “bottoming out.” Some talk of when you must look up to see the bottom. Whatever you call it, it is a time when all the images of God and ideas about God that may have sustained you in your busyness simply don’t do the trick any more. You are living in stunned silence. Sheer silence. And then God speaks, and then you hear, and then you can listen at last, because you are not listening to anybody else at the same time. We can’t really know God if we are multi-tasking our faith – believing God when that works and taking it all on ourselves when it doesn’t. God wants our full attention, and there are times when the only way to get our full attention is to bring the symphony of life to a complete halt.
Once Elijah had been absorbed by God’s sheer silence, God spoke. He had words of comfort. He had words of mission. He had words of life. God’s silence was a wake-up call for Elijah, and when he truly woke up from his self-centered whining about not being rewarded and honored for doing God’s work, God sent him on his way again to do God’s work.
I had a wake-up call like this one day. Like Elijah, I thought I had done something great, and like Elijah, what I thought would earn me a reward simply made me a target. I had to stop whining and stop creating expectations for God and be willing to shut up and listen. I was stunned into silence. It was a moment that turned my life in a new direction and led to rewards I could never have imagined if I had received the rewards I thought I had earned.
When have you been stunned into silence and found God in sheer silence?