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What’s Wrong with Some People?

October 28th, 2011 No comments

I read something today that made me stop and puzzle over it:

Evildoers do not understand what is right,
but those who seek the LORD understand it fully.
Proverbs 28:5

I’d seen that verse many times before, but I never really saw it.

Getting several bites at the apple is one of the advantages of my reading plan, which includes a chapter of Proverbs as a morning devotional. This advantage comes from its other advantage, which is that you can easily keep track of where you’re at. Since the book of Proverbs has 31 chapters, you can read a chapter a day, and when the next month begins, you just start over again, instead of trying to keep track what chapter you’re reading.

Anyway, I started to think about this line: “Evildoers do not understand what is right.”

What does that even mean?

Is the problem that they can’t understand what’s right, or just that they don’t?

Is that why some people do evil: because they can’t understand what is right? That evildoers are morally warped so they can’t distinguish right and wrong? (I think of the assassin played by Tom Cruise in the movie Collateral, and Jamie Foxx’s question, “Are you one of those institutionalized-raised guys? Anybody home? The standard parts that are supposed to be there in people, aren’t.”)

Or does it mean that if they did understand what is right, they wouldn’t do evil? In other words, the evil they do is proof that they lack understanding about what is right.

What is it they fail to understand? Is it the bare facts of right and wrong (“don’t be mean”), or is it the way they work over time? (“Don’t be mean because people won’t like you, they’ll be mean back, and what goes around comes around.”) The long-term consequences are certain, but people who cannot perceive them do evil for lack of understanding.

How does it relate to the rest of the verse: is seeking the Lord the means of attaining understanding? Or are people who understand the right attracted to God, as the perfect example and source?

Whenever I start to puzzle over a verse like this, one of the first things I do is compare translations. (Which is easier than ever before, because of the Internet. I talk more about how to do that here.)

A quick comparison showed that where my translation (the TNIV) says “what is right,” others say “justice.” I sort of like “what is right” better, because it seems to me that English-speakers tend to reduce justice to criminal justice. It’s interesting that while the 1984 NIV used “justice,” the 2011 NIV, like my TNIV, says “what is right.”

It turns out that this word is flexible enough to cover both criminal justice (“what is legal”) and ethics (“what is right”). Or, more accurately, I should say that the ancients didn’t distinguish “wrong” and “illegal” the way we do today.

Ultimately, though, my exploration of the word (“justice” or “what is right”) never did answer my questions. Is evil a cause or an effect? Is the problem a failure to understand, or a failure to try? Is the second half of the verse a promise or an observed fact? It beats me.

But just because I didn’t find an easy answer doesn’t mean my effort was wasted. See, it got me engaged enough to start really thinking what the writer meant. And eventually, I realized I was looking at the wrong end of the verse.

Look at the contrast in the first and second half of the verse. The parallel doesn’t make sense; it’s not symmetric. If I was writing that proverb, I’d contrast evildoers with people who do good. “Wicked people don’t, but virtuous people do.” But instead, the proverb contrasts evildoers with people who seek the Lord.

And that’s the key to understanding the verse. It’s not a contrast between good people people who do good versus bad people who do evil. Which is a good thing, because it’s really hard not to do evil. (If you doubt me, read what Jesus says about it in Matthew 5.)

Let me illustrate it this way. Not doing evil is like not speeding in your car. If the speed limit is 65 m.p.h., how fast should you drive? If you drive 65, everybody will pass you, and besides, I heard they overengineer the roads so they’re safe at higher speeds. Also they won’t write a ticket unless you’re 8 miles/hour over the limit. We can all agree that you shouldn’t speed, fine, but how fast should I drive? Not dong evil is the same way. But what if the cop needs to meet their quota? Maybe you better drive 55 m.p.h. so you have some leeway. Or at least 60.

This verse isn’t about not-doing evil. It’s about seeking the Lord.

It changes the question from “how bad can I be without adverse consequence” to “how near can I get to God?” It invites finding out how much is me moving toward God, and how much is God moving toward me?

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Tools for Bible study

October 28th, 2011 No comments

I was puzzled about a verse I read this morning, and decided to write about it. I also thought it might be useful to share here some of the tools that are available for doing Bible study.

We live in the golden age of amateur Bible scholarship. Thanks to sites like Bible Gateway and Bible.CC, if you have an internet connection, you can compare dozens of translations with the click of a mouse. My church uses the NRSV, which is available online, but not in as many places as the ESV, which I find is a pretty reasonable substitute.

Sometimes, a quick comparison only leads to more questions about which translation “got it right.” There are two ways to answer that kind of question. First, you could ask an expert. If you don’t know any experts personally, you could go read one of their books instead. Those are called commentaries.

The problem with commentaries is that there’s almost always another scholar who takes a contrary position, and the ones who get their commentaries published are usually able to construct a pretty compelling argument. (Stop and consider: the people who make these competing translations are all experts, and the whole problem is that they don’t agree on how to translate something.) So, of the reading of commentaries there is no end: you have to keep reading until you find one that supports your presuppositions. (I kid.)

If the topic is about something important — grace vs. works, for example — you really do need to ask an expert. But a lot of the time, you just want make sure you’re not leaning too hard on what might be an idiosyncratic translation, or — especially with older translations like KJV — a word whose meaning has evolved over the years.

In those situations you can do a word search to see what the word appears to mean in other places where it appears. It’s best to search by the word used in the original biblical language, because translations don’t always translate one word uniformly, because it’s a poor word that has only one shade of meaning. (The word for “angel” is also the word for “messenger,” but not every messenger has wings and a halo. The word for “heaven” can be translated as “sky” and “air,” depending on the context. And so forth.)

Fortunately, you don’t have to know the biblical languages to do this kind of “casual” search. You can look the underlying words in Strong’s Concordance, which assigns each one a unique number.

I was looking for a word (sometimes translated “justice” or “what is right”) in Proverbs 28:5. The Blue Letter Bible has tagged Bibles that let you see the Strong’s number for each word. (It offers both the KJV and NASB, and, while I’m not a fan of either, the NASB at least offers somewhat more modern English usage.)

With the tagged verse in front of me, it was easy enough to pick my word. As it happens, what I wanted was a Hebrew word numbered 4941.

Clicking on 4941 brought me not only a definition but a list of search results showing me all the places the word appeared. There were 421 appearances all through the Hebrew scriptures, so I concentrated my search in the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes).

My purpose in this article is to describe how I did my Bible study, rather than to tell you what it taught me. That’s for another article.

When I first began to read the Bible 20 years ago, I was frustrated by all the page-flipping. Today, you can flip through not just one translation but any number of them, as easily as clicking a mouse.

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What’s the Church For?

October 22nd, 2011 No comments

If a curious stranger asked one of us what it was that Christians believed, some of us would stumble our way through the Apostles’ Creed (“I believe in one God, Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”). Others might think of John 3:16 (“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”). Those are great answers: the Creed lists the major points of belief Christians have affirmed down through the centuries. John 3:16 isn’t as detailed, but it captures the essence of our faith better than perhaps any other Scripture.

But suppose that instead of asking about Christianity, the stranger asked you about church. How would you answer that? John 3:16’s no help: it doesn’t even mention the church. The Apostles’ Creed affirms a belief in the “holy catholic church” it doesn’t explain what that is, or the role it plays in a believer’s life.

In the gospels, Jesus himself barely mentions the church, although the two places he does are pretty important. In Matthew 16:18 he says that not even the gates of Hell will prevail against the church. In Matthew 18:17 he explains how to handle conflict in the church. (According to his command, it’s the only way to deal with conflict, so you might want to check if you’ve been doing it right.)

Jesus says a lot more to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, but the best place to get an understanding of the church is from the early church itself: from its history in Acts, and from the Epistles that Paul and other leaders wrote to the those early churches.

That’s still a lot of reading, though. Suppose your stranger was impatient, and you didn’t have a copy of the New Testament handy. What could you tell them?

When I think what Scripture might serve the same “quick explanation” function for the Church that John 3:16 does for Christianity, what comes to mind for me is this:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.—Acts 2:44-47

That’s a wonderful picture of the church. Theologians sometimes call it “the provisional demonstration of the Kingdom of God.” In other words, it’s not exactly what things will be like in the Resurrection, but it’s as close as anybody will get until then.

Now, we may raise our eyebrows at “having things in common” and “selling possessions” and “distributing to all.” I think most of us tend to read it as “you have to give up your stuff.” But that’s not what it says. It says when there was a need, people were quick to help each other. Don’t confuse the church with redistributionist political schemes.

Have you ever had a “refrigerator friend?” That’s the name Craig Groeschel gives to the kind of friend who can get things out of your refrigerator without asking. You don’t want friends asking, “Is it okay with you if I get some cream to put in my coffee?” If they’re still asking permission, they aren’t refrigerator friends, just acquaintances.

The picture in Acts is a community of refrigerator friends. They worship together (“they spent much time together in the temple”) but they did other things together too (“they broke bread at home”).

Of course, not every church does things as well as they did in Acts 2. In fact, even the early church wasn’t always that kind of church: just a couple of chapters later, we find out the church had to deal with greedy people and squabbling. But the picture in Acts 2 is the ideal. It’s what God wants the church to be like.

How do we compare to that ideal? Has the church helped you find some “refrigerator friends?” What could we do to help people build those kind of relationships? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Fascinating Data in the Bible, Yahoo Listings, Etc.

October 14th, 2011 No comments

I just stumbled upon a site called OpenBible that has the most fascinating blog. I just spent about half an hour reading one article after another, and finally decided I needed to share something. Fascinating place. Give it a look. I just added its RSS feed to my Google Reader.

So what am I sharing? How about an analysis of church names in the United States?

Yousef Nadarkhani update – keep praying

October 1st, 2011 No comments

The pressure is getting to Iran’s clerics, so they’ve started lying about what they’re doing:

“His crime is not, as some claim, converting others to Christianity,” said Gholomali Rezvani, deputy governor of Iran’s Gilan province, where the persecuted pastor was sentenced to death by hanging. “He is guilty of security-related crimes.”

Those crimes, claimed Rezvani, in remarks reported by Fars news agency (the Iranian government’s unofficial mouthpiece), include rape and extortion. “No one is executed in Iran for their choice of religion,” he insisted.

The Iranian provincial governor’s explanation of Pastor Nadarkhani’s death sentence does not square with court records of the trial, conviction and appeal of the leader of 400 Christian house churches – whom Rezvani disparagingly described as a “Zionist” criminal.

“Does not square” is a very mild way of stating the obvious: the provincial governor is lying. What a great political system they have there, that the governor has no compunctions about lying in describing the charges against someone.

The clerics may yet kill Pastor Nadarkhani, but the fact that they’vee changing their stories, and are now providing a different rationale is a sign that the pressure is getting to them. Remember what Jesus said: all that do evil hate the light (John 3:20).

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