What’s in a Word?
Last year, I preached a similar sermon in two different churches. It was titled, What’s in a Word? It looked at the biblical boundaries of faith, hope, and love. Three words that we Christians bandy about on a regular basis, but three words that several Christians tell me they are not entirely clear on.
In her elegant and incisive book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntire writes:
“Caring for language is a moral issue. Caring for one another is not separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide, and nourish one another.”
McEntire goes on to reflect how we have lost the power and purpose of language. She emphasizes that good conversation used to be inextricably wedded to building strong communities. In other words, the loss of care with language means the loss of community.
Christians ought to be caretakers of language, but sadly many of us have abdicated our responsibility here. We are lax with some of the most important words in the Christian lexicon.
Clarifying the Faithfulness of God
I agree with J.I. Packer and others that catechesis is a desperate need for the church in America. When many Christians have murky notions regarding the biblical boundaries of faith, hope, and love, how can we declare a consistent and compelling message?
Sadly, there is confusion about many foundational, Christian truths. Consider the faithfulness of God. I’m sure many reading this article have heard the same thing I’ve heard on many occasions. I’ve heard it during times of “sharing” in church, Sunday school classes, home studies, or even in one on one interaction with a fellow Christian. Some well-intentioned Christian is thrilled to declare how God favorably answered their prayer. Then comes the popular refrain of “Isn’t God good?!” or simply “God is faithful.” God’s faithfulness has seamlessly come to be understood as a prayer being answered in the way we desired.
Sometimes when I am teaching, I ask the following question to fellow Christians: If God answers a prayer in the way we wanted, does that mean the answer was God’s will? There is usually a fair bit of silence as folks realize it probably is not the case, yet most have difficulty in finding the biblical support. Numbers 11 provides a good example. Israel was tired of eating manna. They wanted something else to eat. God granted them their request. Quail dropped in abundance, but it was not God’s will.
God’s faithfulness is not synonymous with prayers answered in the affirmative nor is it undercut when the answer is in the negative. God is faithful to His promises. The Bible makes it clear that all “the promises of God are yes in Him.” (II Cor. 1:20). He has promised many things and will be faithful to all of them.
Should we then pray for a spouse who is sick? Absolutely. Should we assume it is God’s will to heal them? No. Is God any less faithful if He does not heal our spouse? No. So, is it okay to say God is faithful if He answers our prayer in the way we desire? It can be if we make it clear God would not be any less faithful by choosing not to grant our request. The latter is something I hardly ever hear. There are those rare and wonderful occasions where someone says, “God is faithful,” even though their desired request was not given. This gets my attention.
Knowing that God will be faithful to all He promised is a great comfort and it should make us desirous of growing in our understanding of His Word, so we know what is truly promised. Among many things, I constantly remind myself that “God is righteous and kind in all that He does.” (Ps. 145:17, NASB and ESV; The NIV translates it as “faithful” instead of kind).
I’ve heard Christian leaders encourage people to keep journals so they can “remember all the times God was faithful.” Again, these times are when God came through in the ways we wanted. Don’t misunderstand here. I have kept a regular journal for about forty years. They are full of answers to my desired requests. They are also full of rantings, questions, frustrations, doubts, despondency, and sadness. And those don’t diminish God’s faithfulness to me in the least.
God certainly answers prayer in the ways we desire at times, but what about when He doesn’t? He is still faithful. Encouraging others to think about God’s faithfulness by recalling when He answered a prayer in the way one desired, results in at least wondering whether God is faithful when the favorable answer never comes.
I try to steer clear of using the word “when” with God’s faithfulness other than recalling the completed work of Christ or one of His clear promises. Asking about “when was God faithful?” at least raises the question of when He might not have been faithful, which is an impossibility.
Yes, we look back, but we look back to the finished work of Christ. That is where we anchor our confidence. Christ’s work on our behalf demonstrates God’s faithfulness. What God has done for us in Christ is the greatest act of faithfulness for it fulfills His promise, even though Jesus struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane with all the implications of that promise. Nothing or no one can take our salvation from us no matter how bad things get (Hab. 3:17-19). It is also why we need not fear those who can merely hurt our bodies but can’t touch our souls (Mt. 10:28).
By all means know that God is faithful but remember to keep clear that His faithfulness is tied inextricably to what He has promised.
Some of Dave’s teaching videos can be accessed at www.mooreengaging.com. Dave’s next books are Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians (Fall 2021, Leafwood Publishers/Abilene Christian University Press) and with Michael Haykin, Odd Couple: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jonathan Edwards Talk about what Matters. Dave can be contacted at www.twocities.org.
I get perplexed with those espouse a more “liberal” take on the Bible. At the end of it all I scratch my head every time wondering what is still left to believe. The faith seems so tentative that it is difficult to see any scandal of the cross. Lots of bad meat came off our theological turkey but it seems we won’t be eating any meat at all but simply using the carcass for spiritual soup.
To extend the metaphor if he wants to be a turkey salesman I’m fine finding out there is some grisly and fatty meat but I’m expecting some meat from someone in that line of work. My tenor is similar to Christopher Hitchens rebuke to the liberal minister who wanted to be a Christian minister but did not believe in the bodily resurrection etc. Hitchens went into Machen mode on her.
In light of my recent posts, I thought it might be good to offer a few principles that I try to apply when engaging issues where sharp disagreement occurs. These are from my forthcoming book, Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians.
First, it is possible that we did not properly understand the other person’s position. We may be jumping the proverbial gun and thus setting up a straw man argument. A great antidote, and one we have noted that is characteristic of humble people, is listening well. We should make certain we are properly tracking on what is communicated. We are told in Scripture to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” (Jas. 1:19 NASB)
Some of you may be familiar with the folks from Westboro Baptist Church. They are the ones that like to show up with signs announcing that some person or group is “going to hell.”
The Christian teaching on hell has occupied most of my adult life. My thesis then first book was on hell.[i]
The people of Westboro Baptist think they are being brave by proclaiming the scandalous message that people who don’t trust Christ are going to hell. A few years back, the following illustration came to mind. I think it illumines the folly of approach among those who align with Westboro Baptist.
Most people have not been to either Yuma, Arizona or Dubrovnik, Croatia. I have. Yuma is a fine place. Some quaint things to see there, but Dubrovnik is absolutely stunning in its beauty. Now let’s say I offer someone an all-expenses paid trip to either Yuma or Dubrovnik. Most would have to guess which one is better because they know nothing about these places beyond perhaps hearing their names. They have no context for what I am offering. The folks at Westboro jump right to the topic of hell, but there are so many important biblical truths to know before one can even begin to appreciate hell. I have found many church-going folks needing more teaching on the character of God, the nature of sin, and so forth, to better understand Scripture’s teaching on hell. If that is true of regular church-attenders, how much more for those who know little of the Christian faith!
Listening well and making sure others understand what is being said is not a strength of the folks at Westboro Baptist Church.
Second, we may not understand our own position as well as we think. The most secure in any debate are those who have taken time for adequate preparation. Our need here is to dig deeper and see if in fact our position holds up. Spiritual growth, as we talked about earlier in this book, is tied directly to our growth in knowledge. And this comes from recognizing when we really don’t know what we are talking about! We can learn something especially important from the ancient philosopher, Socrates. The Oracle of Delphi said he was the wisest man in all of Athens. Socrates thought the pronouncement was over the top and so sought to demonstrate that it was untrue. He assumed, rightly he thought, that there were others wiser than he. Like a good interviewer on radio, he sought to interact with various people. It turned out that everyone acted wise but were in fact plenty foolish. Socrates ended up accepting that the “oracle’s declaration was actually correct, for at least he recognized his own ignorance.”[ii]
It is also interesting to note Augustine’s admiration for a non-Christian teacher by the name of Faustus:
I wanted Faustus to tell me, after comparing the mathematical calculations which I had read in other books, whether the story contained in the Manichee books was correct, or at least whether it had an equal chance of being so. I now did not think him clever enough to explain the matter. Nevertheless I put forward my problems for consideration and discussion. He modestly did not even venture to take up the burden. He knew himself to be uninformed on these matters and was not ashamed to confess it. He was not one of the many loquacious people, whom I have had to endure, who attempted to instruct me and had nothing to say.[iii]
Third, we may properly understand the other person’s position as well as our own but give them more importance than they deserve. We typically do this in one of two ways: by making a secondary (or even tertiary) issue into a primary one, or by failing to remember that there are in fact “grey” issues sincere Christians do disagree over (see I Cor. 8; Ro. 14).
Last, we may properly understand the other position and our own, it may be an important issue, but we still need to communicate with grace and truth. Again, having a gracious spirit does not mean there must be a toning down of one’s convictions. It does mean we proceed cautiously ever aware of our fallen and finite state.[iv]
[i] David George Moore, The Battle for Hell: A Survey and Evaluation of Evangelicals’ Growing Attraction to the Doctrine of Annihilationism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995).
[ii] James S. Spiegel, How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 176.
[iii] Augustine, Confessions trans. by Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 5.7.
[iv] For a terrific reflection of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, especially with respect to our limited perspectives, see David F. Ford, The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014), 56.
From my early days as a Christian it made sense to me that the Bible has something to say to all of life. The Bible is certainly not a spiritual cookbook. It is not always straightforward how one should arrive at one’s decision. The book of Proverbs, and the whole wisdom tradition, showcase this sort of nimble discernment. Christians disagree over the proper interpretation and/or implications of the Bible. And those are Christians who agree on the binding authority of the Scriptures!
I continue to believe that is problematic to have Christians who rationalize or diminish the president’s rhetoric. That said, I Tim. 2:1,2 is a significant influence on how (at the present) I will vote. My vote is very much influenced by the person and party I believe that best protects religious liberty.
Some of my friends tell me that they have lost friends over so-called political differences. I say so-called because most of us use that word “politics” in a diminished, and so unhelpful, way.
Politics comes from the word polis which means city. The original meaning carried the idea of what good I should do for my community. The modern idea of politics has denigrated as a synonym that means simply advocating for one candidate over another. We certainly ought to be able to talk about who we are voting for and why without animus, but there is so much more we ought to first talk about.
It would be more productive if we first spent ample time pondering what good we ought to do for our community, then, and only then, moved to specific candidates. Jumping too quickly over the first makes for either nasty conversations or people steering clear of talking about controversial matters altogether.
There is a better option. Engage thoughtfully, challenge your own assumptions, and have conversation partners outside your own tribe. Don’t exclusively watch CNN, MSNBC, or FOX. Read widely, including those who make you angry. They just might have something to offer that your own tribe is either blind to or unwilling to say.