sin

Moved with Compassion

A few years ago while attending a conference I had an experience that changed my view of the world forever.  I was sitting in the very back row of the balcony of venue watching a video that had been produced to raise awareness regarding the plight of children living in extreme poverty.  The scene was a relatively busy city street.  The time stamp said it was about 8p.  A little girl no more than 10 years old entered the frame carrying some blankets and a pillow.  I watched as she meticulously made a little place to sleep on that busy street.  She spread out the blankets very carefully, lining the edges up neatly.  Then put her tattered and dirty purple and pink pillow down, curled up under the top blanket and went to sleep.  The whole time you could see feet walking by.  No one stopped.  Cut to 9:10p.  The girl seems to be sleeping soundly.  Feet still walk past.  None of them break stride.  They continue past.  Cut to 10:42p.  The girl stirs a little.  She’s trying to find a more comfortable position on that cold hard pavement.  More feet pass.  Feet keep walking past.  They never stop.  As I write this remembering the images, I’m almost in tears again.

That video created a visceral feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Ever since then, my wife and I have made a point to give financially to organizations that help provide for little girls like that.  As a member of the Ann Arbor West Rotary Club, I am currently working on two projects that will help little girls like that.

Have you ever had that feeling in the pit of your stomach?  That feeling of sorrow and pain for someone else?

I think Jesus had a feeling like when he saw the crowds of people that gathered when he taught.  In Matthew 9:36, it says that Jesus had compassion for or was moved with compassion for the crowds.  In the original language that word describes an emotion that creates a visceral response.  When he saw all the people looking for someone to believe in, someone to follow, someone in whom they could trust, Jesus felt like I did watching that video of the little girl.  It was for them, for us, that he came, lived, taught, died, and rose again.  He did that out of love.  He was moved with compassion.

How should this inform the life of the Christ-follower?

When’s the last time you were moved with compassion?  When was the last time you saw an injustice and felt in the pit of your stomach that something must be done to fix it?

The world is full of injustice.  Full of evil.  Full of sin.

The good news of Jesus Christ is that he came to right the wrongs, heal the sick, free those in bondage (both spiritually and physically).  God sent Jesus to do that.  Jesus is sending his church to continue on the mission that he started while he was here.

This is what it means to be the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27).  As his body, we are to continue to do the work that he started.  This is how we spread the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.

If we’re not actively working to spread the Kingdom of God by eliminating sin and evil in the world, we are not following Jesus.  We should be moved with compassion to do something to fight the evil that is rampant in this world.  This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

What moves you with compassion?

Challenging the Institution

A young man from Montana who had gathered a small following of farmers and ranchers burst into the U.S. Capitol building the morning of the President’s State of the Union address. The young man with a burning passion bordering on manic rage began shouting and screaming and chased the lobbyists out of the Capitol building. He was fed up with the lobby system in the country. He felt that lobbyists, funded by wealthy individuals and organizations of both the liberal and conservative persuasions, were ruining the American political system. Because of the huge amounts of money these lobbyists were able to bring to bear in support of their specific issue the young man believed that the common man, the people Congress was elected to represent, no longer had a voice in their government. At the top of his lungs he shouted, “The Constitution provides for a Congress to represent the people in government, but you have turned it into an auction for the rich buying votes like they buy art!”

Now, this isn’t intended as a political statement. It is the closest contemporary illustration I could come up with to describe what Jesus did when he cleansed temple in Jerusalem.

On the busiest day in Jerusalem, when the Jewish people were traveling there to celebrate the Passover (one of the most important Jewish religious holidays), Jesus walks into the Temple, the center of Jewish worship.

In the Temple, there were people selling animals for sacrifice and changing Roman coins for Jewish ones. Like lobbying, this system of selling animals and changing money was intended to help the common people. It was a lot of work and money to transport animals for sacrifice to Jerusalem. The Roman coins were stamped with images of gods or the emperor and were considered improper to give in worship (this had to do with the prohibition on worshipping images). The farther one lived from Jerusalem, the center of Jewish culture and commerce, the harder it was to find Jewish coins. Those “selling oxen and sheep and pigeons and the money-changers” were there providing a service.

The problem was the people providing the service had corrupted the service. Like any vacation destination today the prices changed based on the anticipated volume of business. Basic economics, when the demand goes up and the supply doesn’t change the price goes up. This was a particular burden on the poor. Not only had it cost them a lot to travel to Jerusalem to attend the Passover celebration now they had to pay inflated fees for the sacrifices necessary to participate. Which, by the way, violated Jewish religious Law. According to the Old Testament, the rich were expected to share their Passover sacrifice and feast with the poor. The system intended to help the common people became institutionalized oppression of the poor.

Another issue with the animal-sellers and money-changers was the location in which they set up shop. They set up shop in the Temple. They were selling and changing money in what was called the Court of the Gentiles. This was the only area in the Temple where non-Jewish worshippers of the Jewish God, called “God-Fearers”, were allowed to worship. By setting up their kiosks there, the shop-keepers and money-changers were preventing the God-Fearers from worshipping God. The system intended to help the common people became institutionalized racism.

Jesus saw this and was enraged. I imagine him seething as he walked through the Temple court observing this institutionalized oppression and racism. The Bible says that as he fumed he found three strips of leather and wove together a whip. Once he had finished the whip he used it to chase out the people oppressing the poor and preventing the racial minority from worshipping God. As he did he shouted “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16b).

Jesus saw institutionalized sin and challenged it. He would not let it stand.

How should this inform the life of the Christ-follower?

Institutionalized sin is real. It can be seen in countries that don’t allow girls to be educated. It can be seen in governments that imprison people for religious or political reasons. It can be seen in corporations that turn a blind eye to violations of human dignity to save money on materiels. Institutionalized sin is real and it’s prevalent.

When Jesus saw institutionalized sin he challenged it. When Christ-followers see institutionalized sin we should challenge it.

What are some ways you can think of to challenge institutionalized sin?

Symbols of Sin Become Symbols of Joy

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first miracle was one of his most famous and has become one of the most controversial. At some point early in his public ministry, Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding. If the accounts that I’ve read are accurate the first century Jews knew how to party. You’ve never experienced a party like a Jewish wedding in first century Palestine.

The wedding in the town of Cana would have been no different. Spirits were high and the wine was flowing. And therein lies the problem. The wine was flowing faster than the host intended. They ran out of wine before the party was over and this was a major faux pas.

This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus didn’t want the party or the host’s reputation to be ruined. Not far from where Jesus was standing when he heard the news were several large ceramic barrels used for ceremonial washing. You see, not only were the first century Jews great partiers, they were also spiritual hypochondriacs. They lived in a constant state of fear of becoming spiritually impure. (This is an issue that Jesus will address repeatedly in his ministry.)

The guests of the party used this water to wash their hands before they ate to ensure that they consumed no spiritual impurities. This hand-washing was not just good hygiene. This was religious ritual cleansing.

This water represented a way of relating to God that Jesus came to renew and improve upon. This water was symbol of why people don’t experience the love of God the way he intends. This water is a symbol of sin and evil and all the bad things we deal with because of sin and evil in the world.

Jesus takes this symbol of sin and how humanity isn’t experiencing God’s love and changes is to wine. That’s pretty impressive in and of itself. Changing water into wine is almost as good as walking on water (we’ll get to that on later.) Yet changing water to wine so that the party could continue is only a small part of what Jesus is doing.

For first century Jews, wine is a symbol of joy and God’s favor. Jesus took the symbol of religious fear and the consequences of sin and changed it to a symbol of joy. Jesus took something that reminded people that they couldn’t live up to God’s standards and changed it into something that reminded them that God loves them. One of the biggest transitions that Jesus leads us through as faith in God transitions from the Old Covenant to the New, from Mosaic Judaism to Christianity is the transition from focusing on the need to be restored to God to focusing on God’s love that restores humanity to him.

That’s really the story of the Bible. God created humanity to express his love to us. The first humans and every human after rejected this love by choosing to love themselves more than God. God desperately wants to restore his relationship with humanity. God sent Jesus to restore that relationship. We can experience the love of God through Jesus.

Jesus’ first miracle was a symbol of that story. He took a symbol that represented how we are missing out on God and changed it to a symbol of joy and God’s love.

How should this inform the life of the Christ-follower?

All around us there are ceremonial washing vessels. There are symbols of sin and our separation from the love of God. They can be seen in poverty, racism, disease, suffering, hatred, anger … do I need to go on? As Christ-followers, we can’t let the symbols stand. We need to actively transform these symbols to something else. We need change these symbols to symbols of love and joy. We need to show people they can experience God’s love. We do this by expressing it.

Earlier this week, I saw a news story of a New York City police officer who did just this. He saw a homeless man sitting on the street without any shoes. On a whim he went into a shoe store close by and bought a pair of shoes for the man. He then went to the man and put shoes and socks on the man.

Very few things reveal the reality of sin and pain in the world that a homeless person who cannot even find shoes in the winter. Very few things express God’s love more than putting shoes on the feet of someone who desperately needs them. This police officer transformed a symbol of sin into a symbol of joy and peace.

May we all open our eyes and see the world the way this officer does, the way Jesus does, and may we transform symbols of sin and evil into symbols of joy and peace by expressing God’s love to a world that desperately needs it.

It Happens

This week we’re getting back to answering questions from people on Facebook. I’m going to attempt to answer a question that I’ve kind of been avoiding. There were a lot of versions of the question but the basic idea is: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I haven’t been avoiding it because I don’t feel like I know how to answer it. I’ve been avoiding it because no answer is satisfying when you or someone you love is experiencing those “bad things.” In spite of my trepidation, let’s dive in.

When things seem to be difficult and it feels like we’re running around in circles, a friend of mine is fond of saying, “How did we get to this swamp in the first place?” To answer that we have to go back to the very beginning. Not only the beginning of this blog series posted on August 16th, but the beginning of everything.

In the post from August 16th, I talked extensively about how through human choice evil (or sin) entered into our experience. When the first humans sinned, evil entered and affected every part of God’s good creation. So because we choose evil, evil affects our existence. In short, bad things happen to good people because there is evil in the world.

Now, there are a couple of major objections that could be raised to that last paragraph. First, I included everyone in that statement “we choose evil.” I don’t know you. How can I say that you choose evil? That’s a very fair question. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you’re like. I come to that conclusion through a couple fundamental beliefs to which I hold. (1) I’m a theist. I believe there is a God that created everything. As the creator of everything, he defines the nature of things; including defining what is good and what is evil. (2) I believe that there are two primary ways in which that God communicates with us; the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the Bible. The Bible clearly teaches that all people have inherited a sin nature from our first parents. We, therefore, all sin. A definition of sin is choosing evil, as God defines evil. Now if you do not agree with me on one or both of those points, then you will not agree with my explanation. That’s cool. I’m not presenting myself as an expert on the topic. I’m offering my biblically, theologically, philosophically, and experientially informed opinion. I would love to read yours. Please feel free to share it in the comments below and we can talk about it together.

On to objection number two: If God is really good, as we Christians claim he is, why doesn’t he prevent evil things from happening to good people? I believe there are two reasons. First, if God were to prevent all evil from happening to good people he would have to limit the freedom of choice. He would have to prevent evil people from making evil choices. He would also have to prevent good people from making choices that appear good but have potentially evil consequences. The freedom to choose is important to God. With that said, there is a doctrine known as prevenient grace. There is a lot of nuance in that concept. For our purposes here, prevenient grace means that God does prevent people from being as evil as they can be. If it weren’t for God’s grace, things would be much worse than they are. Even so, there is a line that God won’t cross. He will not totally supersede our freedom to choose. Second, the question “Why doesn’t God prevent evil from happening to good people?” begs the question, “Who is good?” Jesus said that only God is good. If that is true, then anything that does not line up with the character of God is evil. In which case, anyone who has ever willfully done something that violates Gods character is not good. That makes it very difficult to identify a good person. If anyone has lied, cheated, or willfully hurt someone physically or emotionally, they are ontologically not good. If that definition is true, then I’ve never met a good person. In that sense, it could be argued that bad things don’t happen to good people.

Let me be clear about something, I don’t believe that everyone deserves the bad things they experience. Jesus was very clear about that when his disciples asked him on that question. You can read the story for yourself in the Gospel of John chapters 9 – 10. Some people truly deserve the bad things they have to endure. Many people experience evil they don’t deserve.

For many, this post might seem incredibly depressing. Why in the world would anyone believe this or follow a God like this? Here’s why I do. I have experienced some bad things in my life that, in my opinion, can only be explained by the existence of evil in the world. Yet, I have experienced many more good things in my life that can only be explained by the existence of an entity that is powerful and good and loves me. I call this entity God. As I read the Bible, the description of God I find describes remarkably well the God that I’ve experienced. The Bible also says that in spite of all the bad things in the world, this good God who loves me will ultimately conquer sin and evil and those that love him will live with him for eternity. This gives me hope that this life means something and there is value in enduring the evil that will come today because there is a better tomorrow.

What about you? How would you respond to my friends’ questions? Why do bad things happen to good people?