I am not the first Christian to look at the careers and accomplishments of others and feel that my own life and accomplishments are miniscule, insignificant, or just plain deficient by comparison. This can come from researching the unbelievably complex world of information technology (IT) in my case, or from someone else I know who has an MBA comparing his career with Donald Trump's, or perhaps someone in the medical field comparing their career path with someone like neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson. The psalmist King David made it clear in multiple places that contemplating the accomplishments of God will be even more humbling. Yet the apostle Paul, also under inspiration by the Holy Spirit, wrote that those who compare themselves with other people are unwise. He wrote to the Corinthians that he left judgment of his life - both his sins on the negative side and his accomplishments on the positive side - to God, because we are incapable of viewing ourselves and our own lives from God's omniscient and sinless perspective. Any evaluation on our own part can only be provisional and temporary until that final review by God.
Salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is all about humility. It is all about an individual realizing and beginning to comprehend that as a sinner I have an inherited twofold tendency to fall short of God's perfect standard - in morals but also in everything - and to rebel against that standard and God's right to impose it upon me. Salvation is all about realizing that that "final review by God" is never going to be the equivalent of a successful "admission interview" for Heaven, that something needs to be done about all the times and ways that I have "missed the mark," which is a classic interpretation of "sin." However, putting too much emphasis on sin as "falling short" of God's expectations fails to address the Biblical association of sin with "transgression," which literally means "going across," going too far and crossing a limit or boundary God has set. That is why I refer to that "twofold tendency" of which rebellion is a big part.
When I contemplate the amazing advances in computer technology, both in hardware and in software, (not to omit that fuzzy area called "firmware" where they are fused together), it can make me feel awful about my lack of accomplishment in that area. Yet part of that may be due to a reaction I had when I first became a Christian in my mid-twenties and began to pay attention to things like end-times prophecy. Some Christian speakers and authors were beginning to question what role the IT industry would play in fulfilling various aspects of the prophesied Great Tribulation, especially the unforgiveable "mark of the beast" that everyone in the Antichrist's domain would have to take to be able to buy or sell anything - even food - and its implications of database-driven tyranny. This led me to be concerned about what degree of personal responsibility I would bear if I played any part in developing such technology, or even precursor technology that might be built upon in developing it.
The clarity of hindsight can sometimes be annoying. Looking back, I perceive that a lot of that anxiety came from an incomplete understanding of faith and its role in salvation from God's judgement, and by extension from that its role in career decisions and everyday life. It is too easy to say that paying more attention to Scripture or what I was being taught about it would have saved me a lot of trouble. It might also have meant not having the emotional or spiritual comprehension which I feel the Lord has been building in my life - even through the consequences He imposed for certain sins - of the nature of faith. It is central to understand that faith has to have an object and that object must be Jesus Christ and His finished work on the Cross to satisfy my unpayable sin debt to a perfectly holy God. Yet there's more to it than that - not more breadth but more depth.
While salvation through Jesus is simple enough for a child to reach out and receive as a loving gift from God, that is only the start. Whatever the physical age or the level of mental development at which we do that, Jesus referred to this in his conversation with Nicodemus, (John 3), as being "born again." After birth is supposed to come growth. Guided first of all by the Word of God, we need to grow and keep growing in our comprehension of God's perfect and trustworthy character. It is one thing to memorize His many promises but that must be backed up by a trust that those promises will be kept. (Not just those promises that we expect to enjoy having kept, either. When He said back in Genesis, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die," that was a promise, too.)
Would I have made different career decisions if I had had a better-developed faith in the trustworthiness and dependability and love of God, not only in the abstract but in how He would choose to apply it in my life? Very likely. Would I now have a bigger salary and more impressive responsibilities and a history of career achievements than I will ever have in my current path? Maybe. It's so easy for us to churn our mental processors and recompile projections of how things would have turned out - but those revised projections are still based on incomplete understanding. God does not show us what our future will be in advance, and He very often does not choose to show us what our future would have been if we did something different.
One reason for that is that we are not the "masters of our fate" or the "captains of our soul" that we like to think we are. Some of the "defining moments" of people's lives aren't direct results of their life's choices. By the grace of God I was never hit by a bus and killed crossing the street - but if I had been, it could have been while I was on the way to a job interview that I could have avoided by making a different choice, or it could have been in making a trip to the grocery store that I would have done that day whatever my career plans were. As the Oxford-educated theological writer C.S. Lewis says in his book, "The Problem of Pain," in order for God to guarantee a pain-free, problem-free existence to those who have accepted Christ, He would continually have to violate or suspend basic laws of physics. In turn, life would be unimaginable chaos for everyone else if God were to stop gravity from functioning every time someone carelessly leaned too far over a balcony railing, for example. Getting back to that bus, if I don't look where I am going there may be consequences; but salvation means that at least I have confidence of ending up in heaven with Jesus which puts the bus impact back in perspective.
Faith - true Biblical, saving, heartfelt faith in the character of God and His goodness and trustworthiness - will of course have a powerful role in our lives and in what decisions we make. While I still am not comfortable with such statements as Martin Luther made about "sin boldly" - but Luther was known for abrasively overstating the case to shake people up - it is true that Paul's New Testament admonition to replace anxiety with directing our concerns to God in prayer works together with Old Testament proverbs such as [Proverbs 3:5,6] to "trust in the Lord with all thy heart, and lean not on thine own understanding; in all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct thy paths."
We will all respond differently to this. We will all carry out the implementation in different ways. If my writing this helps someone to move more confidently ahead in their career without paralyzing anxiety about God's disapproval because they are confident that even mistakes by a child of Christ are forgivable, I hope that will have good results. If it leads to someone not pursuing a business or technical career path and not feeling "driven" to succeed because they believe God loves them anyway and temporal achievements are irrelevant, I am not trying to cause that but neither can I prevent it. God gives us our gifts and abilities, both those given by heredity and gifts of the Spirit at salvation, because He intends to do something with them. Some people have much more precise notions of what His purpose is in their life, and sometimes those notions prove true. (Such a usefully nebulous word, "sometimes." But this is a blog post, not "War and Peace.")
I don't have a brief, pithy admonition to give at the end, here, to wrap all this up. I am trying to open a subject up in your mind, not to close it. I want to encourage you to pursue your relationship with God, assuming you have one through salvation in Jesus Christ by faith alone, "not of works, lest any man should boast," (Ephesians 2:8,9). I want you to explore what role deeper faith, deeper confidence in God, can have in your life. Where that goes from there is up to both you and Him.
According to The Moscow Times, (see link below), the President of the Russian Academy of Education wants to include the Bible in school curricula in Russia. What are the odds of the leader of the NEA calling for this in American schools?
True, it also says she wants to drop certain classic works of fiction by Lev Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky. However, her argument that these works are "too deep" for children has some merit. I studied Russian literature at the university level and even in English these authors deal with thorny issues. Add the nuances that will come for Russian children reading the works in the author's original language - some of which can be untranslatable - and she may have a point. (Just the opening scenes of "The Brothers Karamazov" by Dostoevsky deserve an "R" rating as a movie.) But just wanting to include the Bible in public education used to be an area where we in the United States felt we were ahead of Russia.
How times have changed.
One of the worst trials of our faith as Christians can be an illness or injury or attack that we didn't expect. Some of us "passively" don't expect such things to happen to us, meaning our minds were not on the subject and we just didn't devote much thought to it. We just weren't expecting the person behind us, (in a Ford F250 pickup truck, no less), to keep moving when we braked for a yellow light to avoid going through the red light. We just weren't expecting that mole on our back to become malignant, or to have a workplace injury and find out we had torn ligaments. Then again, especially if we are fond of the so-called "Prosperity Gospel," we may have an "active" expectation that God will not let such things happen to a believer "in good standing." We may conclude - more or less judgmentally - that if He did allow it the person is out of favor with Him due to some sin about which he or she hasn't told us. (Job's "friends" are the classic example in Scripture of that.) We may simply have been expecting that God would not let whatever happened take place at all.
What we "expect" of God has its roots in what we call "faith." Saving faith is not placing our trust in what we know about God, or think we know. It is not even placing our trust in what we know of God's Word. Saving faith, (subject to Biblical definitions such as Ephesians 2:8,9 and Hebrews 11:1), is placing our trust in the nature and character of God as a Being who exists. "But without faith it is impossible to please Him; for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him." (Hebrews 11:6).
Are God's promises something we should trust? Yes, as long as we recognize that there can be a difference between what God has actually promised and what we think He has promised. This may be a matter of misunderstanding whether a promise that God did make in Scripture applies to us, or misunderstanding what He said He promised. Sometimes we may have inferred a promise where God didn't actually make one. Lawyers study in law school how to write contracts because people tend to infer promises and guarantees where none were made, some out of honest misunderstanding and some out of utter chutzpah. People do the same things to God. The greater our misunderstanding or mistaken inference, the greater will be our disappointment, perhaps even our anger, when God doesn't meet the expectation we formed.
There is a difference between trusting in God and in a mental picture of God or in what we believe we can expect of Him. This is one of the chief reasons, though not the only one, why God allows misfortune in our lives, (see Hebrews 12:9-11), to correct us. He wants to correct our misunderstandings. He wants us to see that the patterns of thought we have constructed don't allow for some things, and to seek better answers from Him.
If our trust is the kind of trust Job had, ("though He slay me, yet will I trust Him"), or that Paul had, ("For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day," 2 Tim 1:12), we may have to confess the inadequacy or inaccuracy of our expectations, and we may have to alter what we expect of God, but we will not stop trusting Him or lash out at Him because He didn't meet our expectation.
God is not always interested in meeting our expectations. He wants to meet with us.
In a sermon this morning, the pastor at church raised the question about why some Christians do not seem to act in accordance with what they profess. That led into the issue of walking according to the Holy Spirit: "This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh." (Galatians 5:16). He brought up the issue of internal struggle between selfish fleshly desires and godly desires: "For that which I do I allow (approve, accept) not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I." (Romans 7:15). He illustrated that with a well-known anecdote about a Native American who said to a missionary that he had two wolves fighting within himself, one good and one evil. When asked which was stronger, the man responded, "The one that I feed."
From time to time, almost every one of us asks ourselves, "Why did I do that?" We may ask it differently, at times, depending upon what puzzles us: what we did, what we said to another person, perhaps even what we thought without yet having said or done anything. Since words and actions begin as thoughts, the question eventually boils down to, "Why did I think that?"
Some of us are more prone to introspection than others. Some ask ourselves this question frequently, regarding particular things that we thought, said or did, or even abstractly - "why do I..." rather than "why did I..."? Some of us overdo it. Introspection can become a bad habit, especially if it becomes disingenuous or dishonest, just a way of always preparing excuses if called to account for our actions. Then again, every once in a while, we encounter those persons who don't seem to ask themselves such questions very often, or at all.
Having religious beliefs about the existence of God and/or Satan and/or angels can complicate introspection, as it appears to add so many possibilities to the question of where our thoughts come from and what makes some grow in our minds while others wilt or evaporate completely. (Here, I limit myself to the mindset of monotheistic religion - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, listed in their order of origin. That is not only because I believe as a Christian that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are uniquely true, but also because I admit to complete lack of knowledge about how a polytheist like a Hindu has been taught to approach or avoid the question. I am sure their ideas on the subject have many unique aspects.)
Here, also, Scripture gives guidance that helps to avoid unlimited expansion of where we believe our thoughts come from. "But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed." (James 1:14). Those temptations to which we tend to yield reflect the desires we have within ourselves.
Even those of us who do not have beliefs in religion or unseen sentient beings other than humans have to recognize that the people around us, both those we know personally such as our family and friends and those we do not, such as those whose books we read or whose radio programs we listen to or whose television shows we watch, also have input into what we think, how our thoughts grow and give birth to new thoughts and eventually to our words and actions. The old question of "nature or nurture" will never quite go away.
Sometimes instead of looking outward or upward, however, we have to look inward, at how strength or weakness, lack of sleep, hormone balances, or what we eat or drink can affect our thoughts. Alcohol and mind-altering drugs have effects, of course, but some people can tend towards depression or anger because of "harmless" foods or a greater or lesser sensitivity to synthetic additives. Confusion or clouded thinking because of an allergy or sensitivity can lead to anger and frustration and to poor judgment or impulsive actions. "Ethnic tendencies" such as stubbornness pose other questions: are they genetic or merely acquired by cultural training? Do my own tendencies to argue about things or view things as a fight or a struggle come from my Scandinavian ancestry? (If Vikings can't be called "combative," who can?) Or is that "just me?"
I am thankful that being a Christian provides me with hope that my sins have been dealt with by Christ's death on the Cross, which His Father accepted as settling all requirement of payment. That helps quiet thoughts about what will come of my past words and actions - and even those unspoken thoughts that God knows I have had. I am thankful that Scripture provides detailed principles about what God expects me to do in the present and future, and that I can "walk with the Holy Spirit" for guidance in how to apply these principles on a daily or even momentary basis. (Sometimes the Spirit's guidance may just be a feeling that I have to do something, or that something else is a "bad idea," and I may understand better later and be glad I followed it - or wish that I had.) As a Christian this gives me encouragement and hope, which is why I became one. I made a decision to place faith in Jesus Christ as my Saviour and admit I needed saving and could not do it myself. That is not easy, and anyone who says it is either hasn't been very thorough about it or hasn't done it at all. It can be downright painful.
This whole question of what feeds our thoughts, and which thoughts we encourage or disparage, is always with us. It isn't a question that we can settle. The only thing we can settle is how we intend to approach it, what pattern we intend to follow as often as possible. In that regard, I hope the tendency God seems to have given me to be "set in my ways" - which I also have called a Scandinavian trait - will be helpful. It's not going to go away.
When I was little, my mother pointed out that every ethnic group has encountered resistance or prejudice at some time in America - even Swedes. She was speaking from experience, having grown up in the 1920's and '30's as a girl with a single mother with a Swedish accent. The only "Swedish joke" she gave as an example was, "Why did Minnesota get all the Swedes and Missouri all the mules? - Missouri had first choice." I've always remembered it as a reference to Swedish stubbornness.
While the Bible speaks against stubbornness, (the prophet Samuel said to King Saul, "Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness as evil and idolatry,") there are times I consider it a virtue.
After Paris, and now San Bernardino, with right-wing Americans - some who call themselves Christians - increasingly writing in social media calling for abridgement of civil rights for Muslims who are already US citizens, I consider it a virtue to refuse to join them. I refuse to ostracize or harass or backstab those co-workers whom I know or believe to be Muslim. If I were to hear someone advocating violence or terrorism - which I do not expect to happen - that would be one thing. But just because this woman I work with has a headscarf at work, or that man has a specific style of beard, no, I am not going to mistreat them or encourage anyone else to do so.
I have edited this post on May 19, 2016, to clarify that I meant civil rights for American citizens who are Muslims. I do not want it being used in opposition to Donald Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on admitting Muslim immigrants until we have a way of knowing who is not safe. Many of these people have no papers. Over 90% of the Syrian immigrants are said to be Muslim when Christians are facing the worst persecution from ISIS - where are they? Many of these immigrants are young, strong men unaccompanied by families - where are the women and children who should be the first candidates for mercy and asylum?
I still do not mean that we should harass, threaten, or otherwise be uncivil to Muslims or other immigrants. They may say that we are doing those things if we will not admit them. So may the Democrats and others attempting to keep us from putting any standards in place or enforcing them. That's only to be expected and cannot be totally avoided. Those of us who are Christians, at least, need to do our best to be civil to those we encounter as Scripture says we should do, and resist calls by others, even friends or relatives, to do otherwise because they feel this is inappropriate in such circumstances.
As that old ethnic joke implies, we Swedes can make a mule look cooperative. Where this is concerned, I hope to do it full justice.
Paul the apostle wrote in great detail to Thessalonica about the return of Jesus at the end of the Church Age. In his second preserved letter to that church, (II Thessalonians), he assured them it had not already happened. Some people were evidently telling them it had; some evidently even pretended to be Paul writing to them, (chapter 2, verse 2).
More than ten years ago, I told a friend who had asked me if PLO leader Yasir Arafat was still alive, "When he dies, they're not going to let us miss it." Not that long afterward I was proven right. Likewise, Paul's second letter to Thessalonica says, in effect, "Certain things are going to happen before Christ returns. You won't miss it."
One thing about what Paul prophesied has always unsettled me a bit. Perhaps I should say, two things.
In verse 3 of chapter 2, Paul says, "the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition," before Christ's return. In describing this man and his rise to power, Paul speaks of, "all deceivableness of unrighteousness," (v. 10). That is how the King James Version of 1611 translated the Greek of the New Testament. The New King James Version of 1982 says, "all unrighteous deception among those who perish."
There is a big difference, or at least a potential for difference, especially because it is followed in verse 10 by Paul saying that, "God will send them strong delusion that they should believe the lie...," which can compound the misunderstanding that I believe lurks in the NKJV translation.
True salvation is entirely by faith in Christ, (Ephesians 2:8,9). I have come to believe that saving faith is a decision that Gosd and His Son are of trustworthy, righteous and holy character and can be trusted and believed. I don't set this above Hebrews 11:1, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." I believe it is in harmony with that Scripture because if I believe God is trustworthy, I will believe there is substance to what He has promised and I hope to witness or receive. I will consider His character evidence that the things I cannot see are as He has described them.
That is why I believe the KJV-1611 translation is better, because it makes clear that the "unrighteousness" associated with the "deception" and "delusion" of verses 10 and 11 is the unrighteousness of those being deceived. Translating verse 10 to say, "with all unrighteous deception among those who perish," allows suggesting that the deception is what is unrighteous. The verse before it speaks of, "the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders," and this may have influenced the modern translators. Putting it as, "with all deceivableness of unrighteousness among those who perish," is much like a modern quotation, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."
That makes sense in context with the rest of verse 10 and with verse 11. What is happening,. when it says that "God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness?" Why would a holy, truthful, righteous God have anything to do with deception or sending delusion? This is why I believe it is so important in verse 10 to attach the "unrighteousness" to those being deceived.
There have always been people who treat life as a game to be "won" or "lost," and to whom Jesus Christ's message of salvation is a "Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card," (a term probably copyrighted by Parker Brothers, publishers of "Monopoly"). They hold onto it, without "converting" or "going overboard," as an option to exercise before it's too late. Even in our present world, that doesn't always work. You may forget to call on the Lord in the moments before death. You may not be conscious. You may have no time to remember, or you may have become so convinced that you don't trust God, or that He isn't there, that you don't have any desire.
In the time of which Paul wrote, things will be much different. The "gathering together" of those of us who really did trust in Christ, (described in chapter 4 of his first letter to the same church), will have happened. We will be gone and the world will be wondering how and why. "Scared" won't begin to describe how some people feel.
Please understand clearly that a great number of people around the world will receive salvation during the "Great Tribulation" that follows the vanishing of the Church. The book of Revelation, written by the Apostle John, says so. Many teach, however, that those who are saved will be those who had never before heard of Jesus. Those who heard but declined or delayed will be "hardened" in their unbelief once the Church and the Holy Spirit are both taken out of the world.
Those who heard but decided to put off admitting that they are sinners and need to change because they would rather keep doing things that they know are prohibited by Scripture, or because they don't want to be singled out, rejected, or persecuted, "who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness," might decide for self-preservation to go through the motions of turning to Jesus, of saying a "Sinner's Prayer." My understanding of God's "sending strong delusion" can be described as deactivating their internal alarm systems, as it were. Turning off the mental sirens and bells that might otherwise be going off if the Scripture they did remember might awaken that self-interested desire to escape hard times - without their having changed their minds about what they enjoy doing, or what they are "free to do" or "have a right to do." That might put God in a position of looking unrighteous for breaking His promise for not honoring their perfunctory "profession" of "faith."
No one tricks God. He knows our every thought, (Psalm 139). No one outsmarts Him. They won't get around to doing it. They won't even try. They will be convinced there is no need.
By God's grace, I have already trusted in Christ and don't have to worry, ever, that "they" may become "I" someday, in the paragraph above. Whether "they" will become "I" for you....
One reason that some people give for not putting faith in the Bible being God's Word, inspired by His Holy Spirit, (II Timothy 3:16, I Peter 1:20,21), is that they say it is "full of contradictions," yet, when asked to name some of those, they fail to do so.
When Jesus was teaching in person, "all these things [He] spoke to the multitudes in parables, and without a parable He did not speak to them," [Matthew 13:34]. The purpose of parables, as I understand it, was for listeners to stand or fall, to understand or be confused, based on the attitude in their heart. Those who listened with faith in the good and loving character of God and of Jesus received enlightenment from the Holy Spirit to decipher it. Those whose attitude was combative or hostile, or simply proud of their intellect or their "righteousness" observing the Law, drew a blank without that spiritual assistance.
Should it be a surprise, then, if sometimes the written Word also presents a puzzle which can be understood by believing in the faithful character of God and searching Scripture for more light, but which the antagonistic will seize upon as a contradiction?
One example is figuring out the full sequence of events in the Apostle Paul's life immediately after his dramatic encounter with the risen and ascended Jesus Christ as he approached Damascus. This encounter itself presents challenges, since it is told about more than once, just within Luke's "Acts of the Apostles," in [9:1-8] and [22:1-11] and [26:12-19], but I am focusing on the sequence of events after it.
After Saul of Tarsus was blinded by his encounter with the heavenly light and went into Damascus and was healed by Ananias, his letter to the Galatian church, [Galatians 1:15-21], says that he went to Arabia and then returned to Damascus. Three years passed, in that account, before he left Damascus and visited Jerusalem.
This is not mentioned in any of the three accounts in Acts, neither the way Luke wrote it in chapter 9, nor in Paul's two retellings in chapters 22 and 26. Is this a contradiction? If we approach this wanting to find a contradiction to discredit Scripture as God's truth, we may seize upon certain things as opportunities, but are they really?
In Acts 9:19, just after Paul's salvation and baptism, "Then Paul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus." Verse 20 says, "Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues." Then, in verse 23, "after many days" came the plot to kill him, when he was let down through the city wall in a basket and went to Jerusalem.
Where in that sequence is his trip to Arabia and back to Damascus? Where are the three years he spent in Damascus before going to Jerusalem? These are not excluded by the way Luke wrote the account, just not talked about. Somewhere after the "some days" he initially spent with the Damascene disciples and preaching in the synagogues, he evidently went to Arabia and returned, and the three years evidently fits within the "many days" until the Jews in Damascus got fed up with being unable to refute or silence him and planned his murder. The statement that he immediately began preaching, in Acts 9, is consistent with Paul's assertion in Galatians 1:16, "I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood." Luke's phrase, "after many days were past," allows for the three years of preaching after he came back.
Paul left out the trip to Arabia and his stay in Damascus in Acts 22 because he was speaking to a furious mob who wanted to kill him. He had to dwell on the essentials. In Acts 26:20, he told King Agrippa in his trial in Caesarea that he "declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem...that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance." He did not specify how long he declared it in Damascus, nor whether he left there and came back, but neither did he deny or contradict it. As in Acts 9, there is room for it but by choice it was omitted. We can conclude that he did not preach while in Arabia, as that could be seen as a contradiction of having "declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem," with no one before or between those two cities, and there is no statement in Galatians 1 about preaching during that trip. Indeed, tradition holds that he was in the wilderness with the risen Christ appearing and preaching to him. Saying he went to Arabia certainly allows for being in the wilderness: the Arabian Peninsula has plenty of desert and wilderness.
This is only one example of how apparent "contradictions" in Scripture are sometimes a matter of not understanding its ways of recounting stories and accounting for time periods, or a matter of not looking closely at whether one statement really excludes another. I hope it will be useful as an example of how to deal with apparent contradictions, also.
Chapter 5 of John's Gospel tells about the man Jesus healed at the pool called Bethesda in Jerusalem. It is an old, familiar story to Christians, because of the way Jesus told him to, "Rise, take up your bed, and walk," and because of the religious leaders' response to his doing this on the Sabbath.
It confronts unbelief that we may have about the supernatural and whether it ever makes any difference in people's lives or is just something people "believe to feel better." As soon as the story opens, it tells us a "great multitude" of lame, blind and paralyzed people lay about the pool called Bethesda. It doesn't just say they believed that an angel stirred up the waters from time to time, or that it was said so. If we believe this is God's inspired Word, we must deal with the fact that it says, flat out, "For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool."
Additional evidence is that the man had been crippled for thirty-eight years and had hoped for a cure at Bethesda for a long, long time. Jesus asked him a reasonable question, "Do you want to be made well?" Others might have asked, "Are you just here to collect alms? Is that why you keep coming?" His answer was that he kept trying to be healed by being the first to step in after seeing the waters move, but he had to fend for himself and was too slow because he was crippled. If none of these people who went in ahead of him were ever healed, wouldn't this man eventually have said, "Eh, why bother?" The fact that he kept trying speaks loudly.
However long he had been coming to Bethesda in hope of a miracle, in all that time no one had bothered to notice that he needed help. If he had asked for it in the beginning, he had eventually given up. No one had offered to let him go before them and waited until the next opportunity themselves. No one, quite possibly nobody in thirty-eight years.
This man was sick, Scripture tells us, for thirty-eight years. He had been coming to Bethesda a long time, although we don't know for how much of that time. In all that time, when he kept trying to get up and reach the pool first, no one assisted him. "Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool," he told Jesus. Other people ignored him in their rush to be first and get the benefit of the blessing. He was probably - no, certainly not the only person in that situation, just the worst.
Contrast this with the multiple accounts in Scripture of those who were brought by others to Jesus for healing, or to the apostles later. The difference between these people's love and generosity and the selfishness of those waiting for healing at the pool called Bethesda may be another illustration of the changed nature brought about by salvation. If those who brought their friends or neighbors to Jesus had already trusted in Him for salvation, then, although the Holy Spirit was not to be given to indwell believers until after Jesus ascended to the Father, they still could have been "born again" and have changed natures. (In the story of Zaccheus, Jesus said, "This day has salvation come...," not, "Salvation will come..."). The Light of the World clearly shows us the difference that faith in Christ causes in human nature. Jesus said to Nicodemus, [John 3], "Ye must be born again," and the story involving Bethesda shows why.
This year's Holy Week was marred tragically by the actions of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who deliberately flew an Airbus jet into an Alpine mountainside, forcing 149 others to join him in his suicide. This cannot help but raise again philosophical questions about why a good God allows such evil actions to happen.
There has always been evil and misfortune afoot in our fallen world. Even during the time when God's Son, one of the Persons of the Trinity, was incarnated and lived among us, evil things and tribulation were allowed to happen. In fact, the political tumult of the region during the decades preceding his birth was continuous and considerable, (see: Wikipedia article). The Christ Child was only about three years old when King Herod committed the massacre of the innocents. Later on, the adult Jesus spoke in his teaching of mishaps and misdeeds which probably had happened recently - so even when He was going about healing thousands of people, releasing them from their demons, and (sometimes) miraculously feeding them, things had been happening which people found wrong or tragic.. Pilate had mingled the blood of a group of Jews with their sacrifices. A tower in Siloam had fallen and killed a large number of people. When Christ's trial took place and the people demanded that Pilate release Barabbas, well, why was Barabbas in prison? He had been leading thugs in violence and murder. Jesus was not suppressing these things from happening and neither was the Father.
"How can a thinking person not question the goodness of God?" Many people ask that when such things happen. These things try our faith but are not meant to ruin it. Perhaps the question should be, how can a sinful person demand absolute arresting and cessation of all misfortune and evil before he will recognize what God is doing right. "Well, God is supposed to be perfect." So, are we the best judges of what proves moral perfection? It's interesting that we would claim perfect understanding of how a good God should act, when, as a whole, our understanding does not bring about divine goodness from us.
God's way is to do great acts of good in a world which our sin has corrupted and twisted, and this sin corruption continues to manifest itself even while God is at work. He does restrain some of it but never all of it, because too many of us are still in rebellion against Him and making the world peaceful, perfect, and tranquil would be to remove a chief consequence of our sin. God's redemptive work takes place amid the crying need for redemption. God's light shines in darkness but a great deal of darkness remains. After all, the brilliance of the angelic throng in the fields of Bethlehem telling Good News to the shepherds did not mean that night turned to day permanently all over Judea. When they had delivered their Good News and departed, the darkness returned.
After the Resurrection, the early church still had to live with the persecution of Paul, for a time, and with things like King Herod Antipas throwing apostles in jail and intending to execute them. He succeeded with James, but the angel released Peter. Did the Church pray for James less than they prayed for Peter? The Word of God does not say. God allowed Paul to throw Christian men and women in prison - but when he expanded his efforts to Damascus, God called a halt. Later, when Paul himself was nearly murdered by mob violence in Jerusalem, the Roman centurion who rescued him thought he was an Egyptian who had led men in rebellion. So that was still going on, too.
Isn't this why Jesus told us that we are the light of the world? Isn't our faith, our trust in Him, meant to call people's attention to what good Jesus Christ is still doing among them, even as the world's sinful darkness rages on? "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness," and God is still lighting great numbers of candles all over the place. Even when our flame goes out or wavers, He graciously relights it, often from that of a Christian next to us. We're not meant to live in isolation but in fellowship. To bear with our fellow believers, forgive them, "believe the best" as First Corinthians 13 says love ("charity" in the KJV) does. We do indeed need to make sure that our individual light shines, that people see Christ, the Light of the World, through us.
We were never, however, intended to be a chaotic, random scattering of candles. Don't just be a candle for Christ. Be in a chandelier.
I have been re-reading "Stalingrad: Anatomy of an Agony", (see Amazon page), which I have read before, but this time I had a different perspective on something because of having read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "August 1914", (part one of his magnum opus, "The Red Wheel").
It is truly astounding to read over and over of the fundamental mistaken assumptions which Hitler and the German military made about the Russians' military manpower and industrial capability. These prejudices and misconceptions were among the primary causes of the German catastrophe that was the Eastern Front in general and Stalingrad in particular. However, having read Solzhenitsyn's account of the colossal errors of the Russian Imperial Army against the Germans in World War I, it occurred to me that many of the German senior officers in World War II, (at least, those whom the Nazis had not purged), may have carried their memories of Russian ineptitude in World War I forward without making allowance for the changes brought about by the Soviets.
There is a biblical proverb, (Proverbs 11:12), saying that, "He that is void of wisdom despiseth his neighbour: but a man of understanding holdeth his peace." In the Scriptures, "despise" usually means to take someone lightly, to look down on them, or to refuse to take them seriously. It usually connotes pride or arrogance.
The battle of Stalingrad, therefore, appears to present a huge case study of what happened to the Germans because, in their ethnic pride and prejudice against the Russians, which both sides had toward each other long before World War I or II, they failed to rationally assess the present capability of the Soviet state. In this case, God allowed these two dictatorships to battle each other for the benefit of America and Europe. Still, we need to take heed to the danger of viewing our own military enemies in this fashion.
(See "About Me")