Bad Theology

They say a blog entry should be short, but what can you do when a man like Pat Robertson causes such a mess? Some things take a while to clean up. Hopefully you’ll bear with me.

If you somehow missed it, you can read the text of Pat’s comments and see the video here. To be fair, he said these things in the context of a broader report in which he expressed sympathy for the Haitian people, and it was part of a fund raising segment for earthquake relief, so I’m not going to comment on his intentions. Pat Robertson may have genuine love in his heart for the suffering people in Haiti. But what he said was very wrong.

Many people have slammed Pat, of course, and I hate to pile on too, but to my dismay, some friends of mine—well-known Christian authors who should know better—seem open to the idea that Pat was right. “Look at all the times God punished other nations with disasters in the Old Testament,” they said to me. “It’s Biblical!”

Well, no actually, what Pat Robertson said is not Biblical. On the contrary, it’s heretical.

Before I mention a few of the many theological arguments against this grave error in thinking, let’s ponder the human cost. If we allow ourselves to start believing any specific natural disaster is the result of any specific nation’s sins, we need not go much further along that same path before we find ourselves calling a specific case of cancer (for example) a punishment from God. After all, in the same way the Bible shows God using disasters to punish nations, so it shows Him physically punishing individuals for their sins. Think of Nadab and Abihu, or Ananias and his wife. The Bible does indeed teach us God has sometimes supernaturally entered history to physically punish both nations and individuals for their sins. It also says God will do it again one day. But how heartless it would be to use that as an excuse to tell a woman she just lost her breast to cancer as a punishment from God!

That is essentially what Pat Robertson said to the Haitian people the other day. Maybe he simply has a very inappropriate sense of timing. Maybe the love is there. I don’t know his motivation, but I do know there are grave dangers in what he said. Judgmentalism. Legalism. Isolationism. Fatalism. So much evil can flow from the prideful notion that we are equipped to know a disaster on any level, national or individual, is a particular punishment or admonishment from God.

Ask yourself: after we have moved from attributing God’s wrath to nations to attributing it to individuals, what is the next step? Why, imposing divine wrath on God’s behalf, of course.

Nineteen men and women were hanged and one was crushed to death in Salem because of a natural extension of this theology. Here’s how the logic went: “The Bible says God blesses good people in this life, and curses bad people, and I am being good yet bad things are still happening, so the neighbors must be devil worshippers.” After all, the same Bible that tells us about God’s use of natural disasters also says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” And sure enough, following exactly that same logic after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson famously blamed their neighbors, their fellow Americans who are “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians.”

So much for the human cost. Let’s look at this heresy of Pat’s from a Biblical perspective, beginning with the fact that the Bible says “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.” Certainly there are places where the scriptures tell us the righteous will be blessed and the wicked will be cursed, but elsewhere it says the righteous sometimes get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked get the rewards of the righteous.

This is not a contradiction. It simply means we don’t know nearly enough about God’s intentions to be able to connect any person’s behavior with the earthly blessings or curses he receives. God has his own reasons for giving easy lives to some and trials to others. We can never fully understand those reasons.

This should be especially obvious to Christians. After all, Jesus taught us that our righteousness will often lead to suffering. We are told we must pick up a cross to follow Him, and “In this world you will have trouble.” If God-fearing believers are guaranteed suffering in this life (and we are) where is the logic in Robertson’s statement that Haiti’s suffering is a curse for devil worship? Isn’t it just as possible, based on what the Bible says, that this earthquake is a cross for the faithful Haitian Christians to bear?

In the wake of Robertson’s comments, some have pointed to passages such as this one, this one and this one to assert that humanity’s sins can “defile” the “land” though sins such as sexual immorality, the wrongful shedding of blood and idolatry. Read those scriptures carefully and you’ll see it’s a giant theological stretch to apply them to any "land" except the promised land of Israel, but never mind that for now. Let's pretend "the land" means any land, anywhere, just for the sake of conversation.

If any land could still be "defiled" by sexual immorality, the wrongful shedding of blood or idolatry, then every land on earth would be pretty much equally defiled. After all, what nation can claim it is innocent of those sins? Yet few nations have ever suffered a natural disaster on the Haitian scale. In fact, many nations which have been "defiled" by those sins have been richly blessed on the whole, including the USA of course, despite our rampant adultery, homosexuality, history of genocide against the American Indian and the African slave, and widespread worship of the almighty dollar and all the idols it can buy. So while the idea of cursed land makes for a great scenario if you’re a novelist, it just doesn't have any basis in observable history.

Another flaw in this theology is found in the root of the word translated in all those verses as "defile." That root is tame, the same Hebrew word translated elsewhere as "unclean" to describe houses where a person has died, bowls which have contained unclean food, chairs where an unclean person has sat, and of course unclean foods, among many other inanimate things. We know from Peter's famous vision of the sheet filled with animals that God has made all foods "clean." That's one of the proof texts used in support of the doctrine that Christians are no longer required to observe the letter of the Mosaic law. Funeral homes, dishes, chairs and pork are no longer "defiled" for us. Would this be true of everything inanimate except "the land" itself? Of course not.

The idea that the land of Haiti was somehow “defiled” centuries ago in a way that caused an earthquake here and now runs counter to everything the New Testament teaches about the law.

If we apply those Hebrew verses to "the land" of Haiti, then we have no consistent justification for disobedience to anything else the Mosaic law has to say about cleanliness and uncleanliness. Are we really prepared to return to that? Or do we agree with Paul that "...through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death"?

Moving on, consider a similar discussion that once took place between some Jews and a rabbi. Rather than comment on it I’ll just quote the conversation, with a few minor modifications to make it more obvious how it relates to the topic at hand (please do compare my version to the original):

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the New Yorkers whose blood Osama bin Laden had mixed with their office building. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these New Yorkers were worse sinners than all the other Americans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those thousands who died in the earthquake in Haiti — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in the Caribbean? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’”

If we ever had any doubt what Jesus meant when he warned us “Do not judge,” this conversation should remove those doubts. Don’t let anybody tell you different: Jesus doesn't want Christians saying the kind of thing Pat Robertson said the other day.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:28 PM 14 comments  

You Can Be a Winner!

Win autographed copies my novels! Tim George, over at Unveiled, has a great contest going. Here’s a quote from his blog:

“To kick off 2010, Unveiled is going to give an autographed library of Athol Dickson novels to one lucky winner. Each week two questions will be added to this page. Points will be given for correct answers and comments left at appropriate reviews posted throughout January. Just follow the link after each question to find the answer. Email your completed list of answers no sooner than Feb 1st and no later than Feb 5th, 2010. Be sure and leave a comment to let us know you plan on entering the contest.”

So far there haven’t been many comments, so I’d say your odds are good... Have fun!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 3:49 PM 2 comments  

God of Discipline

Do you worship discipline? Two days before the Christmas that just passed, I had the privilege of giving a kind of commencement speech to a group of men who were graduating from a Salvation Army rehabilitation center. All of the men had been at war for six months against the powerful urge to drink or to do drugs, and all of them were about to leave the program to continue the battle in a hostile world. I was asked to speak because several staff members of the center had read The Cure, and thought I might have something useful to say to their graduating residents. That novel has now become a favorite in several rehab centers that I know of. Probably they like it because it rings true. I wrote it from personal experience. In the heady flower child days of my late teens and early 20’s I did a lot of drugs and drinking, and developed a serious “problem” with amphetamines. I was also homeless for a time. But since I don’t struggle with alcoholism and it’s been decades since I had the urge to do drugs, some might wonder what makes me think I can offer meaningful advice to people in a rehabilitation program. The truth is I fight the very same battle every single day, for I am just as deeply addicted as any of those men, and you know what?

If you have a pulse, you’re an addict, too.

Sin is nothing more than the original addiction. It reveals itself in countless ways, but make no mistake about it: we’re all in the same condition, one way or another. So here is what I said to those brave warriors, a few words about the cure, offered in the hope that it might help you, too...

Everything I’m about to say assumes you men who are about to leave this place are Christians. If you are not a Christian, then what I’ll say won’t make much sense to you, and all I can offer you in the way of advice is, come to your senses and submit yourself to Jesus Christ. You do not want to be on your own when you walk out of here.

It may be that some of you were not Christians when you first walked into this place, so you may only recently have learned about God’s amazing grace. In that case, let’s make sure you fully understand the thing that saved you. Many people think grace is mercy, but they aren’t the same at all. Mercy is when you’re guilty and the judge decides not to throw the book at you. Mercy can actually be a bad thing, if it comes at the expense of justice for the wife and child whom you abandoned for cocaine, or the pedestrian you hit while driving drunk, or the shopkeeper you robbed to get a bottle or a fix. But grace is always good. Grace is when the judge does the right thing, when he goes ahead and throws the book at you because you’re guilty as charged, but then he comes down from the bench and suffers your punishment for you. And as every Christian knows, that’s exactly what Jesus did for us. That’s the whole point of the cross. God sentenced us to death for what we’ve done, which was only right and just, but Jesus took our punishment, so we are innocent in God’s eyes now.

Now, what does God expect from us in return for this? Absolutely nothing. God’s son died for us. How could we ever pay that back? We’d have to die to make it up to Him, and what good would that do when the whole point of the cross was to save us from our punishment? So it makes no sense to think we could do anything “in return” for this amazing grace. We can accept it. Period. That’s all. We can’t repay God. We can’t serve him. We can’t even obey him.

Yes, you heard me right. I just said we can’t obey God. But before you start thinking they let some kind of a pagan in here to talk to you, some kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing, let me quickly mention that the Apostle Paul said exactly the same thing in the Bible. He said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do...I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do, this I keep on doing.... What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

See? Paul said it a long time before I did. We cannot obey. I don’t know if Paul was an alcoholic or addict, but he sure sounds like it when he says, “What I hate, I do.” I hear that, and it’s like he’s quoting from the Big Book (although of course it’s really the other way around). He’s saying, “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” He’s saying he “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of himself,” and he came up short. So if you’ve ever secretly felt guilty because it seems like obeying God is still impossible for you even though you’re a Christian now, if you think you must be weaker or more flawed than other Christians, damaged goods, then I want you to remember this: even the Apostle Paul agreed with the first step. Even Paul found his life unmanageable. Does that mean he was an alcoholic or a drug addict? No. But Paul was an addict all right. We’re all of us addicted to some kind of sin, one way or another, and as far as God is concerned there are many secret sin addictions which are just as bad as doping or drinking.

So, Christians, since we were powerless over our sins before we trusted Jesus, and we remain powerless over our sins today, obviously it’s a waste of time to ask, “What can I do?” But did you notice that question Paul asked at the end? He asked, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” That’s the smart question to be asking. Who will rescue me? Because if there’s no way you can win a fight, you need to be rescued. And praise the Lord, when a Christian begs for help, he will indeed be rescued. Every Christian believes along with Bill and Bob that there is “a Power greater than ourselves [who] could restore us to sanity.” Every Christian knows our Higher Power is not some wimpy little god “as we understand him,” but a mighty god we could never understand. Every Christian knows God personally, because we have met our higher power in the flesh on the cross. And if Jesus saved us then, He will go on saving us now, unless we start putting faith in our own will power instead of having faith in Him.

Listen now, this is important: Jesus didn’t give us power over sin. Jesus is our power over sin. What this means is, God’s grace wasn’t finished at the cross, it remains available for us right now, this instant, in every moment that we live. We were saved by grace through faith in Jesus, and not by our own works. We continue to be saved in exactly that same way. What good news this is! What a relief!

The secret to a happy Christian life is not to work harder at being sober. In fact it’s just the opposite. It’s to let Jesus do the work for you.

What does this mean in the day-to-day challenge to be sober? It’s very simple. When the devil sends that first little tickle—you all know the one I mean—you have just two choices. You can put your faith in your own willpower, or you can put your faith in Jesus Christ. If you tell yourself “Be strong,” if you put your faith in willpower, you will surely fall. But if you start praying, if you say “Jesus, I can’t win this fight! I’m too weak! Rescue me!” then the Lord will surely step right in to rescue you.

Does this mean Jesus will remove the urge to drink or use completely? Usually not. But you know what? If God leaves that urge in us, it’s because—hear me now, this is really important—if God leaves that urge in us, it’s because that urge is what keeps us turning back to Jesus.

We don’t know exactly what drove Paul to cry out, “Rescue me!” but we do know he wrote in the Bible about having something he called a “thorn in my flesh,” and a “messenger from Satan.” Sounds like an addiction, doesn’t it? Paul says, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” Was Paul disappointed that God refused to take away his thorn, his Satan’s messenger? No. On the contrary he wrote, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses.” But why did Paul boast about his weaknesses? Here’s the answer in his words again: “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Hear that famous line again, Christians. “When I am weak, then I am strong.” There’s your key to a successful life, regardless of your sin of choice. Probably most of you have begged and pleaded with the Lord to take away your addiction. Since you’re here, that means God said “No” to you, just as he did to Paul. And like the Apostle Paul, you should praise God for that answer. Think about this carefully.

Do you really want to put your faith in discipline instead of in Jesus Christ?

If God took away your sin addiction, would you really be a stronger person, or would you be tempted to think you don’t need Jesus quite as much? Would you be tempted to pray a little less? Read His word a little less? Worship Him a little less? Spend less time with other Christians? Focus on yourself a little more, until you are alone again just as you were before you met him at the cross? Sober, but alone and terribly, terribly lost? Is that really what you want? Is sobriety worth that?

Now it’s time for the next battle, and as you prepare to go, I hope you will remember that your weakness makes you strong if you embrace it. Your weakness is a blessing. Don’t fight it; celebrate it, as Paul did. Boast about your weakness and take delight in it, because if you will do that, then your weakness will always point you back to Jesus.

Think about this carefully: your weakness is a blessing.

Don’t ever feel sorry for yourself because you have to fight this battle. Instead, pity the person who seems to find it easy to be “good,” who looks like they have life under control. Pity the poor Christian who is “only” addicted to gossip, or “only” surfs porn on the internet in secret, or “only” lusts for money. Those Christians may look clean and sober on the outside, but because their sin addiction is well hidden they can go for years—for all their lives in fact—without ever getting past the first step, without every going beyond the entry-level grace they found on the first day they were saved. You, on the other hand, have a particular thorn in the flesh that’s impossible to ignore, so you’ll always find it easier to embrace your weakness, easier to put your faith in Jesus instead of in your own will power, and easier to walk deeper and deeper into the amazing grace that’s always there to rescue you.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 3:20 PM 7 comments