My Violent God

I heard a radio discussion about people who use the violence in the Old Testament as an excuse for terrible acts of abuse. As we know, it’s also true that the violent acts done by and on behalf of God, and recorded in our Holy Book, are a rich source of material for atheists wishing to ascribe to Christianity a deep-seated immorality and malevolence.

I wanted to make this the subject of a small group meeting, and I wanted to start by playing this ten minute broadcast, but when I started my preparations, I couldn’t find the programme.

What I found instead was a different, and wonderful, podcast from Ancient Faith Radio, in which Father Thomas Hopko, an Orthodox Christian, talked about many aspects of Old Testament violence, and gave it a context and meaning that I had never heard before. As this is one aspect of God’s word that I have struggled to understand for many years, I am very encouraged, and grateful to Fr. Tom for his insights.

You can listen to the entire podcast, which is just under an hour long, or read a transcript, here, but below I have written an abridged version. 99% of the words are Fr. Tom’s, while I have shuffled the order sightly, and provided section titles. If what you read below interests you, then I encourage you to listen to or read the original which has far more depth and detail.

The Violence of Man

We can speak of the kinds of violence that we find in the Bible. First of all, there’s the violence and the murdering that comes simply from sin. Human beings are sinful, and they kill each other. And the very beginning of the Bible is that. Cain kills Abel. That’s how humanity starts. You have Adam and Eve apostatizing, rebelling against God, refusing to love God by keeping his commandments, listening to the devil, being cast out of paradise, and then all the enmity and the strife and the hostility enters the human race, the human beings are given over unto death in enslavement to the earth, and then Cain kills Abel, one kills the other.

Now, in the Old Testament, you also have violence and killing done as a kind of vindication by human beings against evils done to them. Like, for example, in Genesis 34, when Simon and Levi kill Shechem and they kill all the males in the land and they plunder the whole city and they take all the women and the children and everything because Shechem has violated their sister Dinah. You return the evils by evils in order to vindicate your righteousness against the unrighteousness of those who harmed you.

The Violence of God

Then you have another issue in the Old Testament Scriptures to deal with, and we’ll see how the New Testament resolves all this, but God himself does acts of violence.

A Response to Sin

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy the earth.” And then he tells him to make this ark, which is a prefiguration of the holy Church. That’s what the New Testament Scriptures say clearly, in the letter of Peter, that Noah’s ark prefigures baptism and the ark of salvation is the Church.

The point we want to see here is that you have violence, and then what happens is God acts pretty violently. So that’s another thing that you have in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Bible. When people sin against God and do evil, God renders evils to the people. He destroys them. So in the time of Noah, he just drowned everybody.

An Act of Rescue

Then you have that wonderful statement in the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, where the Lord through Moses says to the people, “Listen, have faith, stand firm, be quiet, be still, I will fight for you. I will fight for you, and this very day, you will see the Egyptians perish before your very eyes. I will save you. I will rescue you. I will deliver you.” And in the Old Testament, that meant a violent act of salvation in, literally, killing the enemies. And God is killing the enemies all the time in the Old Testament. That’s what he’s doing day and night, so to speak, and some people are scandalized by it, but the Bible reader, in the light of Jesus Christ, would say, “What was God to do? How else was he going to proceed? He’s dealing with a violent world where people are killing each other all the time, and in the names of their gods they’re killing each other.”

Evidence of His Power

Now, in the Passover exodus story, eight times you have that expression with these plagues that God says, “I am doing this that you may know that I am God, that you may know that I am your God, that the nations and the Egyptians may know that I reign over all creation, and that you may know that I am the only God that there is.” So the violence in the Old Testament and the violence of God himself against his enemies—because those people who are enemies of Israel, they are enemies of him—here we should see that the warfare in the Old Testament is not so much, so to speak, a warfare between peoples. It’s a warfare, actually, between gods. It’s the one true and living God fighting against all the false gods and all those who are evilly inspired into idolatry by those false gods, by the powers of evil, by the demons.

Evidence is Needed

There’s a great Protestant thinker, a theologian named Karl Bart, who said, “Until God can establish his power over the false gods, until he can show that he can kill and make alive, that he can cast down, that he can raise up, and that he is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, then God cannot really show mercy.” Because if he would show mercy without showing his power, people would think that he didn’t have the power, and that’s certainly a teaching of the Old Testament. God has to establish his power, and the way you establish your power is by killing your enemies. Sadly, that’s the truth.

An Act of Cleansing

But the most amazing thing is that God says to his own people in the Old Testament Scripture, “I am against you. I am against you, because you are trusting in horses. You think you can manipulate me. You think that because I told you you are my people that you can do whatever you want and you can be unrighteous and sinful and break that Law and not keep the commandments and not keep the Sabbath or anything else.”

So here you have the violence of God, which is needed, first of all, to preserve his people from their mortal enemies on earth and then at the same time to preserve the righteousness of his people by even showing his wrath and anger against them.

So you find all of this in the Scriptures, all this kind of evil and murder and going-on, and it’s there all the time.

The Power and the Mercy

Now, if that were the last word, then we would really have a scandal on our hands, but for Christianity that is not the last word, as we will see in a second and as we already know, I hope. In Jesus Christ, you do not have that any more. You have a radical reversal of God’s activity, because once he has established his power, then he can send his Son to show mercy and to show what the power of God really is, which is the power of truth, the power of righteousness, the power of love, which is absolutely, fully, completely, and totally revealed in the Cross of Christ and in the crucified Messiah.

Because in the Bible, all of this is done, Orthodox Christians would believe and Bible readers who read the whole Bible would believe, all this violence was done so that God’s fidelity could remain, so that his soteriological plan could be completed, which means his plan for saving the world, for sending Christ, for redeeming, for forgiving.

What people have to realize is we are all God’s enemies in some way. Jews and Gentiles, whoever we are, we are those who are in need of the mercy of God, and the Gospel of God in Jesus is he shows mercy on all.

Violence Against God

Christ sheds his blood on the Cross for everyone that Yahweh killed in the Old Testament. Everyone that was killed in the Old Testament in any way, whether it was Jephthah’s daughter who had to be sacrificed because he made a vow, whether it’s that concubine who was chopped up into twelve parts and sent through Israel, whether it’s the ravishing of the young maidens outside Sodom and Gomorrah and in other places in the Bible, whether it’s Cain killing Abel, whatever it is—all those murders, all that violence—that is all subsumed in the flesh of Christ on the Cross, and he endures it all. And it is God Almighty that is in human flesh that’s enduring it in order to have mercy on all.

Now here I would say this very clearly: if God did not so love the world that he sent his only-begotten Son, that those who believe in him would not perish, and if he did not give the opportunity for everyone to repent, and if the final judgment, when the Lord appears in glory, is not the moment of truth when anyone can finally repent of all their ignorances and their evils, their passions and their crimes, and if God did not die for everyone and shed his blood for everyone without exception, then we would have real problems with the murders of the Old Testament. All that violence would be nothing but scandalous violence. But the scandal for Christians, the scandal of the Cross replaces, so to speak, heals all the violence of men, even the violence of God himself that he had to perpetrate in the Old Testament in order for his plan to be completed for the Messiah to come.

Conclusion – Eternal Violence

Now, will God kill and destroy his enemies, ultimately, in the coming kingdom? Well, the ancient Christian scriptural answer is no. He will have mercy on everybody. But still, people may not accept that mercy, and then God’s love and his truth and his righteousness and his blood will torment them, and they will be tormented forever and ever if they blaspheme the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. The demons and the evil people who love the demons and hate God, they will suffer from the mercy of God forever, and that’s the fire of hell. But God is no longer destroying. God is no longer destroying. People are destroying themselves by opposing the righteousness of God.

So we read about the violence and the murder and the killing and the violence of God and the violence of people and the sinful violence and the unrighteous violence, but then the necessary violence that is necessary for God’s plan to be completed, we read about all this in the Old Testament. We see it fulfilled in the non-violent Christ, who as a Lamb is led to the slaughter and opens not his mouth, who is denied justice, who takes upon himself the sin of the world, and who dies for all those for all those who have died in any way, and he dies even for those whom God himself has killed in the Old Testament, because the final word does not belong to death. The final word does not belong to destruction. The final word belongs to mercy and forgiveness. The final word belongs to resurrection and life. The final word belongs to the peace of God, not the violence of God.

So let’s think about these things, but let’s know for sure that all that violence of old was necessary to produce the Christ, and then the Christ comes and takes the violence upon himself and forgives everyone everything. And that’s the teaching of the Gospel. And the victory of God ultimately is one when his Son dies the most violent, degrading, horrible death on the Cross. So for Christians, we preach Christ crucified, scandal to Jews, folly to Gentiles, but the wisdom and the power, the ultimate wisdom and the ultimate power, of God Almighty himself.

A Word of Encouragement

Last week I attended my seventh Big Church Day Out festival, and it was a wonderful event, as always.

Although the core focus of Big Church Day Out is Christian music, there is a wide variety of activities and entertainments, as well as opportunities to learn about, and contribute to, many great causes too. I highly recommend it.

In 2015 I took some time away from the music to watch the wonderful “An Evening With CS Lewis,” a charming, humorous and moving one-man show written and performed by David Payne.

I was so impressed with the play that when I saw that it was being staged again this year I marked it down as one of my ‘must see’ performances. I arrived at the venue in good time, found a seat close to the stage, and enjoyed another life-affirming evening.

My purpose here is not to write a review of the show, although I can once again thoroughly recommend that you go and see it if you get a chance. No, I wanted to tell you about the minutes after the actor left the stage.

It’s not my habit to seek out performers at the end of the evening, either for merchandise or selfies, but I felt compelled to walk up to Mr Payne and shake his hand. As I did so, I told him how moved I was by the show, and the fact that I had seen it last year and how keen I had been to see it again.

And that’s when I was surprised, because he was absolutely delighted to hear those words. He thanked me profusely, and I could see that his appreciation of my appreciation was totally genuine.

I was surprised because he had just received a lengthy standing ovation, and my compliment seemed trivial by comparison.

Later I understood the difference. To some extent the response of an audience is a matter of routine. I can’t call it perfunctory, but unless you’ve really blown it, the people who came to see you perform and got what they were expecting will, in return, give you what is expected of them, with a greater or lesser level of enthusiasm.

But when somebody takes the time to meet you and speak a word of encouragement to you individually from the heart, that’s an entirely different situation. A special connection is created between the two of you for those brief moments, and the result of that connection is powerful.

This reminds me of one of the most beautiful aspects of my Christian faith, and that is the personal relationship I have with Jesus. I don’t always feel as close to Him as I’d like to, but I can recall moments when He has walked up to me to share a word of encouragement, and those moments have created a powerful connection that continues to lift me when life gets tough.

And I’m also reminded that I don’t offer words of encouragement to others anywhere near as often as I should. I need to show my appreciation for the good things people do, and for who they are, not because it’s expected, but because it’s the right thing to do, and because it will lift them. Maybe I won’t see the same delight I saw in David Payne’s eyes, but I’ll know my words may be the encouragement they need either now or in the future.

He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:10-11

Book Review – “Wise Guys” by Kent Evans (with Rob Suggs)

I’ll get straight to the point. This is a great book. I read it from start to finish in less than a day (unheard of for me), and then I immediately started reading it again.

Why couldn’t I drag myself away? Well, first of all it’s eminently readable. An easy, conversational tone draws you in. There are a few Americanisms along the way but I can forgive that – coming from an American author. Second, it starts rewarding you with titbits of wisdom right from the first chapter. No – earlier than that. Even during Kyle Idleman’s foreword I found myself thinking, “Yes, this is something I need to do!” And then that realization was reinforced throughout the following chapters, while I was also eagerly picking up life lessons – and being entertained to boot.

So, who are the “wise guys” of the title? They are ordinary people in the main, who happen to demonstrate a great way of thinking or behaving. And this book’s primary purpose is to encourage us to seek those people or, even better, recognise them in our daily lives; and then to learn from them, by observation and/or conversation.

It’s common sense – as is most of the finest wisdom. And most of what you learn as you read is really just reminding you of what you already know: be kind, ask questions, think before committing to a task, and so on. But these are truths that we all need to be reminded of on a regular basis if we are to develop positive habits rather than destructive ones.

The book is autobiographical, but only vaguely chronological. In each chapter Kent Evans recounts an incident in his life, which may have lasted anything from a few minutes to several weeks. He recalls a man from whom he learned something about himself or about life. And he ends each chapter describing those lessons learned, and then offering some “questions to consider.” These questions really help you change the direction of your thoughts away from Kent’s life and towards your own, giving you an opportunity to reflect on where your growth potential lies. It’s a straightforward format, and it works brilliantly.

I want to make three final observations that I hope will encourage you to purchase this book even if looking at the cover and reading the précis doesn’t convince you that it will speak to you.

One: although written from a male perspective, it is equally relevant to women. The book is unashamedly man-oriented. The full title is “Wise Guys: Unlocking Hidden Wisdom from the Men Around You.” Women barely get a mention, except in the acknowledgements. But this is for the very good reason that there is some truth in the cliché that men are generally not good at asking for help. The book is targeting those men and speaking directly to them. But the wisdom contained within is completely applicable to women, and you are just as likely to find a female mentor as a male one, depending on the circles you move in. So ladies – buy this book!

Two: although written from a business perspective, it is equally relevant to life in general. Now I’m not sure that the author intended to write a “business manual,” but many of the situations he describes arise from his business experiences, and so many of the men he learns from are businessmen, and many of his lessons learned are learned in the business arena. But at the same time, at the very heart they are lessons about relating to other human beings – and relationship lessons are invaluable in any area of life. Perhaps another way to say it is: this book will help you learn how to succeed in life – but it will also help you learn how to succeed in business.

Three: although written from a Christian perspective, it is equally relevant to people of other faiths or none. There are a few Biblical references sprinkled throughout the book, and some of the wise guys have connections through Kent’s church family, but there is not even a hint of evangelism or proselytizing; only the recognition that some of the wisdom gleaned from successful mentors also reflects Christian values. Having said that, I do feel that many of the chapters could be used as the basis for very interesting small group discussions. But ultimately, whatever your worldview, you will enjoy and get value from this book.

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This book was provided to me courtesy of City on a Hill Studio and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Book Review: “And It Was Beautiful” by Kara Tippett

In normal circumstances if I knew the ending of a book before I began reading it, I might never begin. What would be the point? Nobody likes spoilers do they?

If I’d followed my usual line of reasoning in the case of And It Was Beautiful then I would have missed out on a precious, thought-provoking and life-affirming read. And I would have missed the point entirely. Kara Tippett died of cancer in March 2015, and that is where this book ends, but this book isn’t about that ending.

Because first, the book radiates Kara’s faith that death is not the end. Her faith and hope lift her out of, and far above, her inevitable moments of despondency. It also prevents her story from becoming overly sentimental.

Second, the book is a story about life, not death. It is the ordinary life of a pastor’s wife, a mother of four who finds herself in a battle with a deadly foe. But in the midst of that battle she finds joy in her relationships – with her husband, children, friends and relatives. She finds kindness everywhere, and strength in God through her trust in Jesus. She has difficult conversations with her children, and she faces brutal physical pain and emotional turmoil as her cancer refuses to be stopped. But she faces it all with a courage she doesn’t even seem to see in herself, with occasional humour, and with an overriding sense of peace.

And It Was Beautiful is composed of various writings, mostly from Kara’s blog posts at http://www.mundanefaithfulness.com/ and in it she takes us with her on a journey through the last two or three years of her life. The tone is conversational. It is an easy read in that respect, although it had me struggling to hold back tears at some points. Perhaps I can sum up the book in Kara’s own words:

Some have called me heroic, for the fight, for the journey. I’m no hero. I’m just one broken woman looking for grace. I’m one needy heart in need of forgiveness. I’m just like everyone else, fighting to see grace, to live gently, to walk in integrity. It’s a daily battle, and some days it’s a war. And many days I blow it, bad. But there is always forgiveness.

anditwasbeautiful

This book was provided to me courtesy of David C. Cook Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

I Recommend PrayerMate

I became aware last year that my prayer life wasn’t everything that it should be. While I would frequently talk to God throughout the day, it felt like casual conversation, small talk. I knew that I needed to be more intentional in devoting time to prayer, and more focused in what I spoke to God about.

So I was very interested when I read about PrayerMate. I’m sorry I can’t remember exactly who mentioned it – I found it in an article referenced in an email from one of several Christian mailing lists that I’m subscribed to.

PrayerMate is basically an electronic prayer list, and this is how I use it: I have four categories, one for the Church (both local and global), one for my family, one for my Small Group, and one for my friends. Within each of those categories are a list of subjects that I want to pray for. So most of the categories contain a list a people. The Church category is different, as its subjects include local initiatives, global conflicts, and general issues such as Church leadership.

PrayerMate sets an alarm each day – very useful for me! Then I open it, and I am presented with one subject from each category, so everyday I will pray for three specific individuals and one Church issue. PrayerMate rotates the subjects so that they are different every day, and over the course of a week or so I will pray for everything and everyone on my list.

If there are particular issues concerning one of my subjects, for example a health issue for a Small Group member, then I can add notes about this, and those notes are shown when PrayerMate selects that person for prayer.

I will be adding a new category soon, for Praise and Devotion, as this is something I don’t include enough in my prayers. I will be adding lines of scripture, especially from the Psalms, to acknowledge God’s majesty and faithfulness, so that I give Him the honour due to Him before submitting my petitions to Him.

PrayerMate comes pre-loaded with a few categories and subjects, which you can adapt or delete if you wish. There are also many ways to configure the way subjects are selected for daily prayer, for example to focus more on categories that are closer to your heart. I haven’t used half of the available options.

I feel much more comfortable about my relationship with God now that I have this tool to help me develop discipline in my prayer life. If you don’t need help in this area then I am very pleased for you, but for me, PrayerMate has been an true blessing.

I Recommend LifeChurch.tv

I always look forward to the weekly message from LifeChurch.tv, usually given by senior pastor Craig Groeschel. I listen to the audio podcast, but video versions are also available. You can take part in services, including worship and message, online, and get prayer there too.

My reasons for recommending LifeChurch are simple – as simple as ABC…

a. They are accessible. The messages are down to earth, sprinkled with humour and full of honesty and insights you can easily relate to.
b. They are Biblical. The messages are deeply rooted in scripture, stripped of the hype I’ve seen in some other large churches, totally focussed on Christ.
c. They are a community. It is so easy to get connected to fellow Christians, and to get closer to God, through the resources LifeChurch provides.

If I had no other reason for recommending LifeChurch, then I could do so for YouVersion. I have tried several Bible apps, and this is the best by far. If you haven’t downloaded it yet, please do – or just use the web version.

They also provide many resources for other churches and small groups. They are a true blessing to the Body of Christ. God bless LifeChurch.tv!

I Recommend RBC Ministries

From time to time I want to share web sites, ministries or resources with you that I have found helpful in my journey. The first is an organisation I connect with on almost a daily basis – RBC Ministries.

Founded over 70 years ago as Radio Bible Class, I first encountered RBC Ministries as I was looking for good Christian podcasts to listen to. I found three that RBC produced, one of which I will come back to later in this post. The other two were Our Daily Bread and Strength For The Journey. Each of these was encouraging and full of Biblical wisdom, in bite-sized chunks that you can listen to nearly any time and place. Apart from the podcasts, these devotionals are also available to read on the web site, and Our Daily Bread can also be found on a mobile app and as a freely distributed paper publication.

You can find many other devotionals, blogs and resources on the RBC web site, and I encourage you to look around and find something that helps you – I’m sure you won’t have to look far.

As time went on and I found other podcasts and other things to fill my time I decided to drop Daily Bread and Strength. But I continue to this day to listen to what is in my opinion an absolute gem of a podcast – Discover the Word.

Discover the Word is a daily Bible study with three hosts – Haddon Robinson, Alice Matthews and Mart De Haan – who sit together and discuss the Bible, its meaning, and its impact and application in our lives. Even though they spend just 15 minutes a day on each program, they spend as many days, weeks, or sometimes months as necessary to really look at the subjects in depth. I find it so valuable to hear all the different perspectives, sometimes close to my own, and sometimes very different, but always presented with a solid grounding in God’s word. You can’t help but feel that these are people who understand the struggles we go through in our Christian journeys, and in life generally.

To give a completely honest review I have to point out two problems I sometimes have with the podcast. The first is the length – not that 15 minutes is too short, but that a significant part of that time is lost. First, the podcast is not 15 minutes long, but nearer 13. I suppose that’s because it is also broadcast on US radio, and presumably some time is needed in the schedule for adverts or trailers. Then there are the intro and outro from Brian Hettinga. Sometimes his contribution adds extra value to the discussion, but often he is just repeating standard messages, reminding us what happened last time, or telling us what’s coming up. We lose another couple of minutes there, and that can be frustrating.

My second issue is that there will often be repetition of some of the conversation points across multiple episodes. This can irritate me, but it’s probably intentional and a good thing, because I expect this particular repetition is intended to reinforce important principles and is probably quite an effective method for doing that.

So again I encourage you to give Discover the Word a listen, and see whether it feeds your spirit as it does mine. The style and structure of the conversations won’t be for everyone, but it’s definitely worth trying for a week or two to see how you settle into it.

Update: Since I wrote this post, RBC Ministries has changed its name to Our Daily Bread Ministries and there have been some changes in personnel too. Haddon Robinson left “Discover the Word” when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and Alice Matthews retired from hosting at the same time. Two new hosts joined in 2014 – Bill Crowder and Elisa Morgan – and the programme has continued in a very similar style since then. I still thoroughly recommend Our Daily Bread Ministries, and particularly Discover the Word.