Common Sense on Three Troubling Passages

I’ve gotten some clarity over the past few days about Bible passages that have often troubled me:

1. I’ve often had problems with I John 2:9-11, which says that those claiming to be in the light while hating their fellow Christians are actually in the darkness. My problem is, well, that I struggle against hatred, especially of my fellow Christians.

But I appreciated K.W. Leslie’s post, The Christian booby-trap, for he shows how hatred creates darkness:

Contrary to what some Christians will tell you, we Christians are allowed to judge one another. (1Co 6.1-8) It is fully within my rights as a Christian to critique the way another Christian is following Jesus. Provided, of course, that I do it in love, with the goal of building up the other Christian, not tearing them down. I am to judge fairly and righteously. I am to judge mercifully and always with the goal of restoring the other Christian. I am always to be mindful that I am going to be judged, myself, on the standard I use. (Mt 7.1-5) And I am never allowed to hate the other Christian. Not ever.

Were I to hate the other Christian, all the building up, the fairness, the rightness, the mercy, the wanting the best for the other person—all that stuff would be gone. It wouldn’t be about fairness and love. It would be about anger, vengefulness, and damage. I would be planted firmly in the dark.

Christians are supposed to cut others the slack that they want to receive as well as desire the best for the other person. We’re supposed to build one another up. Hatred, by contrast, tears people down and spreads destruction, and that’s why it is so dark.

I don’t feel that it’s my burden to “reach out” to Christians I dislike, who usually dislike me as well. If I see them on the street, then maybe I’ll ask them how they are, but I’m not going to make a special phone call to people who are not my friends in the first place. But I hope I can desire the best for them. I’m not really at the place where I want them to materially prosper and go on with their happy, happy lives while I have to struggle, but it would be nice if they could become closer to God and be kinder as a result. I mean, isn’t that why I don’t like them? Because they’re unloving and unkind? What if they became different through a closer walk with God? Isn’t that something for me to desire for them?

I still have a lot of hatred, and I think it’s counter-productive for me to beat myself up for that, by telling myself that I’m not a real Christian, that God is displeased with me, or that I’m going to hell. But I can do three things: (1.) Ask God to remove my hatred; (2.) Not be consumed with my hatred, but to have other interests; and (3.) Not to allow my hatred to undermine others, in terms of hindering their happiness, their plans in life, etc. A Bible passage I like is Galatians 5:15: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (NRSV).

2. I’ve often had problems with James 1:5-8, which says that God will give wisdom to those who ask in faith, but not to the “double-minded” who doubt. My problem is that I’m pretty double-minded: I trust God, and yet I don’t. That’s why I identify with the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

But K.W. Leslie states the following in his post, The man with two minds:

Whenever we complain, “I keep praying and praying and nothing ever seems to change,” we ought to read this passage carefully. We pray—but we lack expectations. We pray without faith. The prayer of faith, James later points out, accomplishes a lot; but the prayer without faith doesn’t really expect God to do a thing—so He won’t. (That is, unless He feels like it, which is why James said one shouldn’t expect God to do anything. He still might. But He likely won’t.)

I like what K.W. says here because it doesn’t put God in a box: God may answer the prayers of someone who struggles with faith, in order to strengthen that person’s faith. We see places in the Bible where God works with the doubter (e.g., Gideon), or blesses people in rebellion against him (e.g., Northern and Southern Israel).

But I think that I should pray expecting God to answer me. And I’m not talking about what I usually pray for (e.g., a woman, a job, money) in a “name it, claim it” sense. I’m talking about wisdom. And K.W. discusses what this “wisdom” means in the context of James 1: our trials enabling us to spiritually grow rather than making us embittered.

And God is generous. Of course he wants this for us! So I should pray to him about this expecting him to answer me, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. And perhaps even today and tomorrow are times when God is working and I am growing.

3. I’ve often had problems with Jesus’ parable of the talents (see Matthew 25:14-30). A king gives three men talents. Two of them multiply the amount of money by using what they’ve been given. One of them buries his talent in the ground and does not use or increase it. He’s afraid of his master, seeing him as one who reaps where he does not sow. The master returns and rewards the two people who used and increased their talents, but he rebukes the last guy and orders him thrown into hell.

My problem is that I feel sorry for the last guy. He was afraid, and I wish that the master had comforted the servant with his love rather than rebuking him and throwing him into hell.

Martin Luther and others suggest that the last servant’s problem was his perception of God: he saw God as harsh rather than loving, and so God acted according to his beliefs.

I kind of like this “We should have faith and see God as unconditionally loving” approach, since it makes me feel good. But I wish that the master in the parable (who depicts God) had shown the bad servant unconditional love.

In a Harvard Divinity School discussion group, I raised this concern. Even some of the hard-core liberals in the group liked Luther’s proposal. But the minister who led the group told me that my perception of Scripture was one-sided, and that the parable was about how we should use the talents God gave us. I agree that this is its point, but I wish hell fire weren’t at the end. I don’t think Christians can ignore the unpleasant parts of Scripture, if they indeed see Scripture as authoritative. In a sense, the pastor was being “one-sided” because he wanted to ignore the hell part of the parable.

I like how Joel Osteen explained this parable last night: If God has given us something, then we should use it to help others rather than keeping it to ourselves. I do this when I write my blog, for I choose to communicate my thoughts and whatever knowledge I have rather than keeping it in. And, if I get discouraged because not many people read it, hey, I know some people read it, and that’s a good thing.

Some people may not have money or lots of talents, but Joel said that they can be prayer warriors. Joel talked about a woman who prayed in church and spoke blessings over Joel’s life when he was a kid. That influenced him to speak God’s favor over people’s lives when he became a pastor. That woman did a simple act, yet she was investing in the life of someone else.

And the master didn’t really expect the bad servant to do that much. Not everyone can be a venture capitalist, like the other two servants! The master told the bad servant he could have put the money in the bank so it would accrue interest. Instead, the servant chose to do nothing with it. He didn’t increase the talent. He didn’t even use it to help someone else. And, although I still think that hell was too strict a punishment for him, his act does appear somewhat reprehensible.

I’m not a social extrovert, and there are large spans in my life when my spiritual growth is stunted. But do I do something to give to others, or to use what God’s given me? That’s the important question, even if the things I do are relatively small.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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