He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs (Part 2)

Hulk trying to Smash!

As someone who collected comics years ago, I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.  The decades of characters and stories created in the comics combine with modern special effects to create the ultimate “popcorn” events.  Thor: Ragnarok, released in 2017, was one I really looked forward to since I had read the original Ragnarok story line that culminated in The Mighty Thor issue #353 in March 1985.

(Caution: Mild movie spoilers follow!!!)  The movie’s conclusion is significantly different than the comic version, with a twist that the heroes decide victory lies in not fighting the “Big Bad” of Surtur, a massive fire demon.  However, after realizing this, they must convince the Hulk to follow the plan, resulting in one of the funniest exchanges in any of the MCU movies:

Thor: Hulk, no! Just for once in your life, don’t smash!
Hulk (in sullen voice): But big monster!

You can watch the 1 1/2 minute scene here:

Hulk logic is simple.  Big monster is here.  Hulk must smash big monster.  That’s the plan.

In Part 1, Jesus was pictured in Psalm 2:4 as being enthroned in heaven, laughing in derision at the rulers of the world who sought to break free from His “bonds” and “cords”.  This description of Jesus is a reassuring reminder to us that no worldly kingdom is a threat to Him, and we can trust in His protection.  The post ended with a question of whether we also laugh as Jesus does?  Do we hold our (and His) enemies in derision?

Peter Smash!
Here we began with a Marvel movie scene, because in a way, Thor convincing Hulk that fighting fire with fire wasn’t the answer is like Jesus’ rebuking of Peter for fighting back against the mob that arrested Jesus, and soon delivered Him to be crucified.  In John 18:1-11, Judas leads a “band of soldiers and some officers” to arrest Jesus, and Peter (possibly thinking “Big Monster!”) drew his sword and cut off the right ear of one of the high priest’s servants, named Malchus.  Jesus says “Peter, no!  For once in your life, don’t smash”, or as more accurately rendered in the ESV: “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

Matthew’s account (26:52-54) adds: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?’”

Jesus knows that He can beat any “Big Bad” the world has to offer at any time with an “appeal to my Father”.  In Psalm 2:5-9, right after He laughs, the Psalmist writes:

“Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
            and terrify them in his fury, saying,
‘As for me, I have set my King
            on Zion, my holy hill.’
I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
            today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
            and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
            and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

But rescuing His people must come first, and until then final judgment is delayed.  Jesus knew when Psalm 2 was written that He would eventually judge all the nations, but He also knew what sort of death He would die to accomplish salvation for His people.  Jesus does not laugh because His enemies can be taken lightly – He is fully aware of the evil of the world.  His enemies cause real pain and suffering on earth, and He takes each offense personally.  But if He decided to spend all of history laughing in heaven, we would all be without hope.  Fortunately, He lived among us, and suffered terribly as a servant, knowing “that he had come from God and was going back to God”[1]

At the time of Judas’ betrayal, Jesus had told His disciples multiple times, citing Old Testament prophecy, that His plan required being rejected, suffering, and dying, then rising again[2], but when the mob came for Jesus, Peter didn’t make the connection.  He did not understand the plan, but later he would.  We are not alone when we don’t understand God’s will for us.  The twelve disciples were constantly out of step with Jesus.  When asked to do something against our natural impulse we sometimes drop our shoulders, and our voice becomes sullen like Hulk’s.

But we have hope.  Years later, Peter would write about his progress from his early impulsive days in 1 Peter 1:13-15:

“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”

The “passions of Peter’s former ignorance”, may include the time Peter cried “big monster!” and cut off someone’s ear.  None of us are immune from the same Hulk logic when threatened.  But it might also be said that Jesus looked at Peter in derision when he did this[3].  But for the grace of God, there go I.

Peter writes of the implications of understanding Christ’s mission on the cross, that Christ’s followers are part of the plan, as active participants in the mission.  He calls the church to be holy, set apart for God’s purposes, to pursue the mission of the church, most succinctly spelled out at the end of Matthew’s gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (28:19-20).  In this kingdom, the two most important commandments are: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[4]

To answer to the question at the end of Part 1, the prescriptive truth that is like Proverbs 14:21[5] is love.  Love defines how subjects in the kingdom of the One who laughs should behave.  A love more thoroughly defined in 1 Corinthians 13 as patient and kind, and not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude[6].  Or, as Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:1: “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.”  Paul adds in Rom 12:14 – “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Jesus laughing in heaven is only a comfort to us if He is our King, and if He is our King, we seek to follow the laws of His kingdom.  The laughter of Jesus is not a model for us, but is a source of comfort and strength if we are His.  In contrast, the nations, kings and rulers of this world refuse the “bonds” and “cords” of the Lord, which are these laws of love.  They make up their own system of “righteousness” by laws, and therefore “the Lord holds them in derision.”  Their earthly rules and systems cannot measure up to His righteousness and are at best narratives and at worst tyrannies.

Love When Bad Things Happen
Jesus’ laughing is precisely what enables us not to hold people in derision, and to not mock and laugh at them.  It is a key to achieving the “Us for Them” ethic described in an earlier post.  Jesus laughing tells us that there is no monster scary enough to make His plan to love the wrong answer.  Whatever your circumstance, “Love God”, “Love your neighbor” and “Love your enemies” apply to it.

To illustrate this, consider Jesus’ prophetic speech in Mark 13:5-23 from the framework of descriptive vs. prescriptive truth.  I paraphrase and categorize some of the points below:

DescriptivePrescriptive
Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’See that no one leads you astray
You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, and nation will rise against nationDo not be alarmed
Earthquakes and famines in various locationsBe on your guard
You will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sakeBear witness before them and do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say
Brother will deliver brother over to death and you will be hated by allEndure
False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wondersBe on guard

To Jesus, none of the things in the descriptive column are new information.  All were included in the plan.  The actions He recommends are not new information either.  The “Prescriptive” column means keep doing what you were doing before these bad things happened – Love God, love your neighbor.  Even if your neighbor is “bad”.

False christs and prophets will cry “But big monster!” and offer to save us.  But the true Christ calmly says “be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand”. (Mark 13:23). The false prophet takes the descriptive of evil in the world and creates their own false prescriptive.  They recommend an incomplete and inaccurate narrative as an ultimate solution.  Their own Babel which God must “come down” from heaven to even see (Genesis 11:5).  The true Christ comes down from heaven and demonstrates how to create a true ladder all the way back to heaven, offering forgiveness to all, even those who refuse to accept it or practice love.  He will be thoroughly and eternally glorified by manifesting His kingdom as the only eternal kingdom, ruled by love.

God doesn’t turn our Muerte into Morty by having us laugh at him and beat him up with a stroller (although that might be fun).  He doesn’t tell us to Smash!  Every time we try to follow the plans of the world to fight the battles of God’s kingdom, we are testifying that the world’s kingdoms are greater than His.  Our rage will be futile and our plotting will be in vain.

Witness to the Cross
Note that the presence of false prophets, national rivalry, and natural disaster provide an opportune backdrop for proclaiming the superior kingdom of God in Christ, where none of these things will occur!  We testify to the imagined utopias of the world – which are all at best narratives and at worst tyrannies – that the real utopia is one where people love so much that they are willing to die for specific others, not one where the “Pax Romana” is illusory and pointing that out is a crime.    Jesus even died for the tax collector Zacchaeus, described by his Jewish peers as a traitor and cheat, a representative of a secular enemy power.  Everyone He died for was once His enemy, and His sacrifice enables a paradigm shift from “Us vs Them” to “Us for Them”.

In our ability to do this, we all lie somewhere between the impulsive Hulk, the Peter of Matthew 26, the Peter of his New Testament letters, and Jesus’ obedience on the cross.  We each are a narrative of our own “intricate matrix of beliefs, at different levels of truth and of conviction on every possible topic.”  We all cry “But big monster!” at different things, at different times, and for different reasons, but Jesus guarantees our destination is holiness when we follow Him.  Jesus cares about His people more than he cares about all the kingdoms of the world, and “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:10.

But His blessing is not granted under all types of persecution.  Persecution is not evidence of righteousness, but a result of it.  Christians are not blessed when persecuted for unrighteousness, which sadly they often are.  They are blessed when persecution comes from testifying to, and striving to live, a righteousness that is unachievable by any earthly kingdom.  Jesus did this on the cross, and we do it by bearing the cross He assigns us.  When we do this, His kingdom comes, because his will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.[7]  Logically, earthly kingdoms do not like this.

Therefore, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”  (1 Peter 4:12-14)

Don’t accept the cross anyone other than Christ assigns to you – it may crush you.  The specific work God assigns for you is enough and comes with His power.  Our cross will not kill our soul; it will enable us to truly live.

For the last enemy to be defeated is Muerte.  Which means death[8].

Next post: a “minor’ prophet finds peace

Post Script
To close out the discussion of Psalm 2, the last verses (10-12) describe the Psalmist pleading with the kings and rulers:

“Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
            be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
            and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
            lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
            for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

Finally, as Paul urges us in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, we should pray for our rulers to God, who is sovereign over the nations: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”


[1] See John 13:3, and a previous post about this idea.
[2] Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22 and elsewhere
[3] As in Matthew 16:23, where Jesus refers to Peter as Satan for saying suffering was not necessary for our Lord.
[4] From Matthew 22:37 and 39
[5] “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor”
[6] 1 Corinthians 13:4-5
[7] Adapted from Matthew 6:10
[8] 1 Corinthians 15:26

He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs (Part 1)

Sometimes you watch a movie and years later only remember one or two things about it, and the rest is just “meh”.  In Undercover Blues, released in 1993, Stanley Tucci’s character Muerte, a mugger, is the best part of the movie.  He growls lines like: “My name is Muerte…it means death!  Remember my name!” before or after attacking his victims, with Mariachi guitar accompaniment.  It’s a bit silly, but Muerte isn’t to be trifled with – he brutally takes out multiple guys in the movie.

Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner play a married couple of ex-spies (their last name is Blue) on maternity leave in New Orleans who are harassed by muggers, including Muerte, along the way.  Unfortunately for Muerte, Jeff Blue is an experienced and confident fighter who isn’t intimidated by Muerte’s speech, and just says: “Well I’m pleased to meet you Morty.  My name is Jeff”

Then Jeff Blue beats up Morty and his crew with a stroller!  Evil Muerte had met his match.  Watch the one-minute video below – I’ll be referring back to it later.

A Conspiracy of Muertes
While Muerte picks up his lost tooth, here are key verses for this post, from Psalm 2:1-3:

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
            against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
Let us burst their bonds apart
            and cast away their cords from us”

The Psalm refers to the rebellion of nations, peoples, kings, and rulers against the “bonds” and “cords” of “the Lord” and “his Anointed”, or God the Father and God the Son.  Nations are rivals, not just with each other, but also with the kingdom of God.

The ultimate example of this rebellion is referenced when the first two verses from above are quoted in Acts 4:25-26, followed by: “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and our plan had predestined to take place.”  The crucifixion of Jesus was the result of a massive conspiracy, including possibly six separate trials by both Jewish and Roman authorities, resulting in the death of Jesus, who was not guilty of what He was charged with, but also is the only human to never participate in insurrection against His Father.  The Jews hated Him because He was not the political messiah that would lead an insurrection against Rome.  The Romans, led by Pilate, answered the call to crucify Him, to avoid a Jewish riot that would result in their punishment or removal by higher Roman authorities.  Jesus was a threat to their authority and had to go.

So, they literally succeeded in killing God.  Brutally.  But then Psalm 2:4 tells us:

“He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.”

A Surprising Victory
Surprising even His followers, on the third day, He was resurrected from the dead, and after a few weeks, was raised “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”  (Ephesians 1:21).  This Jesus is the one laughing in heaven, and He can laugh because in a way He is like Jeff Blue in the scene from Undercover Blues.  At the 27 second mark of the video, after Muerte draws his switchblade, Jeff smiles and says “This is a really bad idea Morty.”  Muerte rages and plots in vain, however is no threat to Jeff.  Likewise, Jesus knows all nations are no threat to Him and His kingdom.

In “More Than Truth”, I wrote about how some truth “describes the world as it is”, such as Proverbs 14:20: “The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.”  Jesus knows all of the descriptive truth about the problems of the world, including subjects of earlier posts:

  • That since the Fall in Genesis 3, “mankind became inclined to make things that glorify themselves, rather than God,” from the tower of Babel to kingdoms such as Edom
  • That “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” – Pr. 14:12 and 16:25
  • That every “Pax Romana” is just a narrative designed to make the state appear to be more than it is
  • That mankind is incredibly creative in attempting to thwart God’s purpose in creating His kingdom, populated by His family
  • That even the “religion” of the Old Testament Bible could not produce righteousness

However, all rulers and nations opposed to God are doomed to fail, because even killing God was not good enough to keep Him down.  Jesus laughs because He knows His plan will work.  In Matthew 16:18, Jesus told Peter that “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

In Acts 4 above, Peter and John quote Psalm 2 after they were released by the religious rulers of Jerusalem, and they testify that Jesus’ enemies only do “whatever your hand and our plan had predestined to take place.”  Peter and John were eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus, and knew that all the powers of the world could not keep Him down.  His plan would not fail.  They did not quote verse 4, but they knew that Jesus was exalted and laughing at the opposition to them.  They rejoiced that the same God who had resurrected Jesus had freed them from prison!

Therefore, take comfort that Jesus, knowing all the evil and rebellion of the world that we may feel threatened by or anxious about, laughs.  All who challenge God are Morty, not Muerte, even if they once “succeeded” in killing Him.

I read Psalm 2 if I am feeling stressed by the political state of the world, about the political state of my country, or about the 24/7 barrage of bad news online and on TV.  “He who sits in the heavens laughs” reminds me that Jesus is laughing at the cause of my stress – He is not threatened and He is in charge.  In some ways we are like the baby in the movie scene.  We would be helpless against Muerte, but Jeff Blue does not let anything happen to his child.  At the 34 second mark of the video, Jeff even checks in on the baby, who slept through the whole thing.  In our case, we are tethered to our forerunner[1], Jesus, our King laughing in heaven, who says: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” – John 10:28-29.

I’ll end this post here on a note of confidence, but there remains a trickier and important question…

Do we also laugh?  Is the laughter of Jesus descriptive, or prescriptive?  What is the truth that is like Proverbs 14:21: “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor”?

What defines how subjects in the kingdom of the One who laughs should behave? More in Part 2, coming soon.

[1] See “The Sure Eternal Path” for more on this metaphor from Hebrews 6:20.

[Originally posted October 2021]

More than Truth

“The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.
Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.” – Proverbs 14:20-21
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” – Mark 1:1

In May 2021, I heard a sports update on the radio that eight members of the New York Yankees baseball organization, including players and staff, had tested positive for Covid-19.  Then the radio host raised his voice in alarm and added: “and all of them were fully vaccinated!”  The next day, I read a different report online about the Yankees that said all who tested positive were asymptomatic.  The first report didn’t mention that they were asymptomatic, and the second report didn’t mention that they were vaccinated.  Both reports were factual, but both reports were misleading.  One sounds like good news, and the other bad, but it’s the same story.  I can’t judge the intent of either source, but the point is that there is more to discernment than telling the difference between truth and lies.

While there is absolute truth, not all truth is the way, and not every way leads to life.  In the last post, I introduced a “Moral GPS”, our internal chatterbox of voices that influence our decisions.  In choosing between these, I wrote “Facts matter, but any voice can have facts.”  You can choose the wrong direction even if the signs pointing that way were “true”. A key input to that system is the media.

During the pandemic, many became increasingly frustrated with the idea of “truth”, and this has at least in part been intentionally engineered.  Bogeymen were everywhere, and you or your neighbor might be one!  Frustration is good for politicians and journalists, which is nothing new – consider these quotes and their dates:

“The biggest big business in America is not steel, automobiles, or television.  It is the manufacture, refinement and distribution of anxiety” – Eric Sevareid, CBS journalist, in 1974

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” – H. L. Mencken, in 1923

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Feeding this frenzy is the fiction that if journalists and others are telling the truth, they are “objective” or “unbiased”, and therefore “ethical”.  This claim of objectivity is not only light years from the truth, but also theoretically impossible for anyone but God Himself.  I studied journalism in college, and although they didn’t outright teach bias, they taught us to think about what goes into making the following decisions and others:

  • What stories do you publish “above the fold” of the newspaper, where people are most likely to see it?
  • Which quotes do you place early in an article (people usually don’t read the entire article, but please keep reading this one), and which do you place later?
  • Which sources do you work harder to get a quote from, and which do you give up on after leaving one voice mail?  The ones that support your view, or the ones that contradict?
  • Which statistics do you cite, or not cite (to save space and make deadline)?
  • What term do you use to describe a person or idea?  The term used by advocates, or by adversaries?

There is no “lying” going on behind many of these decisions, just “editorial discretion”.  There were, of course, manipulated polls and other things I learned about, but very few outright lies.  In the more modern media age, though, these things are elementary.  Now technology even allows companies to make these decisions for other people’s content!

Of course, not all journalists are unethical, which is just like any profession, but the industry trend seems to be downhill, and those who get the most attention are often the worst examples.  It’s an industry in need of a revival.

Frustration is also good for some economically.  “Big tech” businesses made a ton of money during the pandemic, partly by feeding your anxiety.  Algorithms and clickbait aren’t interested in informing you, only manipulating your emotions to draw you to advertising.  They analyze in labs how the chemical reward system of the human brain reacts to different things so that you will return for that “high” repeatedly.  They’re making you emotional on purpose.  Bad news sells.  Thoughtful news, not as much.  Again, the intent and the business model are nothing new, but technology has made it ruthlessly efficient, and a pandemic-panicked population created a captive audience with so many “normal” activities unavailable.  One of my best moments of 2020 was getting to a movie theater in November.  It was a needed distraction and a healthy sense of normalcy[1].

Consider also this quote:

“One of the most tragic events of our time is that we know more than ever before about the pains and sufferings of the world and yet are less and less able to respond to them…There appears to be a general assumption that it is good for people to be exposed to the pain and suffering of the world…If we let the full content of newscasts enter into our innermost selves, we would become so overwhelmed by the absurdities of existence that we would become paralyzed” (emphasis mine)

This comes from a book I just read titled “Compassion”[2], written in 1982.  Before the internet and smart phones.  Let that sink in.  The suffering of the world is not a yoke you want to carry, but it’s in the interest of many journalists, politicians, and computer programmers to make you feel it.

Truth + Perspective
So, how do we start to filter all of this?  Proverbs 14:20-21 quoted above provides one example of how the Bible deals with and presents truth.  Both verses are “true”, but each has its own perspective.  Verse 20 describes the world as it is: “The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends”.  No matter the economic and political system you live under, you recognize this as generally “true”.  Ancient Israel had the same “truth” as the modern world.  But what do you do with this information?  Your self-determined Moral GPS might tell you to pursue riches, because it is “good” to be liked and have friends.  Who wants to be disliked?  If this is “just the way it is”, why go against the grain?  Greed is good.  More on this later.

This isn’t the only Proverb that states things as they are, with no value judgment attached.  Another example would be Proverbs 17:8 – “A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.”  This doesn’t mean one should give bribes, but it’s “true” and helpful to know how bribes function, even if your goal is to avoid them.

Fortunately, verse 21 adds perspective in God’s value judgment on the truth of verse 20: “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”  If you fear God, your course of action is not to reinforce the truth of verse 20, but to seek to correct the situation with righteousness and justice.  A Christian must be concerned about what to do, in addition to what is true.

The Illusion of Pax Romana
Also, at a higher level, there’s “Gospel Truth”, a sort of master narrative that adolescent truths and narratives want to be when they grow up.  In “Evil and the Justice of God” by N.T. Wright, he says, “the word gospel itself…was a direct confrontation with the regime of Caesar, the news of whose rule was referred to in his empire as ‘good news’, ‘gospel’”.  Before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the “gospel” was an existing genre of literature, or more accurately propaganda, exalting successive Caesars as bringing in and sustaining the Pax Romana[3], or “Roman Peace” which lasted roughly the first two centuries A.D.  Wikipedia describes it “as a period and golden age of increased as well as sustained Roman imperialism, order, prosperous stability, hegemonial power and expansion”.  These gospels sometimes assigned miraculous powers to Caesar and ordered that he be revered as a god.

The Christian gospels are not “biography” by genre, but “gospel”, a narrative to challenge the existing narrative.  Jesus operated in the environment of the world’s greatest empire, which would endure no rival, no other gospel.  From this perspective, His ministry looks different.  All He had to do was walk down the street – any street – and find problems not being solved in Caesar’s great empire and He was promoting a different narrative.  Mark’s gospel says those who saw Jesus “were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”[4]  Actual miracles showing that He could solve every problem He encountered, while He promised a world where all problems are solved for those who believe in Him.

However, those who were happy with the empire didn’t go quietly.  Proverbs 14:20 truth was just fine with them since they were the rich ones enforcing the rules.  “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”[5]  Preservation of the “Pax” often led these leaders to clash with, and ultimately crucify, Jesus.  John 11:48 records the panic of religious leaders about Jesus’ activities: “If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”  When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, they protested because it was “against the rules”, which they needed people to follow, otherwise the Romans would have to step in, re-establish order, and probably put in new leadership.  Their fear of Caesar was so strong that they determined to kill someone who was able to raise the dead. Make sense to you?

Early Christians faced similar problems.  Much of the persecution of the early church was because “The exclusive sovereignty of Christ clashed with Caesar’s claims to his own exclusive sovereignty,” according to historian Earle Cairns[6]

Conform Wisely
Back to the original topic of this post: journalism.  Part of the genius of the founding fathers of the United States was that, by granting freedom of the press, they were putting government and journalism in opposition to each other (at least in theory) and opening the way for multiple perspectives to get a hearing.  They knew that limiting distribution of “truth” to those in power was dangerous.  The powerful would be satisfied with Proverbs 14:20 truth.  In the world of Pax Romana, Caesar is god and loyalty is required for the prospering of the kingdom.  There can be only one narrative.

If you live in a country with press freedom, be thankful.  Diverse information is needed to rightly understand the broad situation of our world and immediate surroundings, but too much of that knowledge can be soul-crushing, draining us of compassion needed for the problems right in front of us.  The wrong truth can make us despise our neighbor, or to support the wrong gospel.

The Bible commands: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” – Romans 12:2

How do we do this?  Maybe God could tell us the “right” network to watch, the “right” amount to watch, and the “right” solution.  However, nobody but God is the Answer.  Therefore, each person must practice discernment as the Spirit guides and give grace to others.  Each must learn to fear God and let Him overrule the other voices in our Moral GPS.  If we pay attention, we know the Bible is not silent.  Proverbs alone contains a lot of relevant wisdom on the subject:

“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” (13:20)
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (18:2)
“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (18:17)
“Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” (20:10)
“Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man,
lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” (22:24-25)

Find news that suits God’s purpose for you and helps you glorify Him.  The world needs Proverbs 14:21 truth, and God requires it.  Like Jesus did wandering the streets of His day, look in your circles – family, church, neighborhood, workplace, state – and have compassion for those who need good news that isn’t in the news.  For some of these people, the institutions of your particular “Pax Romana” failed them – family, community, the courts, the government, even the church.  Perhaps a judge declared against them wrongly?  Perhaps they were a victim of abuse nobody knows about?  Maybe there is some other secret struggle or sin?  A disability, either permanent or temporary?  Perhaps they just don’t fit in with the clique of your neighborhood?  Maybe their employer made a “business decision” that cost them their job?  Some might have been hurt by the pandemic in less-obvious ways: they lost their life savings when their small business went under, they struggle with mental health, they saw their college dreams fall away, and any other number of things.

You won’t hear about many of these people on the news, and often politicians aren’t interested in their problems, especially if it makes their narrative look bad.  Anyway, these lost sheep don’t want publicity.  They just want compassion first, then perhaps help and a way forward.  Or perhaps just compassion and hope.

Individual people can be understood and shown compassion; narratives and statistics can overwhelm us and shut us down.  In the book “Compassion” quoted earlier, the authors write: “When information about human suffering comes to us through a person who can be embraced, it is humanized”.  They also write that the expression “to be moved with compassion” occurs 12 times in the New Testament, always in relation to Jesus or God the Father.  The original Greek behind it suggests not just a passing feeling or sentiment, but something you feel in your guts.  When Jesus found hurting people everywhere He went, His compassion compelled Him to help them.  In feeding people, healing people, and spending time with outcasts, Jesus made it clear that the Pax Romana wasn’t “good news” for everyone.  He wasn’t necessarily trying to pick a fight, but He couldn’t help it.  God is love after all.

You may upset the “Pax Romana” of your time and place, but every “Pax Romana” is illusory and temporary.  Break some rules.  Be creative.  Don’t let anyone recruit you into a cause that isn’t yours and that isn’t God’s.  Don’t let them lay heavy burdens on your shoulders that are impossible for you to bear.  The weight of the world was on the cross, but not your cross.

I’m horrible at compassion but working to do better.  I hope that a lot of us can do better as we emerge from the pandemic more aware of the impact of only seeing the world through windows.

If you are one of the hurting people, reach out for help.  There are likely more people who care, and more resources available, than you know.  You’re not a statistic.

Thank you for reading.

Coda
If you can spare a few more minutes, check out the song, “Never Take It” by twenty øne piløts.  It’s an upbeat sounding, yet defiant, take on how media tries to “weaponize you and I”.  The lyrics are fantastic.
Lyric video
Lyric page

[1] One of the worst things about 2020 was that I knew there were people who hated me for going to a movie theater and “putting lives in danger”
[2] McNeill, Donald P.; Morrison, Douglas A.; Nouwen, Henri J. M.  Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (1982).  I bought this book in 1993 but never read it until re-discovering it recently while looking for another book someone texted me about during a nap.  I decided to read it since compassion is so needed given the societal damage done by the pandemic and related trends.  Glad I did.
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pax_Romana.  Yes, Wikipedia is a lousy source, but this is a blog.
[4] Mark 7:37
[5] Matthew 23:4
[6] Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (1996).

(Originally posted June 2021)

A Man in Need of an Ally (Repost)

Tribalism comes in many forms and isn’t always a bad thing.  I was at a high school football game last night and watched two football teams and two marching bands perform.  All of these groups are examples of tribes formed for common purpose – to perform music and to win games.  With respect and sportsmanship, friendly competition can be a lot of fun.  The Star Spangled Banner sounds great when played by a group, and football can’t be played alone.  But when winning at all costs, an “Us vs. Them” tribalism, takes over, it can be a serious problem.  Athletes and musicians can become bitter, rival cliques, and players on the field can play dirty.  Different tribes stop treating other tribes as people made in God’s image.

The post below from late 2021 tells the story of Jesus’ love for the Jewish tax collector Zacchaeus, where, Jesus was proclaiming a new paradigm, where there is no “Us versus Sinners”, but in His death and resurrection He created a church that is “Him for Them”, and then “Us for Them.”

It is an example of how following Jesus requires overcoming bitter political and religious tribalism with the love of Christ, and one of my favorite posts.

I hope you’ll take the time to read it!

(Estimated reading time 10 minutes)

All You Need is Love, But What is Love?

A recent survey said that only 9% of American adults have a “biblical worldview.”  I’m generally skeptical of polls unless I know how they were done.  After looking into this one, I wonder if I fall in to the 91% of American adults who don’t have a “biblical worldview.”  Why?  In their definition of “biblical worldview” the word “love” was nowhere to be found.  Maybe they thought “love” was too hard to define to base a survey on.  If so, I can understand because love is a complicated thing.

In this survey, “love” was not in the definition, but “absolute moral truth” is, which bothered me not because truth is a bad thing, but because moral law is what condemns us.  Moral law would still exist if Christ had not died for us.  The Gospel, or Good News, of Christianity is that we can be saved despite failing to follow the law. Truth without love is like describing Easter and leaving out the Resurrection.  If we have not love, we have nothing but condemnation.  Love is essential.

But what is love?  Love means many things to different people and is a word people like to leave undefined or use to mean whatever sounds good.  Often people agree that “we should all love each other” without knowing what exactly they’re agreeing on.

Confusion about what love is has been around for a long, long time.  The Bible itself talks about several different kinds of love, making a “biblical worldview” definition harder.  In English translations of the New Testament, the word “love” shows up over and over again, but the Bible wasn’t written in English.  I’m no Greek scholar, but what follows is how I personally understand “love,” and I hope it clarifies rather than confuses.

In Greek, there are at least 4 words for love, including these three:

  • Eros – sexual or passionate love
  • Phileo – this is a root of “Philadelphia”, literally the city of brotherly love.  Loosely, phileo means an affection for people who are “brothers,” who we like because we admire something about them, or because they are like us.
  • Stergo – This is a love toward kindred or family, typically between parents and children.  This love is like a loyalty to those we are related to by blood.

These words and ideas were part of the culture in which Jesus lived, died and rose again over 2,000 years ago.  However, the writers of the New Testament Bible couldn’t line the meaning of these words up with what they wanted to say about Jesus.  Therefore, they took a little-used word – agape – and poured new meaning into it.

A Better Love
Agape is epitomized by the act of Jesus dying on the cross, but also by His selfless love for others repeatedly demonstrated in the gospel records of His life.  Agape is putting the interests of others above the interests of yourself, even if there is no benefit to yourself, or even if there is a significant cost to yourself.  Even if those others don’t love you.  Agape motivates acts of benevolence or charity.

Why is love so important to a Christian worldview?  Not only because if God didn’t love the world, He wouldn’t have sent His only son, but also because if individual Christians leave love out of their worldview, they use “absolute truth” as a reason to judge.  Love that requires sacrifice may be less popular than love that doesn’t, but without it there is no cross.

As I see a Christian worldview, this kind of love is absolutely essential.  From it comes a framework of the entire history of God’s relations with man in three phases: love rejected, love redeemed, and love restored.

Love Rejected
While vague “love” is popular, true agape love is not.  When I took a college class on Interpersonal Psychology, one of the topics was the multiple meanings of love. The professor explained the multiple Greek words used for “love”, but when he got to “agape” he asked if anyone in the class could explain because he didn’t “understand” it (or so he said).  I raised my hand, answered by describing the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, and was snickered at by much of the class.  The professor smiled at me and moved on to the next topic.  He probably set up the same situation every semester.  So, yes, not only does the world often not know what “love” means in a Christian sense, but they actively ridicule it when it’s explained to them.

From Adam and Eve right to the modern day, agape love is the bonds that mankind seeks to break and find their own way.  In an earlier post, I wrote that the “bonds” and “cords” that the world tries to break free from in Psalm 2 are the laws of love for God and for our fellow man.  Jesus summarized all the commandments of the Bible as: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[1]

I recently wrote that “the problem with every person individually is that they are unable, no matter how much external pressure is put on them, to treat other individuals the way they should be treated.”  People like to ask or demand that others practice agape love, but usually for the benefit of themselves.  It is not in our nature to demand it of ourselves first whether or not anyone else reciprocates.

Love Redeemed
People also usually like the idea that every person gets what they deserve – but we are less likely to talk about that for ourselves than for others.  The justice of God demands that anyone who refuses – at any time – to love Him and to love their neighbor should get what they deserve.  He does not miss anything but is perfect in His justice.  Jesus had to live the perfect life of agape love, under the loving guidance of Our Father, not so we won’t have to, but because we can’t.  Without Christianity and without love, the world would never be able to overcome the “Love Rejected” stage.

Christianity is not judgement, but the only way of escape from it: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). If man had not rejected love, Christianity wouldn’t be necessary; but also, if Christianity does not restore mankind to agape love, it’s pointless.  Jesus, by willingly giving the ultimate sacrifice of Himself, satisfied God’s perfect justice and perfect love simultaneously.

By rising from the grave, He is able to share with us the power of agape love, which governs and redeems the other loves:

  • Eros – So many of the personal and societal problems in the world are driven by unconstrained eros.  In agape, God provides boundaries within which eros benefits, rather than harms, humanity.  See an earlier post on Godly Offspring for how God prevails over unconstrained eros even when we fail.
  • Phileo – Unconstrained phileo, which can become what we call tribalism, is behind a lot of the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other group conflicts in the world.  This also is nothing new – God through His Son will redeem us.  I wrote about agape overcoming tribalism in an old post about Jesus reaching out to Zacchaeus the tax collector.
  • Stergo – Families might be expected to be the easiest places to love each other, but they are often where passions run hottest.  James 4:1 says “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”  Only agape provides what is needed to bridge the divide, a love to govern stergo.

A Christian in our world has a restored relationship with God but is only able to practice agape love imperfectly while awaiting a new body in a new heaven and a new earth.

Love Restored
The Bible does not contain a lot of specifics about the eternal life that Christians inherit and it is often misunderstood.  For example, those who think of Christianity as a set of rules that make us “perfect” think they are right to ignore the hope of heaven.  C.S. Lewis says sometimes “our notion of Heaven involves perpetual negations: no food, no drink, no sex, no movement, no mirth, no events, no time, no art.”[2]

But thinking of heaven as love restored helps understand it better.  Elsewhere Lewis reframes heaven as: “When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.”[3]  By obedience he means obedience to loving God and man, and in heaven every person’s ability to love will be as the laws of nature, as reliable and predictable as the rising of the sun every morning or the return of leaves to the trees in the spring.

Also, we will not become something entirely other than what we are now, like an angel, but will be transformed and perfected, while retaining our individuality.  Pastor Tim Keller explains that “Our future, glorified selves will be continuous with who we are now, but the growth into wisdom, goodness, and power will be infinitely greater.”[4]

This is a future worth having.

How to Have This Love
For those who agree that the agape love we lost is the love we need back, Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  He offers a world where every individual person uses their individual talents, gifts and creativity in the best interests of others.  All you have to do is agree to do the same, redeemed by His sacrifice and empowered by His Spirit to do the will of the Father.

How do we accept this offer?
“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” – Romans 10:9-10

If you haven’t already, ask Him to be your Lord and Savior.

Nobody is more or less Christian than Jesus makes them.  No doctrine or experience can replace a loving, personal relationship with our Maker and Lord, who guides and empowers us to love as He does.  If we have not love, we have nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).  Fortunately, in Christianity we have His agape love if we will accept it above all other, lesser loves.  Christianity is not Christianity, and we are not fully ourselves, without it.


[1] From Matthew 22:37 and 39
[2] Lewis, C.S.  The Weight of Glory (1941).  P. 107
[3] Ibid.  P. 43
[4] Keller, Timothy.  Making Sense of God (2016).  P. 170