God Offers More Than Bread and Circuses

Fans of the dystopian Hunger Games novels and movies know that the story takes place in a country called Panem.  There, the extravagantly wealthy Capitol district holds an annual, televised battle royale, The Hunger Games, where children from each of the 12 desperately poor districts fight to the death until there is only one remaining.  The purpose of these demented Games is to remind the people of the power of the Capitol, but also to provide entertainment.  But why is the country called Panem?

Panem is likely a reference to the Latin phrase “panem et circenses,” or “bread and circuses,” which “means to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or public policy, but by diversion, distraction, or by satisfying the most immediate or base requirements of a populace, by offering a palliative: for example food (bread) or entertainment (circuses).”[1]  Under this way of thinking, for a government to remain in power it needs to provide the basic needs of its people.  For an especially cynical government, it would mean they need only provide just enough bread and just enough circuses to keep the population from overthrowing them.

The Colosseum in Rome – a site of ancient “circuses.” Photo by Federico Di Dio photography on Unsplash

In the case of The Hunger Games, the Capitol reminded the other districts that they could have no bread (panem) without the Capitol’s “benevolence,” and that the only entertainment (circuses) they get is to watch their children kill each other.  Talk about a government providing the very bare minimum!

The Hunger Games is obviously an extreme example, but fortunately, Christianity offers a better answer than just the bare minimum of “panem et circenses.”   What benefits does it offer?  Psalm 103 in the Bible begins in the first 2 verses with a call to:

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
            and all that is within me,
            bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
            and forget not all his benefits

And what are these benefits?  Is it just more “bread and circuses”?  It is, as verses 3-5 tell us that the Lord is the one:

who forgives all your iniquity,
            who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
            who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
            so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

This Psalm says He can take care of both our spiritual and physical maladies.  Jesus performed many miracles, so we “may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”[2] solving our spiritual alienation from God and each other.  Likewise, the body’s diseases do not heal magically or by chance; they heal because God created us with that ability.  He is the Great Physician.[3]

Also, He is the One who can save us “from the pit” – from ourselves and the punishment that our sin deserves, replacing our banishment from God’s presence with “love and mercy.”  He is the One who has the perspective needed to define what is good, and as our Maker, knows what we need to thrive and be renewed.  He offers many benefits we cannot find anywhere else.

Not just the fictional Panem, but all the nations of the real world, have nothing to offer but varying degrees of bread and circuses, various diversions and distractions and palliatives.  No government in the world can provide the benefits God provides – those listed in Psalm 103 – and therefore only God offers what can truly satisfy.  Therefore,

“Bless the LORD, O my soul,
            and forget not all his benefits

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bread_and_circuses
[2] Matthew 9:6, Mark 2:20, Luke 5:24
[3] Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31

His Story Needs No Revision

Journalism, particularly newspaper journalism, is sometimes referred to as “the first rough draft of history.”  This phrase is usually attributed to Philip Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post.  It’s a useful phrase because it is flattering to journalists to know that their work is important and meaningful, but also a reminder that their work is inherently imperfect and in need of later revision.  Particularly under deadline pressure, it is impossible to know all the relevant facts and potential angles of any story.  Unavoidable and expedient choices and compromises must be made.  The saying came to mind when I recently read Psalm 33:10-11, which says:

The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
            he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the LORD stands forever,
            the plans of his heart to all generations.

As I’ve written before, total objectivity is “theoretically impossible for anyone but God Himself.”  The best any news reporting can do is cover a tiny piece of what happens in the world, screening it using whatever judgment they decide to use, and applying imperfect ethical standards.  As I’ve also written, “The dots of the pointillistic narrative are never the full picture and sometimes aren’t the right color.”  Thus is the “counsel of the nations” – incomplete by necessity, biased by choice, and morally imperfect by nature.

In contrast, what God says is true is always true, unlike the 24/7 news cycle where truth is constantly under revision.  The “counsel of the LORD” contains everything we need to know about His plans, is designed by His choice to benefit those He loves, and morally perfect because His nature is holy.  If better counsel existed, He would know about it.  His counsel reliably informs us about how He wants us to view the events of the world, rather than the other way around.  His plans frustrate and overcome the “plans of the peoples”, rather than the other way around.

When Jesus said on the cross that “it is finished,”[1] His payment for our sins was complete.  He lived a perfect life in our place, so that He could be a perfect sacrifice and atone for all the sins of His people in all times and all places.  This was not a rough first draft, but the flawless consummation of God’s plan for salvation “to all generations.”  Jesus made no flawed choices for the sake of expedience, and His work can be trusted at all times.  Whatever you see in the news today, the Good News of the kingdom of heaven is more important, more trustworthy, and provides comfort for your soul.

His Story is the first draft, but it is also the only draft because none other is needed.  His Story needs no revision.

Our soul waits for the LORD;
            he is our help and our shield.
For our heart is glad in him,
            because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us,
            even as we hope in you.” – Psalm 33:20-22

[1] John 19:30

“Consider Well Her Ramparts”: Participating in the Psalms

Reading the Psalms is a great devotional habit, and every now and then a Psalm or a section of a Psalm gives instructions to its reader.  The author is inviting us to participate in something about God that they have experienced by taking specific actions.  Earlier posts on participating in the Psalms (here, here, and here) have covered Psalms 96 and 100, which asked us to sing a new song and to give thanks, respectively.  Today’s post is about Psalm 48, which is a little harder to see how to participate.  Most of the Psalm praises God by talking about His city, Jerusalem, and His mountain, Mount Zion.  If our God’s dwelling place is worthy of praise, then He must be as well.  The “participating” part comes at the end, with verses 12-14:

Walk about Zion, go around her,
            number her towers,
consider well her ramparts,
            go through her citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
            that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
            He will guide us forever.

The Psalmist wrote in ancient times that it was worth it to take the time to walk around Zion, to consider the things of God and not just gloss over them quickly, but how do we do that when Christians do not consider Jerusalem and Mount Zion to be the dwelling place of God?  How do we “consider well her ramparts”?

Currently, what was represented by the temple in Jerusalem on Mount Zion is represented by His body of believers, indwelt by His Holy Spirit.  Peter wrote that members of the church, “like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”[1]  Therefore, do we participate in this Psalm by considering God’s strength through the church throughout history?  When we consider the “towers”, “ramparts”, and “citadels” of the church, do we consider the great “cloud of witnesses” listed in Hebrews 12, in addition to the faithful members of the church through the centuries since then?

Do we consider well not only the strength God has given His church through history, but also the strength that He protects it with even now?  Do we consider our own “ramparts” – the armor of God listed in Ephesians 6:13-17 –

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.  Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.  In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Consideration takes time, so to participate in this Psalm take some time, if not today then soon, to consider God’s strength as shown through a person in the Bible, in church history, or even your own community or family.  Praise God for His strength and protection over His faithful!

As the “Sons of Korah” who wrote Psalm 48 believed, it’s worth the time and effort to:

Walk about Zion, go around her,
            number her towers,
consider well her ramparts,
            go through her citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
            that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
            He will guide us forever.

Many of this blog’s posts on History (click here) are a decent starting point.

[1] 1 Peter 2:5

An Ethic That Prioritizes the Gospel

The gospel is more than just the good news that Jesus took the punishment for our sin, dying for sinners like us so that we may be saved.  The gospel is also the good news of what the punishment has been replaced with – the kingdom of heaven.  If the gospel is about a kingdom, our lives should reflect the values of our King and we should seek for others what our King would offer.

This post, another in the series on James 1:27 (“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world,”) is about that verse as an ethic that prioritizes the gospel over all other issues by looking briefly at the issue of slavery.

The period of the American Civil War was similar to modern times in its obsession over issues.  While its naïve and vastly simplified to say the North was anti-slavery and the South was pro-slavery, it is not entirely false either.  Those views were typical of many in each area.  Both sides had a high conviction in their cause, using the Bible to justify why their side needed to win, and at what costs.

Paul’s Concern Was for Individuals
Part of the reason for this confusion comes from the apostle Paul’s comments on slavery, which seem ambivalent to many on the actual issue of slavery.  One relevant passage is Ephesians 6:5-9, in which Paul writes:

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.  Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”

Verses like these were used to justify slavery during the American Civil War and at other times, by people claiming that Paul did not condemn it.  Since the War, others have said that Paul was cruel not to condemn slavery and a few even refuse to read Paul’s words in the Bible, claiming they have no authority because of this cruelty.  This topic goes way beyond what can be covered here, but the reason for Paul’s seeming ambivalence on the issue is that his focus was somewhere else: on the specific individuals involved in all aspects of slavery, including both masters and slaves.  He even addresses them directly and separately: “Bondservants” and “Masters.”  One group was to follow what was addressed to them, and the other group was to follow what was addressed to them.  Why did he take this approach?  Because people matter more than issues.

Having no power to end slavery, which still exists today, Paul did have influence and authority as an apostle to improve the lives of specific masters (who would have to justify their actions to God), and of specific slaves (who would have to do the same).  Paul knew the real question before him was: If slavery currently exists and I have no power to end it, should I do nothing to improve the condition of slaves until slavery is 100% abolished?  Should Paul have focused on ending slavery, or on improving the lives of people affected by it, and offering them a way to eternal life without slavery?  Paul knew God’s heart goes out to individual souls, and the issue of slavery would be eliminated in eternity.  However, many would condemn Paul for not going straight to an all-or-nothing, hyperbolic position we expect when talking about issues.  Also, it’s not necessarily an either/or, but a matter of priority and emphasis.

Some approach contentious issues like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, “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.[1]  These burdens take the form of ostracism, public humiliation, insistence on use of #hashtags and slogans, rude comments, and other means of hating others simply because those others don’t think the weight of all the issues in the entire world need to be on everyone’s shoulders.  But Paul presents a contrast to this.  He knew God called him to proclaim grace and peace to all people, in Jesus’ name.  Paul’s ministry saved many souls for an eternity where slavery is no longer an issue, and in the meantime, slavery still exists as an issue people mistreat each other over.  Yes, we should fight for peace and justice, but not at the expense of individuals, on either side.

D. A. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, said, “The overthrowing of slavery, then, is through the transformation of men and women by the gospel rather than through merely changing an economic system…In the final analysis, if you want lasting change, you’ve got to transform the hearts of human beings. And that was Jesus’ mission.”[2]

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”  This should be our main concern as well.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

To start the series on James 1:27 from the beginning, the first post is at this link.

[1] Matthew 23:4
[2] Strobel, Lee.  The Case for Christ (1998).  P. 168

The Affair of the Sausages: History for March 9

The idea that the Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther nailing the ninety-five theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany is fairly well known.  Less known is that the spark for Reformation in nearby Switzerland was a controversy over sausages.

March 9th was the first day of Lent in 1522, and Huldrych Zwingli, a pastor in Zurich, Switzerland, was the guest of printer Christoph Froschauer, who published some of Zwingli’s sermons and later his translation of the Bible into German.  Froschauer, working long hours with his staff, invited Zwingli to dinner on March 9th and served slices of smoked sausage to fortify everyone for the work ahead.  However, during Lent eating meat was illegal under the Catholic church-run government at the time, and Zwingli was arrested along with others at the dinner.

Photo by Rich Smith on Unsplash

Zwingli said he did not eat any sausage and so was spared the indignity of arrest, but the event was a turning point for him, and about one month later he preached a sermon titled “Freedom of Choice and Selection of Food” where he argued for freedom of conscience regarding observance of Lent.  The sum of the sermon was: “if you want to fast, do so; if you do not want to eat meat, don’t eat it; but allow Christians a free choice.”[1]

Zwingli, having previously been only loosely connected to Martin Luther and other Reformation figures and ideas, was appalled by the prioritization of state and priestly authority over the authority of God in each person’s heart:

“If you would be a Christian at heart, act in this way. If the spirit of your belief teaches you thus, then fast, but grant also your neighbor the privilege of Christian liberty, and fear God greatly, if you have transgressed his laws, nor make what man has invented greater before God than what God himself has commanded…You should neither scorn nor approve anyone for any reason connected with food or with feast days whether observed or not.”

Also in the sermon, Zwingli emphasizes the “why” a Christian does what he does over the “what”:

“Here is another sign of the times. I think that there is danger of this age being evil and corrupt rather than reaching out towards everlasting righteousness. Further, simple people think everything is all right if they go to confession in Lent only, observe the fast, take Communion and thus account for the whole year. God should, however, be acknowledged at all times and our life should be one of piety, whereas we act to the contrary when we think that it is quite enough if we pay attention only to the times of fasting whereas Christ says, ‘Be vigilant: for you know not the day or the hour’”

In an earlier post on Lent, I wrote that whatever our liturgy, it is useless as a “bargaining chip” with God, and that “if we do not value the prize – God Himself – nothing we give up for Lent will make us – or God Himself – happy.”  Zwingli became a forceful voice during the Reformation arguing that external pressure from church and state can strip us of grace and enslave us to legalism, but he also recognized with Paul that “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things[2]  Self-control cannot be forced by others, but in search of an “imperishable” prize, each should prayerfully consider the disciplines that help them better serve God, in accordance with His word, while showing grace towards others who God may ask to behave differently.  Not all athletes compete in the same events and train the same way.

Closing Note
I once considered naming this blog “Lenten Sausages” after the events described above, but that might have defined the blog as what it’s against.  Instead, the current name emphasizes the common destiny of all for whom Christ was crucified.  Every Christian became one because of Christ.  Before there were Protestants there were Christians.  Many of them.  After there were Protestants there are Catholic believers and Protestant nonbelievers, and vice versa.  One man’s liturgy is sometimes another man’s legalism.  Regardless of what’s on the sign in front of your church, it’s what’s inside that matters.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Zwingli, Huldrych.  “Freedom of Choice and Selection of Food.”  (1522)
[2] 1 Corinthians 9:25