Martin Luther: What does it mean to have a god?

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People talking today about the 10 commandments often loosely quote* the reformer Martin Luther saying, breaking any of the commandments is always a result of breaking the first – i.e. in other words, idolatry – or trusting in and worshiping someone or something other than the personal God who gave Israel the 10 commandments.

Background to the 10 Commandments

The first time the 10 commandments appear in the Bible is when God gave them to Moses. Israel had just dramatically escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt. The introduction to the first commandment mentions this, even though it is often left out.

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Leviticus your neighbour

No, it’s not a naughty word, nor is it the title of a film about the life of Nelson Mandela 😉

It’s the 3rd book of the Bible. It’s one of the bits with all the gory sacrifices and (seemingly!) obsolete laws and rituals.

This time of year, many Christians make resolutions and plans to read through the Bible in the coming year. It’s a commendable goal and regular bible reading (& study, in context, history and genre etc) is part of the life of anyone who is serious about knowing, believing in, trusting and living for God. However in an average reading plan, of a few chapters a day (8-15min) many people come unstuck somewhere around the end of January.

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Not all intentions are equal

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Constantly maligned, often verbally abused, bashed, beaten, left for dead, sold into forced slavery, framed and falsely accused by an employer, forgotten and taken advantage of by peers, … but then … in what would today make a regular (and predictable) plot line of a book or movie about the rise of the underdog, he arises, proves himself, gets promoted to prime minister and quite literally saves several nations. At the height of his success and newly received power he has the chance to face his childhood abusers and tormentors. Justice, as most would understand it, is at hand. But Joseph decides to turn away from the expectations of others. He does not allow his past to define and control him now or dictate his future. He will not be restricted by the expectations of others, especially the bullies.

The Joseph story has a strong emotional appeal. Those facing physical abuse, psychological manipulation, trauma, financial loss, unwarranted ill-deserved threats and intimidation find an alternate and uplifting perspective in Joseph’s words when he has the opportunity to confront his bullies.

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done” Genesis 50.20

The trap that snares modern applications of Joseph’s words is when God’s intentions are superficially equated with an abuser and tormentor. To say God “intends” someone to be abused to carry out his purpose maligns his character while simultaneously elevating the character of the bully.

A full parallel to Joseph, (as the saviour & redeemer of nations) is arrogant. The underlying principle is to respond in kind. The nature of torment and harassment is to dominate, manipulate and control through a façade of power (physical, financial, social). Those without self-respect, (like substance addicts who seek gratification in getting a fix by any means available), derive their own value through the debasement of others. Any, they can find.

Joseph’s brothers attacked and left him for dead (and later sold into slavery) to elevate themselves in the esteem of their father. They saw Joseph as a threat to their financial security and their control over their father’s wealth. The motivation is one of the oldest and most common: Bullying to gain/keep power for pleasure. Bullies, whether they profess to be Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, Secularist, Communist, all have the same thing in common: a deviance that derives pleasure from inflicting suffering on those they can (try!) to dominate and control.

Joseph’s conclusion is not a trite escapist clichĂ©. The mistreatment of those with depraved motives does not define him. It clearly took incredible strength of will, but Joseph chose not to surrender to his brother’s agenda. He suffered. It cost him immensely: emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, socially, financially and geographically. But whether he was to live or die, it would not be on their terms.

Many who defy the agenda of abuse, torment, harassment, bullying and intimidation don’t experience the same subsequent prosperity as Joseph. Their resilience will erode the bully’s agenda, pleasure and power. But Joseph is not defining himself by their downfall anymore than he is allowing their torment to control his outlook and purpose. He decides not to play by their rules. He doesn’t play their game at all. The pay off in Joseph’s case was a reward from Pharaoh – a temporal King of kings. A pay off today comes when I realise that the bully isn’t my King and doesn’t have the last say in my value, purpose and destiny.

I realise, all too painfully, after having relocated, 6 months ago, away from a source of deviance and loss, that this is too easy to say and much harder to live out. It takes courage and, well, old-fashioned intestinal fortitude (i.e. guts!). Maybe things will “turn out for the better”. Regardless, the flaccid façade of the bully will be deflated and another King reigns, upright and more properly, in their place.

Forgiving the untrustworthy or trusting the unforgiving

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One of recurring themes of the Older Testament or first part of the bible (written before the time of Jesus) is found in the way the writers and speakers referred to Moses’ character creed of God found in the book of Exodus 34:6-7.

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

Both supporters and opponents to the Bible have said much about what this means and implies about the character of the God of the Bible. One thing both will agree upon is that this is a particular reference to the unfolding story of the nation of Israel. As Israel’s story develops, forgiveness is one of the major features displayed by God towards the people he rescued from slavery in Egypt. Also, as a people group or nation, they were held to a higher standard of accountability as the ones who represent God.

When Jesus arrived on the scene, he taught how this applies to all people who follow God. If they represent him, they will experience his forgiveness, but will also have to live by a standard of justice and fairness. A standard, when they become mature enough, they will be expected to apply to each other. If you are going to be a God follower and enjoy the benefits of forgiveness, then you need to lead the way in integrity and honesty.

Jesus is quoted as recommending his people be indiscriminate in their forgiveness towards each other. He is also quoted providing a summary of how to be fair in addressing and dealing with each other’s failures and indiscretions. (mentioned in the last two posts.) Both of the quotes are simple and brief. They aren’t meant to be exhaustive processes but provide overarching principles.

Integrity requires that indiscretions be dealt with openly and publicly, not ignored or handled secretively. Forgiveness does not equate to fully entrusting someone who has not proven trustworthy. But how does this framework deal with trusting people upfront, i.e. those that haven’t (yet?) knowingly wronged you? Should you trust them? Is everyone to be trusted until proven untrustworthy along the same line of innocent until proven guilty?

This is especially relevant in a Church or Christian context. Is it healthy to have a slightly cynical attitude or suspicious concern towards a Christian leader until you get to know them better? For many people who have been hurt and betrayed by ruthless, dishonest leaders slight cynicism becomes overriding bitterness and hatred. This kind of distrust is found in other areas of life as well, for instance the endemic hatred of politicians or disrespect for police. Trying to come up with some superficial version of a solution only entrenches people in their bitterness and pain and makes others vulnerable to being exploited by the next corrupt leader. But there might be an indicator that can warn you off and help you avoid a dangerous situation.

This is found in a quote from Peter, one of Jesus’ followers. When describing trustworthy leaders who represent Jesus, Peter mentions they are “not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock”. He goes on to mention “God opposes the proud.” There’s the warning sign. If you encounter a leader who thinks he’s above everyone else, then, as I’ve said before, “Get out of dodge!

In an interview to become pastor of a church, the leader (or secretary) of the group said to me, “My name is *Barry, I’ve been a Christian longer than you’ve been alive. What are you going to teach me?
At the time, I was a little nervous about the interview, but it did cause some alarm bells to start ringing. I should have run away from that job as fast and far as I could!

Sometime later, when, as the Pastor of that Church, I was explaining why I had ‘told the church‘ about the sinful actions of an ex-member who had been harassing and threatening my family, that same leader shouted, “You should have asked me first. I am the secretary and I am more responsible for the welfare of this church than you or any other pastor.

The alarm bells were screaming! But it was too late. This leader was being the opposite of what Peter was describing. In his mind, he, not God, was the most important person. He epitomized the reason that many people continue to leave Churches with hurt, hate and distrust of proud, arrogant and dishonest leaders.

He displayed the opposite kind of character Moses recorded in Exodus. He was a roaring lion seeking to devour anyone who stood in his way. So while I may forgive him, I certainly cannot and will not trust him. His behaviour and actions do not represent God and I do not need to allow him to affect my view of God’s character. I can take the anxiety he caused through his actions and commit that to God, who will not hold him guiltless for his injustice. The lion will become impotent.

wetsecretary*not his real name

The truth about trust

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The 1994 Season One finale of X-Files featured the tag line “Trust No One“. It was a warning of the inevitable deceit and betrayal awaiting anyone gullible enough to buy into cover ups perpetuated by authorities about the real causes of unusual and paranormal activities investigated by the show’s characters each week.

As a meme it represents cynicism that eschews personal transparency and vulnerability. It often covers the frustration and pain suffered by those who have experienced betrayal, deceit and abuse first-hand.

A contrasting response promoted by some says that you can and should have faith in people, give them the benefit of the doubt and trust them. This is a well-intentioned attempt to avoid negativity and anti-social cynicism.

In my last post I outlined the simple starting point for an approach Christians follow when addressing one another when they sin. The approach is based on a brief quote by Jesus, mentioned in the book of Matthew, about one of the ways people of the Church represent God. The goal in that quote is forgiveness and restoration of relationships. A similar quote is found in the book of Luke, also stressing the importance of forgiveness.

Jesus said to his disciples: 
 “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Like the Matthew quote, this is brief and doesn’t cover every possible aspect or scenario. It doesn’t mention what consequences might apply for different types of sins. The context, in Luke, is the magnitude of God’s forgiveness. We can never put God in our debt. A humble follower of God will never consider anyone else in their debt either, whether through wrong-doing or otherwise. The Genesis story of Lamech, a descendent of Cain, comes to mind. Lamech insisted that anyone who injured him would receive seventy-seven times the vengeance. Here Jesus says, “No.” It’s no wonder the apostles with Jesus responded with a plea to increase their faith.

It is one thing to forgive. It was freely received, so ought to be freely given. It is another altogether to trust the forgiven one. Forgiving someone who has done wrong against you does not require that you trust them or freely allow yourself to be harmed by them again.

For example, if I owe a bank $5000 and I can’t afford to repay it. They may choose to forgive the debt and write it off. I will no longer owe the amount. They will not prosecute me for not paying and won’t pursue the payment. However, if I was to come back the next day and try to borrow another $5000, or even just $1000, the bank will not trust me to repay them and won’t lend me the money.

In the same way, if someone has hurt, offended, harassed, bullied, intimidated or abused you. You may, if you choose, forgive them and not seek to prosecute them or have them charged for the offense. You are not required to entrust yourself to them only to risk them repeating the offense. The Apostle Paul wrote of how he evaded capture and attacks. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can to survive and keep going forward in your life is to run away from those trying to hurt you.

This doesn’t mean you’re not forgiving. It means you’re not trusting the person or people to hurt you again. Women and children should never to be told to stay in an abusive relationship or to trust an abuser. The abuser may have said sorry. The abuser may be genuine in their remorse and regret for their action. But while forgiveness is given freely, trust is not.

How do you know if or when the person is trustworthy? Maybe you never will. But you have no reason to feel as though you have failed in some way because someone else has not yet proven trustworthy. Go back to the bank example again. In some cases after failing to meet a loan payment, you will need to wait seven years or longer and then show evidence of positive changes to your saving and payment habits before the bank will talk to you about borrowing. Someone who has “borrowed” your trust in the past and not repaid it isn’t in your debt in the same way you are to a bank. If they can’t show evidence of positive change then you have no obligation to “loan” your trust to them.

You don’t need to be as cynical as Agents Mulder and Scully, but you don’t have to believe everyone either. They are not in your debt, and you are definitely not in theirs. The truth is out there.