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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. 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.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” – Exodus 20:2

The 10 commandments are not a list of morals foisted on children or society so they can become blessed by God in some way. God gave them to Israel AFTER he rescued them. The laws govern the relationship and identity of Israel AFTER their escape from slavery. You could say, first God rescues/saves someone, THEN he calls them to follow him as a student (the bible word used is “disciple’).

If you say breaking the 10 commandments is the reason someone is immoral or going to hell, or that keeping them gets you into heaven, you are getting things back to front in more ways than one.

Luther’s Comments on the First Commandment

Luther mentions a few things to unpack his idea that breaking any of the commandments is a result of breaking the first.

“What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress … upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”

In other words, Israel fled from the suffering of national slavery and exile because they wanted to freely enjoy and celebrate being identified with the God of their ancestors.

Luther goes on to explain how this idea of “god” works where we look for enjoyment, freedom and identity.

“… one thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions; he trusts in them and boasts of them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one.

… He who has money and possessions feels secure, and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise.

… whoever trusts and boasts that he possesses great skill, prudence, power, favor friendship, and honor has also a god, …

… the chief explanation of this point is that to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts.”

What does it mean to have a god?

According to Luther, it means the same thing for ancient Israel as it does now. What do you think gives you the freedom to enjoy and celebrate something?

Unless your “god” demands that you exclude everyone from your experience, you will probably influence others to share in the same experience. Maybe you do it via posting pictures of your version of happiness – family, beautiful scenery, favourite food, the ideal job.

Maybe you do it by telling everyone about your mad weekend at the club/resort/shopping centre/casino/stadium. Or if you’re a bit keen, maybe you do it by “sharing the good news” in some other way.

Luther said to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts. That defines how you understand things like safety, significance and success.

God is not known today by obeying 10 commandments. God is known in the historical person of Jesus. One of Jesus’ first followers connected that with the first commandment:

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
~ 1 John 5:20-21

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* The origin of the loose quote is derived from Luther’s booklet, “A Treatise on Good Works” and his commentary on the Large Catechism. Both of these are available in public domain via the Project Wittenberg website.

 

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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 cliché. 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.

 
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Posted by on 27/10/2015 in Bible, church, discipleship

 

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Forgiveness is possible after locusts destroy everything

This is the third of a 3-part note on the theme of forgiveness. After this I’ll move onto some other topics.
Part 1
Part 2
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In this post I touch on a similar idea to one I mentioned a few weeks ago when talking about the differences between forgiveness and trust.
(read more at “Tell it to the Church“, “The truth about trust” and “Forgiving the untrustworthy or trusting the unforgiving“)

When forgiveness is mentioned in the Church today, it can sometimes comes across a little trite. Not always! But, sometimes, it can sound like being a Christian (especially the minister or pastor!) means you must “forgive” and “accept” and accommodate everything about everyone. If not, you can get charged with being intolerant, impatient, being a stumbling block and all sorts of other misconstrued names.

Meg Guillebaud’s book, “After the Locusts” is a story of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda during 1994, and the following years of healing and forgiveness still taking place. Meg goes through the idea of practicing forgiveness and makes a distinction between that and trust and is careful to not fall into the trite and false idea of what it really entails for each of us.

Christian Forgiveness does not:

  • Say that it doesn’t matter
  • Pretend that we have not been hurt
  • Simply obeying a command to do so
  • Simply “forgive & forget”
  • Find an excuse for what has been done
  • Gain peace at any price (sometimes involves a conflict)
  • Leave it with God (i.e. in a way that avoids personal responsibility)
  • Always end in complete reconciliation (between the people involved)
  • Come without restitution

Christian Forgiveness does:

  • Begin with an understanding of what Christ has done
  • Refuse to take revenge (c.f. Romans 12:19)
  • Require an act of the will, not just a feeling
  • Face reality (it is very often painful, but necessary)
  • Accept and forgive ourselves
  • Recognise God’s love and His justice go hand in hand

So it may be that “locusts” have attacked and destroyed your life. That doesn’t mean, as a Christian, you are expected to just shrug it off, absorb and ignore the pain and hurt. As a Christian, if you do that, you’re trying to do something that only Jesus can, did and should do. Nor should you be damning others for not doing so. Forgiveness is a decision – but is it not a choice to be naïve and ignorant or to overlook an offence. It is a means to refer something to a higher and more powerful figure who can address the problem fully and justly.

Forgiveness is not simple. It is not trite. But it is possible, even after your life has been ransacked. Whether by locusts or by heartless, gutless, uncaring buffoons.

 
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Posted by on 27/09/2015 in discipleship, Gospel, Theology

 

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Christians who do not forgive other Christians are not Christian

This is another edited repost and is the 2nd in a 3-part note, following yesterday’s post on bitterness.

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At first the title sounds a little self contradictory. That’s a little like forgiveness. It contradicts our default self. Especially when the person we could forgive is another Christian.  So often in Churches today, people are harbouring hostility towards each other for the most trivial things. Unrealistic expectations and unreasonable demands turn into spiteful hatred. Instead of showing patience and compassion to someone having trouble, the default mode is to treat that as an inconvenience and then punish them for upsetting your default mode of selfish existence.

The familiar words of Jesus … “by this shall all men know” contradict our default mode of selfishness. Self interest takes precedence and our priorities must be preeminent. Someone gets in our way, slows us down, interrupts us or doesn’t act towards or respond to us in the way we want them to (i.e the way we think we are entitled to be treated) we insist on our rights & entitlements. We may not say it exactly, but the attitude is, “I demand you listen to me”, “You have no right to offend me”, etc.

When instructing Timothy, Paul said:

“The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
1 Tim 1:5-12

The Christian gospel message has a consequence of faith that produces love, else our faith (that we pretend to have) is not “sincere”.  As John said:

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
1 John 2:4

This fills out the gospel. It is not limited to Jesus’ death for my sins & forgiveness. It is also about being introduced to a community through which I demonstrate that forgiveness towards others. The gospel emulates Christ’s incarnation. He became flesh, dwelt among us and revealed God to us through his life and obedience to God’s will. As the Father sent Christ, he on-sends us: The call of Christ is to “wear” (i.e. incarnate) the gospel as an act of service in and for Christ to extend his kingdom.

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
1 John 4:12

A lack of forgiveness results in bitterness and is indicative of spiritual death, disbelief & disobedience. Christians who do not forgive each other are not Christian at all.

 
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Posted by on 24/09/2015 in discipleship, Gospel

 

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Ministry is

saving-friend-battle-of-verdunIn a recent discussion around the formation and shape of Christian ministry there was a reflection exercise. In-part, the reflection considered how, if at all, Biblical patterns informed present day ministry practice. The term, “Ministry” can be quite ambiguous and is not simple to define.

Bible passages that stand out to me, (along with many others you could probably mention) are Aaron’s act as described in Numbers 16:47-48. Paul’s description of himself to the Church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 4:7-12), Jesus summary commission recorded in the fourth gospel (John 20:21) and Paul’s commission from God in Acts 26:17-18.

My “reflection” on these is a free-verse composition.

I love you, he said.
Here is everything I have. It’s yours.
I hate you, I replied.
I don’t want what you have.
I will burn it, despise it and destroy all you are.
My pain is too great. I cannot bear it.
I want to die and end it all.
Let me, take it from you, he said.
But why? I replied
It’s worthless, broken and full of shame.
Let me take it from you and give mine instead.
And then he died.
In brokenness, shame and indignity.
I am still broken.
I am NOT destroyed.
I AM re-made.
I have a treasure now he gave me.
Yet. It’s not for me.
It’s for all the broken people I can see.
I can love them. With his love.
Though they hate me.
Their pain is too great and they cannot bear it too.
I can take it from them.
They can be remade.
Because I can die for them.
Death can work in me and life will work in them.
I stand. Between the living and the dead.
He stood for me.

 What is ministry? It’s not heroic. It’s not taken for granted. It is something to live up to … and then die for.

 
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Posted by on 01/05/2015 in church, discipleship, Jesus, leadership, ministry

 

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Wreaking Ball Christians

What sort of ball?

What sort of ball?

 

Conjures up a weird mental image doesn’t it? But this isn’t a reference to a recent song by a wayward pop princess. I’m referring to the old-fashioned way buildings were demolished by swinging an enormous chunk of metal into them to smash them into smithereens. David Murrow wrote a post, “How to wreak your pastor“. It has some great advice, and, sadly, is right on target in the scenarios and examples he uses.

However, the attitude Murrow discusses doesn’t only affect pastors or paid vocational workers in a Church. It also affects the myriad of volunteers who are the real workers in every Church. People who, on top of being parents and holding down a job are investing greatly to run or help out with kids programs, music, hospitality, visitation and administration. On top of all the “free advice” pastors get, there is also the “feedback” and “observations” they receive about how some volunteer isn’t performing to the standard of the complainant.

This narky attitude can demoralise the volunteer who comes under scrutiny and repeatedly is a cause of people dropping out and falling away from Church. That’s not to say that we should be pandering everyone who stacks a chair or picks up a broom, but we also need to check our motivation behind our “feedback.” If it’s not a serious moral or legal failure and isn’t resulting in an undermining of the values and vision of the Church, then let it go! If, for whatever reason you still can’t stand a situation, please DON’T, as Murrow suggests, “ask the Lord if he may be leading you to attend a different church” – instead, get involved and help out yourself?! Leaving because you can’t get your own way, is infantile and gutless.

Alternatively, you could, as Murrow says for the pastor, offer to catch up with the person in question, take them out to lunch and spend some time getting to know them, praying with them and encouraging them. Don’t be a passive aggressive whiner. Realise that your opinion comes from someone who isn’t perfect, doesn’t always know all the facts or all the challenges involved in the ministry you’re so concerned about. There is every likelihood that you are dead wrong.

I was once in a ministry where I was regularly offered the type of advice Murrow mentions. It is exhausting to constantly get kicked in the guts that way. On the other hand, I’m currently in a ministry, where on 2 separate occasions in the last two weeks I’ve been invited out for catch ups by people in our Church that were exactly that: catchups! One was over a coffee, the other lunch, just yesterday. In both cases the people were simply trying to encourage me, see how I was doing and spend time getting to know me. It was such an encouragement!

After all Christians are meant to build each up not wreak and demolish.

 

Related Post:

Don’t Like Your Church? Then Leave. Or …

 
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Posted by on 11/04/2014 in church, Culture, discipleship, ministry

 

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Pancakes, Lent and Jesus

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* A seasonal re-post *

Fat Tuesday” is the day before “Ash Wednesday” which marks a 40 day countdown to Easter Weekend. Got all that? Probably not, unless you were either raised in a liturgical Church or you live in countries where Fat Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday are a big deal.

In Australia this hasn’t been the case so much until recently. Retailers can seize upon as a commercial opportunity and some Church and Community groups use it as a chance to connect and serve their members.

For many Christians, particularly the Catholic, Eastern and Liturgical groups, Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent. A period of sacrifice, penance or fasting in the lead up to the annual observance of Jesus death and resurrection.

Lent is a transliteration of a term with Germanic and Latin roots that means “lengthen” and was synonymous with the Spring season, as in, ‘the days begin to lengthen in Spring’. Thus the name, Lent. That’s all well and good if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, if not, it’s just a weird word.

What lent has come to mean and is now practiced all over the world, is a period of sacrifice or partial fasting. Sanctified weight loss programs exploit the vulnerable, as do anti-cigarette campaigners, alcohol prohibitionists seize the opportunity to get people to quit drinking and all manner of well meaning propaganda finds it’s way into our life. One year a Church leader tried the same angle with iPods. A friend of mine is doing a similar “fast” from Facebook and other social media. I might join him.

Just like Chicken Soup, there’s little harm from abstinence of a few luxuries. Take a break from your iPod if you must, leave off the chocolate and lose a kilo or a belt notch. So long as you beware the trap in thinking that your abstinence somehow makes you closer to God, more loveable to God, or more worthy of his forgiveness, grace and goodness.

Nothing less than Jesus can save you, give you God’s forgiveness and assurance that your heavenly Father loves you enough to send his unique Son to die in the place of sinners. Once Lent is over and Christians celebrate Easter Sunday, it’s not because they get to eat chocolate again. It is because Jesus has put an end to Satan, sin and death and is our sovereign and almighty Lord.

If staying off Facebook or your iPod helps you make that clear to your friends, please go ahead. I wonder though, if you’re not giving up anything for Lent, for whatever reason, how do you view those that do?

 
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Posted by on 05/03/2014 in Culture, discipleship, Jesus, Just for fun

 

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