What Job teaches me about sin

“Sin” is one of those tough words in Christianity. A lot of people outside the faith don’t understand it. Many of them find it off putting. At the same time, many people who claim the name of believer don’t actually know what they mean by the word either.

When I encounter problems like these, I try to stay alert in my Bible reading to clues that might help me see things more clearly. The Book of Job, I find, is a particularly rich resource.

In the course of his self-defense against his friends, Job provides evidence of his innocence. In Job 31, he lists many sins for which he claims to bear no guilt. Here is a quick summary of his list:

  • He does not walk with falsehood or hurry after deceit (31:5)
  • He has not let attractive or alluring or appetizing things control his choices (31:7)
  • He has not lusted after a woman who is not his wife (31:9)
  • He has not denied justice to his servants when they have fair complaints against him (31:13)
  • He has not refused to share his bread, support, or clothing with the poor, the orphan, and the widow (31:16-19)
  • He has not let injustice against the poor occur in court without offering his help (31:21)
  • He has not put his trust in gold (31:24)
  • He has not worshiped the sun or moon (31:26)
  • He has not rejoiced at his enemy’s misfortune (31:29)
  • He has not cursed his enemies (31:30)
  • He has not closed his doors to the traveler or stranger (31:32)
  • He has not hidden from the people who might see whether he has sinned (31:33-34)
  • He has not been unjust to the people who farm on his land (31:39)

This may not be an exhaustive list of sin. But it certainly is long enough to challenge us to examine our own lives.

And most importantly, Job understands that the court of this judgment is not ultimately his own heart or the opinion of his friends, but God: “What will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account?” (31:14)

God in the Bible has given us some clear teaching about what he expects of us. He has also left us with some teaching that we find more difficult to sort out. In the end, the proper frame of reference the judgment of God. How will we stand before God when called to account?

Why bone cancer does not shake my faith

British actor and comedian Stephen Fry caused a bit of a storm in some sectors of the Internet recently. In an interview he was asked what he would say to God if he met him at the pearly gates:

His language is powerful. He delivers his message well. I can see why it has stirred up people.

Of course, it is not original. Humans have been angry about suffering and death from the first. Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and Lamentations all give voice to the range of despair and anger that both atheists and the faithful have raised for as long as humans have drawn breath.

Fry suggests that bone cancer and other afflictions reveal God’s character — if he exists — as a cruel, selfish, and insane god not worthy of worship. What person who has lived any life at all does not understand the pain and anger expressed by such accusations?

I am writing this post on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians gather in worship to be reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. It is a day we remember and are reminded that we will all one day die.

If faith is only possible to us in a world without suffering or pain, then faith will be impossible for us until the end of all days.

Of course, if a man is determined to face mortality and suffering by spitting in the eye of God, we cannot reason him out of his plan. We certainly don’t do any honor to God by getting angry at him or posting nasty things about him on the Internet.

If Fry professed to be a Christian and said such things, it would be cause for some church teaching and perhaps discipline. But he is not of our tribe. We can and should be ready to explain the hope that is in us. We should be ready to offer him Christ. We should pray for God to bless him. But we should not be surprised by his outrage.

Our Bible speaks of the same kind of anger and fear. We know suffering and pain. Ashes and dust await us all. And yet God is God.

Reading & living with humility

For a number of years now I’ve been attracted to William J. Abraham’s contention that scripture is a means of grace rather than a source of claims and facts to settle theological arguments. (He does not use those exact words, but I think that is fair to what he means.)

The longer form of his argument can be found in this book. A less exhaustive version can be found here.

As a means of grace, the Bible challenges us and calls us into the life of God. Its complexity and internal arguments are not problems to be solved. They are rather reminders that we see now only in part. The Holy Spirit uses the Bible to meet us in different ways at different times, calling us ever deeper into the life of God.

If this is true, then one of the things we are called to surrender to the Holy Spirit is our need for certainty. Not only is the truth the Spirit teaches me today not necessarily the same the truth you need to be taught, it may not even be the same truth I need to learn tomorrow or next year.

This kind of attitude toward scripture plays havoc with our desire for certainty and system. All those virtuoso tomes of systematic theology are beautiful but can never be the final word. No pastor — no matter how successful — can ever claim to have captured the final truth of faith. No blogger — heaven help us — has been given full access to the mind of God. We all must be more humble than that.

And this humility must extend especially to the forms of Christian life and faith that we find least comporting with our own. My theologically liberal friends who sneer at the Sinner’s Prayer and greet with incredulity talk of spiritual healing and demonic attack could be more humble, as could my theologically conservative friends who did not know how to comment on the recent death of Marcus Borg without first pointing out that they disagreed with a lot he wrote and find themselves wanting to put air quotes around the word “Christian” when they refer to some of their brothers and sisters.

I know these comments extend to me as well. In recent months, I’ve learned the hard way that things I once regarded as certain can quickly melt into nothing. I have been guilty as any of confusing what appeared to be clear for the whole truth.

Yes, to exist, the church needs borders and boundaries. It needs bishops to exercise discipline. I do not for a moment doubt that. But I am reminded these days that I am not a bishop, nor am I well suited for that office.

Part of humility may be leaving to those called to that office the tasks of that office, even when it looks from my vantage point as if they could or should be doing something differently than they are.

The great paradox I feel in all this is that while we are called to be humble about what we think we know of God, we are not called to sit on our hands. What we know only in part should still should shape the way we live and act, while we remain ever ready for the Holy Spirit to challenge and call us into new paths.

And so, today I find myself seeking to be more humble about what I know even as I — perhaps paradoxically — try to be even more intent on following the one who has called me.

Augustine on the many truths in scripture

Above all, I heard first one, then another, then many difficult passages in the Old Testament scriptures figuratively interpreted, where I, by taking them literally, had found them to kill. So after several passages in the Old Testament had been expounded spiritually, I now found fault with that despair of mine, caused by my belief that the law and the prophets could not be defended at all against the mockery of hostile critics.

The first time I read Augustine’s Confessions, I was reading for the spiritual biography. I was interested in the pear stealing and the sex and the word that came to him in the garden and his eventual baptism. It was a story I read as a type of conversion narrative.

In re-reading the book this month, I’ve been struck by the depth of engagement with the meaning, interpretation, and reception of the Bible. His concerns and struggles sound very contemporary, and his solutions do as well.

In his engagement with Genesis at the end of the book – a part I skimmed through without much attention the first time I read it – I find myself fascinated with the non-dogmatic nature of his conclusions about how to read the scripture. I hear the Wesleyan “think and let think” now as at least a partial echo of Augustine.

Here, for instance, is Augustine on how to reconcile that fact that different people read the opening lines of Genesis in different ways, some of them incompatible with each other, but none of them incompatible with a high view of God.

So when one person has said ‘Moses thought what I say,’ and another, ‘No, what I say,’ I think it more religious in spirit to say ‘Why not both if both are true?’ And if anyone sees a third or fourth or a further truth in these words, why not believe that Moses discerned all these things? For through him the one God has tempered the sacred books to the interpretation of many, who could come to see a diversity of truths.

I don’t want to either misrepresent what Augustine was really getting at here or oversimplify the point, but I do hear in this a basic impulse against a tendency we I often have – and I often feel – that if we can’t all read the Bible in fairly similar ways, then something is wrong.

Augustine opens up the possibility that there may be many truths within the text. I find this a fascinating thing to discover reading this book by this great church father.

God is not cuddly

Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? (Job 40:8)

There seems to be a thing these days in condemning the Book of Joshua as sub-biblical. The violence of the book repels many people. It strikes them as out of character with the portrait of Jesus they carry around in their heads. The idea that God would sanction and command the slaughter of an entire people horrifies people.

I share the horror.

But I don’t understand why we are so quick to clear the name of God by explaining away the Book of Joshua. I don’t understand it because it is not like Joshua is the only book in the Bible that is violent.

Take Exodus, for example. Consider for just a moment what happened at Passover.

So Moses said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt — worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.'” (Exodus 11:4-6)

How cuddly is this God?

Why is it that we cannot tolerate an image of God that terrifies us? Why do we try to shove him into a Care Bear’s costume when the Bible clearly does not. You can rip out Joshua, but you can’t escape the revelation of God as a “consuming fire.”

Why is this so hard for us?

Torah and the church?

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:1-5, NIV)

I’ve had my two semesters of required Old Testament study, and still I struggle with the proper way to understand the application of Torah to the church.

What are the best books you have read on this topic?

What other resources have helped you?