The “sin” of Sodom and Gomorrah

I’m going to do a brief breakdown on why the Sodom and Gomorrah text in Genesis and its “partner” in Jude is not about homosexuality at all.

I think it’s best to start with the text in Ezekiel. If anyone needs an explanation as to why the cities were destroyed, look no further: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it” (NRSV, Ezekiel 16:49-50).

There is nothing in this text which eludes to homosexuality. And there is a stark difference between homosexuality as a definition and sexual immorality. As I stated in one of my earlier blogs, our English word, homosexuality, didn’t even step onto the scene until the late 19th century. By this time there were already several English translations of Scripture; the most famous being the King James Version which was created in 1611; two hundred years prior to the word homosexuality even existing. The word that was there was sodomite. This is important because the connotations that this word now carries to us in the 21st century are much different than what it would’ve meant to the Ancient Near Eastern audience (Boswell).

What it would’ve looked like to Ancient Near Easterners is exactly what is described in the Ezekiel text. It is clear throughout the Old Testament and in the Genesis version of the story that Sodom and Gomorrah were infamously known and destroyed because of their inhospitality. In our era of safety and individualism this is almost unthinkable. But, in the Ancient Near East, hospitality determined someone’s very survival.

The men in Sodom wanted to gang rape the angel visiting Lot. This was to humiliate the guest and the host (Lot); since Lot himself was a foreigner staying in the city. The word Sodomite, therefore,  would be associated with violence, humiliation, and inhospitality. The men of the city had no innate desire for same-sex partners nor were they seeking a loving and consensual relationship…obviously. They were trying to make these foreign guests humiliated by violently forcing them into a non-consensual sex act; which is degrading–and which also supports the idea and concept that the city and the people in it where inhospitable and abominable. Even if there were frequencies of violent gang rape occuring, this would only speak to violent gang rape and sexual immorality in and of itself. This has nothing to do with homosexuality; where someone is attracted to and desires a committed, monogamous, partnership with someone of the same sex. This is the desire for the gay Christian and there can be no comparisons to this and the story in Genesis about Sodom. Case closed.

The only time in Scripture where any sexual reference to Sodom and Gomorrah is used is in Jude in the New  Testament. The author states, “…just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire” (NASB, Jud 7:7).

The Greek words for strange flesh in this passage are: sarkos (flesh; body) and heteros (other; different; another). If the author were emphasizing the homosexual aspect of this in Jude, they certainly do a pretty vague job. This is an obvious reference to going after angelic (other; different) flesh. Remember, the men in the city weren’t trying to rape other men in the instance recorded in Genesis; which Jude is referring back to. If they were, and if this were an ongoing issue in Sodom, the author could have additionally added and used words in Greek like, same flesh or male flesh. Instead, the author chooses the word, heteros, denoting the differences between the men living in Sodom and their angelic victims/ travelers. In addition, there are perfectly good Greek words for men–Anthropos or Aner–neither of these are used nor are they ever mentioned about Sodom and Gomorrah throughout the rest of Scripture regarding the desire of the men in Sodom and any made up idea that they were wild homosexuals on a rampage to have sex with other men; something to be noted and taken seriously. This would, again, directly support the reference in Ezekiel regarding the cities’ indulgent and violent behavior in their inhospitality. What is emphasized, rather, in Jude, is the sexually immoral aspect; not the homosexual aspect, and indulgent behavior. On the contrary, Jude makes no explicit references to homosexuality at all.

The next time you think of the word Sodom, hopefully this will help put things in perspective. Even the Ancient Near Eastern audience would never have associated this word with homo-eroticism or any homosexual activity. But, this is what we have done to the word and this, in turn, has directly affected the LGBT community. Ironically, our misuse of this word has made us treat this community similarly as the Sodomites treated foreign guests, but within our own churches.

 

 

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We Need a Resolution

There’s an underrated story in the Gospels that gets very little attention. That story is; The Parable of the Wedding Feast. It is featured only in Luke and Matthew with slight variations from one another. Matthew’s account simply contains more detail. The point is well taken from both accounts, however, and I will be using Matthew’s version. I want to focus on Chapter 22 verses 8-14.

8″ Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

This is a very important story regarding inclusion, and there are many others among these. Jesus often speaks of giving the
“lowest” among us the highest position of honor. But, do we ever really actually do this? I would argue a vehement “no.” This is a rarity. I’ve seen loving conduct by believers and  I have also literally seen homeless people walk into an EV Free church and go completely ignored. They were not invited to join in, they weren’t even addressed or acknowledged, the church members who noticed them seemed to look away uncomfortably hoping they would just leave. Maybe they had made a mistake by walking into the church or onto the church property. Maybe they were looking for handouts…they wouldn’t get any from this congregation. But, the overall moral of this story sweeps across more than socio-economic issues and I’ll explain why.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast is incredibly important in regard to current social issues happening within the church today. The concept of LGBTQ inclusion or acceptance continues to remain at the forefront of church hot button issues. But, what does this story tell us? We see a king invite specific people to a wedding banquet and they refuse to show up. In Luke, the invited guests make excuses as to why they cannot come.

Do we not understand that there are LGBTQ brothers and sisters who WANT to come? They want to worship and live out their relationships with Christ. They want to be open and find acceptance and love, but they won’t find that in many churches. After all, they aren’t invited. But aren’t they? They are the ones who desire community and fellowship and yet are barred out with ultimatums by the church. Rather than listening to the stories of these folks and where they are coming from, they must first be made to adhere to church principle. But, is that what happens at the banquet in Matthew or Luke? No! There are no stipulations for them to come other than the desire to actually be there!

I’ll say it again; the ones invited don’t want to show up. The ones who were never invited and, who now are invited, come and fill the wedding hall and participate in the party and celebration; “The good and the bad,” describes Matthew. The king orders his servants to invite “anyone they find” …one could say, “anyone who wants to come”, since the original invitees didn’t contain the desire to do so.

We should be careful when we bar out or gay, lesbian, transgender, etc. brothers and sisters from our midst. They may be the very ones called to participate. Let us take note of the rest of the story and let us take note of “many are called, but few are chosen”. The ones who actually desire Christ are those who are chosen. Don’t be like the many.

To my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, I am continually praying that you find community within the church. Please do not give up. I have found it through the PCUSA and there are so many others who have as well. Please respond to your invitation and do not let others rob you of your seat at the table and rob you of what you have in Christ.

 

 

How it Feels

I know there is a lot of debate over whether or not same-sex attraction is a real thing; if people are born this way. I’ve heard common arguments like, “it’s a result of the fall.” Well, that’s nice, but it doesn’t make it go away and it doesn’t help. It’s also a terrible argument…I’ll get to that later…

I’m going to tell you how it feels. When you know someone who is gay or identifies with the LGTBQ community, it changes perspectives and common, very misguided, stereotypes. One word of advice, straight people cannot tell us how it feels; ie. Pastors, professors, friends, news anchors, writers, etc. The only people who can give us this information are the ones who experience it directly. Another noteworthy piece of advice is to not assume that everyone we speak to or come into contact with is heterosexual. We’ve then immediately categorized someone in our minds and base almost everything off of our assumptions. Never assume. It’s hard to do, but we should try it. Even I have had to learn to do this. We all have biases and assumptions about various kinds of people.

Since I was a child, I’ve had a passion burning in my heart for God and for Scripture. The only way I can describe it is how the prophet Jeremiah does in the Old Testament; “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (NIV, Jer 20:9).

But, there has always been this other component of myself…that I’m gay…and how on earth can those two things live together inside of me? I was taught in the church that they cannot co-exist. Being gay, or having those thoughts, need to be expelled. The problem was, and I tried so hard, I prayed so hard…I anguished over this about myself and lived in turmoil and shame, guilt, fear, isolation, depression, and anxiety…the problem was, it never went away despite me crying out to God; despite me crying out to be “just like everyone else.”

I have been taught that I am like someone who has sex with animals, someone who has sex with children, someone who lives in polygamous relationships, and someone who is committing sexually immoral and deviant acts. This is still taught currently. These comparisons are still made by conservatives in their arguments against LGBT inclusion in the church even though they are fallacious arguments. I have been taught that it is my “cross to bear.” I have been taught that it’s like a disease; like alcoholism, and if I would only abstain from acting on my feelings then I will be okay. This is the solution given by the church. This is their answer? There is no Biblical basis to this.

This response isn’t good enough. “It’s a result of the fall,” isn’t good enough. To tell someone that they are far from the original intention of God’s design…to use this argument one must realize, under that argument, that ALL is far from the original intention of God’s design-everything is. If you believe that that argument holds water, then you have to apply it to all and not solely to the homosexual, who is NOT a sinner because they’re homosexual, but because they’re simply a sinner; just like everyone else. It’s like telling crippled person that they’re far from the original intention of God. Is this the case? Then aren’t we all discard-able to some degree? Or how about this…how about Christ as the original intention all along. The Trinity as omnipresent before all of creation. “Christ is all and is in all.”

The church and people in the church; the way this has been handled, has made me feel like not only am I a sinner, but I am worse than that. It’s like I’m some sub-human creature who may possibly have a chance at Christ’s love or redemption, but only if I repent of something I cannot change inside of me. I am not alone. I’m going to say that again; I am not alone. This is what we are doing to people. And we wonder why no one wants to come to church? We wonder why people are not drawn in or attracted to Christ or to Christianity-and then we tell ourselves it’s because they’re non-believers and they cannot understand God; they’re attacking the church; they’re the ones who won’t conform? No- I am a Christian. And there are many others like me who have been barred-BARRED out. We’ve been pushed out because we are not fit. It’s not that we don’t want to come or be apart of, act out, or live out our faith with and among the body of Christ. It’s that the church, the conservative church, doesn’t want us.

Well, Christ does. And “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit” (Matt 7:18; Luke 6:43). Or, “…and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).  Additionally, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:44). It is impossible for someone to be drawn to Christ, but for the very the work and intention of Christ himself. If gay brothers and sisters are called, who are we to turn them away and bar them out? Is this not one of the most hideous acts we can do to a fellow believer?

Homosexuals who desire monogamous, committed relationships under God are nothing like people who practiced temple prostitution, bestiality, pedophilia, pederasty, or polygamy. Look at the numerous examples of breaking off of the “traditional marriage view” by David or Solomon in the Old Testament (this is only one example). Or the fact that Israel willingly broke Torah law by marrying Gentiles and having relations with them (Esther/ Cyrus; Boaz/Ruth; David/Bathsheba, etc.) Yet, these are the things we dismiss. We would accept David or Solomon despite their acts against the “marriage model.” But, the homosexual…this doesn’t include you. The Samaritan, yes. The Prodigal son, yes. The woman caught in adultery, yes.  The thief on the cross, yes. The pagan Gentiles, yes. But, the homosexual…this doesn’t include you.

This is how it feels.

 

Thank God for non-denominational churches who break off of others because they know this is happening and is wrong.  Thank God for the PCUSA, the UMC, and other protestant denominations who are acting on behalf of Christ. Thank you. Your work and your sacrifice saves lives.

The Romans’ Exchange

When I was struggling with my sexuality and my faith the most difficult, and probably obvious, text that I wrestled with was the Romans 1 text. Now that I have read it maybe hundreds of times, if not more, it becomes less and less frightening and less and less about homosexuality; especially when Paul’s discourse in Romans 2 comes into play.

To be frank, it’s really not about homosexuality at all. It’s about pagan idolatry. And what has happened, unfortunately for homosexuals, is that conservatives have taken a microscope and focused their little lenses on two specific verses in chapter 1; verses 26 and 27. It’s important to point out that the word, “homosexual,” wasn’t even in the English lexicon until the 19th century. It began to replace words already translated from the Greek NT. This is a whole different blog topic that may eventually pop up, but it’s important that people understand that this term wasn’t even understood properly in the 19th century, as it was directly related to a form of medical insanity. The understanding has since been changed and no longer considered a mental illness needing to be treated. Clearly, the broad understanding of what the homosexual actually experiences has evolved and become clearer; as does any unknown or misunderstood thing. The homosexual cannot change their feeling just like the heterosexual can’t. And their feeling is for legitimate companionship, affection, and intimacy with a partner. It has little to do with, just simply, sex. Yes, sex is a component to that intimacy, but it is a desire for bonding and companionship, just as it is for the heterosexual-this includes sex, but does not revolve around it.

Now, pause for a moment and think of what comes directly before and after these 2 verses…can you remember? If you can’t, then that is a major problem. That means that these two verses stand out without their historical background or contextual components to go with them; or it means you just don’t read the Bible at all or, perhaps in the way it’s intended to be read; for discipleship… and not devotionally… so that you can have a nice thought for the day. This is a typical harvesting of like texts within Scripture (the Clobber texts) and a common, yet poorly performed tactic by traditionalists and conservatives.

I went on my earlier tangent about homosexual desire to set this up for your understanding. The kind of “exchanges” and sex that Paul refers to in Romans 1 is hardly anything like what I just described above for the homosexual desiring monogamous, committed companionship under God. No, this is much more severe. The kind of people described in Romans one have made a total of two major, and I mean major, “exchanges” directly prior to the third and last one; the Clobber text.

For the verses, I will use Mounce’s interlinear text translated directly from the Greek language. First, some background, this is a diverse mix of people who Paul is addressing, not to mention a very large one. The letter to the Romans is a mix up of both Jews and Gentiles. Chapter 1 specifically references Gentiles, and he is purposely working the Jewish Christian audience up into a frenzy; and we will see how he throws it back in their face in chapter 2. 

After Paul’s initial theological discourse in chapter 1, he kicks it off with wrath for “… those who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness…” (V18). He then goes into God’s “eternal power and divine nature (take note of this)” and how it is “clearly seen” (V20). This leaves no room for speculation as to who or what created that which is seen. Paul states that God’s “invisible attributes” (V20) are clear through visible creation. For Gentiles, who practiced pagan, polytheism, tying directly into Greek and Roman gods, this is a poignant statement. This is not new information to the Jews. This information does leave all, however, “without excuse” (V20). 

Now for the first exchange and processes of idolatry: Paul declares that idolatry begins with a conscious decision to turn away from God, even while knowing He exists and is the creator of all things, “Even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give him thanks…” (V21). When this happened, these people consciously, “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God (take note of this) for images resembling corruptible man and birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures…” (V23). This is an obvious reference to anthropomorphic pantheon deities and polytheism. 

As a result of this first exchange, God hands them over to the consequences of it, ” Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts, to impurity so that they dishonored their bodies among themselves” (V24). As a result of this, we now enter the second exchange: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator…” (V25). 

Here, we see idolatry escalate in gradients. It begins with a conscious and purposeful decision to not acknowledge the known God. The consequence is impurity which dishonors the body (the created being by God); the result of this begins another exchange deeper into the sin by willingly trading the truth about God for a lie; directly leading to worship of the creature and not the creator God. 

The third exchange is a consequence of the second exchange: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those contrary to nature; (ESV With Strong’s, V26). Let’s stop here… this exchange is two-fold; it’s both a trading  of the natural for what goes against nature and it is a consequence of the second exchange. Additionally, it does not state how women do this; it could be in any number of ways; orgies, multiple partners, prostitution, bestiality, etc. And remember when I said to take note on some verses above? The standard of worship is the “incorruptible God”, but this is traded for the “corruptible man”. And God’s “divine nature” and our recognition of it is our natural state as creatures created in His likeness. So, to exchange (trade) what is natural for the unnatural, is to trade the known Divine for what is corrupt in corruptible humanity. Clearly, these gradients of idolatry lead to a final trading in and with the physical body (manifesting itself from conscious trade and exchange, mentioned previously, but in the heart and mind). 

Verse 27: “…and likewise the men also abandoned the natural relation with women and burned in their passion for one another-men committing shameless acts with other men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (V27). Many will argue that this verse clearly indicates what the women were doing in the verse directly prior to this, but that is not true. Paul doesn’t say that. And we shouldn’t put words into his mouth. “And likewise” is synonymous with words like “similarly” or “in the same way”, this does not point to the act itself, but the state or condition that leads to the actual behavior. Because of their idolatrous practices, the men, like the women who are also idolatrous give up their natural (to them) relation with women, and burn in (excessive) lust for other men. Excessiveness is the key here. These men are already naturally attracted to women and may even be married to them, but in their excessive, idolatrous and illicit behavior, they aren’t satisfied with just what they are attracted to naturally; they burn for and take more. This is a common practice in Greco-Roman pederasty, where married men would have sex with young boys and commonly have boy lovers. This was for the upper-echelon of men and it was held in high regard to do this. I’m not saying that Paul is referring to pederasty, but he could be. It would’ve been practiced, it would’ve been well known behavior for pagan Gentiles in the community he is referring to. The people mentioned above are clearly not seeking monogamous, committed, and loving relationships. This is purely physically based and done solely in order to satiate excessive and out of control lust; a product of their blatant idolatry.

The next verses seem to quickly shift gears and if Paul is simply referring broadly to the homosexual audience then the next mentioning of sins are a problem; they are a problem because then we would have to assume that every homosexual is also what Paul begins to describe; “And as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a debased mind to do things that ought not to be done. They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, meanness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to their parents, foolish, covenant breakers, unloving, ruthless. Though they understand the righteous requirement of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only continue to do them but also heartily approve of others who practice them” (V28-32).

Whoa! That means that even gay brothers and sisters who choose to be celibate are these things? Or that all homosexuals are these things and have committed acts like murder? Is that what Paul is saying? NO! Like I said earlier, homosexuality is not a choice. Idolatry, especially in the way that Paul is going off about it in here, is. Idolatry is a conscious choice. It is blatant and glaring that this is what Paul is emphasizing and it is also used to work up his Jewish audience, which he addresses in Chapter 2.

Harshly, Paul states to them, “Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself for you who judge are practicing the same things” (V1). I’m sure this was deflating for them. After all, Gentile inclusion was a pretty huge deal in the New Covenant. Paul is saying that the Jews, in and by their judgement of Gentiles who do this, are just as guilty as those described in Chapter 1-something to be noted.

In the words of Oliver O’Donovan, a scholar in Christian ethics in his book, Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion, “A seriously meant inquiry into what the Bible means and how it may apply to us can never be out of place in the church. We must not, then, in the defense of a supposed “Biblical” ethic, try to close down moral discussions prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and forbidding further examination. It is the characteristic “conservative” temptation to erect a moment in Scriptural interpretation into an unrevisable norm that will substitute, conveniently and less ambiguously, for Scripture itself. The word “authority” means, quite simply, that we have to keep looking back to this source if we are to stay on the right track. Anything else is unbelief—a refusal to open ourselves to the question; what is God saying to us through His word?”

 

Scientists and philosophers cannot answer Jim Holt’s question in his best selling book, “Why Does the World Exist?”

Philosopher, Jim Holt, published his book, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, in 2012. The book reached the LA Times bestseller list. This is not a surpise since so many people seem to not know! In his novel, Holt embarks on a quest to reach the answer to the question posed in his title. To achieve this, he interviews several famous scientists, philosophers, and one theologian. It’s obvious within the novel that Holt is serious about his personal mission to find the answer. Additionally, he admits to having a bad taste in his mouth regarding religion and the creation view, but he also ackowledges,however, that it must be considered as an option in answering and explaining what caused the creation of the universe and all things in it. Fast forward to the end of the book and after all of his efforts in fact-finding, he discovers that there is no answer. There is no scientific proof that answers the question: Why does the world exist?

What is particularly interesting about this book are the several opposing opinions and conjectures given by the various scientists and philosophers that Holt interviews. None of them think the same way about the universe, nor are they in unison scientifically or philosophically, with their ideas on how the universe got here; how we got here. We’re talking about heavy hitters in the scientific arena like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. Holt even refers back to famous logicians in their own personal journeys to obtain this answer; people like Bertrand Russel and Ludwig Wittgenstein. What is clear is that there is and has been a huge drive within us as humans to  seek and know the answer to this question. What is also clear is that these experts within the field of science and philosophy are completely unable to explain exactly why the universe is here and why we exist. They are also unable to stand in unison on an explanation, which differs greatly from the unity of the creation belief. Given the vast amount of scientific resources and thinkers that we have, how can this be so? One would think or hope that, by now, we should have a scientific explanation for this, but, we just don’t. Scientists do not have the answer via the scientific method. They only have conjectures or guesses and several different ones at that!

This fact does a couple of things; it validates the limitations of science, the scientific method and deductive reasoning, while simultaneously validating the possibility of a Creator God. This places humankind in a sort of dilemma. It is impossible to deny the existence a Creator God by using science as a foundation and a platform since science has no way of explaining or proving otherwise. The dilemma is that the door is wide open to the Creator God explanation as a fact. Where scientific method fails, reason and logic can overcome. By simply viewing our world and everything in it, it is common knowledge that most things we see are created by something or someone. Art pieces are created by artists. Buildings are created by architects and engineers. Practically everything we see is a creation. If humankind, by its nature is creative, it makes logical sense that humankind, made in God’s image, would be endowed with the same aspects. It makes logical sense that everything we see; mountains, oceans, animals, humans, and the universe are a creation and design with an imprint of a Creator. And what blatantly and contrastingly stands out about science is that science does not create anything; it discovers things that are already there. Science didn’t create gravity or the law of gravity. Science discovered that gravity just is. It was pre-existing. Similarly, biology, can only study and discover what already occurs within living organisms. It never created the biological functions themselves.

Science is a means by which we can see God the Creator and discover how He works. And because of this; because of Him, we can find our purpose and cause. We can find that there is an answer to the question: Why does the world exist?

Job and Ecclesiastes

I am currently working on a Romans blog post which is taking me more time than expected. In the interim, I came across an old paper/examination I did on Job and Ecclesiastes; their similarities and differences as well as how they compared to God in Deuteronomistic texts. In other words, this is a full on Bible nerd essay. Enjoy…

The representations of God in the books of Ecclesiastes and Job seem to be coinciding understandings, or lack thereof, of God’s mysterious rationale. There are obvious intertextualities between the main themes of both books and even thematic similarities with other books located in the Writings or Ketuvim category of the Hebrew Bible, such as Psalms and Jonah; Jonah reels from God’s decisions to spare his and Israel’s mortal enemies in the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and David’s often excruciating pleas for justice in Psalms are reminiscent of similar queries by both Solomon and Job.

In comparison and on their surface, Job and Ecclesiastes can leave the reader feeling despairingly devoid of social justice or reason. Both seem to characterize God as remotely and clandestinely exacting His purpose at the expense of the very feeble human. These circumstances and their outcomes justifiably pang the believing and non-believing audience and questions abound as a result. They seem to contradict the Deuteronomistic and prophet’s presuppositions that God punishes the idolatrous and those who disobey His covenant while rewarding those who are obedient to His law. In fact, according to Ecclesiastes and Job, reward and disaster befall both the wicked and the one who belongs to God.

The resulting question is age old: Why do bad things happen to good people? I would argue that God cannot and does not cause evil or suffering, but instead He wields it for a purpose that is sometimes beyond the scope of human understanding. The how and the why is simply rendered unattainable until the entire story is woven; an example made undeniably clear in the story of Joseph in Genesis. Sometimes the weaving process lasts throughout generations of people and transcends centuries of time. Like a giant tapestry, each thread is interwoven with another, affecting another, and only its designer knows the outcome rendering it impossible to predict details or understand the intricacy and complexity of circumstances that are set in motion, even intentionally, to influence a circumstance, someone, or something in the future.

Ecclesiastes declares practically all human endeavors to be meaningless, that it is prudent to fear God, and our only consolation in life is to “Eat, drink, and be merry” (NRSV, Eccl 8:15). This seems to come off as a very superficial deduction from the wisdom-endowed king, Solomon. In Job, we see Satan personally requesting permission from God to crush Job, who is a righteous and faithful man, hoping that Job will curse God to His face. As if life weren’t challenging enough, we are now introduced to diabolical forces working purposefully against God’s people. Frighteningly, God grants permission to Satan with one exception; that he cannot kill Job.

In both books, and in contrast to what seems to be common Deuteronomistic way, the seemingly innocent law abiders may receive initial protection from God only until they’re later abandoned presumably because of their sin. In addition, evil people can be successful in their lifetime and are capable of sidestepping and averting justice. Even the Ecclesiastes author demonstrates a sense of bewilderment in his attempt to understand how God could allow this to happen. Both Job and the Ecclesiastes author have essentially the same question for God. The difference between the two books is that only Job gets a response, although not a direct answer to his specific plight.

After losing his children, wife, home, livestock, and being inflicted with painful sores to the point of being unrecognizable to his friends, Job, who views himself as an innocent man asks God, “why”? God never directly answers the question, but in a Theophany He explains His immeasurable power to Job and His ultimate authority and control over all things. God’s knowledge and wisdom undermine Job’s insufficient understanding and God reminds him that his grasp and observations are ignorant compared to God’s unsurpassable power and wisdom. In the end Job is humbled and admits that he did not fully understand. Job says of God, “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (NRSV, Job 42:2-3). God doubles Job’s possessions from that which he had before and replaces his children.

The themes within Job and Ecclesiastes; the human inability to fully fathom the immeasurable wisdom of God, is echoed in Psalms and Isaiah. David states in Psalms, “You have enclosed me in behind and before, and laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (NRSV, Psalms 139:6). And Isaiah says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the Lord” (NRSV, Is 55:8). These texts combined with Job and Ecclesiastes reflect God’s exactingness despite our blindness in the chaos of the unknown. Whether the Law is broken or abided by, nothing will thwart God’s purpose. This idea is present throughout the wisdom writings as well as in the stories of Deuteronomistic History. Therefore, they neither contradict nor compliment Deuteronomistic History, but rather, unveil a deeper level of understanding God.

Paul Verses James?

 

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Paul’s core theology described within his letters in the New Testament may appear to disagree with the theology of James. Where Paul contends that justification comes to the person of faith only through the faithfulness of Christ and not by their works, James affirms rather harshly that, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (NRSV, James 2:17). Paul is emphasizing within his theology that actions in observance of or obedience to Mosaic Law hold absolutely no power in justifying the Jew or the Gentile to God. When we examine James, however, the believer is forced to reconcile the concept of a faith alone and apart from action or works as being completely empty and barren. If action in obedience holds no saving power, is it still relevant in faith and is it still relevant to God? I would argue that the two teachers are highlighting different facets of what faith encompasses. Upon first glance, James, an advocate of action, and Paul, an advocate of faith, may seem to be in conflict, but they are not. They are complimentary theological components reflecting an overall embodiment of faith in Christ to the believer.

A simple understanding is that when we claim to have a faith in Christ, there must be an external reflection or action produced by that faith. In other words, a genuine faith will result in action in obedience to God. Both Paul and James use Abraham as a model conveying this notion, although the two writers are clearly underscoring two individual segments of faith. James uses the Abraham model to highlight that Abraham’s belief in what God said combined with his action in obedience to that belief brought his faith into full completion (NRSV, James 2:22-24).

Paul, in both Romans and Galatians uses the Abraham model to concentrate on the believer’s inability to justify themselves through their mere observance of Mosaic Law. He argues instead for faith and belief in Christ’s faithfulness and points to Christ’s obedient action on the cross as the only action worthy of reconciling us to God. When Paul says, “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (NRSV, Rom 4:5), he means that true trust and belief in Christ’s faithful action (not ours), in his death for our sins and by his resurrection; this is our justification. Otherwise, if redemption were obtainable through our own obedience to the Law, we’d be relying on ourselves and our abilities; a pretentious exaltation of self that renders Christ’s obedient act useless.

When James emphasizes deeds or works, he is not referring to works that we accomplish for the sake of redeeming ourselves, or acts which put us in a better standing with God. He is referring to an action in obedience initially produced by faith. Faith should always accompany an action; and that action is love. Faith and action in love go hand in hand. Paul confirms this in Galatians when he says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith made effective through love” (NRSV, Gal 5:6). Obeying Mosaic Law to gain a self-obtained justification is what Paul argues against. James is not disputing Paul’s claim, but is instead pointing to a faith which is refined and tested, producing right works and good deeds toward others; an expression of love. Supporting Paul, James proclaims, “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” (NRSV, James 1:25). The “law of liberty” that James refers to is not the Law handed down to Moses. It is the Gospel of Christ.

Essentially, James and Paul are both reiterating Jesus’ summation of the greatest commandment: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (NRSV, Mark 12:30-32). A faith in Christ exhibits action in love. Love, in the context expressed by Christ and reaffirmed by Paul and James, is a verb. A lack of action would point to a misdirected understanding of Christ’s command to love one another; “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (NRSV, James 2:15-17).

James’ strongest argument defending his claim is: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (NRSV, James 2:18-20). Similarly, Paul implores the church in Corinth to obey, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (NRSV, 1 Cor 11:1). And coupled alongside his theological argument, Paul states in unison with James, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right. . .” and “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all…” (NRSV, Gal 6:9-11).

Although there is unique diversity among these two key New Testament writers in their focus and expressions, their unity is built and formed upon the foundation of Christ and the Gospel. There is no opposition in their theologies. The centers of Paul and James’ teaching, although different, work in tandem to further mature the believer’s relationship to Christ. They both hold the believing community accountable to their active response in their faith and their sanctification; to grow and to persevere; to love, encourage, and show humility; to display their faith in action. This response in faith to Christ is what validates us and effectively transmits the message of the Gospel to the rest of the world.