“Fully convinced”?

“Being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.”

These are the words that jump off the page for me as I look ahead to the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday. These come from Romans 4, Paul’s midrash on the Abrahamic covenant stories of Genesis 15 and 17. For Paul, this is a core element of the faith God desires of us.

“Being fully convinced that God is able to do what God has promised.”

I don’t think I have that kind of faith, or, at least, not often. “Fully convinced?” Hopeful, sure, that God will do what God has promised. Trusting in God through all things, regardless of what happens, yes. But “fully convinced”? That seems like a faith too great for mere mortals like me.

And then I remember the rest of Abraham’s story. Sure, at these moments of encounter with God, when God comes before him in awe and wonder, then Abraham could well have been “fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.” But the rest of the story shows us that Abraham was not always “fully convinced.” In fact, he sometimes wasn’t trusting in God at all.

It turns out Abraham was human after all. Just as human as the God-man Jesus, who wrestled with doubts in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as human as you and me.

God is able to do what God has promised. That reality doesn’t depend on our faith or lack of faith. The invitation to faith is an invitation to rest in this reality. Let’s cherish our experiences of full conviction, for sure. But may we always be encouraged that even great examples of faith like Abraham, even our Lord Jesus, wrestled with doubt in times of uncertainty and distress. This, too, is faith.

Five Simple Hacks to Revolutionize Your Bible Reading

You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to get more out of your Bible reading. Ideally, sure, we’d all be reading the Bible in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek with a full understanding of the relevant ancient cultures—but we all know that’s not going to happen. So, here are a few tricks of the trade—a few “Bible reading hacks”—to help you maximize your English Bible reading. Beware, though, you might find this actually revolutionizes your Bible reading—and radicalizes your faith in Jesus and his way of love.

Read “Jesus” as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

We as Christians tend to think about Jesus in generic sorts of ways, or we domesticate Jesus so he fits better with who we already are. Reading “Jesus” in the New Testament as “Jesus of Nazareth” reminds us that it’s not just some generic Jesus whom we trust and obey, but a very specific Jesus: a first-century Jew from rural Galilee who lived in certain ways and taught certain things and, as a result, was rejected by many of his religious leaders as a blasphemer and executed by the Roman Empire as an enemy of the state. See here for some direct biblical reminders of Jesus as a man from Nazareth.

Read “Christ” as “Messiah.”

Most Christians probably know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name, but a title: it is the equivalent of “Messiah.” There were a few different messianic expectations among Jews in the first century, but the most common—and the one behind the New Testament word “Christ”—was the expectation of a king in the family line of ancient Israel’s King David, who would arise and bring about God’s reign of justice and peace on earth. See here for a few of these kingdom expectations. Confessing Jesus as “Christ” means claiming these expectations are being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

Read “kingdom of God” as “God’s reign of justice and peace and life”—and read “salvation” the same way.

We might tend to think of the “kingdom of God” as equivalent to “heaven,” by which we mean “an eternal, spiritual future of perfection and bliss.” This can be especially so when we read Matthew’s preferred phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” However, this is not what language of “God as king” or “God’s kingdom” meant for Jews in Jesus’ day.

The “kingdom of God” is about God’s reign as rightful ruler over all creation, bringing justice and peace for all people and flourishing life for all things. It is closely tied to biblical language of “salvation”: God’s reign brings deliverance from evil powers that oppress us (economic, political, spiritual, and more), and a restoration to freedom and full, flourishing life. “Eternal life”? That’s “the life of the coming age”: life under God’s reign, experiencing God’s “salvation” even now, in this age. Notice the way this language is all connected in this passage, for example.

God’s kingdom is “of heaven”—originating in God’s holy presence and reflecting God’s righteous character—and so it is “not of this world”—the very opposite of the power-hungry, violent empires we have known in human history. But in Messiah Jesus of Nazareth this reign of God “has come near,” and one day it will fully come about “on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the fullness of “salvation” for which we all yearn, deep in our bones.

Read “faith” as “devotion” or even “allegiance.”

The biblical language of “faith” is much more than just “believing the right things about the right things.” In fact, James describes that kind of “faith” on its own as “dead,” “barren,” “unable to save.” Yet this is often what Christians mean by “faith.”

In the Bible the language of “faith” and “believing” is much more personal than propositional. It’s primarily about trusting in God through all things, being devoted to God in all ways. It is really about allegiance: “faith” is a commitment to God and God’s ways as revealed in Jesus. Reading “faith” language as “devotion” or even “allegiance” reminds us of the radical nature of Christian faith.

Read “love” as “Jesus’ way of love.”

“Love” is another of those words that can mean a lot of different things for us. But in the New Testament the “love” we are to aspire to has a very specific association with Jesus. It is “love in the way of Jesus,” which includes things like breaking bread with “sinners” and other outcasts, welcoming “strangers,” blessing “enemies,” forgiving those who sin against us, caring for “the least” in society, bringing good news to the poor, freely healing the sick, warning powerful oppressors, and liberating people from evil forces that coerce and constrain them. In other words, “love” is how we live into God’s reign of justice and peace and life.

Next time you’re reading the New Testament, give these “Bible reading hacks” a try. Just remember my warning: if you take this Bible reading seriously, you might find yourself on the same path as Jesus, loving outcasts and walking with the oppressed and being crucified by the powers-that-be. The good news? There’s a resurrection on the other side. This is the narrow path leads to true life, for you and for all.

Preserving Faith for Future Generations

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the past three weeks I have reproduced those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 25, 2018, based on 1 Timothy 6:11-21.

First Timothy concludes with this exhortation: “Guard what has been entrusted to your care.” This is very similar to another exhortation in the Pastoral Epistles, 2 Timothy 1:13-14: “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” These echo Paul’s plea to “hold fast to the teachings” or “traditions” he had passed on (2 Thess 2:15; cf. Rom 6:17; 1 Cor 11:2), and they are right in line with perhaps the best known of these New Testament appeals, Jude 3: “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”

Yet what precisely is this “deposit,” this “faith,” these “traditions”? And how exactly do we “hold fast to” these traditions, or “guard” this deposit, or “contend for” this faith?

For many Christians today, the “deposit” of “faith” is a fairly comprehensive set of beliefs and practices. It might include everything from specific convictions about the nature of the Bible and how to read it, to particular ideas about the timing of creation, what counts as “sin,” the meaning of Jesus’ death, the mode of baptism, worship style, and much, much more. It’s “the way we’ve always done things,” it’s the “faith of our fathers,” it’s that “old time religion”—even when, in reality, the generations before us went through significant adaptations to their way of faith and life.

However, Kathleen Kern is almost certainly correct in her suggestion that the entrusted gift in view here is the gospel (Adult Bible Study student guide, 78). The “deposit” we are to “guard,” the “faith” for which we are to “contend,” the “traditions” to which we are to “hold fast”—these are all describing some aspect of the good news story of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, who brings about God’s saving kingdom on earth through his life, death, and resurrection.

How can we preserve this gospel for future generations? Our passage points to an answer: “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness,” it says, and so “fight the good fight of the faith” (6:11-12). In other words, we preserve the gospel for future generations by living out the gospel in our own—in authentic faith and love, in genuine godliness and gracious gentleness, with patient perseverance, always seeking first God’s kingdom and justice.

What non-essential beliefs or practices have we added to the simple gospel of Jesus? Which of these might we be wrongly expecting that the next generation keep? Are we striving to live out the good news of Jesus with authenticity and integrity? Are we willing to allow the next generation to live out the gospel in their own way, for their own time?

Faith and Works

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 4, 2018, based on James 2:14-26.

As the Adult Bible Study student guide notes, it’s possible that James was responding to a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching about being justified by faith and not by works of the Law. In fact, given the similarities in wording between specific statements in Paul’s letters (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16) and here (Jas 2:24), this is likely the case. Some had understood Paul to mean that our actions don’t matter with regard to salvation—all that matters is believing certain things to be true. Sadly, many Christians today also understand Paul’s teaching this way—and they either accept this teaching as gospel or reject Paul as having distorted Jesus’ teaching.

It’s a common misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching, that “faith” is simply “belief,” mentally assenting to certain truths—that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, for example. However, the word for “faith (pistis) can have a wide range of meanings. It can include “belief,” but it can also mean “trust,” “faithfulness,” or “allegiance.” Paul in fact draws on this whole semantic range of the word pistis: yes, believing certain things to be true is important, but so is trusting in God in a personal way, as well as showing faithfulness and demonstrating allegiance to God. This is underscored by the many ways Paul speaks about genuine faith as that which works itself out in loving actions (e.g. Gal 5:6).

James gives two examples of these “loving actions” that result from genuine faith: caring for the poor (2:1-9, 14-17), and protecting the foreigner (2:25-26). This is significant for at least two reasons.

First, these are prominent themes throughout the Scriptures. Concern for the poor, including the widow and orphan, and concern for the foreigner or stranger, is deeply embedded in the Law of Moses and repeatedly voiced by the Prophets (e.g. Lev 19:10, 34; Deut 15:7-11; Isa 1:17; Jer 22:3). This concern for the poor and the stranger, representing the most vulnerable in society, continues through the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament (e.g. Matt 25:34-40; Rom 12:13; Gal 2:10; 1 John 3:17).

Second, this is significant because these continue to be prominent needs—and controversial flashpoints—today. Somehow, in certain conservative Christian circles, caring for the poor and welcoming the stranger, or calling on governments to attend to these needs, has become a sign of theological liberalism. But can we claim to have genuine, living, saving faith, yet refuse to stand with the poor and the foreigner, with all who are vulnerable and marginalized in society? Both James and Paul—following in the footsteps of Jesus, following the Law and the Prophets—are clear: the answer is a resounding “no.”

Holding on to Identity as a Minority Faith

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for January 7, 2018, based on Daniel 1.

Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with an estimated 2.3 billion adherents. As of 2015, three-quarters of Americans and two-thirds of Canadians identify as Christians. We are hardly a minority faith.

Still, it is true that Christianity’s public influence has declined. Christianity is no longer the touchstone of North American culture that it once was. Christianity no longer defines social values or public policy in quite the way it once did. The institutions of Christianity are not as prominent or as powerful as they once were, and the institutions of our western society are no longer exclusively or even predominantly Christian—if they ever were. Christendom is no more.

This means that although Christianity is not a minority faith in North America it can often feel like it is. For some, this presents a challenge, even a catastrophe. I think it presents an opportunity.

This changed situation is an opportunity for us to reflect on and sharpen our identity as Christians: What does it really mean to be “Christian”? What marks us off as “Christian”? What distinctive beliefs or rituals or symbols or sacred stories are at the heart of this thing called “Christianity”?

The story of Daniel and his three companions in Daniel 1 is a story about early Jewish identity. Ostensibly about Israelites exiled in ancient Babylonia, yet really about Maccabean Jews under pressure to Hellenize, the story remains for Jews a powerful symbol of maintaining their religious and cultural identity in the face of enormous pressure to assimilate. For us as Christians, it can stand as a biblical call to reflect on our identity as Christians, asking those same questions forced upon us by our own post-Christendom context.

So, what does mark us off as “Christian”? Contra Daniel 1, the New Testament insists it’s not our diet—“all foods are clean,” Mark concludes based on Jesus’ teaching (Mark 7:14-19), and Paul declares that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink” (Rom 14:14-17). Likewise, it’s not the observance of holy days like the Sabbath (Rom 14:5-6; Col 2:16-17) or covenant rituals like circumcision (Gal 5:6; 6:15).

For Christians, beliefs, rituals, symbols, and sacred stories have tremendous value in nurturing the things that matter most, but they are not themselves those essentials of Christianity. Rather, as markers of Christian identity Jesus and the Apostles consistently point us to a cluster of lived-out virtues: a trusting, obedient faith, a persevering, persistent hope, and, above all, a self-giving, other-delighting love, all in the way of Jesus, all nurtured by the Spirit.

My Confession of Faith

There is only one reason why I am, and remain, a Christian: Jesus.

In Jesus I see God embodied, a God who is a friend of sinners, who finds the lost and feasts the least and firsts the last. In Jesus I see a God who runs to wayward children, welcoming them in lavish banquets of love.

In Jesus I see a God who stands in solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the stranger. In Jesus I see a God who stands firm against oppression and exclusion by the powerful and privileged.

In Jesus I see a God who loves stories and riddles, flowers and children, and eating good food with good friends and the very best of wine.

In Jesus I see a God who dreams of a better world, a kingdom of justice and peace and flourishing life, and who dares to plant that dream in the world with such a small and insignificant seed: love.

In Jesus I see a God who is willing to die rather than kill, following his own words of nonviolence on his own way of the cross.

In Jesus I see a God who turns death into new life, shame into honour, guilt into forgiveness, futility into purpose, brokenness into wholeness, suffering into joy, despair into hope—and this gives me hope.

In Jesus I also see, then, humanity as we are meant to be: walking in all these ways of Jesus, centered on devotion to our Creator expressed through compassion and care for other humans and all creation, paying special attention to the most vulnerable of God’s creatures.

I am not a Christian because of other Christians, though I know many good Christians. I am not a Christian because of the Bible, though the Bible points me to Jesus and tells me his story.

There is only one reason why I am, and remain, a Christian: Jesus.

Confessions of a Faithful Doubter

Due to increased interest in a post from last year, “Do Christians Really Need to Believe in Jesus’ Resurrection?,” I’ve decided to post this, an older reflection on various kinds of “doubt” and the value of what I call “faithful doubt.”

There has never been a time in my adult Christian life when I have not doubted.

That’s quite the confession coming from a pastor and former Bible college and Christian university professor. Nevertheless, it is true: doubt and uncertainty have been my constant, uncomfortable companions since God grabbed hold of me as a comfortably hypocritical university student. Alongside a growing desire to read and understand the Scriptures, there developed a growing body of questions about the Bible and the God of the Bible, paralleled by a gnawing suspicion that the answers I had always been taught were too naïve, too simplistic, and possibly not even true.

It is often thought that doubt and faith are mutually exclusive, or even that doubt is the “unsaving” nemesis of “saving” faith. It’s true that Scripture can sometimes describe “doubt” or “unbelief” in negative ways. However, this sort of doubt is often of the “antagonistic skepticism” variety, the atheistic or anti-Christian sort that turns its back on God completely (e.g. Hebrews 3:12). Or, it can be the “wavering hesitation” kind, the agnostic or fickle type of doubt that immobilizes the person in perpetual indecision (e.g. James 1:6-8).

But there is another kind of doubt that, while perhaps not a full-fledged virtue, is nonetheless free from vice. If the “antagonistic skepticism” has its back to God, and the “wavering hesitation” doubt stands sideways, shifting its weight one way then the next, there is a “faithful doubt” that kneels before God, facing God—yet with some nagging uncertainties about that which it perceives.

Let’s be honest: certainty is a myth. Or better, true certainty is the sole prerogative of God, the All-Seeing and All-Knowing One. Mere mortals must content themselves with a conviction coming from faith. While the fruits of human certainty and conviction can sometimes look the same, there is a subtle difference between the two, a subtle difference that makes a world of difference.

Certainty claims an unbroken connection with the divine perspective; it says, “I know because God knows.” Conviction acknowledges the fallibility and finiteness that mark our humanity; it says, “I know only in part, I see only through a dark glass.” Certainty says, “I have faith, which is as good as sight.” Conviction says, “I have faith, despite my lack of sight.” Certainty says, “There is no other way for anyone to explain the evidence.” Conviction says, “There is no other way for me to explain what I’ve experienced.” Certainty says, “I know and therefore everyone should act.” Conviction says, “I believe and therefore I act, and I act alongside others of similar conviction.” At its worst, certainty can lead to a knowledge that merely puffs itself up. At its best, conviction can lead to a love that builds others up.

It is this “conviction,” as I’ve called it, that characterizes authentic Christian faith—whether that of the “doubtless faithful” who seem to live free from difficult questions, or that of the “faithful doubters” haunted by these questions throughout their lives.

While the Church needs the “doubtless faithful,” it also needs its “faithful doubters.” They are the ones who are suspicious of well-worn human rituals and wary of the latest trends and fads; with guidance they can properly scrutinize these for adherence to genuinely Christian convictions. They are the ones who are unconvinced by simplistic answers to complex questions; with encouragement they may seek more nuanced solutions which are paradoxically both less and more satisfying. These “faithful doubters” may find themselves on the fringes of mainstream Christianity, at times even missing out on the full blessings of community life. But the Church needs people on the boundaries, engaging our culture with authentic questions and conversation while also calling the Church to an ever deeper and more authentic faith and life.

For those who tend toward the doubt of “antagonistic skepticism,” hear the word of the Lord through the author of Hebrews: “Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” For those who, like me, are characterized by “faithful doubt,” learn well the prayer of the desperate father: “Lord, I believe! Please help my unbelief!” And for those who have been blessed with an extra measure of faith, follow the command of Jude: “Be merciful to those who doubt.”

I, for one, need all the mercy I can get.

Originally published in Mosaic, the student newspaper at Prairie College, in February 2007. Modified slightly, mostly to reflect current circumstances. For more on doubt and faith, certainty and conviction, check out books like Daniel Taylor’s The Myth of Certainty, Greg Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt, and Peter Enns’ The Sin of Certainty.

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.

Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases

Have you ever had two people understand something you’ve said in two very different ways? It happens to all of us sometime. I’ve had it happen to me when I preach, more than once. This happens even when I use common Christian words or phrases derived from the Bible—maybe especially when I do so. It can be a little disconcerting, to say the least.

Part of this is just me needing to look for ways to communicate more clearly. Part of it, however, is our natural tendency to hear what we expect to hear. When we’re in a church and someone speaks about “faith” or “heaven,” for example, or they say “Jesus saves us from our sins,” we are inclined to hear those things in a particular “churchy” or “Christianese” kind of way.

But many of these words or phrases don’t mean for me what they often mean in popular Christianity. The reason? I don’t think the popular understandings actually reflect the biblical ideas behind these words or phrases, at least not completely.

Well, if you’re ever in doubt about what I might mean when I talk about “salvation,” or when I say, “Jesus is Lord,” I’ve created this nifty little guide: Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases. Who knows? Maybe I’ll start handing this out before I preach every Sunday.

God. God is depicted in a myriad of different ways in Scripture. These are all metaphors: God is in some sense comparable to a “Father,” for instance, or a “Mother,” or a “Lord,” or a “Rock,” just to name a few. Even “God” is a metaphor: God is analogous to the “gods” of other nations and religions, comparable to what we typically think of when we think of a “deity.” Some biblical descriptions, however, take a different tack: God is YHWH, “I Am Who I Am,” for instance, or God is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being,” or “God is love.” When I speak of “God,” I’m thinking more along those lines: God is “the ground and source of all being, personhood, and love.” I don’t imagine that God is merely “a being,” a distinct being within the universe, like us only bigger and stronger and immortal and invisible.

heaven. The Bible doesn’t speak of “heaven” as “our eternal home.” The New Testament understanding of life after death is simply being “with the Lord” or “with Christ.” In the end this includes living in transformed bodies in a renewed earthly creation (“resurrection” to a “new heavens and new earth”). In the Bible “heaven” means either 1) “the skies,” 2) “God’s dwelling,” or 3) a roundabout way of saying “God” (e.g. “kingdom of heaven” = “kingdom of God”). I don’t use the word “heaven” very often myself because of how it is misunderstood, but when I do it’s along the lines of 2) above: “the ‘place’ where God is most ‘fully present.’” Usually I use the word to speak of the biblical hope of “heaven” come down to earth, God’s presence being fully realized among us within a renewed creation.

sin. We tend to think of “sin” as “personal moral failure”: we’ve crossed a boundary established by God, and these boundaries are mostly related to our private lives or individual relationships. This way of thinking about sin isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete, and if this is the only way we think about sin then it can be unhelpful and unhealthy. I think a better (and more holistically biblical) way of thinking about sin is as “all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world through our settled thoughts, our words, our actions, and our inaction.” This “harm” can be thought of as “preventing or hindering flourishing life.” With regard to people this can most practically be understood as keeping them from having their most basic needs met: needs for clean air and water, nutritious food, basic health, security and freedom, meaningful relationships, love and respect. This sin is more than just “personal moral failure,” then—it also includes collective sins such as systemic injustice, as well as actions that harm the natural world.

salvation. In Scripture the language of “salvation” is most often about “rescue” or “deliverance” from some real-life peril, but it also can include ideas of “healing” and “restoration,” whether physically or relationally, individually or collectively. Then there’s all the related biblical words like “redemption,” “reconciliation,” and so on, which are really variations on the “restoration” idea. When I speak of “salvation” or being “saved” or God as “Saviour,” I mean something along the lines of “God delivering us from all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world, and bringing about a full and flourishing life for all creation.” I don’t mean “God rescuing us from future eternal torture so that we can live a disembodied existence somewhere else forever with God.”

kingdom of God. In much popular thinking the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” is equivalent to “heaven,” which is thought of as “our eternal home” (see “heaven” above). But for early Jews, including Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, “kingdom of God” was a way of referring to “God ruling over God’s people and all the peoples of the earth.” When I use the phrase “kingdom of God,” I’m trying to capture Jesus’ particular understanding of this earthly rule of God, something along the lines of “God’s vision of a world of justice, peace, and flourishing life, which becomes a reality when people live according to God’s way of love.”

Jesus Christ. “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name; “Christ” is a title. And it’s not a title of divinity; it’s a human title. “Christ,” or “Messiah,” was most commonly a way of referring to the human kings in the line of ancient Israel’s King David. Eventually it came to refer to the ultimate Messiah, “the king from David’s dynasty who brings about God’s kingdom on earth.” The phrase “Jesus Christ,” then is a mini-creed: “Jesus is the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth.”

Son of God. This phrase has a dual meaning in the New Testament. Some writings, Mark’s Gospel, for example, use “Son of God” in one of its Old Testament senses, as a way of referring to the kings in the line of David. In this sense the phrase is equivalent to “Christ” or “Messiah,” and has no overtones of divinity. Other writings, most notably John’s Gospel, use “Son of God” with a clear implication of divinity. I believe both to be true of Jesus, and how I use this phrase tends to depend on which New Testament books I’m talking about: Jesus is “the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth,” and Jesus is “the one who uniquely embodies God, showing us most clearly and completely who God is and how God works in the world.”

Jesus is Lord. This doesn’t mean “Jesus controls everything that happens.” Nor does it merely mean “Jesus is the boss of me.” “Lord” in the ancient world had connotations of “master,” yes, but it was also a common way of speaking of human rulers—kings, emperors, and the like. With none of these was the idea that they controlled a person’s life circumstances; it was that they commanded their obedience or allegiance. To say that “Jesus is Lord,” then, means that “Jesus is greater than all human rulers and any powers-that-be in this world, and so he holds our ultimate allegiance in all things.”

gospel. The New Testament word “gospel” means “good news.” The “gospel” is not merely that “God sent Jesus to die for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven when we die.” It’s the “good news that God has acted in Jesus—through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection—to make right everything that has gone wrong in the world.” In other words, it’s a way of summing up pretty much everything I’ve described above.

faith. We tend to think of “faith” either as “believing certain things to be true,” or “trusting in someone to do something.” The New Testament language of “faith” includes those ideas, but also others: “faith” (pistis) can mean everything from “belief” to “trust” to “faithfulness” to “fidelity” to “allegiance.” When I use the word “faith” I can mean any or all of those, following the New Testament usage. All of those are the response God desires from us: “believing what God says to be true, trusting in God through all things, being faithful to God and following God’s way of love.”

love. Some people hear “love” and think “affection,” a surge of warmth and fondness toward others. Others hear “love” and think “tolerance,” acknowledging and accepting others and their actions with a kind of benign smilingness. Some, perhaps conditioned by Christianity, hear “love” and think “self-sacrifice.” Others, of course, hear “love” and think “romance” or even “sex”: physical, emotional, even erotic intimacy. None of these are bad, but on their own they are incomplete. In the New Testament, love is consistently portrayed as loving the way Jesus loved. It is more along the lines, then, of “freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.” This love, I’m convinced, is at the heart of who God is, what Jesus taught and lived out unto death, and how God’s “salvation,” the “kingdom of God,” comes about.

How do you understand these words? What often-misunderstood “Christian words” would you add?

Being a Discerning Christian in the Information Age (Or, What to Do When You’re Forwarded That Email)

We all get those emails, forwarded to us by a concerned friend or family member. Or we see the posts as we scroll through our Facebook feed. Or we hear the reports in the coffee shop, passed along in solemn tones. Something alarming has happened in the world, or is about to happen, or is being planned even as we speak.

You know the ones I mean. I’m talking about those emails or posts or reports that claim that we’re about to be overrun by violent Muslim extremists masquerading as refugees, or that Donald Trump is following Hitler’s playbook, or that there’s some gay agenda to take over our schools, or that climate change is a hoax, or that we’re all going to die in fifty years because of climate change, or whatever.

Usually, when I see these kinds of posts or get forwarded these kinds of emails, I sigh out loud and then hit the delete button or keep on scrolling. Maybe you’re the same way.

But sometimes the email or post requires a response, or maybe it’s something we feel we should be aware of if only to know what people are talking about when they mention it. Or, maybe something about it even grabs our attention and we think, “What if it’s true?”

What do we do then?

In our era of instantly, constantly available “news,” how do we sift through the chaff and find the truth? How should we even think or feel about the relentless storm of bad news, conspiracy theories, and conflicting claims that swirls around us in this age of dis/mis/information?

When sigh-and-delete is not an option, there are three things I try to do. Maybe you will find these things helpful, too.

First, I remind myself that we are called to be people of faith, not fear. These kinds of reports are always driven by fear: at bottom they exhibit a profound lack of trust in God.

As Christians we are called to trust that God is indeed sovereign through all things, that God’s kingdom is indeed growing throughout the world, that Christ is building his church and not even the gates of death can prevail against it, and that God has raised Jesus from the dead, conquering death itself.

These reports are driven by fear, not motivated by faith. The fear may be understandable, it might seem natural, but it runs counter to the fundamental stance of a follower of Jesus: a stance of faith in God.

Second, I remind myself that we are called to be people of love, not enmity. We are commanded by Jesus to love our neighbours—anyone we encounter who is in need—but also to love our enemies—anyone who opposes us, even violently.

The fear that I’ve just mentioned often leads to a kind of “defensive antagonism”—we get our hackles up (it’s the “fight” in the “fight or flight” response built into our most primitive intuition). That defensive antagonism can sometimes leap immediately to the extreme of physical violence, but more often it takes the form of hostile attitudes that settle in our hearts, which then build toward offensive words and aggressive (or passive-aggressive) actions.

This is essentially the nature of prejudice or bigotry: fear, when fueled by ignorance and left unchecked by genuine faith and love, leads to hostile attitudes that separate “us” from “them,” and ultimately to more direct actions of injustice and oppression.

But we are called to empathy and compassion, not prejudice and bigotry. We are called to love, not enmity.

And this leads to the third thing I do: I remind myself to gain knowledge about a situation and to learn more about the “other.” It’s important that we do our best to discern the truth about our world and one another, in order to love each other better. Knowledge dispels ignorance, which is crucial for dismantling bigotry and oppression.

otero-chart

Handy chart of news sources by Vanessa Otero.

For myself, I avoid the so-called “news” sources on either the extreme right or extreme left. Instead I try to get my news from major news outlets—whether leaning left or right—that follow basic codes of journalistic integrity. When I come across a specific item, I first look to its source to see if it fits the bill.

I might also do some quick fact-checking on sites like Snopes.com or TruthorFiction.com (for popular stories), FactCheck.org or PolitiFact.com (for American politics), or Wikipedia (for general info). If more in-depth research is needed I’ll follow the links at those sites, or, even better, I’ll search more academic or technical sources of information such as research pages at university websites, scholarly research portals, various UN sites, or others. I’ll check multiple sites if needed to avoid getting only one angle on things.

Yes, this all takes time, and it doesn’t always yield clear and simple results. Discerning truth is like that. And sometimes we just have to say, “I’m not sure what’s going on, but I still choose to live in faith and love.”

It has never been easy to be a discerning follower of Jesus in the world, being, as Jesus put it, “wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.” In some ways it’s even harder now, with millions of terabytes of information at our fingertips, both true and false, used both for good and for ill.

May God give us wisdom as we seek to discern the truth in our complex world, and may God give us faith and love—and hope!—in a world that at times seems determined to rob us of these gifts.

Cross-posted from www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl