Monday, August 31, 2009

TorahBytes: Only God Can Change Our Hearts (Ki Tavo)

But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:4; ESV)

As Moses is nearing the end of his time as leader of his people and prepares them for their new life in the Promised Land, he expects that they will not remain faithful to God. He is well aware that even though they had been recipients of God's goodness and witnesses of his power, they had never undergone the change of heart necessary to keep them in right relationship with him. While the consequences of their inadequate spiritual state is made clear, this statement is the ultimate reason for this: "But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:4; ESV).

One of the most difficult and perhaps most controversial issues in the entire Bible is the relationship between God's sovereignty and human responsibility. While the Bible claims that God is master and king of the entire universe, we human creatures will be held accountable for our actions. People through the ages have grappled with how both of these truths can be true at the same time. Some insist on emphasizing one over the other, thinking that either God is limited in his sovereignty or we have no actual control over our actions.

But is it necessary to resolve this tension? If the Scriptures teach both and we can't figure out how they work together, then perhaps we don't have all the information we would need to know to sufficiently resolve this difficult philosophical problem. This approach may not easily satisfy you, but don't we regularly hold certain things to be true without working out all the logical inconsistencies between them? I accept that this issue is a most difficult and important one, and that the acceptance of one of these truths challenges the reality of the other. But the humility that comes from accepting that we don't have all it takes to know everything, might enable us to live with the tension (and the blessing) that arises from holding both God's sovereignty and human responsibility to be fully true at the same time.

Rejecting either of these two basic truths cuts us off from the reality of life as God created it. Instead of striving for philosophical comfort, we would be much better off to learn to live with the tension. These words of Moses we have read are a wonderful opportunity to do this.

According to Moses, the people's inability to follow God in the way they should is because God had not given them that ability. As each one of us accepts how we have failed to measure up to God's standards just as the people of Israel of old, we need to realize that our spiritual inadequacy is ultimately due to God's leaving us in our natural sinful state. To be what God designed us to be can only become a reality as God himself graciously grants changes in our hearts. Human striving will never overcome our spiritual inadequacies. We need God's transforming power.

This is why God's remedy for Israel's ongoing waywardness was that he himself would cause the necessary changes we so desperately need. Many years later, through the prophet Jeremiah, God said that he would one day bring about what Moses said had not occurred in his day - a permanent change of heart: "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33; ESV).

To be what God wants us to be requires the work of God in our lives. Does this mean therefore that there is nothing we can do with the spiritual inadequacies in our lives? If God hasn't changed us, then is there nothing we can do about it? Yes and no. While we cannot by our own efforts make us what we are not, we can submit ourselves to God and look to him to affect this change.

But isn't this circular reasoning? Is not our inability to rely on God due to God's not changing our hearts sufficiently so that we can rely on him? This is where not accepting that we don't know everything gets in the way of reality. While it is true that we need God's work in our hearts to rely on him, we don't see the evidence of God's work until we rely on him. As we submit to God's sovereignty we may just find that he has changed our hearts.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

TorahBytes: Free from Shame (Ki Teze)

Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. (Isaiah 54:4; ESV)

Years ago a friend of mine who was a Bible translator and an expert in cross-cultural communication explained to me how some cultures are guilt based while others are shame based. It is common to confuse guilt and shame, but they are actually quite different. Understanding this difference can help us to learn to live free of both.

Guilt is the result of breaking a clearly defined law or rule. Guilt is usually accompanied by a fear of punishment at the hands of an authority of some kind. Taking a cookie when your mom or dad told you not to may result in guilt. A judge determines guilt based on whether or not you have broken the law. A person is either guilty or not. If found guilty, then a sentence of some kind would be given.

Shame is not so straightforward. Shame often comes from a deep internal sense of having done something unacceptable due to a sense of failure to measure up to certain standards or expectations. Guilt may be included, especially if a rule or law is broken, but not all rules carry the same level of shame and a rule doesn't need to be broken to experience shame. Shame is present when there is a perception that our behavior is such that we don't deserve to be accepted by those with whom we have relationship. That relationship could be family, friends, community group, work place, school, and so on. Shame often leads to a desire to hide from others. Embarrassment often comes from a sense of shame.

Shame is much more difficult to deal with than guilt. It is relatively easy to determine when a well-defined rule has been broken thus making someone guilty or not. Shame has more to do with perceptions, not facts. That perception may be influenced by right and wrong, but in a very vague way.

Western society, with a foundation upon the rule of law, has for the most part been guilt based. Our leaders sought to establish a way of life that had one clear standard for all people. In recent years moral issues have been more and more removed from our legal codes. Personal preferences and special interests influence and control morality more than objective legal standards. As a result, while we continue to use the language of a guilt-based society, we have largely become a shame-based society. The often felt heaviness of heart and turmoil of mind that we call guilt may actually be shame. We wonder what we have done wrong, but we no longer possess the moral clarity to determine guilt, and so we feel ashamed.

It may appear that the current casting off of traditional morality is devoid of shame. Immorality is flaunted and celebrated. But this can only occur where the legalities controlling these behaviors are no longer in force. What is actually being celebrated is the apparent freedom from guilt. Yet the intensity of the celebration as well as the violent attempt to silence detractors may be very well derived from the desire to cover shame.

The redefining of morality will never free us from shame, since at its most basic level it is due to our alienation from God. It was God's clarification of right and wrong through the giving of the Torah that enabled us to understand this alienation along with its resulting shame.

God desires to free us from shame. Through the Messiah God has dealt with not only our guilt but also our shame. Through Yeshua we can not only be forgiven, but also be set free from that nagging sense of shame that continues to heavily burden so many of us. Seeing our shame for what it is is the first step to our being free from it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

TorahBytes: Abominable Practices (Shofetim)

When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 18:9; ESV)

As the people of Israel were prepared by God to enter the Promised Land, they were given specific details as to how they were to live. God's directives are not just a bunch of arbitrary religious regulations. Rather, they are an entire way of life that if carefully adhered to will enable God's people to live the way human beings were designed by God to live. While there were certain aspects of this lifestyle that were only for a certain time and place, much of what God revealed to Moses is his intention for all people for all time.

God's directives are expressed both positively, things we should do, and negatively, things we shouldn't do. I have heard it said that if we would fill our lives with good things, then we wouldn't have time for bad things. But that's not true. We humans seem to be able to always make time for bad stuff, no matter what else we may be doing. If we neglect obeying God in what he tells us not to do, we will certainly get ourselves and others into big trouble.

One of God's negative directives concerns our relationship to what Moses calls "the abominable practices" of the nations they were to dispossess. The people of Israel were to "not learn to follow" those practices. The way this is expressed emphasizes something more than just the avoiding of these practices. The people were to keep themselves from learning to follow them. This may suggest that while the people's initial reaction would be one of repulsion, if they allowed themselves they would learn to adopt them. God's directive then was that they should never even learn about them.

It is a challenge not to learn to follow abominable practices today. The sinful ways that are part and parcel of popular culture do not simply keep to themselves, waiting to see who might be interested in them. Rather they aggressively seek to influence us, calling to us to come and learn. They put on an appealing front in order to deceive us into thinking that any concern we may have over these things is an overreaction. Not only are abominable practices aggressive in their desire to lure us into their clutches, they are more than happy to have easy access to our lives through technology. At one time in order to learn these evil things, one had to purposefully go out of their way to seek them out. Now we can engage them with the simple push of a button anywhere, anytime.

To not learn to follow the abominable practices of our day takes a considerable amount of wisdom and effort. Perhaps like never before, we need to know the Scriptures. There are so many voices speaking in the name of the Bible, but do we have the ability to discern who is speaking the truth? Also, we need to have the courage to let the truth of Scripture confront the practices of the cultures around us. Cultural practices are not neutral. They are either under the influence of God or in the grip of evil. Too many people naively go along with the way things are, not taking the time to discern if they are truly of God or not. Once it is evident that certain practices are evil, we must not learn to follow them.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

TorahBytes: God's Words - No More, No Less (Re'eh)

Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 13:1 [English 12:32]; ESV)

In the biblical book Mishlei (English: Proverbs) we read:
Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar. (Mishlei / Proverbs 30:5,6; ESV)
Whatever God has said is true. Why would we want to add or subtract to what he has revealed? Can we enhance his Word by adding to it? And what would we gain by taking anything away from it? Through the Scriptures God has given us all we need in order to know him and to know our place and purpose in his plan.

Yet for one reason or another, even those of us who claim to accept the Bible as God's written and authoritative Word, add and subtract from it - at times knowingly, at times unknowingly.

Some of the ways we add to God's Word is due to speculation. The Bible doesn't always give us the kind of detail we may prefer or expect. Lack of description in a narrative portion or not being given an explanation as to why God said this or that may lead us to make guesses. Not being satisfied with the information we do have, there is a tendency to elaborate. While giving some time to speculation can be helpful in gaining better understanding of a particular portion, we may read our speculations into the words of the Bible, resulting in our becoming confused over what God has really said.

Legends are stories or concepts that may or may not be historically accurate, but to which we may have sentimental attachment. Similarly, traditions are rarely questioned as to whether they are condoned by the Scriptures. Loyalty to legends and traditions may blind us from accepting that they are actually additions to God's Word.

We may also add to the Bible through how we interpret it. Interpretations may not look like additions, but when they become authoritative we have added our opinions of the Bible to the Bible.

Subtracting from the Bible is something we may do simply because we want to. When certain passages make us uncomfortable, we may choose to reject them. A more subtle way in which we reject portions of God's Word is to ignore them. We might do that by not allowing ourselves to be exposed to certain portions of Scripture or by not taking the time to understand them.

Theological preferences may limit how open we are to the whole Bible. Instead of letting the Bible mold how we think about God and life, our commitment to an interpretive scheme or grid may filter out parts of the Bible.

Another way we subtract from God's Word arises from how we answer the very important question, "What in the Bible applies to us today?" Of course there are significant Bible passages that we are not expected to keep today (for example, I know of no serious Bible scholar who would insist that we follow the Old Covenant sacrificial regulations - not that we cannot learn from such passages). Be that as it may, there is a growing tendency among some to deny the relevancy of Bible passages based on the fact that our current culture is so very different from the cultures of Bible times. This view makes culture the interpretive key rather than the biblical text. If culture becomes the basis of whether or not to follow a directive of God, then we have little basis to follow almost anything in the Bible.

But note what we read from the book of Mishlei:
Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar. (Mishlei / Proverbs 30:5,6; ESV)
There is an intimate connection between our relationship to the words of God and the protection we have in him. Neglecting his words places us in significant danger. To add to his words will result in God's confronting us and in some way showing that we have misrepresented him. It is when we receive, believe, and act upon his every word that the Master of the Universe will be our protection and refuge.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

TorahBytes: God's Words (Ekev)

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 8:3; ESV)

As Moses recaps the forty-year journey of the people of Israel through the wilderness, he explains the purpose of the provision of manna. Manna was the food that miraculously appeared on the ground each day, except on the Sabbath. Through this God was teaching the people to rely solely upon him. The statement "man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" is sometimes taken to mean that our lives depend on not just physical substance, but also upon God. But that is not what this says. What we have here is actually two ways of living. One is "by bread alone"; the other is "by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD". Either we live life dependent on the fulfilling of our basic physical needs or upon God. The people of Israel needed to learn that for life to be lived the way God intended, we need to be dependent upon him alone.

Note that relying upon God is not described in vague terms, but with reference to his words. Moses didn't say that man lives by depending or trusting in God, which would be true, but that "man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD". Living life the way God intends requires strict attention to his every word.

What Moses says is of great importance with regard to our understanding of the inspiration of the Bible. If the Scriptures (Old and New Covenant writings) are inspired by God, then to what extent are the words themselves inspired? Are the Scriptures only inspired in some general sense or did God intend the words themselves to be written the way they were? The New Covenant writings state the latter:
And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21)
There has been a growing tendency among Bible believers to think that it is only the meaning of the words and not the words themselves that are inspired by God. Failing to accept that words determine meaning, opens us up to all sorts of concepts that God never intended.

Some Bible scholars belittle the words of Scripture by asserting that these words are only truly relevant to the time and culture in which they were written. They claim that in order for us to effectively understand and apply the teachings of the Bible to our day, it is necessary to separate the words from their intended meaning. Because the Bible writers saw the world so differently from how we do, it's only the eternal truths, which are somehow contained within or behind the words they wrote, that are relevant to us today.

This approach rejects the fact that it is God's words, not just his Word in some general sense, which are inspired. It rejects what Moses said (God through Moses actually) that we are to live by every word that comes from God's mouth. God inspired the writers of Scripture to write the very words through which he has revealed both himself and his will to us.

It is true that there are many differences between the way the writers of Scripture and we today view the world. But perhaps if we lived by every word that came from God's mouth, we would once again view the world the way God does.