Sunday, December 20, 2009

TorahBytes: Self Punishment (Va-Yiggash)

And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. (Bereshit / Genesis 45:5; ESV)

Some of us, when we realize that we have done something wrong, get very upset with ourselves. The details of the event play over and over again in our minds. We try to think how we could have done it better. We earnestly apologize again and again, but never feel forgiven. Others may feel just as bad, but deal with it differently. Instead, they internalize their sense of guilt and shame and never talk about it, allowing it to fester inside of them.

Joseph was concerned that his brothers would be too hard on themselves for how they had treated him. They certainly had done him wrong. Enraged with jealousy, they wanted to murder him, but in the end sold him into slavery. We can hardly imagine what the subsequent years for Joseph were like. Even with how things turned out in the end for Joseph - after years of slavery and imprisonment, he was promoted to second in command in Egypt - few people would have what it takes to console the very ones who were the cause of their years of suffering. Yet he does console them. Joseph's understanding of what God was doing through his terrible circumstances gave him perspective and the ability to not obsess over his brothers' wrongdoing.

Joseph was not saying that they didn't do wrong. He wasn't saying that they didn't need to face their guilt and deal with it before God. What he was trying to do was share with them a godly perspective to keep them from mishandling their guilt.

When we do wrong, we are guilty. We need to deal with that. How we deal with it is another thing. Punishing ourselves, which is what Joseph was encouraging his brothers not to do, doesn't do anybody any good. It doesn't change what happened or appease the one we have wronged. All we can do for the wronged party is express regret through a sincere apology and make restitution if the situation warrants it.

Self punishment shifts the focus of our wrongs to ourselves, which is most likely how we created the problem in the first place. Wallowing in failure may give the impression that we are taking the situation seriously, but actually prevents us from effectively dealing with our guilt.

Joseph's perspective on his situation is the key to being free from self punishment. Without saying that his brothers were free from any responsibility for their wrongs, he understood that ultimately God was in control of their lives.

Some may think that to accept what Joseph was saying regarding how God used his brothers' wrongdoing for good purposes would lead to their not taking their wrongs seriously enough. Perhaps they would start to think that there is no such thing as evil, since God uses everything - including jealously and murder - for his purposes. This certainly wasn't Joseph's understanding. Later on he would say to them, "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Bereshit / Genesis 50:20). The key to freedom from self punishment and from the guilt that spurs it on is to understand the relationship between our actions and the God who rules the universe. Do we really think that we control the destiny of others? Beating ourselves up for our wrongs furthers the lie that somehow we rule over life, when God, the Master of the Universe, is always in control. Once we accept that, then we can face our wrongs properly.

Self punishment completely missed the point. Wrongdoing is fundamentally an affront to our Creator. Apart from apologies and restitution, we can only be free from guilt through the forgiveness of God. So many of our misdeeds can never be resolved through anything we say or do. But God has made provision for our guilt. Through the sacrifice of the Messiah and acknowledging the seriousness of our wrongs, we can be free from guilt. The Messiah was severely punished on our behalf. So, stop beating yourself up!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

TorahBytes: Knowing When To Take a Stand (Mi-Kez & Hanukkah 8)

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you." (Bereshit / Genesis 41: 39,40; ESV)

The story of Joseph continues during the celebration of Hanukkah. Last week we looked at how it is necessary at times to take a stand against certain kinds of evil. Joseph's unwillingness to give in to his master's wife's overtures kept him from wrongdoing, but resulted in his being sent to prison. Compromising in that situation was not an option for him.

It would be years before God's plan for Joseph would become evident. Having accurately interpreted dreams for two servants of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, Joseph was called upon to interpret a couple of dreams for Pharaoh himself. Joseph's insightful interpretation of the coming seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine along with his wise suggestion of how to prepare for the impending disaster, led to his being appointed as Pharaoh's chief administrator.

Joseph lived the rest of his life in Egyptian government service. His father, brothers, and their families, which were the beginnings of the nation of Israel, all moved to a district of Egypt, where their descendants would remain for over 400 years until the Exodus.

Much of the history of Israel has to do with living among other nations and cultures. God's promises to Abraham included the giving of the Land to his descendants. Israel's relationship to God was intimately connected to whether or not we would be free from foreign rule. As long as we were faithful to God, we lived in peace in our land. But if not, then we would be under the rule and oppression of foreign powers.

Israel's experience in Egypt prior to the Exodus was different from the other times. This was a time of preparation before God gave us the Land. Yet Joseph's experience in Egypt is instructive in how God's people are to live among other cultures.

Being faithful to God and his ways may, from time to time, create tension between us and the prevailing culture in which we live. Pressure may be put on us to conform to the ungodly ways of the people around us. When Joseph's master's wife tempted him to sin, he knew that was something he must not do and took drastic measures in order to stay faithful to God. Last week we saw how this is a good illustration for Hanukkah. There are certain lines we must not cross what ever the cost.

But notice that it wasn't as if Joseph saw himself as constantly being at odds with the prevailing culture. God had called him to be a blessing among foreigners. He knew that he could effectively serve God within the culture. At the same time he had already shown that he could do this while staying faithful to God.

God's people are not called to live at odds with the culture in which we live just because the majority of people within that culture may not believe in Yeshua. Like Joseph, we need to serve God wherever he may lead us. Like Joseph, we should live lives of godliness however others around us might live. As we do this, we, like Joseph, may need to take a stand against the temptation to compromise. Like Joseph, taking such a stand may result in difficult circumstances for us. But, like Joseph, standing for godliness may open doors of service within ungodly cultures in ways beyond our wildest dreams.

TorahBytes: Enough Is Enough! (Va-Yeshev & Hanukkah 1)

How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God? (Bereshit / Genesis 39:9)

One of the central themes of Hanukkah (this year from December 12- 19, 2009) is the resisting of society's pressure to turn from God's ways. Hanukkah retells the story of the Jewish revolt against Greco-Syrian control that occurred around 165 years before the coming of Yeshua. The emperor sought to consolidate his rule by forcing his subjects, including his Jewish ones, to adopt Greek customs. Many in Israel submitted themselves to these pagan practices, until a priest by the name of Matitiyahu refused. A small Jewish army led by Matitiyahu's son Judah eventually defeated the large and heavily armed Greco-Syrian force.

People who have sought to please God have often faced pressure to conform to the dominant culture. Hanukkah is an example of when those who desire to stay true to God and his ways need to say "Enough is enough!" and take a stand against the culture. We are in those times again.

It is interesting that the beginning of Hanukkah this year coincides with the Torah portion containing the story of Joseph. Joseph also stood against the pressure of ungodly influence. In his case it was not a cultural thing, but rather a personal situation, where he was tempted to commit adultery with his master's wife. He knew she created a no-win situation for him. To do what she wanted may have provided temporary relief from his circumstances, but would have most likely cost him his life. But to resist her advances, besides being a difficult thing to do, would eventually cause him great trouble, which is in fact what happened. As it turned out she falsely accused him of the very thing she was tempting him to do. What made the difference for Joseph was that to give in to her would have displeased God - something that he was in no way willing to do.

Joseph's predicament illustrates for us what it means to stand against the pressure of a culture that constantly nags us into submission. But I believe we need to be like Joseph and say "Could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?"

I fear that for many it is too late. Just like in the days of Hanukkah, many who claim to be part of the people of God have already given in to the prevailing culture. Having cast off the peculiarities of being people of faith, we have chosen to go after the customs of our day.

Here are a few examples of how we have been taken over by today's ungodly culture:

A growing number of so-called believers are ashamed of the exclusive nature of biblical faith. According to the Bible there is only one God and there is only one way to that God, the Messiah Yeshua. Yet there are those who have invented notions, claiming that there may be exceptions to this rule.

Less and less people regard the Bible's view of family, and children in particular, as God's model for living. Instead we go along with how the culture regards family, thinking that after two thousand years human beings have improved upon the teaching of the Scriptures.

North American affluence has become our preferred standard of living. How very different from the One who had no place to lay his head, who calls us to give up everything to follow him.

What does our obsession with entertainment say about our understanding of the stewardship of our time and money? We prefer to drown ourselves in diversions instead of spending our time in truly productive endeavors. Then, at the same time, we refuse to partake of rest and refreshment God's way.

We have exchanged God's version of love and sexuality for that of the world's. We disregard the sacredness of the marriage covenant, while pursuing relationships with selfish motives.

Perhaps one of the main driving forces behind these and other examples is today's value of being accepted by others. What kept Joseph was his primary commitment to God and his ways. When the temptation came to conduct himself inappropriately, his loyalty to God was the strong foundation from which he could not be moved. What a contrast to our own day where we tend to so easily go along with whatever is perceived as popular, so that we would not be viewed as weird.

Until we can stand up and like Matitiyahu say, "Enough is enough!" we will continue to be swept away by the pull of culture's powerful tide.