As I sit and watch a playoff game in the National Football League, I find myself thinking about something that I heard earlier this week. It was a major event in the world of sports that Stuart Scott, an analyst for the sports network ESPN, passed away last weekend.
Now, I’m no sports junkie. I enjoy watching American Football and there’s one sports radio show I listen to. That’s about the extent of my interest in sports. So, when I heard that Stuart Scott has passed away, I had no idea who that was or what he had done. It was only in the course of hearing about him through his colleagues that I learned about him.
There was something that was said about him that has stuck with me. Cari Champion, a television personality, spoke in memory of Stuart Scott. After she started at ESPN, he would send her text messages of encouragement to her, timely messages that would lift her up at critical moments when she needed them. It was until she was telling this that some of the other anchors with which she was talking said, “He did the same thing for all of us.” It was then that Cari Champion used a particular word to describe Mr. Scott: she called him a generous man.
Now, generosity is a powerful word to me. It is something that I would like to write about more sometime soon, but I believe that generosity is one of the clearest marks of a person who is trying to follow Jesus. When I read the Bible, I see that the God of the Bible is a generous God. He created the entire universe, and he created it extravagantly! There is a mind-boggling number of stars in the universe that we have discovered, and as far as we can tell, there’s many more. When mankind rejected him, God spared no expense – not even his son – to create a new way in which we can come to know him. That is extraordinary generosity.
Now, when most people think of generosity, they think of financial generosity. And that is important. However, I think that generosity extends beyond what you do with your money into the areas of how you approach your relationships with others, how you treat others, how easily you forgive those who hurt you, and more.
I guess this sticks with me because I’ve become one of those task-oriented people. I have to-do lists for my to-do lists. I like setting goals, and then meeting them. I also recognize the danger in that, because it is easy to get so caught up in getting things done that I put people – friends, family, and others – in second place, and the Bible makes it clear that loving God and loving people is at the heart of following Jesus (Mark 12:30-31), not getting stuff done. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting stuff done, but there has to come a point where people come before our to-do lists.
Now, I do not care to speculate on Stuart Scott’s faith or lack thereof. Like I said, I didn’t even know who he was until I heard that he had passed away. I just find that as I consider my way of living and loving those who am I closest to, I am challenged to greater generosity by Stuart Scott: greater encouragement, greater selflessness, greater kindness.
In one of my last posts on politics, I discussed how Jesus responded to the question of politics and taxes in his day. That naturally leaves us with the question of, what does the Bible have to say about our modern political process? That’s where we pick up in the book of Romans:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Now, let’s acknowledge right up front that there has been abuse of this scripture in the past. In ages past, scriptures like this one were used as a hammer to beat down on people who challenged the authority of a “divinely-appointed” king. That is not at all what this scripture is saying. Let’s also acknowledge up front that our political sensibilities are very different from that of 2,000 years ago. In democratic societies of today, we at least have a say in who governs us. If we don’t like our political leaders, there’s always a chance that they’ll be voted out of office. In fact, in the United States we are taught that we have a right to do that. Paul and the Roman Christians had no such expectation. And by the way, that doesn’t make them less intelligent or sophisticated human beings.
The governing authorities that Paul was referring to when he wrote the book of Romans were not so different from the ones I discussed in my post on Jesus and politics. The Christians were subjects of Rome, which publicly endorsed the worship of any number of gods. If you take a look at Roman history, the Romans were about as religiously inclusive as they could be. As the empire spread to Egypt and the Middle East, the Romans would incorporate worship of Egyptian and Middle Eastern deities into their religious traditions. Not only did the Romans endorse pagan deities, but Rome as a whole rejected Christianity and even persecuted the Church. (It wasn’t constant, but it did happen.)
These were the same authorities that Paul told Christians that they had to submit to! Paul even told the Christians to honor their political authorities. What sense does that make? It seems that Paul is making an argument that because God made the world and all of mankind is a creation of God, all human authorities are ultimately responsible to God for how they use their political power. Even the political authorities that deny God are still responsible to him and God uses them to keep humankind from descending into chaos.
Now, that does bring us to a whole host of questions about authority: what about evil dictators who kill their own people? Do we respect them or is there not some point at which we should depose them for no other reason than to preserve human life? Those are hard questions and I would rather not try answering them until I have more of a chance to consider them carefully. Besides, that is not really the point I’m trying to make with this post.
My point is, the Bible’s unified message seems to be that if we are trying to be faithful to God and follow Jesus, we have a debt of respect and honor to our political leaders even if they hate God and hate us.
If there is one political issue that gets me worked up, it’s this issue of respect. When I was in high school, George Bush was still the President. It always grated on my nerves to hear people refer to George Bush as “the dumbest president we’ve ever had.” It wasn’t because I was particularly fond of Bush; it was because they were being so disrespectful to him, essentially saying, “Yeah, I could do a better job than Bush.” No, you couldn’t. In spite of his accent, he went to college and he spent years of his life as the president, giving him experience. Instead of using such extreme statements, wouldn’t it be more honest and respectful to just say, “I don’t like Bush’s politics?” or even “I don’t think he’s qualified to be president?”
Now I know people who refer to President Barack Obama as “the worst president we’ve ever had,” as though they could do a better job than him. I’ll admit that I don’t like Barack Obama as President. Why? I don’t agree with his politics. That’s all. But at the same time, he is my president and he deserves my respect. I’m not saying that everyone has to like their political leaders and I’m not saying that we can’t have a healthy, honest discussion about which politicians we disagree with. I’m saying that we can disagree with the decisions our leaders make and still show them respect.
It seems out of fashion to show respect to those whose politics are diametrically opposed to our own, but let me remind us all: Jesus showed respect to the Roman authorities who would authorize his crucifixion. Paul told the Roman Christians to be submissive to the political authorities who might have been responsible for the cruel deaths of their spouses, siblings and children at some point or another. Even in the Old Testament, David refused to kill Saul even though Saul was literally hunting David down to kill him (see I Samuel 24). If that is the standard for treating those who hate us, why are we so disrespectful and even hateful to our political leaders when their only crime against us is not believing what we believe?
Just so I’m clear, I also acknowledge that there’s plenty of room for me to grow in this area of respect. I’ve been known to have rant-fests about politicians from time to time and I’m not always respectful to those I am disagreeing with. So…
How can we show respect to our political leaders? How can we honor our leaders who believe differently from us, even when we are stating why we disagree with them?
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.
When I was in high school, I loved studying history, philosophy, theology and a bunch of other “-ologies.” When I got a chance, I would read, debate and discuss God, Jesus, faith and all the rest. I’m not sure if I had read this verse from Jude or not, but if I read this verse I would think, “Absolutely!” I would hardly call it a spiritual gift, but it really felt like that was something I was meant to do. I was a thinker born into a family of thinkers, so it made sense to me.
Now, before I go to the heart of my big idea for today, I want to say that there is something right about that. If you’ve been a follower of Jesus for long, you’ve probably been told that you should “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…do this with gentleness and respect.” (I Peter 3:15) If you can pick up a book and study so you can talk with others about Jesus, then by all means do it! If you love doing research and discussing big philosophical and theological ideas with others as a means of introducing them to Jesus, then do it. Be prepared for the moment when someone asks about your faith. Even better, learn to lead conversations toward the subject of Jesus.
However, I want to offer two cautions. When I was younger, I was an active member of an online forum for Christians. There was a debate section in the forum where both Christians and non-Christians could discuss their opposing viewpoints. I was a regular in this forum from time to time because I believed that I was “contending for the faith” by essentially trying to argue non-Christians toward Jesus. You can guess how well that worked. As a high school student, no one really took what I had to say seriously; “just wait a few years until you grow up,” I remember one guy saying. Even more, I began to realize that most of the time the people debating – me, my fellow Christians and non-Christians – weren’t really interested in hearing out someone else’s argument. We just wanted to find the perfect argument, the perfect words that could sway those who didn’t believe as we believed. Eventually I realized that there are no “perfect words” to persuade someone. Besides, most of what we did ended up being the equivalent of yelling our arguments at one another.
I offer that cautionary tale to those of you who are also trying to follow Jesus. There is a time and place to discuss faith. From experience, I’d say that comment sections on Facebook, blogs, news stories, etc. probably aren’t a good place to try to discuss the finer points of theology. I’ve never heard of someone being swayed one way or the other by something someone says on a website, but I’ve talked to plenty of people who have been highly irritated and insulted by those online discussions. Be careful with when, where and (most importantly) how you engage in those discussions.
But there’s another caution I want to give. You see, most people read this verse and they probably feel a little disappointed because they have a very particular idea of what it means to “contend for the faith.” They think of reading, studying, debating, studying some more; in short, intellectual pursuits. If that’s your only picture of contending for the faith you’re missing out on something a lot bigger: you contend for the faith when you follow Jesus to the best of your ability as you are living your life well.
That doesn’t sound exciting. We like the romantic idea of swaying non-believers by the hundreds and seeing miracles happen – healing of physical ailments, financial provision when it’s needed most, answered prayers. We want to see God’s big miracles and I’m not trashing that! Right now, I’m praying for my high school history teacher and her husband because he has lymphoma. Make no mistake, I’m hoping for a miraculous healing for him and for their family.
(And by the way, if you are trying to follow Jesus, please pray for her and her family. Feel free to check out her blog and follow her family as they walk through this tough season of life.)
What I am suggesting is that God’s miracles – maybe even his better miracles – are in the everyday. Getting through a hard day’s work and having the strength to do everything that needed to be done is a miracle. Taking care of those jelly-faced toddlers without killing them? It’s a miracle. Having a consistently hopeful attitude even in the midst of suffering and confusion? It’s a miracle. Forgiving yourself when you stumble and trusting God to help you get back up? It’s a miracle. Living your everyday life in such a way that others can see something good in you – even if they don’t immediately recognize it’s Jesus – it’s a miracle.
You contend for the faith when you live your life well and do it in such a way that you honor Jesus.
Now, what does that look like for you? I’m not sure; I’m still trying to figure out what that means for me! But I think that that’s part of what it means to try to follow Jesus. Everyone has struggles in life. I believe that with Jesus’ strength, we follow him and honor him as we face our everyday struggles. With Jesus, we can struggle well.
If you are not trying to follow Jesus, what suggestions do you have for us in engaging people who believe differently from us?
If you are trying to follow Jesus, how are you doing in contending for the faith? How can you and I both do better as we try to contend for the faith and live lives that honor Jesus?
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
I’ve got to say, I like talking about politics in spite of myself. I really do. I like hearing people’s opinions, measuring them against my own beliefs and more importantly, measuring both of our opinions against Jesus and the Bible. That being said, talking about religion and politics is hard. Most people have strong opinions and it’s hard to agree to disagree on something when you have a strong opinion. That’s why some people say, “You don’t talk about religion and politics in polite company.” In my mind, this is nothing more than a way of avoiding talking about things of actual importance.
If we are trying to follow Jesus, we must come to accept that Jesus talked about religion and politics all the time. He had no problem with saying things that people disagreed with. In fact, Jesus often gave messages that were deliberately meant to make people stop following him. In Luke 14, Jesus told a large crowd of people that they couldn’t follow him unless they hated their family. Now, I believe that Jesus was primarily interested in breaking the bandwagon mentality of those following him, but in that story Jesus does not explain himself. Why would he do that? Just to mess with their heads. He wanted his followers to understand that if they wanted to follow him, their devotion to him overrides everything. They didn’t want to hear that. Jesus wasn’t threatened by the fact that people weren’t going to agree with him, so neither should we.
During Jesus’ lifetime, the land of Judea and the Jewish people were subjects of the Roman Empire, and it wasn’t because the Jews had invited them. A hundred years before Jesus’ ministry, the Roman general Pompey and his army intervened in a civil war between the Pharisees and Sadducees. He laid siege to Jerusalem, killed about 12,000 people and then entered the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple where only the Jewish high Priest was allowed to enter, desecrating the temple. In the aftermath, he made Judea a Roman-occupied territory and although he allowed the Jews to continue to worship God, he stripped the Jews of their right to self-rule. A Roman governorship was established and persisted to the time of Jesus.
Life as a subject kingdom of Rome was no picnic. Again, the Romans permitted the Jews to worship freely…as long as they kept it under control. That was why the Pharisees wanted to move quickly in arresting Jesus. They reasoned that if Jesus kept stirring up the people, there would be a riot and then the Romans would come and wipe them out. In addition, the Romans enforced a heavy tax on the Judeans – one pastor I’ve heard cited 80% as the typical tax rate. Eighty cents of every dollar that a Jew made went to support the Roman armies that oppressed them, the Roman temples that glorified pagan deities and the Roman rulers that controlled them.
In response to Roman rule, a group of Jewish revolutionaries called Zealots rose to notoriety. Their goal was simple: to overthrown the Roman rule of Judea by force. In fact, Jesus took a Zealot by the name of Simon (not Simon Peter) and made him one of his 12 disciples. The Zealots were the most radical faction, though many other political parties (like the Pharisees) wanted to see Roman rule ousted. Others, like the Herodians, wanted to acclimate or even collaborate with the Romans.
It was in this political climate that the Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” after trying to flatter him, of course. Jesus responded by asking for a Roman coin. When Jesus looked at a Roman coin, he probably would have seen an image of Caesar Augustus along with an inscription that read, “Hail Caesar! Long Live the Son of God!” Ironic for sure. So Jesus tossed the coin back and asked, “Who’s image is on it?” “Caesar’s!” Someone said. Jesus’s response is one that I truly admire: “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”
That is a very politically-charged statement. The Pharisees and Herodians wanted to trap Jesus. If he publicly accepted the oppressive Roman rule of Judea, they could paint him as a collaborator. If he publicly denounced the Roman rule, the Pharisees could paint him as a rebel. Either way, they were looking for political ammunition. Instead, Jesus a) acknowledged that the Jews were subjects of Rome without supporting or denouncing Rome, and b) Jesus made a differentiation between Caesar and God. The Romans believed that Caesar was God and they made every subject of Rome – including Jews – acknowledge that Caesar was God. The essence of Jesus’ words: “We are subjects of Rome and we owe them taxes, but Caesar is not God.”
This is just one statement that Jesus made about politics and I have more thoughts on it, but for now I just want to end with some basic applications to our modern political situation. Most people in Western culture today believe that certain political parties are “closer to God” than others. Every once in awhile, I’ll read an article that says something along the lines of, “According to This Person, Jesus is a __________” and they will fill in the blank with a political party. I laugh because it is so presumptuous for us to talk about Jesus’ party alignment when in his own day, he went to great lengths to distance himself from political parties.
In today’s political environment, Jesus would not self-identify as conservative, a liberal, a Republican, a Democrat or anything else. I think that Jesus would be Jesus and he would say to Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Constitutionalists and every member of every political party, “Follow me.” The best part is, Jesus doesn’t want to change your political affiliation when you start to follow him. Jesus wants to change your heart. He wants you to care about the people he cares about: the defenseless, the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the oppressed, the abandoned and all other people who have no voice in their culture. Those are the kinds of people that Jesus spent the most time loving and caring for. Jesus cared for the people who could do nothing to repay him, and so should we. I believe that, if we start to model that compassion of Jesus, it will influence our politics.
This is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing discussion of politics and how Jesus related to the politics of his day and how he still relates with our politics today.
What do you think about this passage? What do you think about the politics of Jesus?
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.
I am what you would describe as an obsessive planner. I have a plan for just about everything: what I’m going to eat when I’m at school or work during the week, when I’m going to visit my parents, when I’m going to do this, that and the other. My parents have poked a little fun at me because I seem to always have a plan for where I’m going to be and what I’m going to be doing. This may be why I naturally find this passage in James a little touchy. Very often do I make plans, but how often do I involve him in the decision-making process?
Reading this text also makes me smile a little bit because there have been moments where I have been on the totally opposite end of the spectrum. When I was getting ready to graduate high school, I was terrified of even graduating high school. I was so stricken with fear that I basically applied for one college and hoped that I would get in. Thankfully I got in to the University of Missouri, but I remember feeling very conflicted during that season of life because I felt like I couldn’t make a decision. Wasn’t I supposed to wait on God to tell me where to go and what to do? Why hadn’t he told me what I was supposed to do with my life? What if I made plans and then God changed them?
So, is that the kind of lifestyle that James is promoting? I don’t think so. He isn’t saying that planning is bad; making plans for the future makes you a responsible individual. That’s not saying that everyone has to plan for everything the way I do, but there comes a point wherenot making a decision makes you reckless. When I first started driving, I could barely make a decision to save my life: right or left? Faster or slower? Pass the person or idle down the highway at 40 mph? Frankly, I was a road hazard on wheels.
So what is James talking about? He’s talking about failing to take God into account when you plan for the future. “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” James isn’t telling us to just say “If it is the Lord’s will” at the beginning of each of our plans. There’s nothing magical about the phrase “If it is the Lord’s will.” He’s telling us that God needs to be involved in how we plan our lives and if we fail to include him in our plans, we are (in a very subtle way) trying to have our own way instead of allowing God the right to veto our plans.
One of the ways that I try to check my heart when I am making plans is asking, What is my reaction if this plan of mine doesn’t come to fruition? Do I get mad? Frustrated? Or am I able to make the plan and then honestly say, “God, if this doesn’t work, that’s okay?” If I can honestly make a plan and then accept that it might not work out, then that’s when I know that I’ve put this principle into practice. If I feel myself getting really frustrated when something I have planned doesn’t come about, that’s when I know that I need to take a moment, check my heart and leave it in God’s hands.
I use that phrase – “leave it in God’s hands” – carefully because some people who are trying to follow Jesus have come to believe that we can’t make plans or decisions, that God is supposed to split the Heavens open and tell us what to do every time we come to a crossroads. If you’ll read the New Testament – and in particular the book of Acts – I don’t think that that’s the model of discipleship that we see the early Church leaders setting. Did God speak to them on certain issues? Yes. But they also made many different decisions with no specific instruction from God, though they typically gave God the right to veto their decision.
A great example of this decisional model is in Acts 1 where the disciples picked who was going to replace Judas as the 12th disciple. What did they do? They whittled it down to two men, they prayed for God’s guidance, and then they drew lots to see which of the two men it was going to be. Did God tell them to do that? No, but they did pray for God’s guidance. Their approach was balanced: they weren’t just asking God to make all of the decisions, but they weren’t just acting without giving God that right of veto.
So, this passage from James is telling us to make sure that we give God the right of veto when we are making decisions. Make your plans, make sure that they are as good as you can make them and then bring them before the throne of God saying, “Father, if it is within your will, here’s what I plan to do” and then trust that if your plan doesn’t work out, God’s got a better one in mind. So, make plans; make decisions; don’t wait for God to make them all for you; and please don’t try to plan everything out so meticulously as I do.
So, if you are trying to follow Jesus, what do you think about this passage from James 4? Do you think God wants us to make plans? What kinds of ways can we ensure that we give God the right of veto if we do make plans? When do you think God is giving you the go-ahead for a plan? What about when he is saying “no” to something you plan?
If you aren’t a Christian or aren’t trying to follow Jesus, what is your reaction to this whole model of planning and decision-making? Does it make sense, or does it just sound weird?