Follow-up to “I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity.”

I began to respond to this question here. This post is the promised follow-up.

Q. Hello sir. I wish you are doing well. I have a question. I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity and how the Bible works. How can I read the Bible? How do Christians believe in God? Can you suggest some books that can help me, please? Thank you sir in advance.

One thing I didn’t mention last time is that Bible Gateway allows you to read the Bible online in a large number of different languages. I’m not sure what your native language is, but on Bible Gateway, just to the left of the orange-yellow “Search” box at the top of the page, you’ll find a pull-down menu that lets you choose a Bible translation. For example, if your language is Arabic, you’ll find, second from the top in this menu, two Arabic translations, Ketab el Hayat and the Easy-to-Read Arabic Version.

Another good resource is the site maarifa.org. It offers basic Bible studies in Arabic (I’m hoping you know that language).  It has staff available for live chat for those who study the Bible from their website and have questions.

An excellent basic introduction to Christian beliefs can be found in the book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N.T. Wright.

But I think the best way for you to start getting answers to your questions is, as I said last time, just to begin reading the Bible (I recommend starting with the Gospel of John) and then find a knowledgeable, respectful Christian who can talk things over with you. I hope the questions and answers on this blog, Good Question, will also be useful to you.

Thanks again for your sincere interest. In one of the psalms (songs)  recorded in the book of Psalms in the Bible, the writer says to God, “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.” May this be your experience as you read and reflect on the Bible.

“I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity.”

Q. Hello sir. I wish you are doing well. I have a question. I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity and how the Bible works. How can I read the Bible? How do Christians believe in God? Can you suggest some books that can help me, please? Thank you sir in advance.

Thank you so much for your question and for your sincere interest. Let me begin with a simple suggestion.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a professor at the University of Cambridge, once taught a course entitled, “On Reading the Bible.” He began by saying, “My first advice ‘on reading the Bible’ is to do it.” I’ll write a follow-up post shortly to suggest some more resources for you, but I wanted to respond to your question right away and begin with basically the same advice.

I’d suggest that you just start reading about Jesus in a book in the Bible known as the Gospel of John.

Christianity is essentially a matter of following Jesus—coming to know Him as Savior, Lord, and Friend, and becoming part of a community that seeks to live by His teaching and example. There are four books in the Bible, known as “gospels” (which means “good news”), that tell the story of Jesus’ life and explore its meaning. There are four of them because Jesus’ life is so rich in meaning that we need to view it from multiple perspectives simply to begin to understand it.

The gospels are found, in the traditional order of the biblical books, at the beginning of the New Testament. This is the second part of the Bible and it makes up the last quarter of it. The books in it tell about Jesus and his earliest followers.

The first three-quarters of the Bible is known as the Old Testament. (Testament means “covenant,” an agreement between God and people.) This part of the Bible tells how God worked to save humanity through figures such as Abraham and Moses. But Christians believe that God’s saving purposes reached their culmination in Jesus.

The Gospel of John is a remarkable book that explains the meaning of Jesus’ life against the background of the events and figures of the Old Testament. But it does this in a way that’s accessible to people of every time and culture. So it’s a great way to be introduced to Jesus while at the same time appreciating the context of his life on this earth.

If you do have a Bible, or can get one, find where the New Testament begins. The Gospel of John will be the fourth book in the New Testament, in the traditional order of the biblical books.

If you can’t easily get a copy of the Gospel of John where you are, you can read it online starting here. At this link, you’ll see several brown icons just above the text of the book, at the upper right. The one on the far right is for audio—if you click on it, you’ll be able to listen to the book being read out loud. The icon in the center, which looks like a wheel with spokes, gives you page display options. For the best reading experience, I’d recommend unchecking the boxes that say “footnotes,” “verse numbers,” and “headings.” Those are resources you can find out how to use later.

I trust you will have a great experience finding out more about Jesus through this story of his life. As I said earlier, I’ll write a follow-up to this post shortly to recommend some more things for you. Thanks again for your interest.

Paul says he met “James, the Lord’s brother”; was this man Jesus’s actual brother?

Q. Paul writes in Galatians that he met “James, the Lord’s brother.” Do you think this man was Jesus’s actual brother, or was he a former disciple or relative, who may have been considered “as close as a brother”?

Protestants and Catholics answer this question differently. (The man in question is sometimes called “James the Just” to distinguish him from two of Jesus’s disciples, James the son of Zebedee—”James the Greater” or “Elder”—and James the son of Alphaeus—”James the Lesser” or “Younger.”)

Protestants consider James the Just to have been an actual brother of Jesus based on the description of what happened in Nazareth when Jesus taught in the synagogue there. The people responded, ““Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” Since the offended crowds begin by naming Jesus’ (presumed) father and his mother, Protestants feel it is natural to understand the references to his “brothers” and “sisters” also as biological.

Catholics, however, believe as an essential matter of their faith that Mary was a virgin her entire life. This means that she could have had no other children besides Jesus (and of course that he came from a virgin conception). So over the centuries, beginning as early as the 300s, various theologians and biblical scholars have offered other interpretations of this passage. Some have suggested, for example, that the word adelphos, usually translated “brother,” could also mean “cousin.” The gospel of John reports that at the cross of Jesus, “his mother’s sister” stood next to his mother Mary. Some have suggested that it’s the children of this sister who are listed in the passage about Nazareth. Others have suggested that they may be the children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.

Whatever the explanation, biblical scholars do agree that the man Paul says he met in Jerusalem is the same man described in this account of Jesus teaching in Nazareth. He became the leader of the followers of Jesus in that city and he wrote the biblical book of James. In that book, he describes himself simply as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He considered this servanthood the most important thing about his own identity, not any “family connection” he might have had with Jesus, just as the apostle John recognized that the most important thing about himself was that he was a “disciple whom Jesus loved.”

So let us make Jesus’ love for us and our service to him our takeaway from this question, come to an informed conclusion in our own minds about the question itself, and be respectful of the beliefs of others.

A traditional icon of James the Just
A traditional icon of James the Just

Is Pope Francis right that Christians who chase away refugees are hypocrites?

Q. What is your opinion on the following quote by Pope Francis?

“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help. If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

(According to the Catholic News Service, Pope Francis made these remarks on Oct. 13, 2016, while answering questions during an audience with Catholic and Lutheran young adults visiting from Germany.)

Let me say first that I admire Pope Francis tremendously. Even though I am a Protestant, I have been experiencing the same “Francis effect” that many Catholics have been reporting. My faith has been strengthened and energized by his leadership and example.

As for the quotation itself, as a biblical scholar and former pastor, I am entirely in agreement with the spirit of it. I believe it expresses the essence of Jesus’ teaching that “as you have done so for the least of these, you have done so for me”:

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

The only word in the statement I have a slight issue with is “hypocrite,” though this may be due to my Protestant perspective. In his capacity, Pope Francis likely has every right to use it.

Hypocrites are people whose inward attitudes, priorities, and commitments do not match their outward statements and claims. Put simply, a hypocrite is someone who’s pretending to be a Christian, but really isn’t. The Protestant tradition emphasizes how no one but God really knows another person’s heart, so I don’t feel I’m able to say definitively that a particular person who claims to be a Christian is only pretending to be one. I can say, however, in full agreement with Pope Francis, that if we truly want to follow Jesus, we should put his teaching and example into practice and care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger (foreigner), the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. Anyone who is actively opposing such ministry, or who is indifferent to it, can indeed be asked to “show cause” why they should still be considered a Christian.

I think Pope Francis is within his powers when he applies the word “hypocrite” even more strongly. As the spiritual head of the Catholic Church, he is responsible to define what Christian belief and behavior mean for the members of that communion. And so it’s valid for him to say, “If you chase away refugees, you’re not doing what we’re doing, so though you might still claim to be one of us, you’re really not.”

I recognize that the world’s refugee crisis is a complex problem and that people of good will can believe that differing approaches are called for to address it. I respect that. But whatever approach we take should be characterized by a compassionate desire to welcome and help people who have had to flee from their homes because of war, persecution, natural disaster, or other dangers.

Even measures that are taken, by their own description, to try to get a handle on the refugee crisis so that it can be addressed more effectively need to express compassion and consideration. I don’t believe I’m being inappropriately political on a blog devoted to non-partisan answers to questions about the Bible when I say that President Trump’s recent executive order suspending refugee admissions to the United States for 120 days (1) should never have been issued, but (2) if it were going to be issued, this could have been done with a far more charitable spirit. To give just one small example, people already cleared for entry who were on flights to the U.S. when the order took effect should certainly have been admitted. There was no reason to create such anguish for them and their families. The executive order could simply have applied to future processing, and let cases already approved go forward. I trust that in the days ahead, through the advocacy of concerned Christians and all people of good will, the unfortunate situation created by this executive order will be resolved in a compassionate, humanitarian way.

Thank you very much for your question and the concern behind it.

Detail of a stained glass window depicting the parable of the sheep and goats, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Gunthorpe, Norfolk
Detail of a stained glass window depicting the parable of the sheep and goats, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Gunthorpe, Norfolk

 

 

How do I know whether I’ve really managed to forgive someone?

Q. The Bible repeatedly mentions forgiveness. I would like to know exactly what that is, because lately it’s been impossible for me to know whether I’ve really managed to forgive somebody. I’m still angry with them and feel bitter towards them. I think dark thoughts about them. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer, the line “forgive us for our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us” really sticks out. I worry that God will not forgive me if I cannot let this go. So what qualifies as forgiveness?

Thank you for this excellent and heartfelt question. It’s one that I’m sure many other readers have as well. To respond to it, let me share some principles of forgiveness that I developed over the years in pastoral ministry, which I believe reflect the Bible’s teaching.

• Forgiveness is an act of the will that must be completed by emotional work.

Forgiveness is something that we choose to do because we know God expects it of us. In other words, it’s fundamentally an act of obedience. It’s true that the Lord’s Prayer implies that we should forgive if we want to be forgiven. But Jesus also taught that we should forgive because we have been forgiven. He told the parable of the unforgiving debtor, for example, to illustrate that because God has freely and graciously forgiven us in His great mercy, we should similarly show mercy to others. So choosing to forgive, in obedience, as an act of the will, is what qualifies as forgiveness. Once we make this choice and stick with it, God is satisfied, no matter how we feel afterwards.

I say that because as soon as we do choose to forgive, we often begin to struggle emotionally. For one thing, we need to deal with the hurt that another person has caused in our own lives. We may also have to come to terms with what feels like the unfairness of it all—”They’re getting away with everything, without so much as an apology!” But as we work through these emotions, choosing not to indulge in things like anger, bitterness, or dark thoughts, disciplining our minds, we can count on God’s grace to bring healing to our hearts and the recognition to our minds that by forgiving, we are being true “children of our Father in heaven, who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

That is, we will find this healing if the same old wounds don’t keep getting re-opened. Which brings me to the next principle:

• Forgiveness does not mean letting the other person hurt you all over again.

Forgiveness is a decision about a specific, one-time wrong or injury, to “let it go” and not seek revenge in any form (whether openly and actively, or in the form of indulged resentment, dark thoughts, etc.). When another person has established a pattern of hurting you, however, the process of forgiveness—which always takes time—will not be able to keep up with the repeated injuries, and you will feel defeated spiritually. What you need to do instead is break the pattern. That will likely mean, initially, putting some safe space between you and the other person, until the old pattern dies off and a new one can possibly be established, once it’s safe to re-engage. Put another way:

• Forgiveness is not a substitute for establishing personal boundaries.

We need to do both of these things in our lives. We can’t do one without the other. We won’t be able to establish healthy boundaries if “unfinished business” in the form of resentment is tying us to the old shape of the relationship. And we won’t be able to forgive if we keep allowing the other person to hurt us.

So when might it be safe to re-engage? This is my last point:

• Forgiveness takes one, reconciliation takes two.

Forgiveness is something you choose to do that sets you free on the inside. Reconciliation is something that two people have to agree to work on together. And before you try to reconcile with a person who has hurt you, before you let them back into your life where they might hurt you again, you need credible evidence that they have recognized their wrong, they are sorry for it, they will not repeat it, and they are committed to doing whatever they can to make things right with you. This is not something we can credibly believe about a person the first time they want to re-engage with us. Instead, we should identify safe confidence-building measures that we can try out a little at a time until we are assured that reconciliation can legitimately begin.

For example, it might be necessary for a while to have no direct contact with a person who has hurt you. Once you’ve had time for healing and strengthening by God’s grace, you might visit with them for a couple of hours in a coffee shop—not go and spend a weekend in their home! But things need to begin with the creation of some space and time for healing. It might not be possible to explain fully to the other person that you’re pursuing this, and why; if the relationship is already difficult, you may be blamed for being the problem, and this would only add to the hurt. But it should be possible to creatively and plausibly structure much more time away from the relationship, and if the other person seems to be catching on, you can simply say, “Yes, I feel as if I need some space right now.” You can’t predict how they’ll respond, but you shouldn’t worry about how they respond, either.

One qualifier: Everything I’ve said applies to relationships where you have some flexibility in how much time you spend with the other person. If it’s a toxic workplace relationship, however, and you have to be there many hours every week, you may actually need to find another job for the sake of your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. (Forgiveness doesn’t mean staying in an unhealthy situation that you are free to leave.) And if it’s a relationship with someone you live with—a spouse, parent, or child—and it’s much more than the regular wear and tear of people living under the same roof, it’s repeated serious hurts without any recognition of the harm being done, then I would strongly advise going for counseling about the dynamics in your immediate family, even if you have to start by going to a counselor alone. The issues at play in such a situation go far beyond a willingness to forgive. They require at least pastoral, and likely professional, counseling.

Where did Jesus live in Egypt?

Q. Where did Jesus live in Egypt? Did they travel there on foot and how long did it take them to travel to Egypt?

A Dec. 13, 2016 comment on my post “How long did Jesus live in Egypt?” reports a visit to a home in Cairo that was supposedly the one in which the baby Jesus lived with his parents. This is, of course, possible. But I believe that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would most likely have traveled to Alexandria for safety. There was a large Jewish colony in that city, and I even suspect that they had extended family or friends-of-friends who helped them settle there. But this is all speculative. The Bible simply reports that they went to Egypt, and we must rely on varying traditions for any further information.

The distance from Jerusalem to Alexandria is a little over 300 miles. In the time of Jesus, a “day’s journey” was considered to be about 20 miles. Assuming the family left from somewhere in Judea, it would have taken a little over two weeks for them to reach Alexandria (particularly considering that they were traveling with a young child).

Abu Serga (Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church) in Cairo, traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus rested at the end of their journey to Egypt.
Abu Serga (Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church) in Cairo, traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus rested at the end of their journey to Egypt.

Does the principle of healing the “land” in 2 Chronicles now apply to our sphere of influence?

Q. Does the principle of “healing their land” in 2 Chronicles now apply to our sphere of influence rather than to a plot of ground? Since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, can we still say it applies to all Christians who humble themselves, pray, seek Him, and turn from their wicked ways?

Sometimes when that passage in 2 Chronicles is quoted these days, “my people, who are called by my name” are equated with contemporary Christians, and “their land” is equated with the nation-state that a particular group of Christians is living in at a given time. I think we need to be careful about that. The passage actually expresses God’s reply to Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple about something very specific.

Solomon prayed: “When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you, and when they pray toward this place and give praise to your name and turn from their sin because you have afflicted them, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel. Teach them the right way to live, and send rain on the land you gave your people for an inheritance.” Solomon then prayed the same thing about “famine or plague, blight or mildew, locusts or grasshoppers.”

God appeared to him after the temple dedication ceremonies and promised in reply: “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

So this promise has to do with giving the land, the literal “plot of ground” on which the people of ancient Israel were living, relief from what we today would consider “natural disasters.” In the theocracy period, these were to be taken as prompts for the Israelites to examine themselves for any disloyalty or disobedience to their covenant God.

So I don’t think we can make a direct application of the promise to ourselves today. However, I think there is an important indirect application, along the lines you suggest. I think there are many indications in the Bible that the people of God, even in the current phase of redemptive history when they are the multinational community of believers in Jesus, can and should have a positive and preserving influence on the society around them.

We see this, for example, in Jesus’ parables about the mustard seed and leaven. While I think these have a legitimate application to the work of God within an individual’s heart and life, I believe they also describe the effects of the presence of the “kingdom of God” on its surroundings. (I understand the kingdom of God to be that community of people within which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, that is, without resistance.) I think these effects actually extend to the physical environment, but that is not the only or even the primary place where they are felt. Primarily, the presence of the kingdom of God influences human relationships, making them more wholesome, healthy, and harmonious.

I think other Scriptures point to this same thing. For example, there’s a statement in Psalm 84 that those “in whose heart are the highways to Zion” pass through the dry valley and turn it into a place of springs. (I’m interpreting this symbolically, but I don’t think the psalm itself is making a literal statement in any event.)

I would include the passage in 2 Chronicles together with these others and conclude that there is an indirect promise in the Bible that repentant, obedient believers will have a positive impact, individually and especially corporately, on their “sphere of influence.” (To use your well-chosen phrase—I think that’s the right thing to envision.)

Something to which we can all aspire in this new year!

"When those in whose hearts are the highway to Zion pass through the desert, they turn it into a place of springs." (Photo credit: Digital Aesthetica, Flikr_0413)
“When those in whose hearts are the highway to Zion pass through the desert, they turn it into a place of springs.” (Photo credit: Digital Aesthetica, Flikr_0413)