How can I show my friends that I’m not a wacko just because I’m a Christian?

Q. How do we handle the tension that comes from being truly and deeply different as Christians while simultaneously wanting to reach a culture that ​is​ ​easily put off by “strange” religious behavior and especially ​of​​ being “converted” to ​something​? ​Since religious believers are often portrayed as complete wackos, it would seem that showing people how normal most of us are would be a good step. But it makes me wonder how far is too far when it comes to trying to appear “normal.” ​

To what degree one should bring up faith or try to steer conversations in that direction in personal relationships? Is it more important to focus on living such an attractive life that people inevitably “want what we have” and ask us about our faith? Or is that even realistic?

Along the same lines, to what degree should Christians emphasize that they are “just normal people” and not “crazy cult followers”? For example, say that after work some coworkers invite you to go to a local bar for some drinks. Obviously some personal judgement is called for (how shady is this bar?), but would it be a better approach to go with the “hey, I want these people to know that Christians are normal too” approach and go grab a drink, or would it be better to make a point of emphasizing that as a Christian you don’t really feel comfortable drinking at a bar (and thereby potentially get tuned out by them in the future)?

Your question is very pertinent to the contemporary cultural and religious landscape. I recently saw a college chaplain quoted to this effect: “Given their distrust of authorities and institutions, millennials are seeking out extended experiences and real, authentic spiritual relationships before they will commit to a world view or ideology.”

In other words, nobody these days is going to be “converted” to a faith or religion simply because somebody talks to them about it. They will need to watch your experiences over a period of time first and come to some judgment about whether they agree God is in these experiences as you say. They will also need to validate the genuine quality of your relationships with them and with others. So this is not a matter of a brief “gospel presentation” over lunch or on a bus. It’s a matter of living out your life with credibility and authenticity over time, with people watching.

The practical questions you ask suggest some very good illustrations of this. If you go into a conversation with somebody not really wanting to talk about what they want to talk about, but instead looking for a chance to bring up your faith, that’s fake. Don’t do that. On the other hand, if faith would come up naturally, but you don’t mention it because you think your friend might consider you a “wacko,” that’s also fake. You’re not being yourself.

For example, suppose on a Monday somebody at work asks, “So what did you do this weekend?” If, among other things, you went to church, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning that, and even describing something interesting or inspiring that happened there. (And then you ask, “And what did you do this weekend?”)

As for going to a bar with co-workers, for me personally the question really would be, “How shady is this bar?” If the place is basically a restaurant that happens to serve beer, I wouldn’t have a problem with going there and hanging out with people from work. (Hopefully they have a good selection of draft beers on tap!) On the other hand, if the place is a near-criminal enterprise, a haven of immoral, illegal, and exploitive activities, I’d tell my co-workers, “I’d love to grab a drink with you, but I find that place kind of sketchy. Could we go to such-and-such a place instead?”

(I recognize that whether to drink alcohol at all is one of those questions about which Christians each need to develop their own convictions and be “fully convinced in their own minds.” But even if you abstain from liquor, you could still go out with your friends and order a non-alcoholic drink. If anyone asks or seems like they’re wondering, you can just explain naturally, “I don’t drink alcohol.” Many people abstain for lots of different reasons and these days it should be “no big deal.” However, if you’re a recovering alcoholic and being in a bar would be too great a temptation, then it wouldn’t be wise to go. Additionally, if the whole purpose of the outing is not to be with friends, but to get drunk, then that’s not something it would be valuable to be a part of.)

Let me stress, however, that the point of going out for a drink with co-workers is not to demonstrate to them that Christians are normal people and not crazy cult followers. The point is to go out for a drink with co-workers. In other words, your intentions need to be sincere and authentic. You can’t have a “hidden agenda.” Otherwise, you’re not really demonstrating a quality of life that others might recognize and want to find out more about.

And this brings me to your final specific question: Yes, I do think it’s realistic to believe and expect that modeling the new life God is creating inside you will make that same life attractive to others. One of my favorite stories in the gospels is about Zaccheus. To say that everybody in Jericho wanted him to repent would be an understatement. As a tax collector, he was collaborating with the Romans and enriching himself by extorting money from everyone else. All Jesus said to him was, “I want to have dinner with you.” But at that dinner, Zacchaeus stood up and said, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” He knew Jesus was extending an unconditional welcome to him, he wanted to accept that welcome (he’d already braved a crowd that was likely hostile just to see Jesus), but he also recognized that a life change came with accepting the welcome.

I think these are actually exciting times for us to live in. We can speak about our faith without worrying about offending people, so long as we do so freely, openly, and naturally, because these days people are supposed to accept and respect where other people are coming from. But we also need to recognize that it’s the quality of our lives and relationships that will ultimately make that faith credible to others. And that’s a good challenge for us to embrace. As Jesus said, people have to recognize us as his followers by the fruits of our lives.


Why can’t I feel God’s presence in my life?

Q. Does God leave people even if they’re trying to be a good Christian, if they make mistakes but confess them afterwards and truly seek forgiveness? I personally do not feel anything of God in my life, but I try and try every day. I read the Bible and go to church every Sunday. I feel empty and have felt that way for a long time. I have forgiven people who’ve wounded me deeply. But my joy is gone. What’s going on?

Thank you for your question. I sympathize deeply with your situation. I can’t speak to it as knowledgeably as I’d like without knowing the specifics, but let me share some thoughts based on my 20 years’ experience as a pastor and my lifelong study of the Bible.

I can assure you that you’re not alone in your situation. I’ve counseled many other people who seemingly were doing everything they should (pursuing spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading and worship, asking and granting forgiveness, etc.) but somehow didn’t feel God’s presence or the joy of the Lord.

First, to answer your opening question directly, no, God never abandons a person who’s earnestly and sincerely seeking him. We do hear in the Bible about God withdrawing his presence from an individual or community, but this is always the last step in a long process of God trying to bring them back from unfaithfulness to obedience. This does not happen to people who are already seeking God. David recognized after his grave sins against Bathsheba and Uriah that he had put himself in danger of this, so he pleaded desperately, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” The prophet Nathan assured him, “The Lord has taken away your sin.”

The book of Hebrews in the New Testament, speaking to people who are earnestly following God like you, reminds us, “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.'”

So if God has not left you—and I feel confident assuring you of that, on biblical grounds—then, as you ask, “What’s going on?” Why don’t you feel God’s presence, if he really is present in your life, and why don’t you feel the joy that usually accompanies obedience, since you’re faithfully doing things such as asking and granting forgiveness, which require sincere willingness?

Let me suggest a couple of possibilities, which is the most I can do without knowing the particulars of your situation.

One possibility is that you might not be using the spiritual disciplines that are best for you, or not using the spiritual disciplines generally in the right way. As a rule, it’s good for us to build some structure into our lives to make sure that we invest in our relationship with God as we want to. For example, if our desire is to give regularly and appropriately to God’s work, then the discipline of tithing (giving 10% of our income) is a good way to make sure that happens.

However, the disciplines we often stress as the key to a close relationship with God—Bible reading, prayer, and church attendance—are actually only three of some three dozen disciplines that Jesus’ followers have honored and practiced over the centuries. Not every discipline works equally well for each person, and the ones that work for you can change at different points in your life.

I suspect that there are actually some disciplines you’re already practicing, without recognizing them as such, that would more effectively help you draw close to God than the ones you’re pursuing deliberately right now. For example, theologians have long spoken of the “two books” of God, Scripture and nature. Psalm 19 seems to speak of these two books because it begins by saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” But in its second half, the psalm talks about how “the law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul; the statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” Two books, nature and Scripture.

You may be one of those people who appreciates and learns about God when you are out in his creation; you might just not be recognizing this as just as valid a spiritual discipline as Bible study or church attendance. Or maybe that’s not one of the disciplines that does it for you, but some others might. I’d encourage you to read a book or books about the various spiritual disciplines in order to recognize the ones that will most effectively help you draw close to God. The most comprehensive discussion I know is in Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. You might start there, and once you identify some approaches that seem promising, investigate them further in books that discuss them in more detail.

But I also said you might be pursuing the disciplines in the wrong way. You said, “I try and try every day.” The effort is admirable, but I’d encourage you to see the spiritual disciplines as “means of grace,” that is, doors that we open in our lives for the grace of God, which is already waiting just outside, looking for a way to get in. In other words, God sends his grace to us first; we just need to open a door for it. Jeff van Vonderen discusses this distinction in his book Tired of Trying to Measure Up, which, he says, “is written for Christians who live under a deeply ingrained code of expectations and rules that shame them and drain them of spiritual strength.” If that rings any bells for you, I’d recommend you have a look at his book, or another one on the same theme.

But here’s one more thought. It’s also possible that your feeling of spiritual dryness is actually a sign of growth and strength. Many people reach a place where their experience of God has outstripped their beliefs about God. When this happens, people can often have doubts. They need to realize that they no longer believe in the God they once knew simply because now they know God better. A person in such a situation can also feel as if God is absent, but this is only because they can no longer feel close to the kind of God they don’t believe in any more.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in God at all, or that God is truly absent. They just need to recognize that the God they now understand better is waiting there to meet them in their new place of maturity and wisdom. This is actually a process that can be repeated over and over again in our lives, because as finite creatures we are always learning more about the infinite God we love and serve.

It’s a bit like the process that takes place in a healthy marriage. As a pastor I often explained, in premarital counseling or wedding sermons, that marriage is “the process of getting to know the same person over and over again for the rest of your life.” Married couples can hit a “dry patch” and discover that they need to relate to one another differently, and start doing different kinds of things together, to get that spark back because they’ve both grown and changed. This is a healthy and inevitable process, and the same thing needs to happen in our relationship with God. (Although we’re the ones who’ve grown and changed, not God!)

I hope these reflections are helpful to you, and I certainly wish you every blessing from God as you pursue the close relationship with him that you desire.


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)

Why would Jesus have been tempted to worship Satan?

Q. When Satan took Jesus up the the heights and promised him the world if he would fall down and worship him…why would Jesus have been tempted to worship Satan?

Philip Augustin Immelraet,
Philip Augustin Immelraet, “The Temptation of Christ,” 1663

We do usually think of “temptation” as what happens when our desire for something becomes so irresistible that we’re inclined to make some moral compromise to get that thing. That picture does apply to the other two temptations that the devil offered Jesus, though it doesn’t quite apply to the one you’re asking about. (The temptation of Jesus by Satan is described near the beginning of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)

We can understand, for example, how Jesus would have had a strong desire for food after fasting for 40 days in the wilderness. Ordinarily there’s no compromise involved in satisfying a legitimate physical need within the limits of moderation. But in this case Jesus had been called to an extended time of fasting so that he could consider the implications of the voice he’d just heard at his baptism, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” He was called, in other words, to reflect on the nature of his calling to be the Messiah, which most interpreters say was confirmed definitively for him by this voice at his baptism. So it would have been a compromise to break that fast prematurely just because he was hungry, or just to prove that he had God’s favor. (“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread,” the devil had said.)

Similarly, leaping off the highest point of the temple and landing safely on the ground might actually have been something that appealed to Jesus. He was a 30-year-old single man and we can well imagine that he might have gone in for extreme sports! It would be like bungee jumping, with the assurance of God’s power of deliverance providing the same confidence and security as a bungee cord. However, Jesus recognized that it would have been improper to put himself in danger just to prove that God would protect him. We are supposed to do our part to care for ourselves, and we’re supposed to trust in God by faith, without needing proof of God’s care when we’re not in any real danger.

But the third temptation was different. Jesus wouldn’t have found it desirable to worship Satan. So what the devil actually tried to tempt him with was power over all the kingdoms of the world. “Just think of all the good you could do if you had that power,” was the subtle lure. Satan’s pitch was that worshiping him would simply be a “necessary evil,” a means to a desirable end. The fallacy, of course, is that if we compromise to get into a position of power, then we’re compromised once we get there, so we can’t do the good we intended. This would certainly have been the case for Jesus if he’d tried to get power by literally selling his soul to the devil.

So the takeaway is that we aren’t always “tempted” by things that seem desirable, attractive, or alluring. Sometimes unpleasant things “tempt” us because we think of them as a means to an end. But God always has a better means to any legitimate end, a means that doesn’t require moral compromise.

What is a “man of the Trinity”?

Q. Several years back, a few of my close Christian brothers and I met a guy who was gifted, it was said, with the ability to prophesy. (That still exists, right?) If someone were to prophesy over you and tell you, “When I look at you, I see a man of the Trinity,” how would you interpret that?

First, I do believe that God still gives some believers the gift of prophesy. That is, God gives them insights about the character and gifting of a person or group to encourage them, and also gives them insights about the likely future consequences of the course that a person or group is on, either to warn or encourage them. But believers also have a responsibility to “weigh” what self-described or popularly-accepted prophets say, assessing it by the full counsel of the Scriptures and by the community’s collective wisdom. “Prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

As for what a (presumably genuine) prophet might mean by a “man of the Trinity,” I suspect that this involves more than just a belief in God as three-in-one. I would take it to be describing someone who had a relationship with God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We know that in some mysterious way, God is three persons in one being. A man or woman of the Trinity, I’d say, would know each of these persons individually, without in any way compromising the unity that they have together.

In other words, such a person would know God as their kind, loving, generous, care-giving but also disciplining heavenly Father. (“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” “The Lord disciplines those he loves, and corrects each one he accepts as his child.”)

Such a person would also know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and in addition as their brother and friend. (“Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family, so Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.”)

And a man or woman of the Trinity would also know the Holy Spirit as comforter, companion, helper, counselor, and advocate—all the various translations of the term paraclete that’s used at the place in the gospel of John where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit shed a bit more light on the role that the Spirit is supposed to play in our lives.

So your question provides, for all of us, a good point of reflection. How well do I know each of the persons of the Trinity? Do I know God as Father, or do I have “father issues” that make me keep my distance from a God I regard as stern, harsh, and remote? Do I appreciate Jesus primarily for something he did for me 2,000 years ago, or can I say with the hymn writer, “What a friend we have in Jesus”? Is the Holy Spirit primarily a mysterious force to me, or do I speak and pray to the Holy Spirit and recognize the voice I hear in response? (If you’re not used to praying to the Holy Spirit, consider as examples the many hymns and songs that do this: “Gracious Spirit, Dwell With Me”; “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”; “Spirit of the Living God”; “Spirit Fall”; “Breathe On Us.”)

May we all become “men and women of the Trinity”!

Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, representing all three as full persons. (Portraying divine symbolism behind Abraham's three visitors.)
Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, representing all three as full persons. (Portraying divine symbolism behind Abraham’s three visitors.)

What if you’re trying to persuade someone from the Bible and they just don’t agree?

Q. I have a question about contrasting interpretations. Since we do not accept a Magisterium [an official, authoritative teaching], believers like me and you and many others seem to have no way to convince another about what Scripture teaches, if the other simply does not agree. This means we end up with the challenge of having many denominations, let alone many believers, each believing many different things, including things that are mentioned in Hebrews as being “milk” doctrines, things that are to be taught to new believers, yet even with these items, some teachers teach things that are incompatible with what others teach, so they cannot all be true; for example, either infant baptism or believer’s baptism. As far as I can see, we will only achieve unity in the faith when all of us sit at the Master’s feet. Do you have any wisdom about this state of affairs?

"Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter," fresco, Pietro Perugino, 1481–1482, Sistine Chapel. Roman Catholics believe that a definitive teaching authority now resides in the Church. What are Protestants to do to settle their disagreements?
“Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter,” fresco, Pietro Perugino, 1481–1482, Sistine Chapel. Roman Catholics believe that a definitive teaching authority now resides in the Church. What are Protestants to do to settle their disagreements?

I think you’re right that in the absence of a Magisterium (that is, a recognized authoritative teaching office such as there is in the Roman Catholic church), the principle of sola Scriptura—appealing to Scripture alone as our authority—does not bring about agreement among believers. I think the main reason for this is that people approach the Bible with different interpretive presuppositions, so that they can look objectively and honestly at the same data and come to opposite conclusions.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of how this works comes from my seminary days at Gordon-Conwell. Dr. Gordon G. Fee, who was then on the faculty, agreed to do panel discussion on the topic of women in ministry with a professor whose name I unfortunately no longer remember, but who was from a Presbyterian seminary. Dr. Fee didn’t feel it would be respectful to women to have a “debate” about them, so he suggested, and the other professor agreed, that the two of them should instead explain what they felt had led them to their positions on the issue, and allow the other person to ask questions about this. They met and prayed together beforehand.

Dr. Fee went first and explained that he’d grown up in the Assemblies of God denomination, where he’d seen many women pastors minister very effectively with the gifts God had given them. He felt he’d seen God bless their work and give it much fruit. And so, he said, to be honest, this was likely a significant factor why he wasn’t persuaded by arguments, even from the Bible, that said God didn’t want women to be in these roles.

The other professor then explained (and I really appreciated his honesty) that he’d grown up in a Presbyterian denomination that taught predestination, and it seemed to him that if God had chosen one group (the elect) to be saved, and another group (the reprobate) not to be saved, then certainly God might also have chosen one group (men) to be in certain roles in the church, and another group (women) not to be in those roles—that was a smaller thing.

I think this illustrates that while Protestants don’t have an official Magisterium, all of us who are Protestant probably do walk around with an unofficial Magisterium in our heads, consisting of the teachings, precedents, experiences, approaches to the Bible, etc. that we’ve been exposed to in the past. This whole constellation of things probably changes over time, but very slowly, as new things are added and others are dropped or come to be regarded as less authoritative. But it is this unofficial Magisterium that you need to move in order to persuade someone, from Scripture, of a viewpoint different from the one they currently hold. That’s unlikely to happen as the result of one conversation or online exchange, though they might budge things slightly.

So I guess I am granting that “we will only achieve unity in the faith when all of us sit at the Master’s feet.” How should we respond to this reality?

I think Dr. Fee and his conversation partner provide a further good example here. While they were on opposite sides of an issue that inflames great passions, they spoke to and about one another very charitably. Dr. Fee said of the other professor that he was “welcoming him to our campus as a brother.” They didn’t move an inch closer to one another’s positions during the conversation, and afterwards they both went back to communities that had different and mutually exclusive practices. But nevertheless I think something very positive was accomplished. They demonstrated that they had “unity in the faith” in another sense, in that while they didn’t agree, they were still part of one body and united by the love of Christ.

I think this is the most we can hope for in this world, but I think it’s actually something very positive and powerful. We often say that Christians are free to disagree on minor, non-essential points, so long as they agree on the major, essential ones. But then we discover intractable disagreements on things that seem pretty foundational, such as baptism (as you mention), and we realize how few “essential” beliefs there are that Christians really all do agree on (such as the divinity of Christ).

So failing that kind of agreement, I think instead we should first strive to be “fully convinced in our own minds,” as Paul writes in Romans about some issues that must have seemed pretty crucial for belief and practice in his day (keeping the Sabbath, and whether one could eat and drink certain things). The more settled our minds are, the more calmly and graciously we will be able to engage others. I think most of the damage is done not by the fact of disagreement itself, but by people vilifying those who differ, impugning their character and questioning their good faith. A gracious, Christ-like attitude is probably the best evidence we could ever offer someone for the possibility that we could be right about something we believe that they currently don’t.

Let me close by telling a story about baptism, which I agree is a good example of a “milk” or foundational doctrine that you’d think Christians should be able to agree about. My example once again comes from my seminary days.

One evening my wife and I hosted several friends for dinner and the topic turned to baptism. Those who baptize infants and those who baptize believers at least agree that a given person should only be baptized once. Churches either baptize infants and confirm believers, or else dedicate infants and baptize believers. But it turned out that in our dinner party of eight, my wife was the only person who’d been baptized just once. Everyone else had been baptized at least twice.

And it wasn’t just that several of us who’d been baptized as infants later felt that, with all due respect to our parents and home churches, we wanted to be baptized as believers. One woman had been baptized by immersion as a believer at age 12. She sincerely believed in Jesus at the time, but this was on the basis of what her parents and church had taught her. Later, as a young adult, her faith became more first-hand, through the ministry of a Methodist church she was then attending. Their help had been so meaningful to her that she wanted to be baptized as an adult, as her own personal expression of faith, “in the Methodist way”—by sprinkling. And another guest had been baptized once as an infant, again as a believer, and a third time, for good measure, in the Jordan River while on a tour of Israel.

So the fact that various churches held different positions on the issue of baptism had allowed us, as we moved back and forth between them, to have experiences (double and triple baptisms) that nobody was teaching were normative. For me, this is something of a parable: Maybe what matters most is not that all of these differences be resolved, even though they seem to be about very important things, but that people genuinely grow and learn and deepen their faith and commitment to God as they are exposed to these various understandings. Because it’s entirely possible that some of the truths of our faith are so profound that no one perspective entirely does justice to them. Maybe in some cases it’s the sum of the understandings resident in the community of faith that’s closest to the truth that will enable us to “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Does the Sermon on the Mount present impossible demands and harsh penalties?

Q. I’ve seen it written that the Sermon on the Mount can be thought of as a job description for Christians.  I’m thankful that God has given us one!  Yet I find some of its passages confusing at best and very difficult, if not impossible, to carry out.  It also seems that Jesus is outlining some harsh judgements for us when we fail, which it seems most of us will.  So I then question, “What about Gods grace?”

What’s known as the Sermon on the Mount is the first extended collection of Jesus’ teachings found in the gospel of Matthew.

Matthew divides his account of Jesus’ life into five thematic sections. Each one begins with a series of narrative episodes, followed by a discourse made up of Jesus’ collected teachings.  The narrative and the discourse explore a common theme in each case. The first section, whose discourse is the Sermon on the Mount, is about the foundations of the kingdom, which are in an inward righteousness, not in external conformity to the law.  The concept of “righteous/ness” is introduced in the preceding narrative episodes (“Joseph was a righteous man,” etc.), and the term appears in a key location in each section of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.”
“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
And so forth.

Since this is a matter of inward character, rather than of outward conformity to rules of behavior, it’s something that we have to grow into.  Jesus is presenting the ideal to which we should constantly aspire.  We should be encouraged as we see ourselves making progress towards it.  We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about the extent to which we still fall short, but instead let that be a spur towards greater maturity.

The penalties Jesus describes are simply his way of saying that this is what the law is truly aiming at.  For example:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

This is, on one level, the rhetorical device of hyperbole or exaggeration, a favorite of rabbis and of Jesus himself.  No one is going to be sent to hell for speaking two particular words.  But we need to see the point behind this hyperbole. If we think of the law as something with stipulations and penalties, then we should let the penalties described help us recognize the stipulations that the law is really aiming at: love for others, rather than hatred for them.  You’re not okay with God just because you manage to avoid murdering someone whom you hate in your heart.

In the so-called “Beatitudes” at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we see the positive character qualities whose cultivation will enable us to fulfill the deepest intent of the law.  If we are merciful and peacemakers, for example, we won’t hate.  So this opening section is something of a key to all that follows.

I hope this is helpful.  And I’m glad you’re meditating on this material as a “job description”!  It really is meant to have the practical effect you’re envisioning.

Fra Angelico, “The Sermon on the Mount,” fresco, Friary of San Marco, Florence, mid-1400s