Does God let us use deception for a good cause? (Part 1)

A friend of mine was taking a college ethics class. The professor told the class that there are some times when we don’t have to tell the truth.  My friend is a follower of Jesus who’s read the Bible often, and he said a verse immediately came  to his mind that suggested he should always tell the truth:  “You must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor.”

But then he got to thinking about this a bit more. He realized there are several places in the Bible where God’s people don’t tell the truth, but even so, they aren’t criticized or punished.  In fact, their actions sometimes seem to advance God’s purposes.

My friend thought of Rahab, for example, who lied about the spies to the men sent by the king of Jericho.  She said they’d already left her house, when really she had hidden them on the roof.  This saved their lives so they could report back to Joshua and he could plan the conquest of Canaan. Rahab is actually celebrated in the book of Hebrews as a hero of the faith because she sheltered the spies—but this involved not telling the truth.

James Tissot, Rahab and the Two Spies

So the issue really was more complicated than the “verse” that first occurred to my friend suggested.  But he was well on his way to “understanding the books of the Bible,” because he was reflecting on important questions in light of the whole message of the Bible as told in its individual books and stories, not relying on simple answers based on proof texts.

But what about Rahab? What’s going on in cases like hers? As we talked over her story, we recognized that lying is one thing—not telling the truth in order to cover up wrongdoing or to get an unfair advantage over another person.  Deception is quite another thing—using misinformation to protect people from violence and oppression in a situation where you don’t have the power to help them in any other way.

Unfortunately in the Bible we sometimes see even God’s people lying, and destructive consequences result. But we also see God’s people using the tool of deception or misinformation to further God’s purposes when powerful oppressors would otherwise thwart these purposes.

Is this sometimes the right thing to do?  When there is a great power differential in favor of the oppressors, and God doesn’t step in miraculously to overcome that differential (as happens in other places in the Bible), is deception an acceptable tool for us to use?  I’ll explore that question further in my next post.

Why would God give how-to instructions for things He didn’t want people to do?

polkadots

Q. I read your recent posts on slavery.  I appreciate how thorough they were, but I just can’t understand how God would give special instructions on how to buy and treat slaves if He really didn’t want the Israelites to own them.  He brought them up from Egypt and He could have just said, “Don’t do this to others.”

I think the analogy to divorce that I drew in my earlier post helps answer your question.  The Pharisees asked Jesus why the law of Moses commanded men to give their wives certificates of divorce.  Why give special how-to instructions if people weren’t supposed to get divorced at all?  Jesus explained that Moses hadn’t commanded this, he had permitted this, because of men’s hardness of heart. “But from the beginning,” he insisted, “it was not so.”

I think Jesus himself shows us by this teaching that the Bible is not “flat.”  That is, not every statement in the Bible equally expresses God’s intentions for human life.  The degree to which individual biblical statements should determine our conduct today varies. We need to assign them different weight, like the different sizes and shades of the dots in the design above (from Zazzle).

Some statements in Scripture express God’s highest and best intentions for us: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But other statements are concessions to the way we insist on living: “Your male and female slaves” (if you have any) “are to come from the nations around you.”

So very careful discernment among statements is required.  Jesus sets an example for us of distinguishing between things that are positively commanded and things that are merely permitted.  He also provides the basis for making this distinction by teaching us that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor.  Everything else needs to be measured by these positive expressions of God’s highest intentions.

I hope these further thoughts are helpful and I appreciate your concerns about this difficult issue.

“I can’t tell you when I’ll be there, I need to be like the wind.”

In the gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” I’ve heard people say that this means followers of Jesus shouldn’t let themselves be pinned down to appointments or commitments, but should live as freely and spontaneously as possible, because they never know where the wind of the Spirit might take them next.  What do you think of this?

Jesus’ interview with Nicodemus is discussed in Session 4 of the John study guide.  To answer your specific question, when Jesus said that people who are born of the Spirit are like the wind, I don’t think he meant that they’re unpredictable and spontaneous, and don’t make or honor any regular commitments, so that no one will ever be able to tell where they’ve come from or where they’re going.  I think Jesus was talking instead about his own origins and destiny, and by implication the origins and destiny of anyone who chooses to follow him.

Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus by saying, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Jesus replies to this assertion, which is a little too confident, by saying in effect, “Do you really think you know where I’ve come from?”  An incident later in the gospel illustrates how Nicodemus doesn’t know where Jesus has come from even from an earthly standpoint.  Nicodemus tries to stand up for Jesus when the Jewish leaders accuse him, but they argue that Jesus couldn’t possibly be the Messiah because he’s from Galilee, and the Scriptures don’t say the Messiah will come from there.  If Nicodemus really knew where Jesus was from, in the most basic sense, he’d reply that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, right where the Scriptures say the Messiah will come from.

But much more importantly in terms of the theological concerns of the gospel of John, Nicodemus doesn’t realize that Jesus is the eternal Word who has come to earth in human form. So Jesus talks about the wind: you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.  The earthly Jesus can be seen and heard, but most people don’t realize his divine origins, and they don’t realize the divine destiny he’s come to fulfill.

Amazingly, anyone who is born of the Spirit will be like Jesus in this same way.  I think that’s what Jesus really means when he talks about those who are born of the Spirit being like the wind.  He’s not endorsing or recommending a spontaneous, unpredictable behavior pattern.  Rather, he’s saying that his followers will be endowed with the same heavenly origins and destiny that he has.  Pretty amazing!

Is it all right for Christians to get tattoos?

Q. In your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, when you get to the end of Romans you ask about outward ways of identifying as a follower of Jesus. When we discussed this question in our group, the subject of tattoos came up.  Most of the group members didn’t have a problem with them.  But I thought Christians weren’t supposed to get tattoos.  Doesn’t the Bible say, “Do not put tattoo marks on yourselves”?

I personally don’t think this one verse can be used as a proof-text against tattoos.  The particular commandment you’re describing is found in Leviticus. It says in full, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.”  The concern is with cutting or marking oneself as a pagan worship practice designed to appease or cultivate the spirits of the dead. (A similar commandment is found in Deuteronomy, “Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.”)  So this is not necessarily a prohibition of using these practices for other purposes, including identifying oneself as a follower of the true God.

However, we need to be careful here.  There are other things that are mentioned in the Bible only in the context of pagan worship, such as human sacrifice, that we shouldn’t conclude are acceptable in other contexts.  We really need some indication that a practice can be used positively to honor God before we decide that any prohibition against it is really aimed only at pagan worship practices.

In the case of marking the body, in one of his visions Ezekiel sees a man with a “writing kit” whom God tells, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”  This image is echoed in Revelation when God “seals” the 144,000; later in that book we learn that they had the Lamb’s name and his father’s name “written on their foreheads.” Jesus also says in Revelation, in his letter to the church of Philadelphia, about anyone who remains faithful, “I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God . . . and I will also write on them my new name.”  So Ezekiel and Revelation use the symbol of God marking or writing on his servants as a positive sign of protection and identification.

However, these passages really can’t be used as proof-texts in favor of tattooing, any more than the one in Leviticus can be used as a proof-text against it.  This isn’t just because Ezekiel and Revelation are highly symbolic books and it’s often difficult to know how literally to take their imagery. Rather, it’s because those two books, like Leviticus, are recording the warnings and encouragement that God gave his faithful people over the centuries as examples and instruction for us today.  We’re not supposed to turn any of this into rules, but rather use it to become familiar with the ways of God so that we can discern how to follow those ways in our own place and time.

On questions such as whether followers of Jesus can get tattoos, we do well to be guided by the counsel in the very part of the Scriptures that prompted your group’s discussion—the end of Romans.  Paul writes there, “I am convinced . . . that nothing is unclean in itself.  . . .  Let us . . . make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.  . . . Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”

In other words, a tattoo is really just ink on the skin, not something spiritually dangerous in itself.  But a person who’s deciding whether to get a tattoo should ask how this would build up other believers and how it would make for peace within the community of Jesus’ followers.  And whatever a person decides on a question like this, they should have a well-considered position that they keep mainly as a private conviction between themselves and God, and grant others freedom to follow their own convictions.

Does “contemplating the Lord’s glory” mean mystical experiences?

In your study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, you ask a question about the passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul talks about “contemplating the Lord’s glory.” I wondered whether it was at all possible he was thinking (in part) of mystical practices. I’ve read that some Jews at the time were interested in having chariot visions, etc., and since “glory” is so closely associated with visions of God in the Old Testament, I wondered whether there could be a connection. Paul does talk elsewhere about seeing into layers of heaven.

Nicolas Poussin, The Ecstasy of St. Paul

This question is in session 14 on page 73 in the study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters:  “What do you think it means to contemplate the Lord’s glory and be transformed by it? Have you begun to experience that? If so, talk about your experience.”

It’s true that some Jews, starting a couple of centuries after Paul, did try to have mystical visions of God’s heavenly enthronement, including visions of God being conveyed in a celestial chariot like the one Ezekiel saw that was formed by four living creatures or cherubim.  Some interpreters have even suggested that Paul’s Damascus Road experience and his vision of the third heaven (described later in 2 Corinthians) are early examples of this type of mystical vision.

However, in light of the overall argument in 2 Corinthians, I think this is unlikely.  As the study guide shows, that letter has four main parts.  It culminates in a showdown, in the last part, between Paul and the so-called super-apostles.  There he argues that the visions they pride themselves on are no real indication of spiritual maturity or authority—even though his own visions greatly surpass anything they’ve seen!  Paul says he will not boast about visions like this, but only about his weaknesses, “so that Christ’s power may rest on me . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Since Paul is building towards this climax, it would be inconsistent and self-contradictory for him to suggest earlier in the letter that he’s been seeking visionary experiences himself.

Rather, given his references to Moses and the tent of meeting, I think he’s picturing a similar, transforming, “face-to-face” relationship with God in his personal spiritual life and that he’s commending that kind of relationship to all of his readers.  In the liberty of the Spirit, with nothing held back between us and God, “with unveiled faces” we “contemplate the Lord’s glory” and are “transformed into his image.”

Which brings me back to the end of the question in the study guide, about whether we’re experiencing this in our own lives.  What things do we need to take out of the way between us and God so that we can directly contemplate his glory and be transformed?