Are we really supposed to give thanks for everything?

Q. I wonder if you’ve encountered the idea that we’re supposed to thank God for everything, even for the bad things that happen to us.  I’ve heard Paul’s statement in Ephesians referenced to support this notion:  “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This concerns me mainly because I can’t recall examples in Scripture where people thanked God for bad things that happened to them.  Did Jesus thank God for sending him to the cross?  Did Job thank God for taking everything from him?  And so forth.   Am I missing something?

Bible translations are generally agreed that when Paul says there in Ephesians that we should give thanks hyper pantōn, he does mean “for” everything (as opposed to “in” everything” or “in all circumstances,” as he says in 1 Thessalonians).  Hyper followed by a noun in the genitive (in this case an adjective used as a substantive), when paired with verbs of thanksgiving or praise, clearly means “because of” or “on account of,” as these other examples from Paul’s writings show:

“that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy”
“many will give thanks on our behalf
“something I thank God for

But regarding that substantive pantōn, the NET Bible makes the interesting suggestion that Paul is actually saying we should give thanks “for one another.”  The term pantōn can be either neuter (“everything”) or masculine (“everyone”), and the context in Ephesians does have to do with relationships in the community of Christ’s followers.  But practically all other translations take it to be neuter, meaning “everything” or “all things.”  So the broad consensus understanding is that Paul is saying we should give thanks “for everything.”

What does he mean by that?

I understand him to mean that we can always be thankful for what God is doing in a given situation or circumstance.  God is always active to make all things work together for our good.  But I agree with you that we’re not called to be thankful or grateful directly for things that are destructive and evil.  I don’t see Scriptural examples of this, either.

To use one of your illustrations, Jesus didn’t thank God for sending him to the cross.  In fact, he prayed that he’d be spared the cross if at all possible.  But I think he was aware of what God wanted to accomplish through the cross (which he calls his “hour of glory” in the gospel of John), and he celebrated that even in advance.

To use a contemporary situation as another illustration, I don’t think a follower of Jesus would be called to thank God directly for a loved one’s serious disease.  But they could still be very grateful for what they were learning through it about God’s grace and sustaining power, and for the way they were discovering that they were surrounded by a community of caring, loving people.

I hope this is a helpful distinction.  We don’t give thanks directly for evil or destructive things.  But we do give thanks for the way God is at work in every situation.

Do social media promote narcissism and conformity?

Q. Do social networking sites (Facebook and Twitter in particular) promote a type of Social Darwinism along with narcissism? There is a strong element of conformity. Also one cannot deny the presence of cyber bullying and ostracism of those who do not conform to certain norms. I personally stay away from them but I don’t think they’re entirely bad. Still isn’t a system that in some sense runs on strength in numbers a little worldly? Your views?

I think the problems you’ve identified aren’t inherent in social media.  Those are simply communication tools.  These problems arise instead from the way those tools are used.  The narcissism and bullying reflect the values and characteristics of the cultures and individuals who create and consume social media content.  It’s possible to use the media themselves to challenge and critique those cultures and behaviors.

Similar concerns have arisen with every new media technology.  Many Christians would not go to movies because they thought they were inherently worldly, based on the stories they told and the lifestyles of many actors and actresses. (Some Christians still won’t watch movies.)  But I think we’ve seen, as the medium has matured and its possibilities have been explored, that in the right hands, movies can be a powerful tool to express a positive and godly vision for life.

The same is true of social media.  They are the pervasive communication form of our time and I’d argue that followers of Jesus need to be in that space, transforming its culture and demonstrating its positive possibilities.

One thing this means is that we do need to be careful of narcissism.  The very form of social media influences us towards posting deliberately crafted image-management status updates that assure everyone we know that we’re hip, stylish people.  (In this sense it’s really true of social media that “the medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan said.) The values that Jesus and the apostles taught encourage us instead to ask about each potential post, “What will be the benefit for others?”

I’ve seen some good examples of positive, non-self-centered postings recently.  Here in the United States we’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving.  Several people I know posted something on Facebook that they were thankful for on each day leading up to the holiday.  Now many of my friends are using Facebook to share their reflections on Advent, posting images and thoughts that speak of the coming of Christ as the Light of the World.

Another thing we need to be careful of, as you noted, is conformity.  It’s only too easy to be carried along by trends and prevailing notions that “go viral.”  Contrary voices can quickly be buried in an avalanche of disapproval and ridicule.  (This is one form of social media bullying; another is even worse, the intentional targeting of individuals for a campaign of vicious comments.)

But if social media present these destructive possibilities, they also present constructive ones.  At least that lone voice does get a voice on social media:  there are no “gatekeepers” deciding who gets to speak and who doesn’t.  And if a person is tactful, persuasive, and undaunted, they can eventually get their point across even in the face of an onslaught of contrary comments.  This calls for the qualities of humility, graciousness, and persistence that the Bible encourages.

In short, I believe that social media, used well and in the right spirit, allow Christian values and perspectives to be articulated effectively for a potentially broad audience.  So as I said, I would encourage followers of Jesus to be in this influential space, trying to exploit all of its possibilities to advance the kingdom of God.

What did Jesus mean by “night is coming, when no one can work”?

Q. In John, when Jesus heals the man born blind, he says that “as long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” So, when exactly is “night”? All the time since he left? Is this used to support the idea that we can’t do as many miracles now? Or does night refer to each person’s death? Or something else?

El Greco, “The Healing of the Blind Man”

I believe that in this context Jesus is using the image of “night” to describe his future arrest and execution.  In the gospel of John, just before Jesus comes upon the man born blind, he narrowly escapes from a crowd that wants to stone him.  Jesus knows that healing the blind man will create further notoriety and controversy.  But he’s saying that he can’t let that stop him.  For as long as he is free and alive (“as long as it is day”), he needs to do the works of the Father.

So for each individual follower of Jesus, “night” is the time when we are no longer free or able to be active in ministry.  It can certainly describe our death, but it could also refer to times of persecution, imprisonment, or incapacity due to illness or accidents.  The implication is that we need to make full use of every opportunity while we have it, without letting the risks or dangers involved deter us.

Of course we should be prudent, not reckless.  Jesus himself strategically withdrew from direct confrontation several times in order to prolong his ministry.  And we shouldn’t work so incessantly that we wear ourselves out, bringing on “night” prematurely.

But at the same time, we shouldn’t fail to take advantage of opportunities that are immediately before us, on the premise that “I can always do that later.”  Jesus was telling his disciples that after a certain point, he wouldn’t be able to “do that later,” and by implication, neither would they.  Not because God’s power wouldn’t be just as available after Jesus’ time on earth, but because sooner or later a personal “night” would render each one of them unable to minister actively.

So Jesus’ words are a warning and a call to action to us today:  “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me,” because “night is coming, when no one can work.”

Why did Jesus say we could pick up snakes?

Q.  Why did Jesus say that those who believed in him would be able to “pick up snakes with their hands”?  Some people have tried this and gotten killed.

There’s actually some doubt among biblical scholars whether the longer ending of Mark, in which that statement appears, was originally part of Mark’s gospel.  However, whether or not Jesus really said this or something like it, a person could still get the impression from the Bible that they could and perhaps should try to pick up poisonous snakes to demonstrate their faith.

This is because all of the “signs” that Jesus says will accompany those who believe in him (according to the longer ending of Mark) can be found elsewhere in the Scriptures:
• Jesus and the apostles drive out demons throughout the gospels and the book of Acts;
• They also place their hands on the sick and heal them;
• Believers speak in new tongues (languages they have not learned) at several points in Acts;
• Earlier in the Bible, the prophet Elisha and his guests are miraculously protected from poisoning;
• And most directly to our point, in the book of Acts the apostle Paul is bitten by a deadly viper, but he suffers no ill effects.

However, it’s important to recognize that in all of these cases, the people are not doing something daring and dangerous in order to demonstrate their faith in God.  Rather, they are obeying God as they go forth to proclaim and serve, and God is providing the power and protection they need as they do so.

Running a deliberate risk in order to demonstrate God’s protection is precisely what the devil tempted Jesus to do when he said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple.”  Jesus replied, quoting the Scriptures from Deuteronomy, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

So the deaths that have resulted from the intentional handling of poisonous snakes are the result of a very unfortunate misunderstanding either of what Jesus said about this, or, if the longer ending of Mark doesn’t record his actual words, what the biblical narrative describes about God’s empowerment and protection.  We’re not supposed to put God to the test deliberately.  But we can count on God’s protection for as long as we still need to be alive and well on earth doing God’s work.

Does Ecclesiastes contradict what Paul says about the attitude “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die?”

Q.  As Paul writes to the Corinthians, he seems to associate a disbelief in the resurrection with a hedonistic attitude towards this life.  He says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” But the book of Ecclesiastes appears to take the very attitude that Paul criticizes.  It seems to deny the afterlife:  “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”  And it seems to praise carefree eating and drinking in that light: “There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil.”  Should we understand the statements in Ecclesiastes as not fully informed, and as corrected in the New Testament?  If so, how can they be inspired Scripture?

I have no problem with the idea that the later biblical writers are in conversation with the earlier ones, and that from their vantage point farther along in redemptive history, the later writers are able to shed light on things that were not so clear earlier, even to inspired biblical authors.

But I don’t think that “the Teacher” in Ecclesiastes is actually speaking of eating and drinking in quite the same way as the cynics Paul is answering in 1 Corinthians.  (Paul is actually quoting a statement preserved in the book of Isaiah that was originally made by the calloused citizens of Jerusalem, who responded to their city’s impending destruction with reckless feasting and drinking rather than with repentance).

The eating and drinking that the Teacher is talking about isn’t a hedonistic assertion that all we have is one short life and so we have to grab all the pleasure we can while it’s available.  Instead, it’s one way he illustrates the principle of not forfeiting the present for the sake of what we expect to happen in the future–but can never be sure of.

This is the bottom line for him:  how do you know what will happen in the future?  How do you even know if “the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”  I don’t see this as a denial of the resurrection or the afterlife, but rather as an insistence that we can’t be absolutely certain of the future, so we should appreciate the present, which we do have, right down to our food and drink.  This explains his similar insistence on enjoying your work while you’re doing it, rather than doing work you don’t enjoy for the sake of uncertain future rewards.

As I say in my study guide to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and James:

* * * * *

The Teacher recognized that nothing he’d worked for would last forever, or even for a long time into the future:  “When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless” (Hebrew hebel: fleeting, transient, temporary).  He also observed that even though he had lived well–responsibly and creatively–his life would end, from an earthly perspective, just like the lives of those who had been foolish and wasted their abilities.  Everyone, no matter how they’ve lived, eventually grows old, declines in health, and dies.  And the Teacher also realized, to his horror, that after his death everything he’d worked for would be put in the hands of someone who might be wise, but who might also be foolish and squander his accumulated wealth and tarnish his legacy.

And so the Teacher concluded that it makes no sense to work hard all the time, and not enjoy life in the present, for the sake of what you believe will happen in the future on the earth.  No matter how great your achievements and reputation, you’re going to die in the end; and no matter how long your accomplishments last after you’re gone (and there’s no guarantee they won’t be destroyed in the next generation), ultimately they’ll disappear and you’ll be forgotten.  And so, he says, a person should live instead for what’s happening in the present: they should find work that they will enjoy while they’re doing it.  (This is “incidental pleasure,” not pleasure pursued as an end in itself as the source of meaning in life.)

* * * * *

I agree that Paul’s assertion of the resurrection and its present implications for our life and work are a more definitive word on this issue, but I also think we should face the Teacher’s challenges squarely.  The person who’s working 80-100 hours a week in a job they don’t like because they believe this will set them up for the future may look back over this part of their life with great regret.  As I also say in the study guide, “In a paradoxical way, having this authentic experience of the present is somehow the surest way to know that our lives are also counting for eternity.”

In that light, I think we can all enjoy our Thanksgiving dinners this year.  As an “incidental pleasure.”

Are we not supposed to even talk about immoral things?

Q.  Paul says in Ephesians, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” I’m confused. Does this mean we’re to mention/expose bad things, or not? Or is he saying both? Like, gossip is bad but whistle-blowing is sometimes necessary?

In this section of Ephesians, Paul is offering practical teaching about what it means to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self” as a follower of Jesus.

The specific part of this teaching that you’re asking about takes up the topic of how believers talk among themselves and what kinds of actions this talk inevitably leads to.  Paul says that “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (ESV).

One thing we see here is that “the ‘putting off’ of a destructive behavior is actually accomplished through the ‘putting on’ of a life-giving one that displaces it,” as I note in my study guide to Paul’s Prison Letters.  “Filthiness” and “foolish talk” and “crude joking” are replaced by thanksgiving, “a positive appreciation for what is excellent and praiseworthy in any situation.”

But another thing we see is that immorality and impurity have two ways of getting a hold over us.  This can happen if we glamorize them as the subjects of supposedly entertaining jokes or stories.  But it can also happen if we give them an alluring cachet as secretive and exclusive practices that only the initiated are in on.  In other words, we can give these things unwarranted power in our lives if we talk about them too much or in the wrong ways, or if we don’t talk about them enough, in a cautionary way.

Paul is saying, in other words, that in our conversations as followers of Jesus, we need to walk a fine line.  We need to acknowledge and expose the “works of darkness” so that they cannot continue under the cloak of secrecy and draw in unsuspecting people by the allure of their supposed exclusivity.  But we need to do this in a way that doesn’t sensationalize or glamorize these activities, or that will end up promoting them.  Whistleblowing without gossiping, to use your terms.

This is why there seems to be a tension in Paul’s words here between speaking and not speaking about these “works of darkness.”

(Incidentally, I would translate the end of the statement you quoted in your question this way:  “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, because everything that is visible stands in the light.”  The Greek says literally that it “is light,” but the meaning is that it “is lighted.”)

Why did Jesus say we should hate our families?

Q.  Some of Jesus’ teachings have puzzled me over the years.  While some may have been part of a parable, others were definitely spoken directly to people as instructions.  Take this one:  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”  I thought we were supposed to love even our enemies.  So why does Jesus say we should hate our families?

In this earlier post I explain that when Jesus says we should love our enemies, he doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to feel a warm and delighted attraction to people who have hurt or betrayed us, a feeling that makes us want to be in a close relationship with them.

Rather, we should understand “love” in this case to be a commitment, not a feeling.  We commit to doing whatever is in that person’s best interests, in the hopes that this will help them realize that they’ve done wrong and lead them to pursue restitution and reconciliation.

It’s just the opposite when Jesus says that we should “hate” our families.  He’s not saying that we should be committed to doing whatever is most harmful or hurtful to them.  Rather, in this case, he’s talking about a feeling, not a commitment.

Jesus is saying that we should be so devoted to him as his disciples that if anything or anyone should ever threaten to come between us and him, we would react to this with a strong feeling of antipathy and revulsion that makes us choose Jesus over that person or thing, without hesitation.

In the culture in which Jesus lived, family loyalty was probably the thing that was most likely to come between a would-be disciple and Jesus.  (The same is still true in many parts of the world today.)  And so Jesus is saying that if your family members try to keep you from following me, you have to react with such horror and revulsion that you’re prepared to lose your relationship with them in order to become and remain a disciple of mine.

Beyond this, however, Jesus told his followers to be very careful to follow the commandment to honor their parents.  This included doing such things as providing for them in their old age.  Jesus’ earliest followers similarly taught the importance of caring for family.  So Jesus’ words about “hating” family must be understood only in the context of never letting anything come between us and our loyalty to God.

To state the matter simply, when Jesus says we should love our enemies, he’s talking about a commitment, not a feeling.  When Jesus says we should hate our families (if they would come between us and him), he’s talking about a feeling, not a commitment.

Why did Jesus entrust His mother Mary to John’s care?

Q.  When Jesus was dying and entrusted his mother to John, does that mean Joseph was dead?

Jesus entrusts Mary to John’s care. Chapel Nosso Senhor dos Passos, Santa Casa de Misericórdia of Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Yes, most interpreters believe that Joseph had died and that Jesus, who had been responsible to care for his mother as the eldest son in the family, was asking John to take on this responsibility.

This shows us two remarkable things:

(1) Even at his time of greatest suffering, Jesus was thinking of others, not himself.

(2) The family of the kingdom of God takes precedence over human families. Jesus had at least four brothers whom he might have asked to take on this responsibility, but instead he gave it to a “brother” in the kingdom.

To explore this episode a little further, one fascinating and beautiful aspect of the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in John’s gospel is the way it’s arranged as a seven-part chiasm:
A: Jesus is Brought to the Place of Execution
B: Pilate Refuses the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Change the Inscription
C: The Soldiers At the Cross Cast Lots for Jesus’ Clothes
D:  Jesus Entrusts Mary into John’s Care
C: The Soldiers At the Cross Give Jesus Wine to Drink
B: Pilate Grants the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Break the Legs of the Crucified Prisoners
A: Jesus is Taken from the Place of Execution

As I note in my study guide to the gospel of John, the central placement within this arrangement of the episode in which Jesus entrusts Mary to John’s care “shows that Jesus was a person of compassion who extended mercy and care to others right to the very end of his life.”

“But,” I also observe, “it’s interesting that an account of the crucifixion would not have Jesus’ actual death at its center.  John may have an additional purpose for including this episode and placing it where he does.  He may be putting his central focus on the effects of Jesus’ death.  John may be portraying how Jesus’ death is for ‘the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.’  Through his death, believers in Jesus become part of a new family, which is their true family.”

I then ask in the guide:  “Are there some other followers of Jesus who are ‘just like family’ to you?  What creates the bond between you?”

What would you say?

Why does Jesus say to “make friends with the unrighteous” in the Parable of the Shrewd Manager?

Q.  This is one I’ve always wondered about.  In Luke 16 Jesus tells a parable about the shrewd manager.  I think he shouldn’t have charged the creditors less just to start the cash flow, but the part that I don’t get is Jesus’ last remark—something like, “Make friends with the unrighteous, so that when you fail, they might accept you into everlasting homes.”  (Huh? scratching the head).

This is definitely one of Jesus’ most puzzling parables.  It seems as if the master represents God, and the manager stands for a typical servant of God, so it’s pretty shocking to hear Jesus say, “The master commended the dishonest manager . . .”

To understand what’s going on here, it’s helpful to realize that when Jesus tells a parable, there’s typically one single point of correspondence between the story he tells and something he wants us to understand about the kingdom of God.

For example, in the parable of the persistent widow a little bit later in Luke, Jesus talks about a judge who “neither fears God nor honors man.”  Yet somehow this judge represents the God who hears our prayers!  Jesus is making only a single point:  we are called to perseverance in prayer.  (There’s actually an implied contrast at the end:  If perseverance pays off even with such a judge, “Will not God bring about justice?”  So Jesus clearly isn’t making a further point about the character of God when he describes the judge.)

In the same way, the parable of the shrewd manager is making only a single point:  Soon the money we now have in this world will be no longer at our disposal.  (That is, our lives are shorter than we realize.)  So we need to use our money while we can to “make for ourselves friends” who can receive us into “eternal dwellings.”

In other words, use the money you have on earth to make friends with God.  Invest your money in ways that advance God’s purposes, and then God will take care of you when you leave this earth and “can’t take it with you.”  (As I say in my Luke-Acts study guide, the manager “provides for his future by using resources he’s just about to lose.”)

Jesus isn’t praising dishonesty or cheating.  He’s simply encouraging us to take the right attitude towards the money we have.  But he does this through some startling language, another common characteristic of his parables.

As he wraps up this story, Jesus describes the manager as practicing “unrighteousness” (adikia) when he cheats his master.  He then describes the money of this world as “the mammon of unrighteousness” (adikia).

He’s not saying that wealth is intrinsically evil.  He wouldn’t call us to invest our wealth in God’s work on earth if it were.  But he is saying that in this world, money is often used to manipulate other people (just as the steward does here) and to undervalue or overvalue things compared to their true worth in God’s eyes.  In that sense it’s the “mammon of unrighteousness.”

But we can also use our for God’s purposes, and if we do, this will show that we belong in “eternal dwellings.”  We will have made friends not “with the unrighteous” but “with the unrighteous mammon.”  That is, by means of the corruptible and often corrupted money of this world, we can make friends who are really worth having.

Does God let us use deception for a good cause? (Part 3)

So far we’ve seen how biblical characters such as Rahab and Samuel used deception to protect themselves and others from oppressors who held a significant power advantage, so that God’s purposes could be advanced.  Here’s one more example of God apparently using deception as a tool against his opponents.

Ahab is such a wicked and oppressive king that God has decided his reign must end. God asks the hosts in heaven around him, “Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?” A spirit volunteers to “go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets.” “You will succeed in enticing him,” God replies. “Go and do it.”

A godly prophet named Micaiah sees all of this in a vision. When Ahab asks him for advice after all the prophets of Baal have promised victory, Micaiah goes along with the heavenly deception and answers, “Attack and be victorious, for the Lord will give the city into the king’s hand.”

Johann Christoph Wiegel, Micaiah’s Prophecy

Ahab isn’t buying it. Micaiah has never told him before that God will bless him. So why should he say so now? Ahab replies, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” Micaiah may be prepared to use deception, but he’s not prepared to swear to it in the Lord’s name. So he admits to everything, describing the vision he saw and confessing that it’s all a ruse to lure Ahab to his death.

And no one believes it. One of Baal’s prophets slaps Micaiah in the face for lying. Ahab throws him in prison to await his triumphal return.

Then, even though Ahab goes into battle disguised as a common soldier, he’s killed by an arrow “drawn at random”—in other words, not aimed anywhere in particular.  The deception accomplishes its purposed, aided by a little providential intervention.

If someone is so hardened against God that they don’t believe the truth even when they’ve exposed a deception, are they the kind of person God might strategically withhold the truth from? Is it possible for followers of Jesus to discern the extremely fine line between lying to benefit themselves and legitimately employing misinformation for God’s sake?  The Scriptures invite us to ponder these questions and then live faithfully in light of the answers we find to them.