Fleeces: An Immature Way to Decide

We’ve all struggled with a decision we must make when God’s will is not immediately apparent. Which house should we buy, college should we attend, or person we should marry? With a different the sort of access to Divine decision-making than what Moses and Elijah experienced, Christians often look for creative methods to determine God’s will, and many look no further than Gideon in Judges 6:33-40. To summarize, God calls Gideon, one of Scripture’s most reluctant heroes, to first destroy the altars of Baal, and then to lead Israel in defeating the Midianites. Before he was to start putting together his army, Gideon begins second-guessing God’s plan and so he devises a test consisting of miracles to make sure he is on the right track. He lays a piece of fleece out and asks God to make only the fleece, and not the ground, wet with dew. God does as he asked, but Gideon is still not convinced, so he puts the fleece out and asks God to make the ground wet and the fleece dry, which God also does. Assured that he is on the right track, Gideon proceeds with the plan, and successfully takes on the Midianites. So, in that spirit, some modern Christians resort to similar tests to for God’s will, often in the form of “if X happens, then I know God’s will is Y” scenarios. Why not? After all, if it was good enough for Gideon, then it’s good enough for us, right? Well, maybe not so fast.

Context, Context, Context…

This is great place for me to remind you of the fact that context is king when understanding Scripture. The book of Judges is narrative literature, meaning that it records God’s dealing with His people without necessarily evaluating every specific character’s specific action. That means that using Judges as a blueprint for our prayer lives is problematic. God is the star of the Gideon account, not Gideon. God chooses the most unlikely character (Jg. 6:15), and a tiny little army just so there would be no questions about Who was responsible for the victory (7:2). The Gideon account’s historical and Biblical context places it well before the coming of the Holy Spirt, and the completion of Biblical revelation, and those factors have altered significantly how Christians seek out God’s will in the New Testament era. Context suggests that using Gideon as a model for prayer in New Testament Christianity is a huge stretch.

Gideon’s faith was not ideal.
Let’s face it, Gideon’s faith is hardly the model that we want for our own lives. Before the fleece situation, God had already sent a fireball from heaven that vaporized his sacrifice and the stone underneath it. I don’t know about you, but I think the huge blackened hole where my sacrifice used to would be confirmation enough. However, following that explosive miracle, he asks for not one, but two more confirmations from God. Gideon clearly has faith issues. We might sympathize and even relate with him, but that doesn’t mean we should imitate him.

Fleece laying is fundamentally unreliable.
If you’ve ever watched kids try to coerce permission out of parents, you can probably follow my thinking here. It comes in the form of the “if you don’t say no, I will assume that the answer is yes” scenario, when a parent isn’t forthcoming with a definitive answer. Even more than parents, God might have many different reasons for not giving us a clear answer when we ask. Maybe He wants us to work harder to discover the answer through Biblical thinking. Maybe He has already decided to reveal the answer a different way. Maybe the answer is already evident, but our hearts aren’t ready to submit. The possibilities are countless, and we can’t simply assume that if we pray hard, and give God an ultimatum, He has no choice but to give us a precise answer.

Fleece laying is often a disguise for our own selfish will.
While this is certainly not true in every case, often we inject uncertainty into a decision when the wisest course should be apparent. I don’t need to put out a fleece to know that it is not God’s will for me to abandon providing for my family to hitch hike across the across the country with my garage band, and follow my dream of becoming a successful Christian polka star. Sure, I can spiritualize it and talk about following my calling, and stepping out on faith, but deep down, I know that I am making an unwise decision that goes against sound, Biblical reasoning.

Fleece laying is often a disguise for immoral decisions
Things get especially dicey when people try to spiritualize clearly immoral decisions by asking God for a sign on something that His Word has already clarified. God will never lead you to do something that Scripture condemns, no matter how much you try to spiritualize that decision. We need to go to Scripture first, and stop asking for signs on issues that God’s Word has made abundantly clear.

Sometimes we just need to make a judgement call.
This might be the most controversial of my points, but I think it has Biblical merit. Suppose that I have done everything right. I have weighed the options, I have looked to Scripture, I have prayed, I have exercised sound wisdom, and God has seemingly given no clear answer. I know that I need the mini-van but the choice is between the red one or the blue one. It could be that I just need to exercise decisiveness, make the decision, and know that God controls the future. I may buy the blue one, and find out down the road that it is a lemon. Does that mean that I made the “wrong” choice? Not necessarily. Bad things happen to good people, and while God uses everything for His glory, not every success or failure can be traced to a decision we made. It might simply be God-permitted cause and effect outside of our control.

None of this means that God can’t use a fleece if He sees fit
God chose to use Gideon even though his faith was lacking. He chose to communicate through the fleeces, and He can do the same for ours if He so desires. However, I think there is a strong enough case to be made that at the very least, fleeces are not the optimal method for determining God’s will for our decisions given our position to Christ, the Cross, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. And, even if you’ve never made use of a “fleece,” I hope that you can see in this topic an illustration of how the way that we engage Scripture affects the way that we live as Christians. These are not merely academic questions, but differing approaches that have the potential to significantly alter the nature of our relationship to God and His will. Will we follow Spirit-led Scriptural reasoning, or our own subjectivity? I don’t need to put out a fleece to know the answer to that question.

–Thomas Hersman

The Loneliest Place

One of the loneliest places in the world is the voice of reason between two errors. Humans have the tendency to gravitate to one extreme when faced with the choice between two competing options. Political correctness becomes rudeness, preserving tradition becomes unquestioned devotion to the new, dry theology becomes empty emotionalism, and lack of compassion for physical suffering turns into a religion of social justice. However, no good ever comes of replacing one folly with a different one, and the church needs to embrace the challenge of following what Scripture says while avoiding the errors of extremes.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating that we all adopt the fallacy of the golden mean, which assumes that when people disagree on an issue, the truth must always be a compromise between the two sides. While fitting a kindergarten idea of “can’t we all just get along,” that assumption is just one more erroneous path. Some ideas are false. Some of them are devastatingly false. That means that the people that hold them are also wrong, and need to change to what is right. What we need is not simply a compromise between the extremes, but an objective standard that will guide us through the rocks, and it will come as no surprise that I am going to suggest to you that Scripture is the key.

An acquaintance recently sent me a link to John Pavlovitz’s blog, where he discusses his disdain for “American Christianity.” To be fair, I share a few of his same concerns with attitudes in the modern church, but rather than simply pointing out errors, he replaces them with a contrasting error, developing through the entirely of his site, a version of Christianity that almost perfectly mirrors the talking points of a specific political party (I’ll let you decide which one). Most of the site is dedicated to castigating conservative Christians, while he attacks the inerrancy of Scripture, the existence of Hell, and suggests that Scripture’s views on sex and gender are mere archaic reflections of the writers’ sexism and patriarchal mentality. Unsurprisingly, he takes a rather low view of Scripture:

          “The Bible doesn’t clearly say very much, and we who claim the Christian faith need to              be able to admit this…”

          “I can tell a fellow Christian that the Bible clearly says that Christians are to love God                and to love their neighbor as themselves…”

          “If the Bible were as clear as Christians claimed it is, then each of us who have read and            studied it would come to the same conclusions on every matter—and clearly we have not. That’s because… it isn’t a textbook, it’s a traveling companion.”

While in post after post he accuses conservative Christians of cherry-picking and misusing Scripture, his own Bible has been all whited out (or at least rewritten in pencil) save for the phrase “Love God, and love your neighbor.” What does loving God and loving your neighbor look like to Mr. Pavlovitz? Exactly as he with all his political and cultural biases wants it to. He has reinvented Christianity into his own likeness.

Reinterpreting Christianity to suit our sensibilities is a danger to which we can all fall prey, and that tendency within some theologically conservative circles is the fodder for these opposing errors. If we orient our entire approach to Christianity as a response to one particular enemy (as Pavlovitz does), our tendency is to conclude that truth can be measured by the distance we are from the one group that we loath. It’s very much like being so obsessed with not running our ship into the shore that we plow into a reef instead. We need to follow the chart, and not assume that just because we are far away from one hazard that we are automatically safe.

Pavlovitz has essentially thrown out the chart, and he’s not the first person to do it. He’s doing exactly what the snake did in the Garden of Eden. Introduce uncertainty about God’s clear commands and then inject your own ideas to take their place. In fact, Scripture is much clearer than he wants to admit. While there are challenging passages, I would say that 90% of our uncertainty with Scripture comes from the fact that it gets in the way of our cultural, theological, and political biases, and our self-important desire to set the rules instead of conforming to them. If we follow Scripture; If we understand how to consistently read it according to the meaning of the original author in his specific literary form; if we look at it as a united whole and place the same emphasis that it does on different issues rather than picking out the parts that we like the most, Scripture will be our chart to keep us away from the rocks on all sides.

In our increasingly divided, you’re-either-with-me-or-against-me world, being the voice of Biblical reason between two errors means opening yourself up to attacks from all sides. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting at times. Conservatives will vilify and dismiss you as a liberal sell-out, and liberals will label you a violent hateful sadistic bigot. Why? Human nature compels us to categorize people as either enemies or friends – plus, extremes are just plain easy. Making good judgement calls, maintaining balance and being willing to choose the right side of an issue regardless of who you might be perceived as “joining” are difficult. It’s not a path for the faint of heart, but it is the path of integrity.

It has been said that there is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse. This is especially true in the realm of worldview. If, in our eagerness to attack one error, we choose another to replace it, we are in a worse place than we started out, adopting falsehood just like those we set out to oppose. We need to cling to Scripture as our guide, for without it we are adrift on a sea full of hazards with only a broken compass to guide us.

–Thomas Hersman

 

Words “Are” Necessary

“Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”

(Commonly misattributed to Francis of Assisi)

 

I’ve heard this quote my whole life, and if I’m being honest, I’ve probably used it myself a few times. It’s so engrained in evangelical subculture, that I took no special notice when the guest speaker at church asked who had heard it. What got my attention was when he called it “wickedness.”

Here’s what he said:

“That’s like saying feed the hungry at all times, use food if necessary. You cannot share the Gospel without using words, because faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. You cannot live a good enough life to win someone for the kingdom of heaven. You can provide a context and opportunity, but salvation comes when the Gospel is proclaimed, and received and believed in. And we must recapture the sense of the church proclaiming and speaking the Gospel at all times in all sorts of places.” ­- Jacob Ley, the Chapel, Wadsworth, OH

It’s not possible. Not for me. I’m a worldview fanatic, who’s been accused of over-thinking everything. How did this one stay under my radar for so long? Maybe because it hits close to home? We may presume to know what the pseudo Assisi quote means – that a person’s life needs to match the message he preaches and that the way that we live our lives speaks louder than the words that we say. While these observations are true, there is hiding here in plain sight, an error (dare I agree with the pastor and call it wickedness?), that threatens to dilute the great commission with modern sensibilities.

First, can we all agree that there are a lot of people within Evangelical Christendom, that don’t back up words with actions? As 1 Corinthians 13 tells us, without the foundation of love, all that we say is a bunch of obnoxious noise. Matthew 5:16 affirms in the context of the beatitudes, that our righteous lives should point the people around us to the one true God. As a pastor’s kid (and many times since), I have had a front row seat to the horror show of nominal Christians on Sunday morning self-righteously proclaiming their love for Jesus in front of a congregation of witnesses to their lives of defiance to the entirety of God’s law. I’ve seen people commit the most egregious acts of maliciousness and spite through a saccharine smile, saying “God bless you!” while they twist the knife in your back deeper. It is in the midst of such transgressions that we want to proclaim the necessity of endeavoring (with all our imperfections) to live a life that proclaims through actions the Gospel we preach with our words.

However, the faux Assisi quote does something more. It assumes that the primary method for preaching the Gospel message is living well, while we speak up only once in a while as needed. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 is a decidedly active mission, with going, baptizing, and teaching to make disciples. God’s people were sent out in Acts 1:8 as witnesses, and we see in their lives a willingness to continually speak up, spreading the Gospel message at the cost of great persecution and martyrdom. So, how do we get from risking martyrdom to share the Gospel to passively waiting, hoping for a socially “appropriate” moment to speak up?

We’ve confused “loving” with “passive.” There was nothing passive about Christ. He was gentle and patient when appropriate, yes, but he spoke with authority, pointing out both the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and the immorality of the woman at the well. However, in a culture where simply making a truth claim that excludes opposing views is considered hateful and “-phobic,” many Christians’ version of evangelism has come to take on a very post-modern, or even post-truth flavor for the very simple reason that it allows us to fit in as much as possible with our surroundings, without rocking the boat too much.

It is the path of least resistance. It doesn’t take a PhD in Theology to share the gospel. In fact, the woman at the well was an effective witness mere minutes from hearing the Gospel. That doesn’t mean that average Christians should get a pass from learning the basics of evangelism. Clearly, we need to understand the Gospel message, and we need to be able to meaningfully communicate it to others. We also need to understand how to have spiritual conversations that help us discover where others are in the path to becoming a believer. Finally, every believer should know at least a little bit of apologetics to be able to answer honest questions about Christian belief. That takes effort, and it’s a whole lot easier just to let the “experts” handle it.

It avoids social awkwardness. One of the things that I heard repeatedly as a young adult, is that you should never discuss politics or religion with your friends. That doesn’t fit well with the Great Commission. As a naturally introverted person, I have struggled my whole life to make Spiritual conversations a natural part of my life, and to be honest, I still have much room for improvement. Clearly, Christians shouldn’t use this as a license to be rude, but consider the tragedy of a person who would risk the everlasting soul of a fellow human, just to avoid a little bit of social awkwardness.

It keeps us from being a target. Any Christian who speaks up risks being a target of criticism. For Christians that aren’t living right, this means answering for their own hypocrisy. It’s much easier to fly under the radar, living and letting live. However, even sincere Christians face uncomfortable accusations of hypocrisy both from non-believers, and from those nominal Christians who are looking for a chance to prove that they are the cool, tolerant types, unlike some Christians. Personal accusations are the go to attack in today’s culture, precisely because they hit where it hurts most. However, the Spirit-filled Christian isn’t going it alone, and is empowered both to grow when needed, and to deflect those attacks that are meant only to tear down.

I wish that I could present my own life as the perfect model for others to follow, but I am still a work in progress. What I know for sure is that to be a Biblical Christian, I must have a life that testifies to the truth, coupled with a willingness to testify personally to the gospel message even when it comes at a personal price. Whatever that cost, it is a mere pittance in comparison to the value of sharing the love of our Savior with a desperate soul drowning in sin.

–Thomas Hersman

What is Truth?

“You are a king then?” Pilate asked.

“You say that I’m a king,” Jesus replied. “I was born for this, and I have come into the world for this: to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

“What is truth?” said Pilate.

John 18:37-38 (CSB)

When I teach a Bible class I often ask my students to finish this statement, “The Bible is…” Within the first few responses, someone always says, “True!” I follow that up by asking “What do we mean when we say the Bible is true?” I’ve found that many people have trouble with that question. Though we talk a lot about the truth, Christians struggle defining it coherently. It doesn’t help that cultural figures such as Oprah Winfrey have popularized the idea of “Speaking your truth,” as though truth is an expression of a person’s individual personality. It’s important for us to understand what truth is, to be able to explain it to a post-truth culture, and to be prepared for push back from a society that finds the Christian concept of truth too restrictive on its individuality.

True = Real. Simply put, Christians understand any statement that is true to be one that accurately corresponds to what is real. To illustrate this point, I’m using a metal pin art toy. Imagine that each pin represents a statement called a “truth claim” (it makes a claim about what is real). When my daughter presses her hand into the pins, I see a representation of her hand. It’s not perfect, but it gives me many accurate details. As she moves her hand, the pins move, and reflect the changes. The image the pins show is “true” (in my analogy) because each pin directly corresponds to the real object behind the pins.

Truth is Objective not Subjective. An objective standard is one that is outside myself, and a subjective standard is something inside of myself. If my daughter removes her hand from behind the pins and shakes the toy, the image changes. It still looks like a hand, but because the real object isn’t behind the pins, there is nothing to hold them in an accurate representation of her hand. When the hand was in place, there was an objective standard, now that it is gone, the placement of the pins is subjective, determined by the characteristics of the toy, and not an object behind it. If I have a subjective idea, it is created by my own emotions, personality, or opinions, and not reality.

Our knowledge of truth will always be imperfect, but that doesn’t mean we should give up searching for truth. Human understanding and perception is imperfect, just as the image in the toy doesn’t convey every detail of what the object is truly like. That imperfection has led to the common feeling in modern culture that since none of us have a perfect understanding of reality, then no one should make any appeal to objective truth (i.e., a truth claim), especially when it comes to ideas like good and evil, or right and wrong. However, we can know a lot of things for sure, even if we don’t have all the information. For instance, I can tell that this is a toy car and not a hand.

Truth is not about what simply works. I told my daughter in this final picture to make an image of a hand. The result would no doubt suit her purpose of showing basically what a hand looks like. It has five fingers and a palm, but it’s not a true representation of an object. You aren’t getting a picture of reality.

Truth doesn’t care about your feelings. This should be the most obvious conclusion. If truth is about what is real, the emotion I feel toward a truth claim has nothing to do with whether that claim is actually true. It doesn’t matter how authentically felt or how deeply entrenched those emotions are. They don’t change truth. Is that harsh? I suppose, but reality doesn’t care.

Everyone makes truth claims, even if they don’t believe in truth. This is one of those brute facts that culture can’t escape. Even if I say, “There is no truth.” I am saying “It is true, that there is no truth.” That is a self-defeating statement, the logical equivalent of cutting off the branch you are sitting on. Even when Oprah implies that truth is self-determined, she has a problem. That very claim does not come from “self” (unless Oprah is a figment of my own imagination), so the statement again defeats itself. Imagine a person slamming into your car, and then driving off. You tell the police, and when they arrest the man, he says “Well, that is your truth, but my truth is that you damaged the car yourself.” No one in their right mind would accept that, so why would we accept it when it comes to morality or belief in God?

There are some rules that govern truth. You can’t even argue against them without using them. They just are. Together they add up to the simple conclusion that true is true, and false is false and there is no middle ground. If I make the statement “My car is red.” You might argue that my claim is both true and false. Under a blue light, my car would be black, to a color-blind person it might be brown. To a cat, it might be yellow. Those observations while correct, don’t prove that my claim is both true and false, but that we are using different definitions of what it means for something to be “red” and I need to be more specific. Under a shared understanding of the word, then the statement must be either true or false.

All truth comes from God. The irony of John 18:37-38 is that Pilate is asking Truth Himself what truth is. Jesus said in John 14:6a, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The meaning in this statement is much deeper than we realize. God is the only mind that perceives everything always, in all places. As the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, He is the measure of what is true. That doesn’t mean that we can’t perceive some truths while denying God, but the further we move away from Him, the less our worldview reflects what is real (the 71 gender options for Facebook illustrate this). It also means that we don’t have to rely only upon our own imperfect and incomplete knowledge, since He has chosen to step in and speak to us directly through His Word.

Christians should love truth in all its forms, and fight falsehood from the pulpit to Facebook. Our goal should be to know what is true, and to allow that truth to change the way that we think and act. We should never be afraid of learning truth in whatever way we can, utilizing scientific research, discovery, and inquiry, and guided by sound reason and logic. However, we always keep in mind our own sinful imperfections, and the philosophies and worldviews that tend to distort our search for truth. We hold everything up to the light of God’s Word, knowing that whenever we are in doubt, the one who defines reality gets the final say.

–Thomas Hersman