What I Saw – June 29th

I sat down in the bay window of my parent’s rural Ohio home to do my evening prayers.

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The view from the window

In the evening, I follow Tim Keller’s five-step pattern for prayer: evocation (inviting God to be present), meditation (reading Scripture), word prayer, free prayer, and contemplation.  After the evocation, I turned to the Scripture for the evening, which I took from the Moravian Daily Text’s “watchword” (Old Testament Scripture) and “doctrinal text” (New Testament Scripture).  For June 29th, those passages were these:

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I have to admit that this was not what I hoped to receive from the Lord that evening.  I was hoping for a word of encouragement, for something speaking of God’s love for me and His promises to me.  Instead, I got this word about being punished for my sins.  It was not only disappointing but intimidating.  I started wondering what I had done to make God say this to me and what it meant for me.  I started worrying and I wanted to turn away from my prayers.

But I didn’t.  I forged on, meditating on this passage as I have been taught to do.  As I did, I somehow stumbled across the word justice.  I always try to pull a truth about God from the Scripture I read.  In this case, the statement about punishment brought me to the truth that God is just (punishment comes from His justice; He punishes sin because He is just).  When I realized this, I realized that this statement which I found so threatening and disagreeable in the moment, this statement which seemed to be dropping me back into the “God is Zeus who can’t wait to hit you with a lightning bolt for the slightest transgression” territory, was actually a statement about God’s love.  It was a statement about the wideness of God’s love, the universality of God’s love, the fact that God loves everyone.

You see, all sin is a transgression not just of God but of another person.  I have thought long and hard about this.  I have run through the catalog of all the sins I know, and I can’t find one that is not in some way an insult or offense against another of my fellow human beings (my fellow human beings who are created in the image of God just as I am and who are just as valuable in the grand design as me).  Murder is obviously an offense against others, as is theft and lying.  But so is all forms of sexual immorality, even lust; Paul says that sexual sins are “taking advantage” of other people (1 Thessalonians 4:6) and Jesus seems to suggest that even looking at others is using them in an untoward way (Matthew 5:28).  That being the case, what God is saying here in Jeremiah 21:14 when He promises to punish us for our sins is that He is not going to allow us to get away with insulting, offending, taking advantage of, and using others.  That is exactly what would happen if He didn’t punish sin; He would be allowing one person to get away with doing such things to another; He would be favoring one person at the expense of another.  And He doesn’t do that.  He doesn’t operate that way.  He loves all, so He punishes all.  His justice is an expression of His love for all.

Now I don’t know exactly how this will all play out.  Is this punishment in this life or the next?  Is this punishment some sort of physical affliction or is it simply a word of rebuke (much as He verbally rebuked Sarah for laughing but did not physically do anything to her)?  Is this punishment all covered by the sacrificial death of Christ (a strong possibility).  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I saw the strength and immensity of the love of God in this verse.  I saw that God not only loves me but loves everyone to the point that He will punish me for offending anyone and will conversely punish anyone for offending me.  This is not Zeus, who as far as I can tell was cruel and arbitrary in his punishments.  This is the ever-loving Yahweh, the Yahweh who shows His ever-lovingness and fairness and concern for all by punishing in some way all sin, by allowing no sin to go unaddressed.

And that’s what I saw on June 29th.

Two Questions for The Simpsons (& The Squidbillies)

 

In my bible college years, I watched The Simpsons three times a day: reruns came on at 5, 5:30, and 11, and I watched them all.  The Simpsons came out during my high school years (though I, having been an early adapter of the new Fox Network, was aware of their shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show).

The folks at my home church regarded The Simpsons as a bad show; watching it was a sin. For that reason, I had not watched much of it prior to Bible college.  On my first night at college, though, which was a lonely and scary night for me, I found and watched an episode (I didn’t have many choices; I had just moved in and hadn’t gotten cable yet, so I was stuck with network TV).  I watched the show incessantly after that moment all through my Bible college years and even into my ministry years.

I lost touch with The Simpsons after moving to California.  It’s been more than a decade since I watched an episode, either in prime time or syndication.   For some reason, though, I stopped on The Simpsons tonight while channel surfing (something I rarely have the time to do anymore) and saw the back half of an episode.  For some reason, this episode ended with Ned Flanders doing a closing song to the tune of “The Beverly Hillbillies Theme”.   You can hear most of that song if you forward to the end of this video (sorry, couldn’t time stamp it for some reason).

In that song, Ned says that if we don’t worship God, we will burn for all eternity, and that this burning is part of God’s great love for you and me (I’m paraphrasing, but I think I got the words right there, and I know I got the gist right).  Oddly enough, this was nearly identical to something I heard a couple years ago.  I was (again) channel surfing on a Friday night and hit an episode of The Squidbillies.  I’m not nearly as familiar with that show as I am The Simpsons, and I really don’t understand most of what I saw, but I know it was some sort of creature singing a song in church which told listeners that if they didn’t love God they would burn in hell (I tried to find that one and couldn’t).

There is a backhand critique in both of these songs/jokes.  Both of them are implying that there is something wrong with God/the Christian idea of God, that the reality of punishment for sin and/or Hell is contradictory to the reality of a loving God/a genuine relationship with God.  It is an argument against The Faith, in other words, suggesting that the principles of The Faith are inherently self-refuting and that The Faith must therefore be false.

And with that, the writers of The Simpsons and The Squidbillies had me.  Those quick song/jokes were so insightful that they immediately destroyed my faith in the God of the Bible and in any similar God.

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No, actually both these song/jokes just made me want to ask the creators of those shows two questions.  Those two questions are:

  1. Are you sure you understand The Faith correctly?  The creators of these shows clearly have problems with certain tenets of The Faith (either the love of God or the punishment of sin or both).  What they fail to realize, though, is that having a problem with something doesn’t necessarily mean there is a real problem with that something.  If you have a problem with something, the problem may be actually be you instead.  I think this is the case here.  I think the creators of these shows (and the many who will no doubt parrot their assertions) don’t understand The Faith, particularly The Faith’s teaching about the punishment of sin.  I don’t blame them for that; many Christians misunderstand these things, too.  But if you give it just a few seconds thought, you can easily come to a better understanding of them.  The life to come, The Faith asserts, is a life in which people spend an eternity with God.  Many people aren’t interested in spending an eternity with God; they wouldn’t accept it even if it was offered to them (which is constantly is).  And so there is naturally a life for them as well.  That life isn’t that great; no life without God is.  But that’s the life they have chosen, and that is the logical conclusion of their choosing.  Hell and/or the punishment of sin, then, is not so much a threat God uses to force people to love Him (which is how these show creators are presenting it); it is instead a reality God is desperately trying to prevent His children from experiencing.  These show creators have not understood this.  They have misunderstood this, and thus their backhanded critiques based on their misunderstanding is not legitimate.
  2. What alternative can you offer me?  Let’s say that’s not the case, though.  Let’s say the show creators have correctly understood The Faith and effectively undermined it with their backhanded critiques.  That’s still not the end of the story.  It is not enough for them to destroy my faith; they must also provide me with an alternative to my faith.  My faith gives me a way of life (not just “rules” to follow but goals to pursue).  My faith gives me meaning and purpose.  It gives me hope and peace.  In other words, my faith does a whole lot of good for me.  What are these show creators, then, offering in place of that faith?  What are they offering that can do all these things for me?  Are they offering me anything at all?  I don’t think they are, and even if they are, I don’t think it can do what my faith does.  And if they aren’t offering any alternative, anything to replace and compensate for my faith, then what good are their critiques?  If they don’t have any sufficient alternative to my faith, how can their critiques possibly be correct?  I don’t think they can.

I probably will never get to ask these show creators these questions, and that’s too bad.  I can ask them of you, though, you who have heard these critiques along with me and maybe been influenced by them.  I can ask you to ask these same two questions of these and any similar critiques.  And I believe that if you do, you will come to very different conclusions than the ones the creators of The Simpsons and The Squidbillies are offering.