For Our Afflictions

018Jesus did a lot of healing when he was here on earth.  I can personally attest that He still does today. So when I come across the following verse, I tend to give it a mental nod and move on.  “Yup, healing, yup, prophecy fulfilled.”

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”  Matthew 8:16-17 (ESV)

Today when I read that verse, however, it occurred to me that the verse it quotes in Isaiah is translated slightly differently: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…”(ESV)

So why the difference?  It has to do with translating a translation – Matthew was obviously not quoting the ESV version when he quoted Isaiah.  He was translating Hebrew into Greek, which the ESV translators then translated into English.

So which one is right?

If you go back to the original Hebrew for Isaiah, you see that both are right.  The first word can be translated as grief or sickness, but it can also be translated as anxiety or even calamity.  It means all of that.  The second word means sorrow or pain; it can be mental pain or physical pain.

So He didn’t JUST take our illnesses on the cross.  He didn’t just take on our grief.  He took on our anxiety.  He took on that feeling you get when calamity strikes and you feel completely helpless.  He took on our mental anguish and our wounds from people not treating us right as well as our physical aches and pains.

If we think of this concept only in terms of physical healing, we miss the full meaning.  Likewise, if we only take the Isaiah 53:4 translation and think of it as Him taking our grief and sorrow, we’re right, but we’re only halfway there.

Because while the cross provided a way to heaven for us, we won’t need healing in heaven.  So the diseases, illnesses, grief, sorrow, anxiety and calamity He bore for us are the ones we experience RIGHT NOW, right here on earth.

And if I don’t take those issues to Him but think I’m supposed to somehow solider through on my own, I’m missing the point.  He didn’t suffer on that cross solely so that one day I won’t have to suffer when I get to heaven.

The cross provided for grace to be given every day, for every tear I shed, and every problem I encounter here on earth.

What am I holding on to right now? What weighs me down?  What is causing an ache in the pit of my stomach?  THAT’S what he bore on the cross.  It’s paid for.  I can forgive, I can let it go, I can turn it over to Him — he has ALREADY ACCOMPLISHED the answer for that.  I just have to give it to Him.

Because if He suffered on the cross to take care of it, why on earth would I think I have to solve it on my own?

The Not So Great Debate

Argue

Argue (Photo credit: fixedgear)

I have recently become a tutor for Classical Conversations, a homeschooling curriculum/ community.  For those of you familiar with CC, I’m directing Challenge II.  For those of you not familiar, it boils down to me meeting with eight 14-16 year olds once a week for six 6 hours and having conversations about a variety of subjects they are learning at home.  And by conversations, I mean, since this is my first year, struggling with myself to not lecture while simultaneously trying to encourage the students to dialogue with the class, and since the class is 3/4 male, about something other than sports.  And since I have the Most Awesome group of Challenge II students in existence, we succeed a lot of the time.

We went over a chart the other day that spells out the difference between debate and dialogue, taken from the book Socratic Circles by Matt Copeland, which he in turn took from a Social Studies textbook published by Saskatchewan Education. It details the fact that while debate is about winning, dialogue is about finding common ground. Debate is oppositional, while dialogue is collaborative.  In debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and counter arguments.  In dialogue, one listens to the other side in order to understand, find meaning and find agreement.  Debate affirms a person’s own point of view; dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant’s point of view.  And the list goes on. After we had gone over the chart, the students spent the rest of the day calling each other out on it: “Wait, is this dialogue going on here or is it debate?  Because it sounds like some DEBATE is going on here…”

I think it would behoove many of us to study this chart. Go ahead, click on the link. It will take you to a pdf; the chart is on pages 5-6.  Print it out.  Stick it on your refrigerator. Because I think we could all use a reminder of the difference between debate and dialogue, and I think we could all benefit if we aimed at the dialogue before the debate.

The thing is, I find myself avoiding posting many overtly Christian statuses on Facebook, not because I’m ashamed of the gospel, but because I cringe at what some of my well-meaning but deluded Christian friends may do in the comments section. It seems to me that far too many who claim to be following Christ are operating under the mistaken assumption that it’s a club sport.  It’s all about being on the winning team.  We are right and you are wrong.  We win and you lose. This works great if you are actually playing a club sport — the teamwork, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the chants and cheers and slogans. Awesome, if you’re trying to win at soccer.

Horrific if you are trying to display the love of God to a hurting world.

Because somehow, coming from a debate mindset makes it acceptable to name-call, to be rude to people you haven’t even met.  It causes you to lower yourself to the level of someone who may be spouting negativity simply because they are hurting so very, very badly, which means they have an excuse… but what is yours? It blurs the lines between religion, politics and what-my-daddy-told-me, while having nothing to do with what the Bible actually says.  A disagreement about a favorite candidate/political issue/social arena somehow gets taken as an attack on the “Christian’s” personal relationship with God. And I do mean those quotation marks around the word Christian, because there is nothing about following Christ that has anything to do with this kind of behavior.

Religion should never look like a team sport. This is what gives the word “religion” a bad name.  This is why many Christians avoid using it, and even avoid using the label “Christian.”  And yet the Bible does talk about religion. It says,

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” James 1:26 (ESV)

The Greek word for “religious” here is thrēskos, which means,

  1. fearing or worshiping God

  2. to tremble

    1. trembling, fearful (Lexicon, BlueLetterBible.com)

Not much about debating in that definition.   A lot about keeping in mind Who is listening to your every word (and reading your emails).

What is interesting is that the Greek word for “religion” at the end of the verse is not the same word, but a derivative: threskeia.  It has a slightly different connotation:

  1. religious worship

    1. esp. external, that which consists of ceremonies

      1. religious discipline, religion (Lexicon, BlueLetterBible.com)

     

A "What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD) bracelet

A “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD) bracelet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what James is saying here is that if you think you are a God-fearing, God-worshiping Christian, but do not bridle your tongue, then you are deceiving yourself, and your external show of Christianity is worthless. Scrape the “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” bumper sticker off the back of your car. Put away the WWJD bracelet. It’s worth absolutely nothing.  You might as well just go to a ballgame on Sunday.

The verse doesn’t just deal with the concept of religion, however; there is actually something about debating in that verse.  It’s pretty clear. Bridle your tongue, i.e.  DON’T DO IT!!

And by debate, here, I mean lashing out and trying to prove that your idea is better than someone else’s idea.  Not that you shouldn’t participate in a formal debate about any issue regarding religion, Christ or anything else.  Because in a formal debate, there are rules, structures and guidelines designed to eliminate our tendency to degenerate into name-calling.  Being able to explain clearly why you believe a certain way about any given topic is a good skill to develop, and a true, formal debate is a good way to develop it.

Facebook, however, and likewise the comment sections on blogs and articles, is not the arena for a formal debate.  Those avenues are excellent places, on the other hand, to practice dialogue.  Can you disagree with someone in a dialogue?  Certainly.  But you do it respectfully.  Can you contradict someone in a dialogue?  Again, of course, but you do it out of a desire to reach a better understanding of what they are saying  rather than to shut them down.  Will everyone else respond to you with the same courtesy?  Probably not. But we have to start somewhere.  And at least we won’t be deceiving ourselves.

And possibly, if we are truly dialoguing, we will communicate to the other person that we value him or her as an individual, rather than attacking him or her as a representative of this or that belief system.  We may even, by listening carefully, with respect and honor, learn something new, something that causes us to rethink our propensity towards jerking our spiritual “knees” every time we hear a certain word or phrase that someone once told us was an awful, awful sin and therefore scary.

Not that sin isn’t scary. It messes people up.  It derails lives. It entices, sells a bag of goods that is nothing like what it was purported to be, and then condemns the person for holding that bag. But sin does not extend to the person. Sin does not become the definition of the person.  The person may be a “sinner,” i.e. someone who sins, but he or she is still a much-loved and desired creation, made by an Almighty God, who valued that person so much He sent His only Son to die in that person’s place. Who desires that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9) and quite possibly is trying to reach out to that person through us, if He can just get us to get over our list of Buzz Words That Are Evil and bridle our tongues long enough to communicate love.

The Bible has something else to say about religion.  In fact, it’s in the very next verse in the book of James:

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:27 (ESV)

Again, the word threskeia is used for “religion.” So he’s saying half of your outward form of worship, the thing you display to those around you, rather than your scintillating intellect, rather than your ability to spout memorized arguments, catch phrases of apologetics or slogans you collected off bumper stickers, is to take care of people who need your help.  The other half is to simply keep yourself unstained from the world.  Note it doesn’t say, ‘better than the world” or “insulated by a bubble of Christianliness from the world.” Just unstained.  Let the world’s standards of judgment, attack and one-upmanship roll right off your back.

I think if we all worked a little harder on rising above on the inside while reaching out on the outside, we would find ourselves needing the tools of dialogue far more than we need the tools of debate.

Besides, in a post-Christian, relativistic culture, winning an argument means very little.  Even if you do disprove their belief, your opponent is just as likely to shrug and say, “Whatever, man, I’m still going to believe this,” as he or she is to say, “Forsooth!  At last I see the error of mine ways!” Showing understanding, honor, respect and love to someone, however, goes much further. You may be the only kind words that person has come across that day.

Which is probably why Jesus tended to answer his critics with questions.  He could have silenced every last one of them with his superior understanding of spiritual matters, but He chose not to.  Those of us who claim to be Christ-followers, should, indeed, follow Him in this.

Offering What You Have

Bread!

Bread! (Photo credit: Tim Patterson)

It seems like there is never enough to go around; money is tight, time is stretched, and just when I think I have nothing left to give, a situation arises where I have to come up with more.  So I look into my cache of resources and come up scratching my head, sighing when that all-too-familiar feeling of inadequacy starts to form in the pit of my stomach.  But what if the problem isn’t me and my lack, my imperfection, my sheer limited humanity… what if the problem is that I’m looking in the wrong place for the things I need?

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him,

“Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up,

“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” (John 6:5-14(

It was a problem.  Thousands of people had trekked to a remote place to hear Jesus, it was late, and they needed to eat.  According to Matthew’s recounting of this event, the disciples suggested a very logical and reasonable solution:

“This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”  (Matt 14:15)

Now, Jesus had a better, completely illogical solution in mind.  Illogical, that is, if you haven’t yet understood the power of God.  But He didn’t come forth with it right away.  Instead, He asked a question designed to get the disciples thinking:

 “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5)

This was a preposterous question, of course, because even if there had been a baker out in the middle of nowhere with enough bread for over 5000 people, they didn’t have enough cash on hand to pay for it.  In fact, Philip pointed out that eight months wages wouldn’t buy enough for each person to have just one bite.

Jesus knew this, of course.  He was simply nudging them in the right direction, trying to get the wheels turning in their minds to see if anyone would think outside the box. He wanted to see if they would look past the logical and reasonable and remember who was speaking to them.  He wanted to see if they would remember the times in the past when the logical and reasonable were suspended for the miraculous; when the sick were healed, demons were cast out, the dead were raised.  When the storm was calmed. You can almost hear the gears shifting in their heads.

Finally, Andrew came forward with a ridiculous statement.  “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish…” This must have taken some fortitude on his part, because Philip had just described the magnitude of the problem quite vividly.  But Andrew trusted Jesus, and like a student in a classroom who is the first to see where the instructor is heading, he stepped out and tested the waters to see if he was understanding correctly.  And like a student in a classroom, he wasn’t confident enough to leave it with the statement, but turned it into a question.  Just in case he was wrong. “…but how far will they go among so many?”

Still, he had the right idea.  He stopped focusing on what they didn’t have and offered up what they did have, meager as it was.  And that was all it took — Jesus did the rest and multiplied it so that it would meet the need.

When I am in an impossible situation, I usually focus on the problem, the lack or the need.  What if I were to change my view, think outside of the logical and reasonable and focus on what I have, no matter how insufficient it seems?  What if I were to take that $12 in the face of a bill for $900, that ability to do one part of a project in the face of an overwhelming amount of work, that love for my children in the face of a string of days of hurt, disappointment and feeling inadequate, that tiny, sputtering, remaining flame of love in a difficult relationship, what if I were to take those small things, give thanks for them and then, instead of trying myself to make them stretch, what if I were to turn those things over to God and ask Him to multiply them?

Well, then all I would need would be some baskets to pick up the leftovers when He was done!