Tag Archives: Gospel

Separation and Cosmic Love in the Tesseract

When you love someone, whether that someone is a child, parent, friend, or spouse, suffering will sometimes come in spurts, other times all at once, but it is a raw, inevitable reality. And needless to say, an obvious cause for suffering is explicit harm that hurts the lover or the beloved. I do not make light of that kind of suffering, especially when patterns of abuse and co-dependence trap two people in a stasis that only the grace, love, and forgiveness of God can break. However, and in my 27 short years that I’ve walked this beautiful, broken world, I am led to believe that separation from one’s beloved is a much deeper suffering—often plunging both the lover and beloved into a pit of despair and irresolution.

Yet, the Judeo-Christian story should at least give us pause and ideally a living hope on which we can stand and from which we can stare brokenness and separation in the face and shout, “You will not have the last word; this is not the end!” Across the pages of Scripture, an epic drama unfolds in which we encounter a loving Creator God who relentlessly pursues His beloved to minimize the cosmic separation created by the beloved’s chronic unfaithfulness—ultimately at the cost of Himself being beaten and brutally executed on a Roman cross. That first Good Friday was anything but good, for the very Tri-unity of God was cosmically and violently ripped, with the Father and the Son experiencing a harsh separation infinitely more intense than we can ever fathom.

With this in mind, I cannot help but think that God cannot and will not sit idly by as the separation between Himself (lover) and fallen humanity (beloved) dis-integrates into chaos, apparently sealed by the finality of death. With God Himself being a relation of three Persons, any ruptures in the relationality of the Universe must go against His very nature and His intentions for this Universe to reflect the inherent relational nature of his being. So, what is God’s answer to reconciling humanity to Himself and people to one another?

Love.

Specifically, the incarnate love in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel accounts there are events and utterances that repeatedly shock us with the radical, inclusive love of God that Jesus embodied. But you’d be hard pressed to find a more illustrative example of love than Jesus’s reaction to the death of Lazarus. It was haunting, beautiful, and so…human:

“….Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her sobbing and the others with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?”

“Master, come and see,” they said.

Jesus wept. [And they] said, “Look how deeply he loved him.”

-The Gospel of St. John

The combined anger and heart-rending pain Jesus expresses here is not only a signal of how much He loved Lazarus, but also of how much this death-induced separation is an affront to the Ever Living God, in whom every creature lives, moves and has being. We know that despite the grief and loss that was keenly felt by Lazarus’s family, friends, and Jesus Himself, that is not the end of the story. Christ, in the privileged position of having both human and divine natures, was and is not limited by the patterns and constraints of biological and physical laws, to which any other human being must accept and succumb. Fueled by his deep love for Lazarus and the goodness of life, Jesus resurrects him from the cold, lifeless abyss of death. This kind of love has true power, power to effect changes in our spatio-temporal realm because it points to the God of Love, who, in and through Jesus “upholds the Universe with the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3).

*          *          *

Where else do we see this kind of love that is cosmic in scope, yet so real and palpable as once-dead human flesh that has been revitalized and restored? Funnily, I think we get a picture of it in Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. Nolan paints a not-so-distant, future earth where most natural resources have been exhausted and the surviving humans lead a frugal, fearful existence marked by a “just get by” mentality. Humanity’s days are numbered, at least on earth. The protagonist, Cooper, along with a team of scientists leave our solar system to probe the feasibility of colonizing other worlds. Their precise mission is incredibly daunting: after a two-year journey from earth to Saturn, a wormhole will take them to a distant star system where there are several candidate planets. One catch is these planets are proximal to a dying neutron star that is being consumed by a black hole. This black hole distorts the surrounding space-time, creating intense time dilation effects. In turn, Cooper and the rest of the crew will not age as quickly (normally) as everyone else on earth.

Cooper is depicted as a devoted, loving father who holds out a promise to his daughter (Murph) that seems awfully difficult to keep: that he will survive this epic, intergalactic journey and return to her. Of course, he’s probably consumed with great fear and doubt as he faces potential eternal separation from his daughter, should the mission face any setbacks or mishaps. When her father makes this promise, Murph protests fiercely. She is enraged and feels that her father is abandoning her.

*          *          *

Although the movie is visually stunning and sets a new bar in the space science fiction genre, Nolan uses human elements as the engine to drive the plot forward. In doing so he asks the audience two key questions: (1) What if human beings, in their current state, are limited by their experience of four dimensions (3 space, 1 time), and are maybe meant to experience and pass through others? (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12); and (2) What if love is the mechanism by which we may be able to access and ascend to higher dimensions?

In an incredibly trippy but nonetheless poignant scene in the film, Cooper finds himself in an awe-inspiring three-dimensional structure called the tesseract, which affords him the ability to perceive time as just another spatial dimension. The confines of the tesseract are tantalizingly transparent and reveal Murph in her bedroom at a multitude of time points. Just like Jesus outside the tomb of Lazarus, Cooper is angry because he is separated from his beloved daughter and wants nothing else but to be with her again. Also like Jesus, Cooper is in the privileged position to access multiple dimensions of reality to which humans aren’t otherwise privy. In a final desperate act, he attempts to reach her by shrieking her name and pounding at the edge of the tesseract, which in Murph’s room is the back of her bookshelf. He is able to successfully manipulate the gravity in the room to communicate with her, and she realizes that it is not a gravitational anomaly but her father reaching out to her from another realm. By the end of the film, we learn that the love between a father and a child has saved the human race.

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

-St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians

Love is where we came from. And love is where we are going. When we live in love, we will not be afraid to die. We have built a bridge between worlds.

-Fr. Richard Rohr

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Christ and Other Sheep: Reading the Gospel in Iraq

Most journalists I meet in the Middle East are disenchanted with religion. They are spiritually cynical, agnostic at best. Many are unusually humane, intently aware of our world’s wounds, yet invariably critical and distant from any organized faith.

I can see why. I’ve just spent 6 weeks reporting from Iraq, where faith seems saturated in hatred and blood. “Christians are not Arabs. Arabs cannot be Christians,” a displaced Chaldean from Mosul tells me. “We can never live with Muslims,” a widowed Yazidi cries. “Watch these Shi’a bastards,” a Kurd says as he sends me videos of elite militias abusing Sunni civilians. “You dog,” the soldiers in the videos laugh as they kick and beat a cowering man.

Religion starts to hurt. “In the name of God” becomes the sound of sectarianism, the anthem of a thousand gleaming daggers cutting lines and boundaries across the broken earth: I’m in, you’re out. I’m a believer, you’re not. I am good, you are bad. You dog. I could never live with you. You could never be like me. In the name of God, the merciful, the beneficent, you heretic! You infidel, in the name of God, go to hell. In the name of God, the merciful, burn.

As a reporter, I tread the lines between Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, Christians, Sunnis and Shias. I see giant crosses and green flags demarcating different neighborhoods of Beirut. I see Jewish stars graffiti-ed on the staircases of Amman with “Al-Mot, Death” scribbled underneath. I see overflowing refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, and I am seized with an urge to damn religion. To hell with this hell, I want to say. To hell with the institutions and social constructs that give men self-justified license to rip other human beings apart. To hell with the lines, the walls, the moral police and everyone judging everyone else as unrighteous. To hell with God, I almost think.

But LORD have mercy, I cannot pray this. I almost curse the name of God, but then I stop, I cannot, I don’t.

I read the Bible in Iraq out of desperation. I needed to know that God is good and understand how that could be true when our world is as poisoned as it is. I couldn’t understand how God could be loving and exclusive at the same time. “Christ is the only Way,” I thought, “But what does that mean for all those who don’t know Him? Shall I condemn them, as other religions will condemn me?” Deuteronomy reads like an instruction manual for ISIS, I thought[1]. I spent my days collecting testimonies of genocide and my nights fearing that God was pleased to see this happen. I reported on violent religious extremism and feared: what if God actually condones this?

This fear paralyzed me for a while. Then I picked up the Gospel and read.

It’s much easier to picture Christ now that I live in His neighborhood. I picture Him coming to a land under oppression and celebrating life. Jesus goes to a wedding and turns water into wine.[2] He walks around healing, casting out spirits, multiplying food and telling tantalizing parables. He shows Martha that being with God is better than doing anything for Him. He weeps with Mary when she tells Him, My brother has died, and if you were there, it wouldn’t have happened. But she still calls him Lord as she says this. Jesus weeps- and raises Lazarus from the dead.[3] The next day, Mary pours expensive perfume on Him, worshipping, and small-hearted Judas says, “What a waste.” Think of the food distributions, cash programming, and hygiene projects that money could have funded. But Judas is a thief who’s been helping himself to the disciples’ moneybag. He’s really thinking of himself, selfishness twisted with self-righteousness, and Jesus sees right through him.[4]

I picture Jesus coming to historic Palestine, where the Israelites are under Roman occupation. Surely our LORD will save, his disciples must have thought. Our people worship the One True God and now the Messiah will break these chains of oppression, they must have hoped. FREEDOM, I imagine them whispering to one another, the way my Syrian friends tell me they spoke in 2011 for the first, daring, dangerous time. The word tingled on your tongue, they say, then grew until it grabbed your whole being, flung you into the street and had you yelling, roaring, electrified in sudden exultation with brothers and sisters and countrymen: FREEDOM, we stand and claim our humanity. Freedom, we protest and demand.

Surely Jesus’ followers thought this way as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Hosanna, they cried, save us now.[5]
Surely they thought he would lead them to social and political release.

I imagine how the earth must have shattered beneath the disciples’ feet when they found their leader had no intent of rebellion. No uprising, no overthrow, no victory – rather, death. I see photos of ISIS crucifying people in Raqqa and I picture Christ, then I picture his dearly beloved wracked with heartbreak and fear. So injustice continues. The world wins. All things are broken and we thought you’d fix them, but you’re gone, we’re lost, LORD -[6]

What the hell is this Gospel? Why would the disciples believe it, as Jesus died and Roman rule continued? Why should I believe it, as I stand in front of a Yazidi woman whose daughter is enslaved, counting atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and Sudan, feeling like the smallest person in the world, taking notes and knowing they’ll do nothing but elicit some fleeting public sympathy and exert a featherweight bit of pressure on military and political powers?

In Iraq, I consider this unlikely message: Jesus did not end suffering and injustice, but He will end them. He did not fight the way the world fights, with swords and guns and drones and jingoistic anthems. He did not win an ethno-nationalist victory for the Jews. He did not stop Lazarus from dying, nor did he heal every person or raise every Beloved from the dead.

Christ rejected Pharisees and went to the sinners, even to the Gentiles. He was like a Palestinian going to the Israelis, a Sunni going to the Shia, a Kurd going to an Arab, a Yazidi going to an ISIS fighter. He crossed all the lines.[7] He didn’t form a new club to supersede all the others. He said, being in a club won’t save you. Nothing you do will ever save you. Stop trying to be good. Seek God, repent and ask to be saved.

He washed feet.
Then He died.

There’s a trick of the devil that says, God hates the world because it’s sinful, so prove that you’re righteous and maybe you can be saved. Everyone else will burn.

The Liar whispers poison-thoughts of revenge, fear and self-pity in our heads. They bleed into systems of greed, power and money that rip the world apart. Then he stands at our ear and sneers, “The world is damned and you are damned with it. God hates you. Hate Him back.”

But the Gospel speaks the opposite. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned,” Jesus told Nicodemus.

I read headlines from Kobane, Jerusalem and Darfur, and turn this over in my mind. We are not condemned. The world is burning, but those who believe are not condemned. “The prince of this world stands condemned,” Jesus says in John 16 – then He goes to the cross. He dies, then rises again. The Liar is condemned, Christ said, so don’t despair or bow before him. He is the condemned one, not you, Beloved.

There’s a secret message in Christianity that doesn’t make sense unless you believe in Christ not just as a teacher and moral example, but really as God giving Himself for Man: life comes through death. Everyone thought Christ was losing, but He won through loving sacrifice. His shocking call is this: “Follow me,” not to kill unbelievers, but to die for them.[10]

Lay down your life, Christ said: love those who hate you, pray for those who hurt you, do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, and speak Jesus’ name.[12] Follow Him, not toward comfort, privilege or resettlement to suburban America, but to wash feet and tell people that God loves the world. We may be killed in the process. But He is victorious. We are not condemned, darkness is. Nothing can separate us from our Father’s love.[13]

I don’t want to be religious anymore, I prayed in Iraq, recoiling from the vortex of exclusion, revenge and sanctimonious hate. At the same time, I feared the real cost of following Christ. I didn’t want to burn. I didn’t want to see any more of our world’s self-destruction. I’ll vomit, I cried. God, I’ll fall apart.

Religious people are like candles who don’t want to be lit. We’re adorned with gems and carvings, standing high and proud. We think our decorations make us good. Christ says, Forget your self-righteousness. The smallest scrap of paper that blazes from my Presence is more useful than a thousand pieces of regal unlit wax. I’m going to set you on fire and send you into the dark. You’ll melt, Beloved, but do not fear. You’re surrendering to a Light that will never go out.

The Gospel does not ask its followers to form a club and hate everyone else. The Gospel is a feast in a refugee camp, a banqueting table set before our enemies, an engagement party as the world breaks. It says: by the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ, come to our Father’s table. Eat, drink and be filled. Don’t kill for the Gospel! Die for the Gospel. As you die, you live. Your Shepherd has loved the hell out of this earth.[14] Follow Him, and invite others to do the same. [15]
[1] Deuteronomy 20.
[2] John 2.
[3] John 11.
[4] John 12.
[5] John 12:12-19.
[6] “They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’” – John 20:13, Mary Magdalene at the tomb.
[7] John 4: Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman.
[9] Romans 3:23, John 3:16-21.
[10] Matthew 10:38-39.
[11] “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” – John 12:24-26.
[12] Matthew 5.
[13] Romans 8.
[14] “He tends his flocks like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” – Isaiah 40:11
[15] John 10.

1 John, ISIS and the Gospel versus Terror

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love each other. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother… We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.
– 1 John 3:11-12, 14-15.

Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you so angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.’

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
– Genesis 4:6-8

I have been afraid lately. I think often about the deaths of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, many more journalists and millions of children, women, fathers, brothers, best friends, uncles and neighbors in Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan and more. I can’t shake the feeling that death is crouching around the corner, at the doorstep of all the journalists, of all the civilians, of too many people who have become dear to me and thousands more that I’ve yet to meet. Everyone I know is scarred. Some are still bleeding. Hate and fear are in the air, and things are getting worse.

How do Christians respond to terrorism? My church answers falter. “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” OK, but really? What if I were Iraqi or Syrian or Gazan? What if the Islamic State crucified my father? What if an Israeli bomb blew my family into pieces? What if everyone I loved was hit with chemical weapons? I meet person after person for whom this is reality. I wonder what I can say to them. I write down their stories. I cry. I want to vomit. I turn to God.

A few weeks ago I was reporting in Lebanon. I walked through Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps where people are treated like dogs, drinking tea with the most dignified and brave families I have met, fearing they would not survive the next month. I heard stories of those they have lost in the last few years, months and days. I filled notebooks with sorrow. Then I came home. I prayed angrily because I felt so tiny. The world is Dark and I can’t do anything about it. I have no power. I can write. What else? Why am I so small? Why can’t I save my friends? What do I have to give them?

A thought came into mind: You have the Gospel, habibti. 

Me: WHAT GOOD IS THAT?

Dear friends, help me figure this out.

What is the Gospel? What good is it? What does it mean to share Jesus Christ with my friends when His message does not promise any change in their physical circumstances? Here is Jesus, but you’ll still be a refugee. Your country continues to burn. Your daughter is still sick. You have no money for her treatment. She may die. Your father has already died. You may be killed tomorrow.
Here is Jesus.
What does He promise?
Who is He?
What does He do?

I’m reading the Bible a lot these days. The more I read, the more radical it looks. It says: God made the world and loved His children, but they turned against Him. They would not believe He loved them and they wanted to take control. When that happened, everything went awry. The children started to hate, fear, and kill. They hurt each other. They hurt themselves. God hurt to see this. He asked His kids to listen, to turn back, but they wouldn’t.

So God came to earth. Jesus was God-turned-man, living to set an example and to save us from ourselves. He died. He gave up life even though He was innocent, and this paid for all mankind to find eternal life, which means life together with God, which means complete change, which means living in love rather than hate or fear.

Love, rather than hate or fear.
Love: self-sacrifice, thinking of others before ourselves, giving up breath and life for the good of people who want us to die.
Love: refusing to hate. Not fearing anyone or anything except for God. Crying out for justice, but leaving it in His hands.
Love: living our brief and uncertain lives in total humility, surrender and desire to bless those who hate us.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
– 1 John 3:16-18

Those tropes about love are so warm-fuzzy-familiar. I’ve seen them cross-stitched onto comfy Christian pillows, stenciled on greeting cards and thrown around in a thousand Sunday sermons.

I’m sitting here watching a video made by fellow human beings just a few hours away from me. There’s a man in an orange suit kneeling on the floor next to another man in a hood, who makes his brother speak words he doesn’t mean. He calls on huge world powers to change, crying, “This is unfair, I am a victim, you are bad, I am good, I will punish you now,” and then the hooded man cuts off his brother’s head.

I think about Cain and Abel.
I think about Jesus.
I’m thinking, Christianity means I should lay down my life for this hooded man?
I’m thinking, That does not make sense.

I read the Bible more.

When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
– Luke 22:29-51

Jesus died for Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, Isaac and Ishmael, David and Saul, journalists and extremists, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Gentiles, for the sick and the sicker, for all.

Lately I’ve found the Gospel a shocking, lunatic message. If you take Christ at His Word, this is what He says: Lay down your life for your brother. Lay down your life for the one who wants to kill you. Do not fight. Do not run away. Bless, serve and give.

According to Jesus, that’s the way to eternal life.
But I might die, I think.
Yes – lay down your life and be reborn, Christ says.
Me: NO, but like, I might physically die.
Christ: You’ll die anyway. It’s OK.
Me: No! I won’t! Who says I’m dying? Who says Death is real?
Christ: Look around.

Somehow as I pray, I am convinced that God is for us, not against us. The world is on fire, but it’s because we are against ourselves. Surrendering to God means self-sacrifice, not jihad, not struggle, not fighting our enemies the Muslims and Jews and infidel non-believers, but thinking: God is worth more than my life.

Fundamentalists think the same thing, but Christ redirects the results. If God is worth more than my life, then I die. I give my whole life as He did: not as a warrior, but as a sheep. He did not fight. We are not to fight. We are to give our entire lives to our brothers and sisters so that they do not feel alone, so that they have hope, so that we walk steadily into Darkness to take people’s hands and tell them, We have one Father. He loves us. He is good.

I would think this entirely crazy if I had not met Christians here who live it out in steady, fearless humility. I sit with brothers and sisters from Sudan, Syria, Iraq, places falling apart and families that attacked them when they decided to follow Christ. I wonder why they are not running away. Praise God, I’m going back! they say.

I am so easily scared. I fear danger. I fear death. I fear persecution for being American or Christian or a journalist. I fear terror itself.

My brothers and sisters spill over with light and peace. I want to hold them back. I am afraid they will be hurt or killed today, tomorrow or the day after. They laugh and lay a hand on my shoulder. Sister, my family needs hope.
What, the family that wants to kill you?
Sister, my people are trapped. They cannot leave. They need hope, and we have the one and only Hope. We’ve got to go and serve.

My Palestinian brothers tell me that they can and will continue to pray for all their neighbors, Muslims Jews and Christians, radical or not, Zionist or Hamas, even as they are being bombed from one side and targeted by the other. They tell me, this is what it means to follow Jesus: to suffer for your neighbor’s good, and your neighbor includes every person no matter if they hate or love you.

My Coptic friends in Egypt say, someone tried to burn down our church. But we will not take up arms to fight.

My Iraqi sister says, I am going back. ISIS is there, yes, which means people are afraid. Everyone is desperate. Our world is burning. So we need Christ. So I’m going.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.
– 1 John 4:18-19

I think, why am I so hesitant to speak the name of Jesus? On the one hand, I care too much about my reputation. I don’t want to be associated with close-minded Christians and the institutions that have perpetrated so much hate and bigotry throughout the ages. I don’t want to be judged. I am afraid for my public image, my career and my ostensible objectivity.

On the other hand, I am thinking too much of myself and not enough of Christ.

When I really think of Him, He says, Look at me. I look. I blink. I am almost blinded. I am moved. I fall to my knees. I think, this is too bright to be true, too much to hold, too deep and fiery – I am moved out of my mind.

I look.
He says, Every person is your brother.
Love them.

Lay down your life for them.
As I did for you.
I love you so much.
I am for you, not against you.
Your life is in my hands.

I believe.
Against all odds, I believe. I see my brothers and sisters going forward and I pray, Lord, give me the faith to walk alongside them. I see them going forward as sheep to the slaughter. I pray, Lord, give me grace and courage to do the same.

The Gospel offers a call to die, not to take anyone down but to lift them up. To give our lives up in peace and sacrifice and brotherly love. It is not sane. It is utterly unsafe, flying against all my self-righteous inclinations. But that is Christ, and we love Him so, for He first loved us.

When we see and know and taste this, we walk forward with joy. We are walking on a stream of living water that flows from Him in and through us. It grows trees with fruit in all seasons and leaves for the healing of the nations. We are so alive! Even if we may die today or tomorrow. We live in light.

We are not afraid.

Researching for Shalom

I had the hardest time coming up with paper topics during my undergrad years. The more freedom I had, the harder it was to choose. As a result, I ended up writing a number of lackluster essays for classes simply because I had to. Ironically enough, many of these classes were doing a lot to shape my thinking about the shape of my life and what I wanted to spend my days doing, but little of this bled into my academic writing. In retrospect, the fundamental problem was obvious: I lacked a way to understand and articulate how the work of academic writing and research fit into a world in which the kingdom of God was near.

There are a variety of different research projects which drive academic research today. From the transhumanist vision of technological utopia to the dream of liberation promoted by advocates of critical theory, differing conceptions of how the work of research connect with the broader fabric of human society inform the academic enterprise. Increasingly, the demand for “qualified” workers turns the academy into a factory of sorts producing technically trained workers who are able to “think critically” for the workforce. For Christians, however, the drive to academic work and research ought to be driven by the Biblical imperatives of image-bearing and witness-bearing: humankind’s creational calling as well as the Messiah-people’s redemptive calling.

Earlier this month, I spent two weeks with the amazing folks at Yale’s Rivendell Institute (yes, that Rivendell) where, among other things, we talked about how one might think about the Christian motivations for the academic life. What Manna has accomplished using the language of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Glory, Rivendell does with the dual-tasks of image-bearing and witness-bearing. Simply put, for Christians, there are two categories under which to subsume all of their activity, one associated with creation (and its fall) and one associated with creation (and its renewal): the cultural mandate and the Great commission.

Image-Bearing

For the uninitiated, Genesis 1:28-30 has often been referred to by Christians as the “cultural mandate”:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

This is, as it were, humanity’s mission statement: to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and exercise dominion over it. Lest the word “dominion” sound too much like “domination”, it would do well to remember that the kind of rule to be exercised was best exemplified by God himself in Jesus – he who wishes to be great must be the slave of all.

What does this dominion look like? The second chapter of Genesis gives a closer look: it looks like taking care of a garden. One episode stands out for special attention: God brings the animals one by one to Adam and has him name them. Naming. The cultural task par excellance. One discovers a particular pattern of organization in the world that God creates – i.e. the awe-inspiring coordination of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen into proteins and cells and organs that we know as animals – and we give it a designation, a place and a role in human society.

This is, I suggest, is the primary task in which academic research is involved. Researchers look at the world looking for patterns of activity – natural and social – which they attempt to name, describe, and embody [1]. It is by no means a benign act, for naming is fraught with social-political implications. Whether one calls a particular phenomenon the act of a freedom fighter or a terrorist makes a world of a difference. Even the seemingly apolitical work of research in math or physics has potentially groundshaking social consequences in the technological implications it makes possible.

For a long time, we have operated with a view of “science” drawn from the Enlightenment and positivist philosophy. Under this scheme, things having to do with “subjective” human opinions and decisions such as politics, economics, and religion were excluded from the halls of science because they failed to exemplify the kind of “objective” inquiry that was supposed to characterize scientific endeavors. (Note: This did not stop various humanities and social “sciences” from trying to claim the status of “science” by means of trying to increase the amount of quantitative analysis used in the field.) This, combined with the crisis of Western civilization post-World Wars, led to a kind of technological optimism that strongly emphasized the benefits of “scientific” inquiry while yet remaining ignorant of its social costs. Before that, intellectual activity tended to be characterized by the classical ideal in its various forms – whether disengaged contemplation of Truth/God as the ideal human activity or Stoic meditation of one’s place in the larger scheme of things – which also tended to minimize its world-formative dimensions.

It is these world-formative dimensions, however, that allow us to see and understand the ways in which our acts of “naming” might be concretely implicated in the effects of the fall. Instead of being true to the imago dei implanted within each of us, humans have turned from glorying God to glorying self. Romans 1 puts it this way:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Shrewd commentators have noted how the curses of the Fall correspond exactly to the blessings of the Creation. The call to subdue the land and multiply one’s seed is met with a curse of the land and a curse in childbearing. And interestingly enough, when God turns to Abraham to jumpstart his redemptive plan, the very things that man was created for and had lost – the land and the seed – are the very things that he promises. Whereas at Babel, humanity tried to make a name for itself and was scattered, now God was going to make a name for himself.

Witness-bearing

One of most fascinating themes in the Bible is the theme of creation and new creation. If in Adam, humans were bound in slavery to sin; in Christ, we are bound in slavery to righteousness. If humans were supposed to “be fruitful and multiply” in the Old Testament, it is the gospel which “bears fruit and multiplies” in the New. Where in one sense, Christ comes to restore humanity to its rightful place in creation, in another sense, his followers have picked up an additional task above and beyond their call to engage culture: the call to make disciples of all nations.

This certainly has implications for intellectual life. Whereas in Genesis 2, the cultural mandate had Adam naming animals in the garden, in Acts 17, we see Paul naming on behalf of the Athenians the “unknown God” to whom they offered worship. In his speech on the Areopagus, Paul skillfully engages with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies of his age to show how elements within each of them ultimately point to faith in Jesus. Not only are Christian thinkers tasked with naming aspects of God’s creation, they are to do so rightly, in a way that nudges our different cultural concepts – tinged by sin – closer towards the kingdom of God. This is both a “pre-evangelistic” and an evangelistic task, both clearing the way to challenge dominant cultural conceptions in light of the truth of the gospel and translating the gospel into differing cultures.

The connection between our institutions of higher education and mission is historically suggestive: it is at Princeton, at Yale, at Cambridge that our modern missionary movement gets a lot of its impetus. In the medieval ages, it is at the universities that jumpstart a good deal of today’s monastic orders – the Dominicans, the Jesuits – that served as missionaries to China, to Japan, and to the native Americans. If one is disappointed with attempts to evangelize today, much of it is due to the intellectual currents which have gained ascendance in our universities over the past century. If the Lordship of Jesus is to be proclaimed throughout the world, the work of making the gospel plausible and understandable to all will remain one in which Christian academics necessarily play a role.

In a way, one can roughly distinguish between the image- and witness-bearing task of Christians using the age-old distinction between activities of the church ad intra and activities ad extra. At the center of the former lay the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, the task of passing forth the teaching of the apostles and the celebration and maintaining of the unity and holiness of the church.  In the latter is the proclamation of the gospel throughout every land, the missional dimension to spread the light of the knowledge of Christ far as the curse is found. In all, Christian academics ought to be seeking comprehensive human flourishing in all that they do, in accordance with the Biblical vision of shalom.

These goals ought to present Christians in the academy with a barrage of potential research projects based on which to direct their inquiry. How ought Christians to respond to the increasing disparity between rich and poor in the United States? In what ways are Christians letting race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, or some other factor other than their shared new identity in Christ define their communion? What are the beliefs and practices that make faith in Christ difficult to communicate or sustain in our culture today? All these and more are questions deeply in need of Christian responses. Insofar as the academic disciplines may facilitate or hinder such research, it ought to be the Christian academic’s duty to allow his or her commitment to Christ to come first and foremost, seeking to find a way to be faithful in the place where he or she is placed.

Notes:

[1] Consider, for instance, Esther Lightcap Meek’s view of knowledge as “subsidiary-focal integration” – knowing as integrating from relied-on clues to a coherent focal pattern to which we attend and embrace (see Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology) or Sam Rocha’s A Primer for Philosophy and Education, in which philosophy is characterized as a “general theory of description”.

Seeing

Sometimes I am afraid of faith.

Sometimes I like my doubts, cup them close to my chest, build them one atop the other like blocks of safe cold plastic, a buffer between myself and the howling fire of Spirit and heart that I have come to know as God.

The scariest, biggest change in my Christianity since graduation is that God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Gospel Worldview have spun wildly out of my control. At Princeton, it was nice to think about the Gospel. I sorted things out in neat creation-fall-redemption-glory narratives, applying them to foreign policy issues and my own struggles with thesis and sabbath and relationships.

Most of the time, I had the worldview in my hands. I tinkered with a pair of lenses, zooming in and out, polishing the filters, thinking “Ah, let me upgrade a bit with this theological tidbit, decorate with this song, fine-tune with a verse or two or three…” I delighted in the way things worked out, made sense, fit so well with my Sunday school years of knowing who Christ was and what He wanted.

I liked the Gospel Worldview, but never asked what the Gospel Worldview was really for.
That is, I held a pair of glasses without putting them on.
I got the worldview, but didn’t look deeply at the world.

A little over a year ago, I prayed to see God’s face. A friend of mine had surprised me with a crazy story about seeing Jesus, and I was like, OK man you’re really charismatic, cool. Yet his story caught me off guard. It challenged me, first because my immediate inclination was to scoff, Uh okay SURE you saw Jesus… Sure….  and second to think, Wait, why not? Isn’t Jesus real and risen and alive? Why couldn’t he have seen Him? Why couldn’t I see Him? Why don’t I ask to see Him? Do I really want to? Do I believe enough to even ask?

A huge hunger started to rise in me. If my friend could see Jesus, then to hell with skepticism, I wanted to see Him too. I started praying hard, saying God if You are real, SHOW ME. God if Your Kingdom exists, open my eyes. I want to see it, alive and real, personal and touchable and flowing and afire. SHOW ME.

I used to think, living by the Gospel Worldview means that I will come to the Middle East and be a journalist and tell stories about truth and redeem bigoted American narratives that end up harming our country more than keeping it safe. I will tell people that other people are also people, and in that the broken will be restored. God will be glorified, things become the way they should be and we will all have peace and praise the Lord.

I came here asking God to show me what He saw, thinking it would be simple, that I’d just implement everything in my formula of faith!

Then He answered my prayer.

Do I know that I am seeing as God sees? That’s crazy talk. I really don’t know at all. But I am seeing the world differently from how I ever saw it before, and I think it started around the same time as my prayers. I see myself as smaller and weaker and more incapable than I ever realized. I see darkness and suffering all around. I try to put up familiar defenses, go on Facebook, go shopping, eat something, drink, go out with friends, read a book, go to bed, turn it off,
but I can’t.

I go to fancy Abdoun, the expensive part of Amman where expats drink Starbucks and buy designer makeup. I get a pedicure and start talking to a Filipino woman who quickly becomes my friend. She’s telling me about her family back home and the years since she’s been back. She’s quiet and gentle, light brown freckles on her furrowed-brow face, and paces her words slowly. “I was live-in maid for two years, ma’am,” She tells me. “My madam she was not good. I had no food,” she says. How could you have no food? What do you mean? I mean you lived! Two years! “Just bread, ma’am.” Bread and nothing else, her income withheld, her family on the other side of the world, shut inside a Jordanian house confused and alone,
she scrubs my feet and tells me.

The Gospel Worldview is making my head reel, my heart spin, my spirit gasp for breath.
I want to paint my nails and pay for gloss and walk away fine and free.
The Gospel Worldview is making me look at my sister holding my heel in her hand. It’s raising my heart rate and twisting my guts, a voice pounding in my head: Beloved, don’t be alone. Beloved – I see her in a corner room in the dark, nibbling a piece of bread, afraid – Beloved, you are my daughter.
I see you. 
I know you.
Do not fear.

Christianity has become really scary this year because I often think I’m a psycho. I walk around wanting to ignore the world around me but my limbs and ears and eyes and mouth and hands and feet do the opposite. I want to curl up in my bed or get on a plane to fly away, pretending none of this exists. Instead I go into a refugee camp and sit on a piece of Styrofoam on the floor. I meet little girls and gangly boys who ran across the Syrian border and are thirsty for water and life. They are trapped in a camp in the middle of a desert, and they tell me to tell their stories. “I need baby formula for my daughter,” a twenty-year-old mother tells me. She touches my arm and I nod, grabbing my pen, writing things down. There are sharp rocks beneath the plastic tarp on the ground; there is trash surrounding the water spout outside; the sun is hot and sand is blowing into my eyes; there is not a single piece of green and the air smells like sad and still surrender.

I want to close my eyes, but in Christ, who I asked to change me, I can’t.
At nights I teach English to friends and brothers and uncles from Darfur. They tell me they’re sick, they went to the hospital, it costs 3000 JD for an operation, what to do? I have no answer. I’ll pray?
In Zarqa another woman, slender and laughing and dear, asks me where I’m from, what I’m doing here, why I am sitting and taking photographs in a Syrian refugee home. “I want stories,” I tell her. “I’m a journalist. I came here because I like stories. Jordan is not great, there are many problems, but everyone has a story.”

She is quiet, then looks up. “Do you really want to hear?”
She tells me about how it feels to huddle in a basement, rocks tumbling over your head as bombs destroy your world above.
How it feels to come up and find that your husband no longer exists – no, that he does, but is lying before you with head and arms separated from body, blood spilling out, staining and clouding your eyes
How it feels to be afraid with no end
To have soldiers come and cut people up, using a knife to saw apart pieces of their bodies, and not letting you cover your children’s eyes
How it feels to then listen to your baby daughter scream
in fear, in terror, night after night

How it feels to come here alone
How it feels to be unwanted and unprotected, because any man could come and take and hurt and rape and force you any day or any night, and no one would do anything, they are too busy, there are too many of you, everyone is in need, everyone is crying, everyone is desperate, we just don’t have enough

How it feels to be so afraid, but to go on, step by step by day by week by month by year,
How it feels.

The Gospel is freaking me out because I cannot stop listening, cannot rip myself away, my eyes are about to bleed yet I sit, I nod, I take notes, I touch her hair, I pat her arm, I kiss her cheek goodbye saying Allah ma3ki, God be with you. God be with you, sister, sister after sister after sister after sister,

I go home and pray.

It’s hard to write about Jordan because half the time I am toppling over with feeling and the other half I am trying to be numb. The numb thing doesn’t work, usually just builds up until I find myself sitting in my room, folding laundry, defiantly calm, and a familiar voice nudges me. Beloved, what are you doing?
I am living, Lord, I am fine, leave me alone, I am fine, I am fine OK just leave me alone.
Beloved, don’t harden your heart
I am not! I am OK! I am folding my laundry and I went to Princeton and I know what I’m doing, I’m writing stories to fix the world and I have a solid Gospel Worldview to keep my good perspective, please do not bother me –
Beloved, open your heart
GO AWAY, LEAVE ME ALONE WITH MY FREAKING HEART OF STONE I LIKE IT THAT WAY I SWEAR
Beloved, who am I?

Then something grips my heart and I am on my floor in tears. My vision is blurred but there is a gasping clarity as face after face after face passes before me, the mothers and sisters and fathers and brothers and friends that I swear I just want to forget but I cannot forget. Their stories and names are blazing in my heart, I try to sleep but cannot because I’m thinking how dark it must be in the camp, how cold it is in the Sudanese homes, how deep and clutching are Loneliness and Fear, yet a voice speaks at once quiet and thundering in my chest,
Beloved, I have not forgotten you.
Beloved, I am for you, not against you.
Beloved, you are Beloved 
Beloved, do not fear, I see you, I hear you, I save you, you are not alone.

Am I insane? I pray more than ever before but in a way I never wanted to, desperate and crying, my voice blending into His, praying things only a lunatic would believe. Things like, The world will spin back into Goodness. Our God is strong and alive and real. Jesus is our Shepherd who hears His children’s cries. My dear ones who are so alone, He hears you! He knows you! Do not be afraid.
Part of me laughs – what the hell are you doing, why are you on the floor, seriously will tears do anything?
Most of me just can’t stop.

I pray until my breath is gone.
I pray, and then ludicrously, ridiculously, I believe.

Christianity terrifies me this year because it’s making me see the world in striking glaring clarity. I see Wrong that weighs me to the ground. I pray without dignity, face on the floor, gross and desperate and blubbery. I want to be steel-hearted, strong and fearless – instead my heart is like baby food, mush soft, feeling in a million directions for every stranger crouching alone on the street. I find myself crouching next to them, asking for stories, inviting another stab into my self. Mouna tells me that her husband beats her. Nabiha says she cannot find even 3 JD for the ointment needed for her right eye. It rolls upwards, glazed over, deformed and glassy, and the Gospel pushes me to ask: What is this? What happened? More stories flood out, alcohol and beating and fear,
I am tired, listening.
But I still see.

I don’t know if this is the right Gospel Worldview or not. It’s nothing like what I expected. It is 0% orderly. It is the opposite of the control and self-assurance I once had in my understanding of the world and God and redemption, salvation, glory,  etc.

But it’s the Gospel I am finding, the Gospel that I cannot refuse: I see dark in the world, yet I see Christ as well. I see Him bright and strong and lovely in those my former self would have disdained. I see Him in the faces and stories of the lonely and fearful walking numb through life in every direction. I see life as short and terrible and fearful, but then lit ablaze by the beauty of men and women who are so clearly made in His image, who it is so wrong to ignore. I prayed to see God’s face and I think I am seeing it in the people all around me, each one afire with dignity, holy in their reflection of Him. I am believing against all odds that He will beat darkness away from us, that He shepherds those who surrender to Him, that He is great, mighty, real, alive, that He saves.

In that I place all my hope and strength. I rest on my knees, hands empty, eyes open, speechless.

So You Want to Be a Christian Journalist?

When I first came to Jordan, I didn’t think much about my purpose, vision or values as a journalist. I just thought, I love writing and I’m good at making friends, so inshallah this will work..! I also was desperate for income and thankful just to have my pitches published at all. But recently I’ve been thinking and praying about why I write and who I’m writing for. I’m trying to articulate the mission and values underpinning my decision to write – and in extension, my mission and values in life (whoa).

This is important because a) my discipler Ivy told me to do it when I graduated and I do everything Ivy says, hahah; and b) journalism is a spiritual minefield for competitive types like myself. Journalism fosters a striving mindset, especially among freelancers. Everyone is always scrambling to one-up each other, get the next scoop, pitch a better story and write something that will get you noticed and pay the rent. Hustle is everything. Humility gets you crushed.

How does the Gospel Worldview apply in this context? What does it mean to write not for my self, but for Christ and His Kingdom? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Don’t be a hater.
“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” – 1 Peter 2:1

Half the Internet seems to be made up of haters and trolls, ripping each other apart and belittling anyone who disagrees with them as ignorant fools. It’s so common that it seems OK, which makes me sorry and sad.

I pray about this all the time, though, because I am naturally disinclined to be humble and so very quick to judge. When someone says something I find bigoted or mean, my knee-jerk response is equally dismissive mockery. I often want to ridicule the politics and opinions that I disagree with.

In Western media today, slander is not only easy but also lucrative. There are so many liberal outlets that love scathing exposés of “dumb Republicans” and so many right-wing outlets that do nothing but denunciate the left. As a freelancer scraping by from commission to commission, it’s really tempting to join in.

But Christ preaches a message of humility, which means I am not to denounce anyone, even if I disagree with them. Even when criticizing, I must be gentle and gracious, remembering that I don’t know everything. My goal is not to bash the other side to the ground but to ask genuine questions so we can make better polices, tell fuller stories, consider more narratives and seek truth. I want to build, not to break. I am to always remember that I am not infallible. I may very well be wrong.

2. Tell truth that makes peace.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” – Proverbs 31:8-9

“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” – James 3:17-18

Sometimes journalists put on a hero affect, championing investigative work that speaks truth to justice and holds the powerful accountable. I am all for this, but pray also for words and stories that will tell truth in a way that ushers in peace. This means a) humanizing rather than polarizing, and b) rejecting vitriol.

My activist friend Kristian moved me during a trip to Israel/Palestine last August when he said, “I always assume good intentions.” Let us not demonize anyone based on assumptions about their backgrounds or beliefs, he said, but approach them thinking, You are a human like myself. I believe you want people to live and thrive, not to hate or oppress or destroy. This seems like a pretty basic humane mindset, but it’s not at all the standard in much of today’s journalism. We are quick to take sides, tacking good guy-bad guy narratives on everything from healthcare to foreign policy to environmental protection. It’s an easy narrative and one that makes for a good story – the evil man oppressing the small and weak! The rich stepping on the poor! The Man, who must be resisted!

The first problem with this approach is that it makes people shut down. Readers see vitriol and they stop listening. Rather than persuade others, it triggers their self-defenses. The second problem is that it doesn’t sound like Christ.

The Gospel narrative does not sugarcoat injustice. Christ does not brush over Sin and Dark and our screaming, falling world. But He also doesn’t pin blame on the Right or Left or Americans or elites. The Gospel, I think, asks us to humanize. Our tendency is to cry, “The world is broken, look, and IT’S ALL THIS OTHER GUY’S FAULT!” The Gospel says instead, “The world is broken, and the fault is upon all of us, and only Christ can save.”

When I wrote this story last fall, an aid worker I interviewed begged me not to take a simplistic good guy/bad guy approach. My Sudanese refugee friends had been telling me, “The UNHCR and NGOs are racist! They give aid to Syrians but not to us!” I realized that would be the easy story to write: Sudanese are being overlooked. This is discrimination. But the harder and more truthful story was that yes, there is injustice, but not out of malicious intent. Everyone is trying to help, yet it’s not enough. The problem is complex. Unilateral blame is easy. Finding a solution is not. But let’s go for the latter, because that will move us toward actually getting a blanket and food and medicine to our neighbors who need it, whereas the former makes a flashy headline and nothing else.

3.“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” – Philippians 2:3

I bolded and italicized and title-ized the entire verse because this is the mantra I pray and ask for grace to remember every single day.

This verse hit me deeply this year when I started working for a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to refugees, migrants and other marginalized people. Many of our projects are politically sensitive and require discernment in their media coverage – which means, counter to my previous journalistic assumptions, I should not always write everything about every story. In fact, there are some stories I shouldn’t tell at all.

Without Philippians 2:3 in my mind, all I care about is getting big scoops and deep stories with enthralling, juicy conflict. But when the Gospel comes in, my key question changes from What will make the best story? to Is my writing going to help or hurt people? As a self-seeking journalist, my portfolio and career come first. As a Christian, people become ablaze with dignity and importance. They are my brothers and sisters and neighbors, image-bearers of God who mean much more than fodder for my next pitch. Protection of the weak takes priority over my collection of clips. It doesn’t matter if I never get to write a story again.

I know these lessons are basic. But I wrestle with them every day, not only in what stories to write but also what to include in each piece. Paradoxically, writing for my Audience of One means using more discretion and sensitivity than I would if Christ didn’t factor into my work at all. I need prayer, humility, grace and a clear set of principles so that I won’t be lured to pursue gold stars of journalistic success at the cost of others’ suffering.

Actually, I need prayer, humility, grace and a clear set of principles in general. I prayed for discernment on what it means to be a Christian journalist, but ended up with answers on how to follow Christ, journalist or not – funny, yeah? Or divinely planned by a wise and loving God who shows us more of Him in every single thing we do… 🙂 PTL.

Concerning Camels and Needles

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

– Matthew 19:24 (NIV)

In this familiar quote by Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, a rich man approached Jesus and asked the Son of Man what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments, and the man stated that he had kept them all. To which Jesus responded, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man was sad because he was unwilling to do this, prompting Jesus to speak the above verse to His disciples.

In the last couple of years, this verse has always been one that elicited both guilt and concern in my heart whenever I read it. Here I was, working in an industry known for its high compensation, and here Jesus was, telling us how hard it is for people with great wealth to enter His kingdom.  Fortunately, God set my heart at ease last month when through UChicago’s InterVarsity Fellowship, I attended a Bible study that spent some time digging into this passage.

Note: I’ll go ahead and state the obvious. Clearly I am more likely to interpret this passage in certain ways since I want to enter the kingdom of God (who wouldn’t?). Because of this unavoidable bias, please take my thoughts with all the salt required to melt the snow in Chicago this winter.

Idols

First, the perhaps easier way out for someone like me. One way to interpret what Jesus said is to broaden the scope of the passage to that of idols in general, instead of focusing on the particular idol of money. The rich man was someone who claimed to follow the law and hoped to earn his way into heaven. However, Jesus knew that for this particular man (and for everyone else in this world), there was some “idol” that he would not give up for God, so He asked him to give up his riches. If this man idolized something other than money, Jesus would probably have asked him to give that up to follow Him.

Even though there are other idols that can keep us from God, Jesus did specifically mention worldly riches here  and we can’t ignore that. While I can’t claim to know His complete reasoning,  these are two possible points that Jesus may have been trying to address here. First, we turn to the historical context. In Jesus’ time, the disciples expected the great/rich men of the world to glorify the Messiah with their wealth and power (from John Gill’s Exposition); therefore, like many of Jesus’ teachings, this was a counter-cultural statement that demonstrated how radical Christianity was in that society. It is no surprise that the disciples responded in the following verse with “Who then can be saved?”

Second, there is something about worldly riches that makes it easier to corrupt into sin than just about anything else in this world. God is sovereign, but money can give us a false sense of power. God’s will is final and already done, but money can make us feel in control. God calls us to live humbly, but money can breed arrogance and condescension. While having money is not naturally sinful, it’s all too easy for broken human beings to corrupt it into an idol. It’s one of the most dangerous gifts that God can give us that is not inherently broken.

Grace

Another interesting question that came up in our study was what it meant to give up our idols for God. In this case, if we idolized our riches, do we really have to sell everything and follow God empty-handed? Isn’t that a little harsh? I think the answer is…maybe. On one hand, God blesses His people with talents, whether it’s spiritual gifts or resources, so that they may glorify Him in this world. On the other hand, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” (Job 1:21, NIV) If God asks us to give up something for Him, we should be willing to do just that. In my opinion, this latter point is important. It’s not necessarily about taking the gifts that God has blessed you with and getting rid of it all to follow God, it’s about the willingness to give it up without a moment’s notice if that’s what He calls us to do. Now am I saying that I am willing to part with my worldly riches instantly if God told me to do so? Well….

In verse 26, Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” We have a God who is willing to help us turn away from whatever our idols may be and toward His salvation. God can move mountains for us, He can make camels go through the eye of a needle, and He can love His people even though they have fallen into sin. There is nothing I am more thankful of, because otherwise, I’ll have to start looking for a very large needle.

Jack Gang is currently working as an algorithmic trader at a proprietary trading firm in Chicago, IL.