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Anger and Outrage Quote

No plague has cost the human race more dear.
~ Seneca the Younger (Romans Philosopher, 4BC-65AD), De Ira (On Anger)


I offer this observation: our world is full of good-hearted people who are pursuing God-honouring goals but doing it in soul-damaging ways. That’s what happens when we pursue justice, righteousness, holiness, and any societal change via today’s zeitgeist of anger and outrage.

Thankfully, Jesus offers us a better way.

BIBLE BASICS

The New Testament has two Greek words that refer to anger and outrage: ORGÉ (sounds like “or-gay”) is the common word for anger or wrath (usually translated “anger” when referring to humans and “wrath” when referring to God); and THUMOS (sounds like “thoo-mos”) which is an intensified outburst of anger or rage, literally referring to the snorting of an upset animal.

[Fun Fact: the New Testament writers combined this second word, THUMOS, with HOMO, meaning sameness or oneness, to create the word HOMOTHUMADON, meaning a passionate rage for unity or oneness, and they used this word to describe the early church! May Christians today manifest a fighting, snorting, passionate rage for unity!]

Now, as we study the Bible on the topic of anger, we see something fascinating. A clear pattern emerges: in the Bible, anger is always righteous when attributed to God and (almost) always unrighteous when attributed to humans. There are few, if any, exceptions. This is worth unpacking.

Here is an overview of the biblical data on anger and outrage:

FIRST: The Old Testament cautions against the destructive power of anger/wrath. As far as emotions go, anger seems too hot to handle, too bold to hold (unless you’re God).

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.
~ King David (Psalm 37:8)

Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,
for anger resides in the lap of fools.
~ King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 7:9)

SECOND: Jesus intensifies this warning by equating anger with murder (just as he will go on to equate sexual lust with adultery).

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
~ Jesus (Matthew 5:21)

THIRD: The apostle Paul repeatedly includes anger and outrage as items on his “vice lists” – those lists of sins that Christians should do away with.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:31)

But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
~ The apostle Paul (Colossians 3:8; also see 2 Corinthians 12:20-21; Galatians 5:19-21)

FOURTH: “Righteous anger” is a myth.

Doesn’t the Bible talk about “righteous anger” for us? No actually, it doesn’t. This is a strange sub-Christian meme that proves the point: if you hear something repeated often enough in the Church, you will eventually assume it’s in the Bible. But it isn’t in the Bible. And, you should know, adding the word “righteous” in front of something doesn’t make that wrong thing right. So stop it.

There is one verse where the apostle Paul does use a word translated “indignation” as a positive thing for the Church, (The term “righteous indignation”, just like “righteous anger”, isn’t in the Bible, but maybe this s the passage some people are thinking of):

See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.
~ The apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 7:11)

The Greek word behind “indignation” (AGANAKTĔO) is not one of the usual Greek words for anger and outrage. The word means to be upset, but points toward being agitated by grief rather than rage. Literally, this word means “to grieve greatly” and speaks of a kind of grieving that is so strong it motivates action. If you want to practice righteous indignation, learn to lean into your grief. (More about this shortly.)

FIFTH: The apostle James sums it all up.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
~ James the brother of Jesus (James 1:19-20)

It’s true, James says that we should be “slow to become angry” which leaves the possibility open that, as long as we’re slow to get there, anger might be okay in some situations. Maybe. Let’s leave that door open a crack for now. And let us also admit that this way of thinking is more often used as an excuse to justify “righteous anger” as acceptable when that is not the thrust of this passage or any biblical passage on the topic. It just isn’t James’ point (or Paul’s or Jesus’). We’ve been told and now we know: disciples of Jesus should “get rid of all” anger (Paul) because anger is like murder (Jesus) and human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (James).

WHY THE DOUBLE STANDARD?

Why is anger always appropriate for God and inappropriate for us? Good question. And here’s a good answer: Because anger (wrath) is the emotion that the Bible associates with judgement. And God is the judge; we are not.

God is a righteous judge,
a God who displays his wrath every day.
~ King David (Psalm 7:11)

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
~ The apostle Paul (Romans 12:19)

JESUS & ANGER

“But wait a minute Bruxy, what about Jesus in the temple? Jesus gets angry, so why can’t we?” I can appreciate this mental maneuver our minds make on this topic. We want to take our cues from Jesus. Good. And, although the Bible never says Jesus is angry when he clears the temple (good guess though) it does say he gets angry on another occasion in reaction to religious hypocrisy (Mark 3:5).

So why is it okay for Jesus to get angry and yet Jesus teaches that for everyone else anger is like murder?

Remember we’ve noticed that the Bible consistently teaches that anger is right for God and wrong for us because anger is the emotion associated with judgement. And there it is. Jesus is God, and when we see Jesus we are seeing God.

The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.
~ Jesus (John 12:45)

Yes, most of the time Jesus gives us an example to follow. We are meant to be God-like in how we love. But we are not meant to be God-like in how we judge. (Adam and Eve learned this lesson the hard way when they reached for the wrong tree, and we’ve been paying for it ever since.) Sometimes Jesus shows us God in all his glory, as King and Lord and Judge over all. And on those occasions, we don’t follow his example, we simply stand in awe and worship. For example…

When Jesus was twelve years old, he pulled a “Home Alone” stunt and stayed behind in the big city of Jerusalem, leaving his parents to worry and search for him (see Luke 2:41-50). I don’t know about you, but I never used this episode in the life of Christ as a teaching example for my daughters. “Now girls, as long as your mother and I eventually find you at a local church, feel free to secretly run away any time we’re in a big city, just like Jesus.” Nope.

And when Jesus receives worship from his disciples (as he does in Matthew 28:17), Jesus never turns the event into a lesson about how we too can all receive worship, just like Jesus. Nope.

And when Jesus clears the temple, he doesn’t invite his disciples to join him in the judgement. “Come on boys! Grab a table and give’r a flip! Then you too can be just like Jesus!” Nope.

Yes, Jesus got angry because God gets angry, and that is righteous. Jesus is the judge. God is the judge. And we are not. Let’s not get fuzzy on this point.

HOW TO BE ANGRY AND NOT SIN

There is one passage in the Bible that gives us hope that it may be possible to be angry and yet not sin. The apostle Paul shows us the way.

“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.
~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:26-27)

Paul quotes a common (mis)interpretation of Psalm 4:4 which in the Hebrew original reads “Tremble [i.e., in the fear and awe of God] and do not sin.” The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew text) translated this trembling as anger, which became the popular understanding in Paul’s day.

So Paul goes with that and says “Okay friends, here is how you can be angry and yet not sin. (Everyone leans in.) Are you ready? (Heads are nodding.) Here it is… (Long pause. Building anticipation.)… In order to be angry and not sin… (Wait for it)… In order to be angry and yet not sin… (Deep Breath)… Get rid of it. Yup. Right away. Don’t even let the sun set before you get rid of your anger.” And as if that isn’t motivation enough, Paul adds, “Because let me tell you, if you hold onto your anger, you are welcoming in the Devil.”

Recap! The best (only?) way to be angry and not sin is to get rid of your anger ASAP. And if you don’t, you are inviting Satan into your life.

And this, friends, is the most positive teaching on the topic human anger in the entire Bible. That’s it. That’s all. There ain’t no more. It is possible to be angry and not sin, as long as we are working to rid ourselves of it rather than embracing it. And just in case there is any ambiguity, only a few verses later in the same chapter, Paul puts anger and outrage right back on another of his sin lists.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:31)

In light of the consistent and clear teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus himself, and the early church leaders, you can understand the importance for Christians to take a counter-cultural stand on this issue. We live in a world where anger and outrage are the emotions du jour in the pursuit of social justice and societal change. As Christ-followers, we care about being salt and light for our world around us (Matthew 5:13-16). We care about being change agents for the better. And so for us who are justice-minded, the Devil has one more trick up his sleeve. Satan will tempt us to take our cues from others in the world around us who are working for that same positive change. But we have something different to bring to the movement. We bring not only a desire for things being put right, but also a commitment to the way we pursue that justice. We practice practical love of neighbour, love of enemy, love of all. And, at least for humans, this means we relinquish our right to anger as motivation for action.

BUT ISN’T ANGER A NORMAL HUMAN EMOTION?

Yes. Absolutely. Anger is a natural and normal human emotion. Anger will arise naturally within us in a variety of difficult, frustrating, and painful situations. And this initial experience of anger is not the real problem. We learn from the writers of Scripture that when anger does arise naturally, we can overcome it supernaturally. As we are filled with the Spirit and walk with the Spirit, we will experience more or the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Note: anger is not on the list. But it is on the contrasting vice list, the “deeds of the flesh”, that are listed a couple of verses earlier to contrast the Spirit’s work in our lives.

Perhaps anger (which Jesus says is internalized murder) is similar to lust (which Jesus says is internalized adultery). There may be a transferable lesson here. Both are natural human emotional experiences. The initial impulses of being upset with someone or being sexually attracted to someone are not the sin of anger or lust, but the temptation to sin. So, when we admit “I’m so angry” we might not be confessing sin as much as admitting an internal experience which may or may not turn into sin, depending on where we go from there.

What matters to God is what we do with what we feel in those moments.

Do we fan into flame our sexual attraction to another and thereby dehumanize them, using them to feed our lust? That is sin. Likewise, do we justify our growing anger as godly motivation for our pursuit of justice, pouring fuel on the fire of our judgementalism? That is also sin.

Experiencing anger welling up within us is not sin but temptation to sin. Now notice the danger that surrounds us: we live in a world that continually encourages us to nurture and cultivate that anger in order to motivate us to fight for justice. I understand this and it makes sense from the perspective of the kingdoms of this world. But this is not the way of the kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of heaven on earth. Let’s be clear minded about where our citizenship truly lies.

RELIGION & ANGER

When the apostle Paul warns the Colossian Christians about sin in Colossians 3, he breaks his vice list into two sub-lists. The first includes more universally human sins (sexual impurity, greed, etc). Then he addresses a second sub-list of sins that will especially tempt believers, and that’s the list that includes anger and outrage. Religious people will be more tempted to play the role of angry judges.

It was a religious frustration that led to Cain’s anger and the first murder (Genesis 4:6). And ever since, religion has enflamed rather than calmed the anger of its adherents. I used to see this most clearly in the more conservative expressions of Christianity. Angry preaching and outraged moral pontificating were something I left behind for the gentleness of the Spirit. But now I’m seeing the same addiction to anger in more progressive forms of Christianity as well. It is fascinating how much conservative fundamentalism and progressive fundamentalism have in common. Legalism, judgementalism, and outraged outcry have become commonplace and even expected if we want our fight against injustice to be taken seriously. And I want no part of that.

We are not ultimately helping human society get healthy if we are simultaneously doing damage to the human soul.

PAY ATTENTION

I said earlier that initial anger welling up within is not necessarily sin but merely the temptation to sin. True. And anger might also be something more: a signal that something needs attention.

Psychologists tell us that anger and grief are closely linked emotions. (Notice that anger is usually listed as one of the stages of grief.) Anger can act like a warning light on a car’s dashboard, alerting us to something under the hood that needs attention. Wisdom suggests we pay attention to that light and address the undealt with sorrow and mourning that might be at the root. In this regard, anger is a gift and we should pay attention to what it is telling us. What would be unwise (and will lead to sin) would be joining a cultural trend to celebrate and sacralise these warning signals as important attributes to a healthy automobile. Anger is not that. Anger must never be treated like the fuel that runs the church, our lives, our movement, or our ministry.

The issue is, in part, a matter of where we focus our attention. Sorrow, sadness, and grief are similar to anger and outrage, but without the infusion of judgement (see Romans 12:15; 1 Corinthians 12:15; 2 Corinthians 7:11). If you are chronically angry, ask God to help you transmute your anger into grieving. Sorrow places our attention on the victims; anger fixates our attention on the victimizer. Sorrow empathizes with the oppressed; anger judges the oppressor. Sorrow and anguish allow us to bear the burdens of our brethren (Galatians 6:2); anger and outrage obsess with the source of the burden. (Yes, we should work to alleviate these burdens, but not via the way of anger, which will shift our primary focus away from empathizing with people in pain. More about that in a moment.)

If you have experienced significant pain in your life which has led you to anger and outrage, do not be shamed by the teaching of Jesus. Leaving you feeling guilty and helpless is not his goal, nor mine. Rather, see what Jesus and the other early church leaders are saying as a kind of diagnosis that gives you the opportunity to move toward the cure. If we’re honest, most of us don’t want to stay angry. We sense its corrosive effects in our hearts. We want to move past this. And Jesus’ way of love, compassion, and forgiveness will help you do that. Yes, full blown anger is sin and corrosive to our souls. And the good news is, Jesus is in the sin-forgiving, soul-saving, heart-curing business. You’ve come to the right place.

My guess is, if anger and outrage have been your go-to emotion for motivation to act in this world, it will take time and the support of fellow followers of Jesus to retrain our hearts. Don’t go underground with it. Don’t suppress, repress, or bury it in order to appear spiritual. Be open and honest with at least some mature members of your spiritual family about your most difficult struggles. I think the apostle James is getting at this when he tells believers not to supress but to confess:

So confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
~ The apostle James (James 5:16)

Healing is the goal. Loving, honest, praying community is the way. This is good news for our spiritual family – there is healing ahead.

GOOD NEWS: LOVE IS ENOUGH

Sometimes when I point out these Jesusy truths to fellow Christians, their reaction is telling. I hear things like, “But Bruxy, if you’re saying anger is not appropriate, then what’s going to motivate us to work for change?” First of all, this isn’t my idea. I’m just the message boy. I’m trying to faithfully share what Jesus taught, which I believe will always leave us better off, if we have ears to hear. Even more telling, the very question itself reveals how much we have bonded with the way of the world.

What is going to motivate us? The answer is simple – it is simply love.

Love is the will to work for the wellbeing of a person. Love is the experience and expression of an attitude of awe and honour. Love is the awesome energy that created this universe. And love entered our world in the form of Jesus. Love is not an emotional reaction, but a willful and wonderful decision to initiate and express good. Love is the strongest force in this universe, because love is the DNA of the Divine, the very guts of God. Love is the way of Jesus. And so, love is enough.

So I say it again loudly, to my brothers and sisters at the back – Whatever it is that anger and outrage are helping you accomplish, love will do a better job.

Peace,

Bruxy

FOR FURTHER STUDY…

  • Dan White Jr., Love Over Fear: Facing Monsters, Befriending Enemies, & Healing Our Polarized World
  • Jared Byas, Love Matters More: How Fighting To Be Right Keeps Us From Loving Like Jesus
  • Brant Hansen, Unoffendable: How Just One Change Can Make All of Life Better

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the origin, evolution, & end of religion (part 2 of ?)

Sacrifice of Noah

PART 2: What’s the Big Idea?

[NOTE: This series of posts expresses and expands on one sermon at The Meeting House – part 4 of our Origins series, called East of Eden. To hear that sermon, please go here.]


Now I’ve done it. I’ve become so excited about researching and writing on this topic that I have to repent of my previous commitment to keep this series to only four parts. For now, here’s the plan: I’m just going to keep posting on this topic until I stop posting on this topic. (Genius.) So, better get to it…

So what’s the big idea?

Here is the thesis of this series, the “big idea” that makes a world of difference if it is true: Religious sacrifice was never needed nor invented by God. Rather, ritual sacrifice is our human invention that God accommodates and uses for a season, and then eventually enters and ends through Jesus.

As we saw in the last post, in Matthew 19 Jesus sends us back into the Hebrew Scriptures to examine what God meant when he said:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
(Hosea 6:6)

We also looked at other passages where King David says God never wanted sacrifices (e.g., Psalm 40:6; 51:15-17). And yet, in the Bible God himself commands lots of sacrifices, especially in the book of Leviticus. So which is it? Or is it possible that God could actively command something that he doesn’t really want?

The answer is, yes. And we have plenty of examples of this, so much so that the phenomenon has its own name: the principle of accommodation. I’m going to use this post to help us nail this idea down. Unless we clearly see and savour in Scripture how God uses the principle of accommodation, the rest of what we have to say in this series won’t make much sense. So, let’s dig in…

The principle of accommodation

To begin with, the principle of accommodation is often applied to language itself. All verbal and written revelation from God is an example of God accommodating human language and ideas and concepts in order to communicate clearly with us. God meets us where we’re at, using language and metaphors and imagery that is drawn from our own experience in order to communicate truth to us in a way that makes sense in our time and space.

We have no reason to believe that the original biblical languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic are the languages of Heaven. The Bible is an example of God’s accommodation to human ways of communicating.

When Jesus says the kingdom of God is like “a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth” (Mark 4:31), Jesus was not speaking from the standpoint of divine omniscience (since this statement on the surface is patently false) but he was accommodating the knowledge of his day.

What I find most fascinating is that the Bible goes on to record instances of God adopting and using human desires and ideas that he himself finds repulsive, in order to meet us where we are at in communicating important truth.

Examples of God’s accommodation to human desires

1. Kings

The Bible tells us that God originally designed Israel to function as a nation with God alone as their king, speaking through prophets. But at some point, the people of Israel decided they wanted a human king to rule over them, so they could be like the other nations around them. The prophet at that time, Samuel, took this as a kind of personal rejection of his role representing God to the people. But God responded to Samuel:

Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.
~ God to Samuel (1 Samuel 8:7)

God says that this is not a matter of people rejecting Samuel as their prophet as much as it is a matter of people rejecting God as their king! God takes this demand of the people as personal rejection of his rulership. This is serious corporate sin. And yet, God says that Samuel should listen to the people, and later makes it explicit – Samuel should represent God by appointing Israel’s first king.

Now here’s the thing: if you were to parachute into a later part of the biblical narrative without context, you would think that God is really into Israel having kings. God appoints and anoints generations of kings through the prophets. That’s because – and this is key – once God accommodates a human desire or practice, God doesn’t pout about it. God makes full use of this new direction in his relationship with his people. He adopts the new practice as though it were his own, even though it has sinful origins.

In fact, mind-blowing as it is, God always knew this would happen! And God already had plans in place to partner with Israel through their (sinful) desire to have earthly kings! Way back in Deuteronomy, hundreds of years before Israel would (against God’s better judgement) demand their first king, God says through Moses:

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses.
(Deuteronomy 7:14-15)

Wow. This is important because sometimes Christians will argue that animal sacrifices cannot be an example of divine accommodation because God had, before the foundations of the world, always planned for the sacrifice of Christ (see Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8), and animal sacrifices prefigured the sacrifice of Christ. This means that God always knew and planned for the death of Jesus, and therefore always knew and planned for animal sacrifice to point to Jesus. This is true, but as Deuteronomy 7 shows us, just because God knows something is going to happen in the future and has an advance plan for it doesn’t mean it was his initial and ideal will. Yes, God planned for the sacrifice of Jesus because God knew we would sin, but we do not say that God’s will is or ever was that humans should sin. Likewise, God always knew Israel would reject his kingship in favour of an earthly king, and God had a plan for that, but this doesn’t mean that it was always God’s will for Israel to reject him. God always had a plan to use sacrifice for our salvation, just as he had a plan to use kings for Israel’s blessing – but neither was God’s ideal.

Just because God plans for something doesn’t mean it isn’t an example of divine accommodation, because God can plan for accommodation! Whether it is Israel clamoring for a king, or the Romans crucifying Jesus, God is in the business of redeeming rather than rejecting some of the worst ideas people come up with.

2. Temple

At the time of Jesus, the Jerusalem temple was at the centre of the religion of Israel. When it was built by Solomon, God blessed it with his holy presence (2 Chronicles 5:13-14). Later God called the temple “my house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7) and when Jesus was a child he called it “my father’s house” (Luke 2:49). When he grew up, Jesus was passionate for the purity of the temple, and said it should be “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17).

So, you would think that the temple was God’s idea right? Not a chance. In fact, when King David first proposed the idea to God, God reminded David that this was something he had never asked for (see 2 Samuel 7). God had already given instructions to Moses to build a tabernacle, or a special holy tent. It seems that God preferred the symbolism of a tent over a temple – God was mobile, on the move, ready to meet with us wherever we went, and not locked down to a single location, like a fixed temple might suggest. But God acquiesced and incorporated David’s desire to built him a temple into God’s own plans. Once again we see that God redeems rather than rejects our faulty human ideas.

3. Divorce

In the Torah (Deuteronomy 24), God gives instructions about divorce. When religious leaders ask Jesus about this in Matthew 19, Jesus responds saying that God allowed for divorce because of human hard-heartedness. In other words, divorce law in Deuteronomy is an example of God accommodating human stubbornness. As an aside, if Jesus is calling his followers away from the hard-hearted approach to life revealed in the Law, he must be offering us a heart-softening, morally empowering alternative. And that’s the Holy Spirit, made available to everyone in the New Covenant.

Besides these examples, we could add things like polygamy, patriarchy, war, and even eating meat. Maybe you can think of more. In all of these cases, God accommodates and uses things for our good and his glory that were never part of his ideal will.

The principle of accommodation is rooted in the fact that God made humankind in his image and likeness. We were designed to be people not pets, genuine partners not manipulated props. And God always honours his own image in us, taking our desires into account in how the future unfolds. This is real synergistic friendship.

Now one last example…

4. Slavery

We may wish it were otherwise, but in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, God accommodates slavery. God makes room for the cultural practice and even offers governing rules to minimize the damage and degradation of slavery.

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
(Leviticus 25:44-46)

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
(Colossians 4:1)

And yet, even with slavery-affirming passages like the above, we know enough from Scripture to conclude that slavery is not part of God’s ideal for human flourishing.

The Bible begins by telling us that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. There are no levels of value within humankind, not according to gender, to race, or social status. Jesus affirms this in how he relates to “sinners” and social outcasts, treating them with high honour. And the New Covenant community lived out their faith in churches, relational family-styled communities, where slaves and slave owners would worship side by side as brothers and sisters. Over time, this alternative-culture of the Church would plant the seeds for the end of slavery (even if, we must admit, it took the Church far too long to get the memo).

So here we have a practice that is woven into the Torah itself, the very commands of God (e.g., Leviticus 25), and yet all Christians today would agree that slavery was never and is not now God’s ideal will for humankind. Instead, God’s way of relating to slavery in the Bible is what we could call a “harm reduction model”.

A Harm Reduction Model

If you were to walk into a safe-injection site funded by the Canadian government, without context you might think that the government of Canada desires that more and more people become drug addicted. But you would be wrong. The safe-injection sites are designed to help manage the damage and reduce the harm of drug use. This, I believe, is why we have the Law of Moses filled with its many instructions about everything from slavery to sacrifice.

If this is true, then we should see a paper trail in Scripture, and that’s exactly what we find. We have already seen that the later prophets, King David himself, and the author of Hebrews declare that God never wanted sacrifice. And we should also expect to find in the Bible the idea of sacrifice initiated first by humans rather than God – something we’ll examine in future posts in this series.

Sacrifice as Accommodation

Before we wrap up this post, let’s review what we know so far.

We have established that God has a pattern of embracing and using human inventions with complete investment, as though they were his own. That is, some direct commands of God in the Bible are not God’s ideal but God’s temporary accommodation of human ideals. And there is good reason to believe that this is the explanation behind the idea of sacrifice in the Bible. Like with Israel’s kings, God redeemed rather than rejected this very human idea.

To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 19, God permitted us to make sacrifices because our hearts were hard. But it was not intended to be that way from the beginning.

In our last post we looked at how the author of the book of Hebrews quotes Psalm 40:6 from the Septuagint and comments:

“Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law.
(Hebrews 10:8)

This is significant. God was not pleased with the very sacrifices God himself was commanding in the Law of Moses. I don’t think it could be stated any more clearly.

This principle of accommodation answers so many questions, and raises so many more! And we will get to some of those questions in future posts. For now, let me thank you for tracking along with this blog series. I’m looking forward to your questions and feedback. Comment away!

Peace,

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the origin, evolution, & end of religion (part 1 of 4)

Sacrifice_boar_Louvre_G112

PART 1: Mercy, Not Sacrifice (An Introduction)

Prolegomena: Before we dive into our main topic, here are two caveats…

  1. This new miniseries of posts expresses and expands on one sermon at The Meeting House – part 4 of our Origins series, called East of Eden. To hear that sermon, please go here.
  2. Some people use the word “religion” in a positive sense, the way Jesus uses the word “faith”. If you struggle with the pejorative use of the word “religion”, please see this post here.

Now let’s dive in!


When religious leaders asked why Jesus was befriending sinners and religious outsiders, Jesus responded:

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
~ Jesus (Matthew 9:12-13)

Jesus came, not for those who think they’ve got it all together, but for the rest of us who know we don’t. Wow, that’s good news. And if we really want to understand how that gets worked out in the real world, Jesus tells us where to look. To the religious leaders who repeatedly misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied their own Scriptures, Jesus said: Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

Jesus gives them, and us, some clear marching orders if we want to understand him and his good news better. Go back into the Bible, says Jesus, and focus your attention on figuring out the meaning of this one verse: Hosea 6:6. That’s what Jesus is quoting here. The full version reads:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
~ The Prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:6)

Religious sacrifice – that is, offering vegetation, animals, and even humans to God or the gods in order to get their attention, procure their blessing, and/or remove their wrath – was ubiquitous in ancient religions. It amounted to a kind of religious magic, where practitioners arrange the right elements (often blood) in the right ways (shed on a sacred altar and/or applied to sacred objects) to manipulate cosmic powers for their benefit.

This is one of many ways the God of the Bible stands out. He says: I don’t need or even want you to sacrifice stuff to me. I simply want your heart, your love, your partnership.

The word for “mercy” in Hosea 6:6 is the Hebrew word hesed, which means loyal love, faithful friendship, caring kindness. It is similar to the Greek word agape, meaning unconditional love. God wants a real, intimate, ongoing relationship with us more than the petitioning and pleading rituals of religion. In fact, where there is already love and trust, ritual sacrifice merely gets in the way. Sacrifice suggests that God is far away and assumes he is either mad and must be appeased or fickle and must be persuaded to bless us. That’s not a step towards but a step away from the intimacy God desires with us.

Notice God doesn’t say, “I desire mercy along with sacrifice, an acknowledgement of God along with burnt offerings.” He wants one and not the other, relationship rather than religion.

But if this is all true, then why in the Bible does God command so many sacrifices? I mean, have you read the book of Leviticus? The answer to this question lies in what scholars call “THE PRINCIPLE OF ACCOMMODATION” and in the history of sacrifice in the Bible, which we’ll get to in future posts in this series.

For now, we can at least lay down this firm foundation: ritualistic religion, including the sad practice of animal sacrifice, was never part of God’s ideal for the human-divine relationship.

King David was called “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). David had a particularly intimate relationship with God, one that pointed forward to Jesus who was called “the son of David” (Matthew 12:23; 21:9, 15; 22:42; etc.).  And when praying to God, David says:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
    but my ears you have opened—
    burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
~ King David (Psalm 40:6)

God did not require, nor even desire, the religious ritual of animal sacrifice. The idea and impulse for the system of sacrifice came from somewhere else.

The author of the book of Hebrews paraphrases Psalm 40:6 and comments:

“Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. 
(Hebrews 10:8)

Just to make sure we’re getting the point, the author of Hebrews reminds us that God was not pleased with the very sacrifices God himself was commanding. Let that sink in.

Again, David says in a recorded prayer:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.
~ King David (Psalm 51:16-17)

The real “sacrifice” that God desires is our hearts, not the blood of bulls and goats. (Along these same lines, also see Isaiah 1:1-20; 43:25; Jeremiah 7; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Amos 5:21-25.)

David knew this truth down to his bones. He had committed the sins of adultery and, indirectly, murder. And catch this: there is no sacrifice for these sins in the Torah. The Law of Moses prescribed sacrifices primarily for unintentional sins (see Leviticus 4-5) and some lesser intentional sins (Leviticus 6). But for the most serious sins like murder and adultery, the prescribed response was not sacrifice but the death penalty. If there was any hope for David to receive God’s forgiveness, religious sacrifice was not the way. For someone who committed the most serious of sins, their only hope was to cast themselves directly upon God’s mercy and to invite his forgiveness, apart from the religious system.

All of this raises loads of questions. Doesn’t God need blood in order to forgive sins? If not, why did God directly command blood sacrifice in the Old Testament? And what is the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross?

My hope in this post has been to simply set the table for this series. We’ve begun to “go and learn” as Jesus instructed.  In future posts, we’ll look at the principle of accommodation, the nature of the human religious impulse, the origin of sacrifice, and the way God enters and ends the entire system through Jesus.

I’m looking forward to your feedback, questions, and comments!

Peace,

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