Disarmed and Dangerous

Recovering Faith
Recovering Faith
Disarmed and Dangerous

In “Disarmed and Dangerous” we say that living saved is living above rules.

The elementary principles of the world are disarmed and dangerous. Jesus disarmed them by nullifying the law and with it rule-based living. Even though this is so, we must beware of them since we tend to resort to them again.

Episode Notes:

Point: We encounter the elementary principles of the world through rules.

The elementary principles of the world don’t need to be codified to operate, but rules facilitate their reign. Laws define the extent to which authorities can control the actions of the citizens under their purview. Laws facilitate the operation of authority by prescribing governmental power over the citizens. For instance, a person driving over the posted speed limit will have a ready answer for the traffic cop’s, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Laws governing every detail of this type of interaction reduce the need for force in enforcement. Laws facilitate the operation of authority, but they also limit it. Police officers, judges, representatives, and even the president are all subject to the laws in the United States. We need authority, but it can easily become oppressive, so legal codes attempt to mitigate oppression while retaining the social order. 

Rules also streamline the process of conformity. Institutions produce bylaws and policy guides to prescribe acceptable behavior for their participants. POA covenants detail cultural conformity regarding the appearance of individual property within a neighborhood. Employers produce handbooks and work to produce a corporate culture that reflects their brand. I’ve lived most of my life in the shadow of the Walmart home office and I’ve seen firsthand the impact of insisting that everyone in management refers to employees as “associates.” People naturally conform to unspoken norms but when they do get spoken in the form of rules, it helps everyone conform more quickly.

Religions prescribe taboos and rituals for their adherents. These prescriptions can take the form of laws in theocratic societies, or they can be enforced by social censure in more secular ones. The Hebrew scriptures outline civil and cultic requirements in tedious detail. These instructions informed jurisprudence even under a monarchial rule which helped Israel maintain a level of equality and justice for all its people. Ultimate civil authority resided with the Mosaic code. The cultic elements such as in Leviticus produced a vivid cultural salience among Jewish society. The law, as Paul called it, helped the Jews remain a distinct people even through centuries as a dispersed nation.

Rules are so ubiquitous in human society that we might fail to recognize the elementary principles hiding behind them. In our highly litigious and individualistic society, we might come to assume that we obey the law simply because we don’t want to go to jail. Or we might tell ourselves that we obey the policy manual at work just because we don’t want to get fired. Our relationship with rules could make us miss the fact that we obey laws that we could safely ignore or that we buy in to the company line when the boss isn’t around. If Paul is right that rules serve these elementary principles of the world, then the fact that we continually produce rules is proof positive that we live under the sway of invisible social forces.

Point: Christ has nullified rule-based systems, but the basic principles of the world remain disarmed and dangerous.

If rules merely represent the dominion of the elementary principles of the world and yet we’re supposed to be free of them, then we must be free from rules as well. Remember that in Galatians 4:1-3 Paul called the elementary principles of the world a guardian over humankind until the coming of God’s Son. A few verses earlier, he speaks of the Mosaic law as guardian over the nation of Israel “until faith came.” Later in Galatians 4, he warns these Gentile converts that submitting to the law would be a return to subservience to the elementary principles of the world. In chapter 5, he exhorts them to remain in freedom by not submitting to the requirements written in the Old Testament. In other words, rule-keeping is a reversal of the gospel of Christ.

In Colossians, Paul described religious rules as weapons used by the elementary principles of the world to oppress God’s people:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

(Colossians 2:13-15 NIV)

Since Jesus has “disarmed the powers and authorities,” we mustn’t allow them to influence our actions. As Paul went on to write,

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?

(Colossians 2:20-22 NASB)

Point: We must be free of the guardian to become moral adults.

Freedom from external pressures and enticements is mandatory to the Christian because Christ died to set us free from the elementary principles of the world. But if these basic principles are essentially benign and if laws aim at keeping them that way, what need could there be for such radical freedom? Why would God pay such an awful cost to free us from our guardian?

We can’t stay under the guardian because God wants grown children. Rules can be comfortable. Religious people often swing towards legalism because they’re looking for structure. They want to know what they should do without having to go through the pain of decision-making. In other words, they want to be treated like children. Unfortunately, such people never develop an authentic ethic beyond, “Do what you’re told.” That might work for small children, but it surely shouldn’t characterize God’s full-grown image bearers.

The elementary principles of the world and the rules they wield work to keep humankind from facing the self-destructive consequences of their own defiance. Their proper role is to restrain human wickedness. According to Paul:

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers…

(1 Timothy 1:8-9 NIV)

Laws exist to constrain unrighteous people. The application of laws to righteous people is a misuse. It suggests to them that they would do such things if unconstrained and they come to believe it. They become moral infants afraid of their own character. When they encounter the least bit of freedom, they flee to the familiar folds of their nanny’s apron. There, they are once again absolved of tension to make good decisions. This tendency can affect even people we consider very spiritual.

In Galatians 2 Paul recounts a time he had to rebuke the apostle Peter in front of the whole church.[i] It seems that Peter had been eating with Gentiles in Antioch but shunned them after other Jewish believers arrived from Jerusalem. We’re told that Peter’s hypocrisy was due to fear of this Jewish contingent. I assume it regarded the Jewish practice of avoiding ceremonial defilement which would always be present at Gentile feasts. It seems the defilements might have gone beyond ceremonial, though. Paul seems to suggest that Peter may have compromised his morals in some way at one of these Gentile banquets:

“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

(Galatians 2:17-18 NIV)

As an observant Palestinian Jew, Peter could rest assured in his personal performance of the law. However, that performance owed greatly to living in an observant society. The real test of Peter’s character would come while surrounded entirely by pagans with their raucous indulgence and casual inter-sex interactions. Did Peter get drunk? Was he acting a bit too familiar with one of the female dinner guests? Whatever he’d done, he felt ashamed enough to cease eating with Gentiles when he came under Jewish scrutiny. Maybe he was afraid to scandalize the name of Christ through his own actions. Paul puts that concern to rest by saying, “Hey, if you messed up, that’s on you.” Then he tells Peter that the real transgression is to build again the law-driven religion which kept Jews and Gentiles apart.

I relay all of this to point out that only those who come out from behind authoritarian religion can discover and develop their true moral core. Children need directives and supervision, but the application of those same controls on adults infantilizes them. Attempts to shelter young adults in the home, youth group, and Christian college retard their moral/spiritual development. In many cases, they come to resent the authority over them and rebel (only to find themselves in the custody of conformity). If they don’t rebel, they will become morally hollow puppets of their church. Such religion produces cowardly conformists. We must be free to become truly conformed to the image of Christ through and through.

Point: Religious rules incubate hypocrisy.

Servants of the basic principles not only lack moral fiber, but they grow an immoral alter ego behind the veneer of compliance. Laws and social norms can only address actions. This brings the focus entirely on behaviors and especially the ones which signal insider status with the group. I’ve seen whole churches of people who would never use an instrument on Sunday morning but who were secretly having affairs even with each other.

Jesus called down this curse on the hypocrites of his day:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

(Matthew 23:27-28 NIV)

I’ve been around long enough to see this illustration as an immutable spiritual law. Wherever you find a shiny behavioral veneer, you can be assured of moral rot hiding just under the surface.

The best that people will become under the elementary principles of the world is outwardly obedient. The worst they’ll become is moral deviants hiding from public scrutiny. We don’t celebrate “yes men,” or conformists. And every kind of hypocrite is universally disdained. We must be free from external control if we are to have any hope of genuine moral development.

Point: Religious rules dilute pure motives.

Maybe you’re thinking of a good legalist you knew. I’d suggest that you probably didn’t really know them, but let’s pretend you did. Even if a rule-driven person comes to obey from the heart, their morality will always be in question. For instance, suppose they remain faithful to their spouse in thought, word, and deed their entire life. Will that faithfulness be due to a genuine love for their spouse or will it be merely enlightened self-interest for fear of divine retribution? Perhaps they could say that it was both, but wouldn’t that dilute the pure love their spouse would prefer to receive?


Black Light

I used to have a recurring nightmare. I’d enter a dark room where I sensed a malevolent 6e3b4bf860a2bf56c7e062a7d3325637--black-lights-bulbspresence. Instinctively, I’d flip the switch on the wall, but the light wouldn’t respond. Fear would grip my heart as I vainly repeated my attempts to shed light on whoever or whatever approached me in the darkness. It’s been quite some time since I’ve had that dream, but it still haunts me whenever I read Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 6:22-23.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Can you imagine walking into a dark room and flipping the switch only to discover that the bulb emitted darkness? That image might be hard to visualize (no pun intended), but we need to grasp the reality behind Jesus’ metaphor because it illustrates a living nightmare from which many will never awaken.

To understand the reality behind Jesus’ figurative language here, we need to look at the broader context. In both this passage and the parallel one in Luke 11:33-36, this warning comes embedded between a rebuke of Pharisaic hypocrisy and exhortation to disciples regarding their treatment of money. The Pharisees knew the Torah, but rather than shedding light on them, it further darkened their hearts. Rather than see Christ in their scriptures, they used them as rationale to reject Christ. How terrifying!

Two people can encounter the same light, but one will be illumined and the other darkened. What accounts for this difference? Someone might say that the Pharisees were blinded by hypocrisy, but I disagree. I would say, rather, that hypocrisy is blindness the cause of which lies in something more apparent.

In both the Luke and Matthew passages, the word translated “healthy” referring to our eyes literally means, “generous” in the original language. The word translated, “unhealthy” means, “stingy.” Could it be that generous people come at divine revelation without the same bias that stingy people do? Could it be that stingy religious people come to interpret scripture in ways that alleviate their obligation to the poor?

In the very next verse of Matthew 6, Jesus says this:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Stingy people want to keep what they have and they also want what God gives. So, they tell themselves that they can have both in spite of the teaching of the book they claim to revere. This self deception colors all future revelation in dark hues of greed so that when a penniless itinerant rabbi calls them out, they have no trouble putting him to death on a cross. Or at least putting him on a distant crucifix hung in their lavish dwellings.

Justice, mercy, and compassion comprise the soul of religion. Without those, religion devolves into self-referential ritual and incantation offered to appease the whim of a deity just as self-interested as his worshipers. Prohibition and prescription become the essence of a soulless shell. Those who violate the crucial minutia must pay for the religious leaders’ justifications.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day embodied wicked religion. The passage directly following Luke’s telling of the illustration of eye health goes like this:

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:37-41)

While the Pharisees have gone down in infamy, they hardly hold a monopoly.

Why do the people who seem most up in arms about prayer in the schools or the imposition of “biblical values” on society seem to almost always advocate against programs designed to alleviate the suffering of the poor?

Amazing grace is truly a sweet sound, but it strikes a sour note in the mouth of the stingy. Without generosity, “grace” clangs and bongs in the ears of a lost world. Greedy religious people deceive themselves most of all and, so, ever deepening darkness falls over their eyes. For, nobody can truly believe themselves a saved wretch, lost now found, and remain a lover of money. Those who count grace God’s indescribable gift no longer regard material things with a covetous eye.

They were blind,

but now they see.

A Faith that Works – Chapter 2 Excerpt

A Faith That Works is an examination of the gospel as the tangible power of God to save. Many Christians would be hard pressed to articulate exactly in what way the gospel had affected them. The absence of demonstrable change has become so prevalent that we’ve actually found a biblical basis to explain it. This excerpt from what may or may not be chapter 2 of the book dismantles that basis to make way for the legitimate work of God.

I can think of no better evidence to support my case that the gospel of the western church has been rendered inert through mishandling than the prevalence of the belief that Paul meant to describe the normal Christian life in Romans 7. I can’t count the number of times a Christian has told me something like, “Yeah, we’re forgiven by grace but we’re still going to sin every day. I know I’m not as strong as Paul and he had things he couldn’t get over either. Just look at Romans 7.”

Really? Is that the best that the power of God can do? If faith in Christ left Paul “dead” and “wretched,” then what in the “H-E-double-hockey-sticks” did it do for him!?

Far from commiserating with faltering disciples, Paul wrote Romans 7 to depict the state of existence that the gospel saved him from. Through his attempts to conform to an external standard of righteousness, he became as “dead in transgressions and sins” as the pagan recipients of the Ephesian letter had been.

Compare the description from Ephesians 2:1-3 of their pre Christian state with his condition described in Romans 7:

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been dead in sin.
○ “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” (Eph. 2:1)
○ “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” (Rom. 7:9-10)

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been in bondage to evil desires.
○ “…in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph. 2:2-3a)
○ “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:14-15)

● Paul and the Ephesians both had natures that were hostile to God.
○ “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3b)
○ “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)

If we agree that Ephesians 2:1-3 describes the lost state and then say that Romans 7 describes the common Christian experience, then we imply that the gospel produces no significant practical results. If we’ve come to identify a Romans 7 experience as the result of the gospel, then it’s no wonder there’s so little difference between the lives of Christians and nonbelievers. No wonder so few churchgoers evangelize. No wonder so many kids raised in church leave the faith.

My Two Masters Part Two

photo credit: imdb.com

Daniel LaRusso’s first three days of “karate training” are filled with menial chores around Miyagi’s oasis in the junkyard.  Each chore must be carried out according specific instructions, “Wax on, right hand; wax off, left hand.  Make big da circles.  Breathe in the nose, out through the mouth.”  The next day, “Paint the fence.”  The one after, “Sand the floor.”  Each time, the method is specific.  Posture, style, breathing- they all matter.  The master’s unorthodox style confuses Daniel but he has agreed to do whatever he is told without question.  That agreement comes to an end when by the afternoon of the third day, Miyagi checks on Daniel on his way to go fishing.  Daniel unleashes a string of expletives in Miyagi’s direction and impugns his master’s motives.  Miyagi interrupts Daniel with the stern command, “Daniel san, show me ‘sand the floor’.”  The master begins to throw a series of punches and kicks at Daniel who watches himself block each one.  Daniel stands stunned as Miyagi bows.  Through unquestioning obedience to his master, Daniel has unknowingly received his imprint.

The figure I discovered in the pages of Matthew’s gospel compelled me to emulation.  I fantasized about wearing a white robe and teaching under a tree somewhere.  But that’s not what the Master told me to do.  He put the sponge of forgiveness in my hand.  The next day he gave me the brush of mercy.  On day three I found myself stooping to sand off the sun-scorched outer layer of my greedy heart.

After training this way for years, I made the startling discovery that I had actually begun to care about other people like I care about myself.  How did he do it?  It could not have come through standing over people preaching to them even though that is the activity I saw my Lord engaging in.  I, selfish and immature as I am, had to take the route of unquestioning obedience.

Here are the Master’s words about his method of training:

39 He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.

41 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

46 “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? 47 As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. 48 They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.- Luke 6:39-42; 46-48 NIV

The question for Daniel and for all of us is not what am I accomplishing here but who am I becoming.  When we receive the imprint of our Master, we will be ready for whatever gets thrown at us.

Religious Unbelief

The Bible warns against unbelief but not against atheism per se.  How could the writers of the Scriptures have warned against atheism?  There weren’t any atheists.  I’ve heard commentators on a local Christian radio station aim Psalm 14:1 (“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”) at atheists.  Of course the implication becomes, “Atheists are fools.”  However, should you have met the 10th century B.C.E. Jewish citizen to which the psalmist referred, he would have confessed to a belief in the existence of God.  The psalmist was not saying that avowed atheists are fools.  He was saying that fools secretly (in their hearts) suppress their awareness of God.

So who are the fools?  The rest of Psalm 14 describes these religious unbelievers as those who elevate themselves by pushing others down.  Such people by their actions deny God as their source.  They may claim to believe that God exists, but they do not trust him to supply them with security, sustenance or self-worth.  They maneuver and manipulate to get for themselves what others have or might acquire.  Such people pray and attend religious services but they do not expect God to respond to their petitions.  Instead, they engage in these activities to further establish their superiority.

As a case in point, consider Jesus’ very telling question addressed to the religious elite of his day, “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44 NIV)  These men who stood at the peak of the religious establishment of their day were unbelievers according to Jesus.  From their lofty perch they congratulated each other on their moral superiority and derided everyone else.  They traded genuine engagement with the Basis of their being for the illusion of relative worth.  Rather than find the favor of God, they fed on the “failures” of those whom they defamed.  “They devour my people as though eating bread; they never call on the LORD.” (Ps. 14:4b NIV)

Faith, real faith, is a foreign concept.  People will seek any alternative to humble reliance on God.  Each alternative counterfeits the genuine treasure of our existence.  The most dangerous counterfeits most closely resemble the genuine article.  Those who accept religious achievement as heavenly currency are among the most desperately deceived.  Beware religious unbelief.