Symbols aren’t “Just Symbols”

In his book The New Testament and the People of God, NT Wright provides a framework for evaluating culture. In his context, he is providing a helpful framework for understanding the cultures of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, but this tool can also be used to understand our culture – or how culture works more generally.

His framework is simple. Any culture will have stories, questions, symbols, and practices that serve as entry points to understanding what that culture is all about. Noting that humans use stories to make sense of the world around us, Wright argues a fundamental function of culture is to provide just such a narrative. He goes on to say,

… from these stories one can in principle discover how to answer the basic questions that determine human existence: who are we, where are we, what is wrong, and what is the solution? All cultures cherish deep-rooted beliefs which can in principle be called up to answer these questions. (pg. 123)

In any culture, this story (and the way it answers fundamental questions) is embodied in cultural symbols, into objects or practices that serve as touchstones to reinforce and root us in the story, values, and practices of the culture. For instance, in Christianity, the sacraments of baptism and eucharist serve as symbols. They are embodied retellings of the narrative that fundamentally makes us who we are. In the same way, from the earliest days of the church, the cross has been used as a symbol in Christianity to call us back to our identity and values. These symbols serve to root us in our narrative, to remind us of the sorts of things we should value, do, and be. Holidays, ceremonies, family traditions, rites of passage, flags, statues, and memorials all serve within a culture as these kinds of symbols – and as such, they are formative.

All this is to suggest that our symbols are never “just symbols.”

Good or bad, they are never amoral “parts of our history.”

They are meant to communicate something about what a culture or people group holds valuable or sees as the way forward in the world. This is precisely why such symbols are created in the first place.

Symbols aren’t “Just Symbols”

Immigrants & Refugees in the Bible

Sometime last year, Arnold Robledo and I did a quarter-long class called “Immigrants and Refugees in the Bible.” Preparing for this class was life-changing for both of us. Now, I can’t make any claims for myself — I stuck to the script — but Arnold outdid himself in this class. Below are the links to all 13 sessions. We need to be talking about this as we struggle for what it means to be faithful to Jesus amidst the current debates about refugees. My prayer is we will always be shaped more by Scripture than our own fears or those with governmental power.

Session One

Session Two

Session Three

Session Four

Session Five

Session Six

Session Seven

Session Eight

Session Nine

Session Ten

Session Eleven

Session Twelve

Session Thirteen

Immigrants & Refugees in the Bible

Death Anxiety and the Curse of Genesis 3

This is another port from a previous blog space. It is the sequal to the blog post linked below that I transferred over earlier in the week.

In a previous post, I shared some things I’ve been thinking about concerning sin and death. Specifically, scripture seems to suggest we have a death problem rather than a sin problem — though sin is inextricably bound to the death problem — and that in a post-fall world, our fear of death drives much of our sinful behavior.

Today, I want to tease that out a little more by looking at how our anxiety over death plays into the curses of Genesis 3. Genesis 3:16–19 serve as a poetic framework for understanding how the world changed when sin and death entered at the fall. In a later post, I want to go back and look at the first part of Genesis 3 and explore how it plays into this theme.

To set the stage, take a look at a familiar passage from Paul:

Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to everyone, since everyone has sinned. (Romans 5:12)

Through one human, sin came into the world, opening the door for death. As such, death has now spread to everyone because we have all sinned. What I’m arguing here is simply that once death was set loose in the world by that first sin, our anxieties about death subsequently become the de facto drive behind many subsequent sins. This emphasis on anxiety seems to be present in the earliest descriptions of our broken world in the “curses” of Genesis 3.

Take a look at Genesis 3:16:

To the woman he said, “I will make your pregnancy very painful; in pain you will bear children. You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you.”

Let’s focus on the first part of the text. This is Hebrew poetry, and the two lines of the curse represent a synonymous parallelism, which means we read the second line as restating the first in synonymous terms. We should note a few things.

First, in Hebrew, the phrase very painful refers to the certainty of pain rather than the severity of pain. The English Standard Version picks up on this rendering the phrase “surely multiply your pain.”

Second, the word we translate painful (issabon) is a rare word, only used three times in the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 3:16, 17; 5:29), and taken by itself could refer to either physical or emotional pain.

Third, while the first reference to pain is ambiguous as to whether physical or emotional pain is in view, it’s parallel in the second line (eseb) more commonly refers to emotional pain or anxiety. Further, both words share the same root which is commonly used to refer to emotional distress or anxiety.

Fourth, as we will see, issabon is used in verse 17 in a context that more clearly refers to anxiety rather than physical pain. This is also the case in its only other use in Genesis 5:29.

On the whole, it is more likely the curse refers to the introduction of anxiety or emotional distress into the experience of childbirth rather than physical pain. This provides a more coherent reading of the whole text. Eve and her daughters will now experience anxiety associated with the birth of their children. Why? Death has entered the world. Prior to this, one would not need to ask questions common to us:

“Is the baby all right?” “Is the mother all right?” “What kind of world have I brought my children into?”

There is a powerful counterpoint to this idea in Isaiah 65. If Genesis 3 describes the point at which everything falls apart, Isaiah 65 looks forward to the point when God will put everything back together. In the new heavens and the new earth, mothers will no longer “bear children to a world of horrors.”

Sin has let death loose on the world and a mother’s anxiety at this possibility (or awareness of its inevitability) is the heart of the new reality she helped create.

A similar thing is happening in verses 17–19:

To the man he said, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and you ate from the tree that I commanded, ‘Don’t eat from it,’ cursed is the fertile land because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread — until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.”

Again, there are several things to notice.

First, this curse is set against the backdrop of the abundance we find in Genesis 1–2. In God’s good creation, things thrive, and multiply, and fill the earth, skies, and sea. Adam and Eve have an abundance of food at hand. Therefore, the news that the earth will now fight back against humankind is about the introduction of scarcity. Now, Adam and Eve will have to tend to their next meal.

Second, within this context of scarcity, the curse is not that Adam will now have to work. It is not even necessarily the case that he will have to work harder — although that could be a part of it. Work was an integral part of the original human calling to bear God’s image. In Genesis 1, humans were called to bear dominion over God’s creation. In Genesis 2, this is expressed in terms of farming and taking care of the garden. Whatever the curse is about, it is not the introduction of work into human experience.

Third, we find the second instance of issabon in Genesis 3:17. Here, it is paralleled with an Ancient Near Eastern idiom for anxiety: “the sweat of your face.” The idea is not that Adam will suddenly start sweating for the first time. Rather, this expression is similar to saying someone “broke out in a sweat” when they became nervous, anxious, or frightened.

Fourth, notice the curse here is explicitly tied to death. You will experience this anxiety until you “return to the fertile land.”

The idea here seems to be sin has now introduced an element of scarcity which hits humanity at it’s most vulnerable — the table. As such, Adam will now work with an enduring anxiety about where the next meal will come from.

At first glance, we may seem far removed from this sort of anxiety in America. I would argue that it is not so far off, that we have gone to great lengths to assure “food security” and that we would go (and have gone) to greater lengths still to keep it. Nonetheless, millions around the world do have this experience on a daily basis.

Anxiety ushered in by death is right at the heart of this early description of what our broken world looks like. My contention is that from Genesis 3:16 onward this deeply rooted fear becomes the driving force behind much of our sinful behavior.

Death Anxiety and the Curse of Genesis 3

Discipleship & Church Building

Lately, I’ve put a bit of thought into what you might call my philosophy of ministry. The West is in a time of transition and churches are feeling the effects of those changes. These are times for intentionality, and it strikes me that thinking out loud about how we do business may be a healthy part of that doing things with intention. That’s what I am attempting here.

Recently someone articulated an old truism that gets to the heart of a lot of what I’ve been thinking about. “When your goal is to make disciples, you always get the church; but, when your goal is to grow the church, you won’t necessarily get disciples.”

Pretty near the heart of my ever-evolving approach to my calling is the fact that Jesus never asks us to grow churches. In fact, I tend to believe it is impossible for us to make the church grow. Growth is a by-product of life. At the very least, I tend to privilege faithfulness over growth as a metric of the church’s success. If growth is going to happen, God will bring it about.

We plant. We water. God grows.

Jesus does ask us to be and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). This is not the same thing as making the church grow. If discipleship is our calling, the means to our end is largely established. We are called to be a Christ-like community and invite others into that way of life. Only disciples can make other disciples. Only Christ-likeness can foster Christ-likeness in others. Our strategy is constantly leaning deeper into Jesus’ way of life, which will inevitably put us in the path of our neighbors, working for their blessing, reconciliation, and healing as Jesus did for those around him.

If church growth is our purpose, we can do that by being and making Christ-like disciples. However, there are any number of other strategies I might employ (and churches do employ) that neglect or ignore discipleship and Christ-likeness. For instance, a growing group of anxious people enamored with the control that legalism and fundamentalism offers is never healthy, no matter how fast their numbers go up.

What I’m suggesting is that if my goal is to get more people, there are lots of ways to do that. I can stir up their fears over our changing world and offer them security in a nostalgic return to the way things used to be. We might master the art of manipulating emotions so that each gathering provides a euphoric, mountain-top experience. We might tap into the consumerism of our age, analyze our market, and cater to their whims and desires as a spiritual box store.

While these strategies, and any number of others may draw a crowd, it will not produce disciples. And, producing disciples is what we’ve been put here for.

I don’t mean that, as some assume, a growing church is a bad church. I am not suggesting emotions are bad, because I don’t think they are — although I don’t want to manipulate them in others. Nor am I suggesting that we don’t need to know our neighbors well enough to know what they are facing. What I’m suggesting is it is a matter of carts and horses. Discipleship is what we’ve been called to, trusting God can take care of growth when we live and share Jesus and his way of life. Growth is a product of discipleship. Developing a robust, growing Christ-likeness in the life of our congregation, our neighborhoods, and our homes is our way forward.

When I’m on my game, that central idea sits near the heart of how I think ministry needs to be approached.

Discipleship & Church Building

Slavery to the Fear of Death

This is another in a series of older posts I am porting over from an older blog space. This one is from the Fall of 2015. These thoughts continue to be foundational to the way I’ve come to look at things. Enjoy!

Over the summer, I read Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death and John Romanides’ The Ancestral Sin. These two works have really helped nuance and deepen my understanding of how the broken world goes round — and how the work of Jesus counters that brokenness. Today, I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned.

Growing up in an evangelical context, I have always viewed humanity’s primary dilemma as sin. Working from passages like Romans 6:23 — “ … the wages of sin is death …” — I’ve carried a pretty straightforward view of how things worked. We sin and that leads to death, and so Jesus comes to somehow deal with our sin problem.

In recent years, and especially since I’ve started thinking more deeply about themes of atonement and resurrection, a second set of texts have come to my attention that complicates the simpler narrative about sin and death and Jesus on the cross. For instance, here’s a key passage in Hebrews 2:14–15:

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death — the devil — by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.

Here, the Hebrews writer characterizes what Jesus did on the cross as the defeat of the devil who holds power over death. In accomplishing this victory, Jesus redeems us from our slavery to the fear of death.

While not denying sin or it’s ill effects, the writer seems to believe atonement is not so much about our sin problem as it is about our death problem. Then, there is an interesting suite of passages in 1 Corinthians 15:

Death is the last enemy to be brought to an end … (vs. 26)

Death has been swallowed up by a victory. Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death? Death’s sting is sin … (vs. 54–56)

1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s treatment of resurrection. This is the victory he refers to in the concluding remarks of vs. 54ff. Of particular interest is that Paul describes the resurrection of Jesus in terms of the defeat of death rather than the defeat of sin. In fact, in quite the reversal from my typical way of thinking about the subject, he calls sin “death’s sting.” Here, sin is what results from death.

Again, these texts suggest a way of looking at the human predicament that is different from the way I’ve grown up looking at it. They suggest the primary dilemma is not sin, but death. Further, while it is clear sin opened the door to death, we are also left with this intriguing notion that our slavery to the fear of death also leads to sin.

This last point, in particular, has captivated me. Working from the perspective of thinkers like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes and Ernest Becker, it seems that our anxieties about death motivate an awful lot of the sinful things we do.

The Preacher points out that our search for meaning in life “under the sun” will always be futile because of death. Whatever we make of the other texts, this is clearly the issue for him. No matter what you accomplish, no matter who you become, it is all vanity because you die. That’s a heavy thought.

Becker comes in and argues (convincingly) that an awful lot of what we do in life amounts to trying to forget, deny, or push past the Preacher’s conclusion. We push back against our anxieties in thousands of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Sometimes we even push back violently and at the expense of others.

So, sin not only leads to death, but our fear of death also leads to more sin. Round and round that goes, on and on. For me, the old way of looking at the causality of sin and death has changed. It used to be a straight line — sin leads to death. Now it has been replaced by a downward spiral that leads us deeper and deeper into slavery, with death being the primary dilemma we face. Here’s how I sketched it out earlier this week:


Slavery to the Fear of Death

Crystal Clear

I stumbled on a Facebook post yesterday about a controversial topic in Christianity. It wasn’t one of those topics that amounts to much ado over nothing. The struggle is real; the theology can be complex; and, the ramifications are far reaching for both Christians and the non-Christian neighbors they seek to serve and live with. In other words, if we’re going to fuss over something, this is a topic worth fussing over.

As I read the (mostly civil) comments going back and forth it struck me how certain everyone was. On both sides of the issue, Scripture was crystal clear, you know, except for the fact that no one agreed on what it clearly said. Both sides would quote, and cite, and reference Bible verses, attempting to settle the issue and in extreme cases, some would question the faithfulness of others for daring to quote Bible verses after they had quoted their own definitive verse. As you can imagine, this discussion is ongoing.

I think I noticed this tendency because I am somewhat unsettled on aspects of this issue and in that unsettled state, the certainty of others stands in sharp relief to my own questions and doubts. (Some may be unnerved by my being unsettled, but my parents raised me to be a Christian that privileges slow, deliberate consideration in light of the Bible – and that’s where I am.) If the topic were different, if it were a topic I were more certain about, it probably would have done differently. My temptation would have been to quote my Bible verses, side with those who agree with me, and wonder how anyone else could come to  a different conclusion. In my certainty over that topic, I would’ve missed what I discovered in my uncertainty over this one: that the issue typically isn’t as crystal clear was we want it to be; that both sides tend to have valid points and weaknesses; and, that both sides almost always respect and read their Bibles.

Facing the complexities and challenges of our current context, these words become incredibly important: “I could be wrong.” Saying that, recognizing that finiteness in myself, opens me to hearing my neighbor rather than assuming I’ve got the truth pegged and they just need correcting. It urges me to let go of the way I often cling to certainty at the expense of knowing God more deeply.

To be clear, I believe in big-T Truth. I’m somewhat less certain of my own grasp of that truth. I could be wrong. I have been wrong before. I am wrong now (though I’m not sure where that wrongness lies). I will be wrong again. So, I’m gonna try to hear what you’re saying and perhaps together, we can move closer to God.

Crystal Clear

Stumbling Blocks, Hindrances, & Offenses

Being offensive has never been a priority for me. I know I occasionally offend others, generally other Christians, but I’ve not once rolled out of bed and said, “I think I’ll go scandalize my brothers and sisters today.” (To be clear, this is distinct from doing or saying a thing knowing it will be offensive to someone. There’s a difference between doing something in order to offend and doing something that needs to be done even though you know it will offend. If offending people has never been a priority, not offending people hasn’t been one either.)

Most of the times I’ve caused offense I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. In two churches, I’ve followed good men who worked with their congregations for more than twenty years. In those contexts, I received occasional remarks from some who were flummoxed by my doing this thing or the other differently than it had been done before. At some point, I realized the core of the issue was that what others perceived as change was just normal to me. I was different than the guy before me, and no one was out looking for trouble, but we had come at things differently up to that point. That’s the way it goes, isn’t it? I know very few people who set out to be offensive, but somehow we get crossways with one another over things that are typically small.

This brings us to one of the challenges of being a Christ-like community in the consumer-driven world that shapes each of us (assuming you’re reading in the West!).

In my experience, the greatest number of “offenses” occur over differences of opinion. That’s true for when I’ve been offended and it also seems true when I have done the offending. In a world filtered through the lenses of economics and consumption, we are used to having things the way we want them and can be put out when that doesn’t happen.

It is tempting to appease those who are offended, because in such a culture being offensive is among the chief sins. After all, doesn’t Paul say we should resolve never to put a “stumbling block” or “hindrance” in the way of another? (Romans 14:13, cf. also 1 Corinthians 8:13)* Reading this text from the perspective of our commodity-driven culture, Paul’s words have been used by well-meaning Christians to force the scruples of a vocal minority on the whole church so as to keep from “offending.” Brother X doesn’t like movies, or Halloween, or clapping during “Days of Elijah,” or “Days of Elijah,” or the way Sister Y is dressed, or whatever, and we love Brother X so let’s give up whatever offends him on that account.

As you can imagine, this can lead to some pretty toxic situations – whether or not Brother X ever intended them to be that way. We have all probably heard the tales about loving, well-meaning churches driven by such offense.

But, what if we ask, “What does Paul mean when he uses words like ‘stumbling block’ or ‘hindrance’?” Does he really mean we ought to cede to the preferences of whoever claims offense in a situation? Is this really what love requires? I have found those to be helpful questions, not only in working with a brother or sister who comes to me offended, but more so in dealing with my own tendencies to want my way.

Both words used in Romans 14:13 are relatively rare in the New Testament, making it easy for us to see how they were used in other contexts, giving us a fuller picture of their meaning.

In Greek, “stumbling block” is proskomma and it is used six times. I will italicize the instance of proskomma in each verse.

  • Romans 9:32-33: “Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.‘”
  • Romans 14:13:Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”
  • Romans 14:20: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat …”
  • 1 Corinthians 8:9: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
  • 1 Peter 2:8: “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”

In Greek, “hindrance” is skandalon. It occurs fifteen times.

  • Matthew 13:41: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers …”
  • Matthew 16:23: “But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.'”
  • Matthew 18:7: “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”
  • Luke 17:1: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!'”
  • Romans 9:33: “as it is written, ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame …’
  • Romans 11:9: “And David says, ‘Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them …'”
  • Romans 14:13: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”
  • Romans 16:17: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.”
  • 1 Corinthians 1:23: “.. but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles …”
  • Galatians 5:11: “But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.”
  • 1 Peter 2:8: “‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.”
  • 1 John 2:10: “Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.”
  • Revelation 2:14: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.”

To be thorough, there’s also the verb, skandalizo. It appears twenty-nine times in the New Testament. We’ll only look at a sampling here:

  • Matthew 13:57: “And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.'”
  • Matthew 26:31: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”‘”
  • John 6:61: “But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you?'”
  • John 16:1: ““I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.”

Now, some observations:

Perhaps this should go without saying, but it often doesn’t, so let’s say it. Avoiding offense isn’t the chief virtue of Christianity. Jesus was offensive. His message was offensive. While I don’t think Jesus set out to offend anyone, it seems clear that he did regularly offend, and while he might’ve hoped for a different reaction, he was willing to let them be offended.

But what does the New Testament mean when it says someone is “offended” or that something is a “stumbling block” or a “hindrance”? Importantly, from our list, biblical offense has little to nothing to do with matters of preference among Christians. This set of words refers to the idea of falling away from or rejecting God. In John 6, Jesus’ message was offensive to his disciples and because of that they rejected him. In 1 Corinthians 1, the notion of a crucified Messiah was the point at which the Jews rejected any notion of Jesus being the Christ, denouncing God’s purposes. In Matthew 26, skandalizo is translated “deserters.” In the same vein, to be a stumbling block is to be the thing that pushes someone away from God.

(While we’re on the subject, did you notice all the times the New Testament says Jesus is the stumbling block? He was the breaking point for people who claimed to love God, but weren’t interested in faithfully following him into the fullness of his kingdom.)

This isn’t about someone not getting their way and going to the church across town because they don’t care for a budget item, or the way the preacher speaks, or the way the worship leader dresses. That’s not offense. There’s no stumbling block involved in those scenarios. Offense is given when the church acts in such a way that it drives people away from God. Sarah Bessey tells a story about a young woman who was aging out of the foster care system after a hard and traumatic childhood. A trusted counselor advised her to seek out a church that would walk with her in her struggles. She did and a week later killed herself. In her suicide note, she spoke of going to church to find belonging and hope. Instead, she received ridicule for the way she dressed, so she asked to be buried in her ratty jeans.

That is what is at stake when we talk about stumbling blocks, hindrances, and being offensive. We become the kind of stumbling block Paul warns about when we become so insistent on having it our way that we push people away from God. My prayer is that we would never get so caught up being “offended” – or responding to such “offenses” – that we become stumbling blocks for those seeking God.

So, what do we do with all those squeaky wheels that cry offense over preferences? (And, I’ve been that person more often than I care to consider.) Let me tell a parable about what I think is one of the greatest shepherding moments in recent church history:

A lady goes to one of her shepherds and complains that the woman next to her in worship wears strong perfume. She asks, “Should I sit down and talk to her? Ask her to stop wearing perfume?”

“No,” the shepherd replies, “you should find a new place to sit.”

Let those with ears hear.

* I’m using the NSRV here.

Stumbling Blocks, Hindrances, & Offenses