Love is loyal

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“Love is…” Fill in the blank. There are lots of different ways we could describe love. Our culture offers an entire palette of them to choose from. “Love” seems to me to refer mainly to heavily subjective feelings and states of mind. That is, love is seen first and foremost as a feeling experienced within a person. While I don’t want to downplay or denigrate the reality of a feeling or an array of feelings which we unobjectionably call “love,” the biblical witness requires us to dig deeper. A key reality often lost in contemporary notions is this: love is loyal.

Translation troubles: Hesed

Working through the book of Ruth, we encounter an important Hebrew word at three junctures: Ruth 1.8, 2.20, and 3.10. This word is hesed. In general, I try to avoid talking about Hebrew and Greek in non-academic contexts. I find them very interesting and have devoted a great deal of time and effort to understanding them. However, the role of talking about Hebrew and Greek is primarily the role of a scholar. Scholars have done great labor in the languages, culture, and history, so that we can read the Bible and study it in English without having to learn the original languages. That is a blessing of immense proportions!

There is nothing spiritual or esoteric about using this Hebrew word hesed. It just happens to be the case that there is no consistently good way to translate the word into English. It is complex word. Regular translations include “love,” “kindness”, “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” “loyal love,” and so forth.

The fundamental difficulty with rendering hesed into English is that it traffics in a different understanding of “love” and “kindness” than we usually use. Consider these verses from Psalm 136 (the repeated refrain throughout the psalm uses this word hesed):

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.

This one is easy. We can square enduring love with goodness. But as the Psalm continues, we run into problems with using “love.” Consider a few different acts of God which are also attributed as examples of “his hesed endures forever”:

10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt—His love endures forever.
15 [he] swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea—His love endures forever.
18 [he] killed mighty kings—His love endures forever.

These are a little harder to fit into our idea of love and mercy. How does God killing people fit into his “loving-kindness”?

Love is…loyal

Throughout this entire Pslam it is God’s hesed that is under view. It quickly becomes clear that hesed is concerned with something which goes beyond our normal usage of the terms “love” and “mercy.” One scholar puts it this way:

Hesed, however, describes a mutual relationship between man and man or between man and God. Translating it as “mercy,” “compassion,” or “love” destroys the concept of mutuality.”

Harold Kamsler, “Hesed – Mercy or Loyalty?”

This scholar highlights a tendency in our cultural context of understanding love and mercy as one-way actions: I love, she shows mercy, he is full of loving-kindness. Hesed, by contrast, has a strong notion of inter-connectedness. A strong notion of loyalty. A strong notion of relational obligations.

 Here is an expansive definition:

Hesed expresses, essentially, faithfulness and loyal conduct within the context of a relationship; it is an inward commitment and disposition of goodwill together with its outward expression in dutiful and compassionate action. The precise nature of that action depends upon the context, the relationship and also upon the relative positions and abilities of parties within that relationship.”

Robin Routledge, “Hesed as Obligation: A Re-Examination”

That’s a mouthful. But helpful.

My personal favorite quick and easy way to try to represent this is “loyal love,” but even that is not entirely satisfying.

The duty of love

What does duty have to do with love?

We might put it this way: love (in this hesed sense) is bounded within certain limits. This is not a bad thing. I love my family, for instance. I don’t love anyone in Kazakhstan. Not that I am opposed to anyone in Kazakhstan. I’m sure there are many nice people there who I could learn to love. But I have no connection, no commitment to anyone there. I can love them only in a very abstract sense of general benevolence. But I go home and sit with my wife and kids and we eat together, play together, fight together, laugh together, and all those things. We have a commitment to one another and within the boundaries of the commitment, love of a deep and profound kind flows.

The difference is that there is no relational commitment in my general benevolence towards people in Kazakhstan, but there is commitment undergirding our family relationships. Within my family, hesed exists and flows out in acts of care and concern for each other. The relational context is the matrix in which loyal-love has existence. A relationship is like the boundary lines within which hesed is possible.

God’s Hesed

This notion of hesed is important in Scripture. God is a God of love, yet it is a bounded love. Not bounded in the sense of limited, as though God ever runs out of love to give but bounded in the sense of it covers a certain area, if you will. Those outside of that “area” experience God’s general benevolence—“he causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust”—but not the deep and profound love, the hesed. That love flows within the bounds of relationship: his covenant, his people, those who have come to “live in the area of God’s love,” as it were. And within the bounds of this love, God’s love is not only a good thing, but a duty, a loyal thing. God fully commits himself to those who are within this “area.”

The Bible calls this “area” of God’s love many things: the kingdom of God, salvation, eternal life, being in Christ. What unites them is the undergirding reality that God fully and freely commits himself to any and all who come into this area of his love. And he commits to being for them and not against them, to be the giver of joy, to fill up their hopes…and all these things even when they fail to be as they should.

God holds up his loyal love

That last sentence is important. God remains faithful to his hesed, his covenant love, even when we don’t. That is part of why it is so important to keep a sense of duty and loyalty in our notion of love. Even when people in my family make me angry, or I make them angry, we continue in love. Not because we necessarily are happy with each other at the moment. But because we have loyal-love, dutiful love, love which finds its strength and existence in our relationship rather than in the transient nature of our feelings at the time.

The gold standard of this kind of hesed, loyal-love, is God reaching out to humanity in various promises (covenants). In these promises, God makes a commitment to humanity. The commitment sets the boundaries in which hesed exists. Those who enter in get to receive the endless bounty of God’s loyal-love…even when we fail to be loyal. Why? Because God’s loyalty to his commitments never runs out. While anger and frustration are not foreign to God in his dealings with humanity, he does not cease to be full of loyal-love.

This calls for praise! Praise God that his love is loyal to the end.

This calls for emulation: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesian 5.1-2).

Ruth, gleaning, and providing for the Future

1 in 4 twenty year olds will be disabled at some point

In the beginning of Ruth 2, we come across Ruth and Naomi, two intrepid widows joined by the bonds of love, yet dealing with a practical problem: they don’t have food and they don’t have money, so how are they going to survive in Bethlehem, where they recently returned? They have fallen in a gap and there is no financial plan for the future which covers them.

They are in this situation primarily because their husbands have died, they have been absent to a different country for a decade, and they don’t have clear access to what they need. The land that Naomi owns, which we will find out about only in chapter 4, has somehow fallen either into disuse or into the de facto control of someone else. If in disuse, it was not planted so they would get no food from it for an entire calendar year (they are at the beginning of harvest time now, and there would not be another harvest for a year). Or someone else from within the clan of Elimelech is using it, and they are loath to give back from the work they have put into it. Whatever the case, Naomi and Ruth don’t have food, don’t have a job, and don’t have a husband, so they fall back on the social safety net to stay alive.

Social Safety Nets

In today’s terms, the social safety net involves webs of governmental programs, non-government organizations, and charitable groups (like this church) who help through food, finances, provision of places to stay, training, etc., when someone is in a position like Naomi and Ruth. In our time, the logical place for Naomi and Ruth to begin would be to go and apply for food aid through some governmental program. But nothing like that existed in ancient Israel. What to do?

Ruth comes up with a plan falling back on a well-known and oft-practiced practice in their time and place: gleaning. Gleaning refers to going through a field which has been harvested and picking up the leftovers from the harvest. There is certainly food to be had, but it is long, hard work and the returns for the efforts are quite small compared to those returns from harvesting.

Gleaning Laws

The right for widows, orphans, and destitute to glean in ancient Israel is enshrined in the Law. Leviticus 19.9-10 is one of the many places which say the same thing:

9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. (NIV)

During harvest, the owners of the field were to leave a certain amount of the field—probably around the edges—standing. The gleaners could go through here. Also, in the harvesting process, anything that got dropped as the harvesters used their sickles or bound the stalks into bundles, was to be left for the gleaners. While a far cry from a social security check or a WIC card, these provisions accomplished the same basic outcome: those who had resources were to provide for those who didn’t.

All these commands rest on the same basic premise: God is the owner of the land. God gives land to the different tribes and families as their possessions, but he does not forfeit ownership of the land. He still reserves the right to tell them what they may and may not do with it. And one of the things that all owners of the land are required to do is to allow gleaning so that those like Ruth and Naomi who are socially destitute and don’t have land and don’t have the means to survive are still able to get food.

So that’s what Ruth is up to. She is falling back on the social safety net as a means to survive in her destitution.

Provision for the future

I want to take this as a jumping off point for a brief comment about planning for the future. Ruth and Naomi are in a pickle because the social means they had to plan for future security have failed. Their husbands died and they have no children. Thus, their only recourse is the social safety net of picking up stray heads of grain which happened to fall in a field.

There is nothing desirable about Ruth and Naomi’s position at this point. Imagine with me, for a minute, how Elimelech and Ruth’s former husband (Mahlon, as we find out in chp 4), would feel about what is going on. They certainly didn’t plan on dying, but if they could have prepared some way so that their widows did not have to suffer, I imagine they would have. Now, in an agrarian society there is not much you can do to prepare to provide for your loved ones in the event that you die. We are in a different situation today.

Financial preparation for the future

I just want to encourage you to think about those who are financially dependent on you and what ways, if any, you are planning to provide for them in the event you die or become unable to work in some other way.

Did you know, Social Security estimates that roughly one of every four people in their 20s today will experience some sort of physical disability limiting or removing their ability to work for a year or longer in the course of their lifetime? How many of us are financially prepared for losing a year of income? Are you prepared to provide for your loved ones in the event that you lose the ability to work or die? These questions are worth thinking about as we see this example of Ruth and Naomi scrambling to survive because that’s the only thing they’ve got.

Planning for future hardships

Making financial plans for the future is a sensible part of being good stewards of the money and resources God has given to us. In church, there’s often talk about what you do with 10% of your money and the importance of giving. And that’s all important and there needs to be a time to talk about that. But consider that God expects us to do wise and faithful things with 100% of the money and possessions that we have, not just 10%. And one wise principle to follow from scripture and seen from life is to plan on a loss of ability to work and possibly the loss of your life prematurely. What ways can you lessen the impact such an event will have on loved ones who are dependent upon you?

This calls for thinking about things like savings accounts, life insurance, disability insurance, and investments. Not everyone can afford such things, but if you have margin to do so, they provide a wise way to limit the likelihood that your family members will be falling into poverty and desperation in the even that you die or lose the ability to work. In fact, it is worth considering how to make margin in our lives to afford such tools.

Do not provoke your children to anger: the meaning of Ephesians 6.4, part 2

yelling child and frustrated father

Part 1 of this 4-part series provided the key orientation point: provoking a child to anger is a covenantal concept. It does not mean, “don’t do anything that will make your child get mad/angry/exasperated.” Wise and godly parenting will often result in children getting angry. Drawing from usage of the phrase “provoke to anger” in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), we see the main context of usage is a right response of anger when justly held expectations in a relationship are violated.

Putting that into terms of “provoking a child to anger,” we can say that parents provoke a child to anger when they act towards their children in ways that violate the justly held relational expectations that children have of parents.

This is a good place to start, even if it’s really broad. It points us on a clear direction of inquiry. As parents, we need to give thought to what children can justly expect to receive from us in the parent/child relationship. Some of these expectations are clear. Children justly expect their parents to protect them (especially before they are grown up), and parents who use their greater power to hurt rather than guard their children are “provoking them to anger.” Children justly expect their parents to love them and parents who do not do so are “provoking them to anger.”

When we situate “provoke to anger” within its covenantal context from the Old Testament, one result within parent/child relationships is it appears to cover a range of negative responses from children, not just anger. A child physically abused by their parents may respond in anger or may respond in sullenness and fear. A neglected child may have angry outbursts or may withdraw from the world. In either case, the response is driven by parents violating the justly held relational expectations of the child and would seem to fit under the idea of “do provoke your child to anger.” Compare to the parallel passage in Colossians 3.21.

Just to be clear, when I am talking about what children justly expect from their parents, I am not talking about things they even know how to articulate. That will be age dependent. Rather, I am talking about things understood from Scripture and nature about the needs of a human being in the journey towards adulthood. A two-year old won’t know how to express in words that their parents are not emotionally engaging with them. But they clearly understand something they need is being withheld by their parents.

Moving forward: two categories of justly held expectations

Like most of the biblical passages in Scripture, guidance for parenting aims mainly at the goals rather than the details. As a generalization, much of the biblical material answers the question who we should be rather than the question, “What should the detailed decisions of our lives involve?” We still can step back, though, and distill some guidance on what children can expect from their parents within a sort of “covenantal” context of parent-child relationships.

In the next two posts, I want to take up these concerns from two different directions: (1) psychology and human development and (2) biblical teaching.

In part 3, I want to take up some key categories borrowed in from the world of psychology and human development. Of course, one could take the time to try to argue that all these categories are supportable from somewhere in Scripture, and they probably are, but I’m not going to do that. They are sufficiently broad and deep enough concepts to engage with some of the core experiences of growing to maturity as a human being. They are rooted in how our physiology and neurobiology function. In other words, they simply address some of the basic needs people have in order to grow up into normal, functioning adults.

In part 4 of this series, I will turn to some more specific biblical themes. After all, raising healthy, successful children is wonderful, but it is a far cry short of the biblical mandate. God’s intentions for parents include other key ideas and children have an inherent right to receive them from their parents.

Answering the core questions

The end goal of these two posts is to answer some of the question, “What sorts of things should parents be providing for their children?” In answering this question, we are also at the same time giving ourselves a framework for processing our children’s anger. Are they angry because of a failure to give them something they rightly expect, or are they angry because of sin in their own heart (which calls us to help them understand how to deal with sin in their own heart)?

As one writer puts it:

“Beginning with the first day of life outside the womb, every child is asking two core questions: “Am I loved?” and “Can I get my own way?” These two questions mark us throughout life, and the answers we receive set the course for how we live.”

Dan Allender, How Children Raise Parents: The Art of Listening to Your Family, 21

In answering these questions day by day for our children, they will undoubtedly get mad at us. Our concern is to tune in to the way God created human beings to function and the directions he gives us as parents so that we can get a better idea of when the anger of our child is their own sin and when the anger of our child is provoked by our sin towards them.

Here we are again. Reflections on Buffalo

Here we are again. Another person has decided to take a gun and kill a bunch of people. And it just so happens that this person is strikingly like a lot of other people who have done similar things: a male, white, and sharing a certain racial ideology of the world.

Is this a problem of race? Is this a problem of gender? Is this a problem of gun control? However we talk about and try to answer those questions—and I think that we do need to talk about them and try to answer them—there is some deeper issues that we need to not lose sight of.

The knee-jerk responses of gun-control activists and right-to-bear-arms activists around each mass shooting is to become further entrenched in their own position. To take the new data, integrate it into their existing belief set, and yell louder about how right they are.

The knee-jerk responses around issues of race are the same. Are people racist? Are racial disparities driving everything in our country? Some cry “yes,” and others cry “no,” and what happens in the meantime is more of the same.

The discussions which ensue following such a shooting as just happened in Buffalo (and, don’t forget, several other shootings around the country in that same time period) are predictable. All sides say the same things over and over again. In the clamor over gun control and race/racism, one wonders how much ever will change. How much is even heard?

What do we feel?

It is not my intention here to argue for or against gun control. Of course, if this young man in Buffalo was not able to buy the gun then he would not have been able to shoot so many people. That is self-evidently true, and an important point to wrestle with in forging local, state, and national policy on guns. Yet it is an underwhelming place to focus on.

It is not my intention here to tackle the protracted issue of race and racism. Assuming the reports about the shooter are accurate, it is easy to see he was fanatically racist.

But where does pointing out those self-evident truths leave us? With a pile of dead bodies, ever-growing, and no obvious way out of the course we are on.

As I think about the reports coming out of Buffalo, Southern California, and more, a few things cross my mind.

Sorrow. It pains me to think about the lives that have just been shattered. Those who died. Those who are dying. Those who will now be wrestling with the hurt stemming from a loss of innocence and hope.

Anger. I am angry that we live in a mass-shooting, rinse, and repeat culture. For a saddening list of mass shootings in the US this year, see here.  I am angry that we live in a culture where local kids make plans to go to their schools and shoot people they don’t like. I am angry that too often those plans materialize into reality. I am angry that hopelessness is so rife in our culture that killing others, or killing oneself, seem like good solutions to so many people.

Curiosity. I am curious where the disconnect is in the lives of so many. Where did this young man get the ideas of racial superiority and violence from which somehow made his life make sense? Where does hopelessness come from in the lives of many who take guns to others or to themselves? I wonder what it would be like to sit down with this young man who just killed so many people in Buffalo and have a heart-to-heart conversation asking, “What do you hate so much about yourself and your life that the only way you know to express your pain is in giving deep pain to others?

What do we do now?

I don’t know what to do.

I’m not sure that “doing something” will ever fix what is around us, though I suspect and hope there are lots of ways to improve the cycles of violence and racial ideology which the recent shooter in Buffalo put so clearly back in our view.

I suspect there are policy decisions that could lessen the frequency of gun violence. I suspect there are mental health services which could help. Those are discussions to be had.

Right now, I am more concerned with something deeper. Something whose lack is rather troubling.


The shooter’s racial ideology is completely devoid of empathy. There is no real attempt to consider the lives of black people as other people in the world trying to make their way. Or, if talking in terms of race is too bold for you, there is no real attempt to consider the lives of other human being as people in the world trying make their own way. In the moral imagination of the shooter, it seems these other human beings had little more significance than ants that might be stepped on.

How does one live with so little empathy?

The very act of taking up a gun to shoot other people displays a pronounced lack of empathy. Someone steeped in empathy may fight and kill at times, but understands that fighting and killing is not a way to escape your own pain. Shooting others is not a way out of troubles, not a way out of the prisons you already live in in your deepest being.

What do we do?

Gun control discussions and debates need to happen, and they will. Further discussion and debate about racial ideology needs to happen, and it will. Discussions of mental health, poverty, bullying, socio-economics, etc., need to happen, and will.

These are not, though, and won’t be quick solutions to the problems which lead us to Buffalo. The most recent in a long line of such shootings.

There are no quick solutions. No easy way to go from “here we are” to “there we want to be.”

As I look at the world around us, I am challenged to think of a different question than how do we get white racists to stop shooting black people. I am challenged to think of how we assault the world with the sort of compassionate empathy which Jesus showed, and still shows.

This kind of empathy can rock hearts to their rocky depths.

This is also the empathy that got Jesus killed.

Do not provoke your children to anger: the meaning of Ephesians 6.4, part 1

yelling child and frustrated father

My kids get mad at me. A lot. I don’t say that as a point of pride, merely an observation of the status of life in our household. Now, I am certain there are many times when their anger is a legitimate and healthy response to something I have done that is not right. One could say that I (more often than I care to) provoke my children to anger.

And all this happens in a context where I hold dear the admonition of Scripture as found in Ephesian 6.4:

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

What does my children getting angry at me mean? Am I sinning? Should I be avoiding all things that result in them getting angry? What exactly is “provoking them to anger,” anyway?

Not all anger is the same

It is worth establishing some basic ground rules from our experience. From life in the trenches, we know that anger happens a lot. Even in “healthy” households. We will start with our experience and then move back and consider the ideal that Scripture gives.

A simple observation to begin with: not all anger is the same. In other words, sometimes my children’s’ anger towards me is righteous anger. They are angry because I have acted toward them in a way that is sinful. When someone violates the integrity of our person, anger is a natural response. Just like we as adults get angry when people wrong us, so too our children. At the beginning, let’s just be honest that sometimes our kids get mad at us because we “provoke them to anger” by sinful actions towards them.

But what about when they get mad at me for things like:

  • making them brush their teeth instead of watching a show;
  • telling them that they don’t get to have candy right now;
  • disciplining a child for hurting another child;
  • insisting that they talk to their parents in a respectful way and not listening to them when they whine;
  • making them apologize for wrong behavior;
  • etc.

Wisdom from life tells us that this sort of anger is not the same as the first. I can affirm that my children are, in fact, angry and that my actions have provoked them to anger. After all, if I just let them watch the show there would be no anger right now. And yet, life experience and wisdom also tell us that these sorts of parental actions are necessary. When parents do not take it upon themselves to impose wise choices upon their children, the result is a disaster of a child that all too often turns into a disaster of an adult.

As I write this my children are still young, and it is easier to see that their anger is not justified (assuming that I am enforcing wise choices upon them in a loving way, which is not always the case). What happens as children get older? How do we understand when our actions are “provoking a teenager to anger,” for instance?

While I don’t have a definitive answer for the complexities of being a sinful parent raising sinful children, I can point us to a deeper understanding of what this passage in Ephesians 6 is saying. And the key here is a covenantal context.

Provoking to anger in covenantal context

To begin, let’s revisit Ephesians 6.4. Here is a smattering of ways it is translated:

  • “You fathers, don’t provoke your children to wrath, but nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (WEB)
  • “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (NIV)
  • “Fathers, don’t frustrate your children with no-win scenarios. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.” (MSG)
  • “Fathers, don’t stir up anger in your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (HCSB)
  • “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (ESV)

There is clear consensus on the last half of the verse: train and instruct. The first half of the verse describes something negative, with notions of wrath, exasperation, and anger. But what does that mean in real life?

“Fathers” or “parents”?

First, just note that the command to “fathers” is best understood today as a command to parents. We could delve into language and culture details as to why that is the case (and if you want some of that, just ask me!), but just know that it encompasses parents in general.

I would advocate translating this passage something like: “Parents—and especially you, fathers—do not provoke your children to anger.” This accounts for the fact that the text is primarily directed at men within its original context while also acknowledging the realities of the modern family, and the myriad of different authority structures which are present therein. From single-parent homes to homes with present but absentee fathers, etc. The point of the passage addresses a reality that parents are able to parent in such a way that they exasperate their children.

Covenantal context

To understand what “provoke to anger” refers to, we have to consider just what Paul is doing in this brief exchange. Starting from Ephesians 5.21, Paul is discussing the normal relationships of human life in his day in terms of gospel submission: wife and husband, child and parent, and slave and master.

Let’s look at Ephesians 6.1-4 a little closer:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

In this passage Paul cites directly from the 10 commandments regarding how children are to relate to their parents (Exodus 20.12). In v. 4, he alludes to Deuteronomy 6—the Shema and the immediately following verses—about the responsibility of parents to teach the words of the covenant to their children. In both parts of the child/parent relationship, then, the expectations laid out are grounded in terms of God’s covenant. That is, they are covenantal.

Said differently, Paul is not giving parenting advice or tips about how to deal with kids or parents like you would find in the self-help section. Instead, he is unpacking how the truth of God being a covenant God who reaches out to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a framework for being a child or being a parent. While this passage is detail-sparse in terms of what boots-on-the-ground parenting looks like, it is profound in giving us a guiding vision.

But there is more we can say than just that it is a guiding vision.

Parenting and covenants

Paul shows us that being a child and being a parent is framed within God’s covenant. We might say that there is an implicit covenant between child and parent where each party has obligations to the other. When each party fulfills those obligations, the result is harmonious and mutually beneficial.

Since I have mentioned “covenant” a few times, it is worth defining. Covenants are formal relationships characterized by faithfulness and loyalty in love. There is clearly no “formal” covenant in families. However, in the biblical view, family is strongly covenantal. There is a stronger and a weaker party (the parents and children, respectively), with obligations placed upon each party. The stronger—parents—is to act for the benefit of the children in areas like provision, wise instruction, discipline, and so forth. The primary response of the weaker party—the child/children—is respectful obedience. For a good description of family dynamics as portrayed in the OT and NT, see God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, 2nd ed., chapters 5-6).

Setting aside the fact that our relationships with children are often full of disharmony and antagonism (thank you sin), the aim is for harmony and mutual benefit. This view stands behind Psalm 127.4-6:

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, / the fruit of the womb a reward. / Like arrows in the hand of a warrior / are the children of one’s youth. / Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! / He shall not be put to shame / when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

This passage shows an ideal: harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships between the parents and kids. No one counts it as a blessing when parents and children are characterized by mutual antagonism, violence, distrust, or other negative relational markers. But when all is well, both parents and children are blessed from the covenantal relationship of the family.

Provoking to anger is a covenant relationship phrase

Why am I bothering to talk about covenants? Well, it turns out that “provoke to anger” is used almost exclusively in covenant contexts in the Septuagint.

The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament which is freely used, alluded to, and cited in the NT.

The word translated variously as “provoke to anger, etc.” (it’s παροργίζω, if you want to know) is used 57 times in the Septuagint. Far and away the most common context is that the Israelites provoke the Lord to wrath by their sin. It is also used of general relational violations. We might summarize its dominant usage as follows: being “provoked to anger” is a result of the other party in the covenant failing to live up to the terms of the covenant.

Consider a concrete example. God, the covenant maker, tells the Israelites, “You shall have no other gods before me.” When the Israelites worship other gods, what happens? God is provoked to anger. Why? Because they are violating the terms of the covenant. The expected behavior of the covenant partner is not kept (the Israelites are worshipping other gods). The result is that God is “provoked to anger.”

From the side of the people of Israel, if they keep the covenant faithfully, they expect God’s blessing. If God were to withhold his blessing from them, even when they were being faithful, then God would be “provoking them to anger.” Of course, this doesn’t happen. But it is illustrative. In a covenant, both parties have responsibilities towards each other. The bulk of the responsibilities rest on the stronger party.

This I think is the heart of “provoking to anger:” it has to do with violation of justly held expectations and rights. God is angry with the people because they have broken the covenant terms. Provoking to anger is accomplished through treating the other party wrong in the very arenas of life where they have just expectations to be treated right.

And one more thing to note. The core purpose behind the covenant is to facilitate a relationship between parties characterized by faithfulness and loyalty in love.[1]

Non-provoking parenting

This post is already too long, but I want to briefly sketch out where we are going in the next post. If being a parent is like part of a covenant, then we are to understand “provoking to anger” in a specific sense. Parents “provoke their children to anger” not whenever they do something that their kids get mad about, but when parents violate the terms of the parent/child “covenant.” Making your child finish their homework before going out with their friends may make them get mad, but, if done rightly, falls within the purview of parents teaching their children the wisdom necessary to thrive in this world. That is not provoking your child to anger in the sense of Ephesians 6.4.

With all the anger responses which parents so regularly receive from children, though, what can guide where we aim in thinking about our relationship with our children. After all, sinful parents raising sinful kids means there are lots of opportunities for things to get gummed up. What should we aim at?

To that, we will turn in the next post.

[1] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 54.

Screaming photo created by karlyukav –

The Resurrection of Lazarus and the Resurrection of Jesus

resurrection of lazarus

Here is my short message from the Easter Sunrise service. It is based in Ezekiel 37.1-3 and John 11.17-27.


In Ezekiel’s vision he saw a valley of dry bones. A valley of death. And God asked him,

“Son of man, can these bones live?”

Ezekiel answers,

“O Lord God, you know.”

The vision continues with God having Ezekiel prophecy over the bones, and they receive flesh. Then he prophecies to the wind, and they receive the breath of life.

Of course, in Ezekiel, the prophecy concerns the people of Israel, who are like a valley of dried bones. Lifeless. In the prophetic vision, God shows himself as one able even to raise the dead, to rebuild bodies that had crumbled away into dust.

But then what? After all, Israel had died once already, becoming like a valley of dried bones. Of what good is a resurrection if it does not actually escape death. Resurrecting a valley of dried bones allows them to take a vacation from death, but it seems like death is once again the final destination.

Indeed, more than a few people are brought back from death as recorded in the OT. There is the son of the widow whom Elisha raises to life again. Or the rather random story where a dead body was hastily thrown into the tomb of Elisha. When the corpse touched his bones, the man came back to life again.

But nothing changed. The widow’s son lived to die another day. Likewise, the unnamed man whose corpse had the fortune—or misfortune—of touching Elisha’s body and revivifying, also died again.

Resurrection from the dead, you see, doesn’t actually change anything. All alike proceed on to Sheol.


Consider now the resurrection of Lazarus. He is the last named of various people Jesus raised from the dead in his ministry: Jairus’ daughter and the son of the Widow of Nain being the other two we are told about. Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, was dead some four days, and Jesus called him back. Back to what? To life, yes. But what sort of life? What had really changed for Lazarus? About him?

While the idea of resurrection from the dead has a certain appeal to it, perhaps a fleeting glimpse of the immortality that people long for and hope for, in truth, the resurrection of Lazarus is a cruel trick, if that is all you have to offer. To bring someone back from the dead is of no great advantage if they only will die again.

Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches that he has come to bring eternal life. What does he mean by that somewhat enigmatic phrase? That existence will keep going on? That our hair will grow grayer forever, are aches multiply, and our memories dwindle? That, if one of his followers happens to die, he will raise them back to life again?

An eternity of resurrection unto dying again is an endless cycle of pain, not a deliverance. With Lazarus we see death set aside for a time, but only for a time. He travelled into death, was pulled out again, but there was only one place for him to go: back into the arms of death again.

The question posed to Ezekiel is “can these dry bones live?” The question posed by the resurrection of Lazarus is, “What sort of ‘resurrection and life’ is Jesus, anyway?  Is resurrection worth it?”


In John 11.25-26 Jesus says,

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

As Jesus stands before the dead man Lazarus, he does not just claim to be able to bring back life—as he has done before and is about to do again. Lazarus will come forth from the tomb. The dead man will walk out alive. But that is not all Jesus is talking about. He claims to be life. He is the resurrection and the life.

In the death of Jesus, Life is killed. The Resurrection is sent to the grave. And it appears that all hope is lost. It appeared that Death had finally triumphed. That God’s creation was doomed forevermore to Sheol. For if even “The Life” is sent to Death, then what hope is left?

If Death is the enemy, the lord over us, and Jesus is The Life, the question to be answered is whether Death is, in the end, stronger than Life. After all, bringing people back from the dead does not deliver them from Death. So long as nothing changes, death is the only destination to which all or going.

But on Easter morning, everything changed.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not a vacation from death, as the resurrections before him. The resurrection of Jesus is a tear in the fabric of reality through which a newer, more real reality shines through. Through that tear, a whole new creation steps in, bright and clean, into the drab and dusty confines of this present world. A life everlasting. The Life which is stronger than death and cannot be contained in Sheol.

In Jesus, The Life is not just called back from death—this is no “near death experience” or “15 minutes in heaven.” This is not even Lazarus, the dead man, called back to life. It is Life which has gone down into Death and emerged triumphant. Jesus, the undead, the deathless, the dead who is dead no more, wields power over Death, the great enemy.

In the resurrection of Jesus, we see what is to come. We find hope. Hope that life is not just a one-way trip to death. Hope that, yes, the dry bones can live again. They can live because Jesus has an invincible life. Is Life Everlasting. All who believe in him, though they die, will live. Because Jesus can go down into death with them and bring them through it into True Reality. The New Creation where death has no place because Jesus has conquered it, banished it, and all who stand in Jesus’ hands are forever outside the reach of death.

Jesus is resurrection. Jesus is life.

As he stepped out from that tomb, everything had changed. Where, o Death is your sting? Jesus has taken it, tasted all your poison, and yet has walked out of you, triumphant.

Jesus says, “all who believe in me, though they die, they will live.” Death, the former end of all things, has become merely a waypoint along the journey to Life Everlasting. The hope of the follower of Jesus is that death is merely a vacation from life as we journey on in the trail blazed by Jesus—the trail through death into life. The Resurrection has triumphed and turned Death into a great doorway to Life Everlasting.


The picture at the top is an oil painting, Andrey Mironov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bible-reading second-handers

The truth about books: there are a lot of them

Recently I came across an old article from the early 2000s (well I guess it’s not that old) about reading and literacy rates. The author pointed to a certain Pierre Bayard who wrote a book entitled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book 😊. Maybe someday. Right now, I am busy reading books that I aim to talk about. All joking aside, it’s a funny sounding title and the idea of it is a little funny, though in practice it is not that strange. Many readers are second-hand readers.

Due to the sheer volume of things which are written and have been written and will be written, no one can read more than an infinitesimally tiny percentage of what is written and what is relevant for their interest. It is estimated that somewhere greater than 2 million new books are published every year around the world. A very dedicated reader may get through 100 or so books in a year, maybe a few more. Good luck.

In the academic context where I have been living the last several years, it’s actually quite common to discuss works one has either not read at all or read only in small part. Each subject matter and discipline has a sub-discipline within it that is devoted simply to keeping track of the history of the area of study. Whether you read theology, biology, the history of UFO hunting, or what have you, a huge portion of one’s knowledge about their subject matter comes from summaries of other books (or summaries of summaries of summaries, etc.). There’s only so much time to read, and more to read than could ever be read.

Talking about the (multitudinous) books you haven’t read

And so, part of me empathizes strongly with the basic point of this book (which I haven’t read). One who is generally knowledgeable about history, about current cultural trends, and about life, can talk about all kinds of books they haven’t read, movies they haven’t seen, TV shows they haven’t seen, places they’ve never been to, and other life experiences they’ve never had. It’s a rather peculiar aspect of humanity. We can persuasively and convincingly talk about and even coach other people through things that we have no practical experience with.

Are we “bible-reading” second-handers?

Setting academia, or hobby reading, or book clubs, or even schoolwork aside, does the habit of discussing things we haven’t read or seen seep into the life of following Jesus?

The world of Christian book publishing churns out an astonishing number of books. And, to be more honest with the way we engage with text, we have to consider blogs (like this one), magazines, YouTube channels, movies, podcasts, cartoons, etc. There is an entire swarming ecosystem of stories, information, and studies which promise to help you understand the bible, help with your Christian walk, improve your love life, improve your relationships, lessen your stress, make you happy, etc.

I don’t want to sound dismissive of the Christian literary apparatus which helps us understand the Bible and the Christian life. I myself have drunk deeply from many springs in this apparatus. It would be the height of arrogance to suggest that we don’t need to read what others have written and thought and taught, but should just read the bible and figure it out on our own. Yet a question calls for pondering: Have we become bible-reading second-handers?

That is, do we always engage the bible through a screen of someone else’s writing. We read someone else’s study, someone else’s blog post, etc. The default assumption in the information economy is that an answer, if not the answer, is already out there and someone has already figured it out. All you need to do is search for it online and it will pop up within the first 10 Google results.

The problem which I see in all of this is not that we don’t learn—one can learn an immense amount of information through second-hand reading engagement (or watching videos, listening to podcasts, etc.). The problem is that second-hander knowledge tends to be less transformative than first-hander knowledge.

An Illustration

Here’s the difference. I ran track and field in high school. I was phenomenally not good at anything in it, but I did do it. In one track meet my junior year, my coach decided to throw me into the high jump.

Up till that point, I had never competed in, or really practiced, high jump. However, I did know the theory of how you high jump. I know the sort of approach you’re supposed to take, the way you plant your feet, the way you jump up, the way you arch your back over the bar, the way you kick your feet up over top of the bar, and then how to land in the high jump pit. I could teach someone how to high jump. I know how it’s supposed to be done.

On top of that, at the time I was about 6 feet tall and had a solid 2-foot vertical. Starting height to clear was 4’ 8”. Just standing next to the bar and jumping up I could theoretically have stepped over top of the bar. Thus, in theory, clearing starting height posed zero difficulty to my high jump abilities, as lacking as they were. And that was all I needed to do. Clear starting height, and in doing so I would win points for our track team.

Well, as I presume you’ve guessed at this point, I didn’t clear starting height. The fact that I knew how to do it, and that I had all the physical abilities necessary to do it, didn’t add up to being able to do it. There’s a void which between knowledge on the theoretical level and knowledge in the experiential level. The only way to know how to high jump is to spend time high jumping. The only way to gain a deep knowledge of how to cook is to spend time cooking.

The only way to gain a deep knowledge of scripture is to spend time reading and living scripture.

Final thought

Should we read and listen to the thoughts of others on Scripture and life? Absolutely. After all, that is part of what the church is for. However, we need to be aware of the phenomenon of second-hand reading/consuming. Knowing about something is quite different from knowing something. Learning by reading what others write, or listening to what others say, helps us learn about the Scriptures. That is good.

I can’t help but wonder, though, how much we miss in terms of vital knowledge of God and life when we habitually turn to the database of knowledge from others for answers rather than seeking them in prayer and study in the Scriptures themselves.

Praying for Ukraine

On Sunday I was given the outline of notes about ways to be praying for Ukraine. These came from an International Ministries discussion of some sort. Two missionary families we support through International Ministries, Jon and Amanda Good and Nora and Pieter Kalkman, were involved. There was an update of ways that ministry is happening around the Ukraine crisis. Knowing some of what ministry is going on gives guidance for more specific prayers. Here are some things going on and ways to be praying:

  • Baptist churches are helping refugees with shelter and food
    • Pray for strength for those hosting and resources to use in helping
    • Pray that God’s Spirit would give the workers power
  • Pray for God’s wisdom and direction for those on the front line in seeking to help an overwhelming crisis
  • Pray for peace in Ukraine
  • Pray for peace in the hearts of people who are fleeing and people who are helping the refugees

As you pray, if you feel so led, International Ministries is one way that you can give financial support to help our missionaries and the churches they support to do work in this time of crisis. To learn more about International Ministries or to give, visit

Do you want eternal life…or the Kingdom of God?

There are two types of Gospels. We call the first type the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Synoptic means something like “looking with.” We call these three the Synoptics because they look at Jesus in a similar way. This leaves the Gospel of John as the other Gospel.

In fact, only about 8% of the Gospel of John overlaps with the Synoptic Gospels. The chronology is different, the few events are different order, and the style of Jesus’ ministry is different. Rather than showing Jesus performing many miracles like in the Synoptics, John focuses in on 7. Rather than short teachings grouped together with stories, John is mainly comprised of long discourses of Jesus, often in ongoing discussion with Jewish religious leaders.

One difference of interest: eternal life.

Kingdom of God vs. Eternal Life

Matthew, Mark, and Luke characterize Jesus as teaching about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven, in Matthew). The summary statement of his ministry is “repent, for the Kingdom is at hand” (Matt 4.17 and parallels).

In John, by contrast, Jesus regularly speaks about eternal life.

What are we to make of this? Did Jesus have two different ministries? Why are John and the Synoptics so different from each other on this point?

Two sides of the same coin

Before answering this, consider for a moment the following two statements:

  1. I am a Christian.
  2. I am a follower of Jesus.

What is the difference between these two? While the language is distinct and they certainly have different emphases, they are basically equivalent. I prefer the second expression to the first because I think the identity “Christian” has too much cultural baggage associated with it to be useful in many contexts. But, both expressions are essentially synonymous.

I contend that this is what we see in kingdom of God and eternal life in the Synoptics and John. Two different ways of expressing the same basic idea. And ways that would make sense to different sorts of people.

Kingdom of God and eternal life in the same context

Consider John chapter 3. In John 3.3 and 5, Jesus is talking with Nicodemus about entering the Kingdom of God:

3.3 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.

3.5 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God

All well and good. This sounds like Jesus from the Synoptics. But note that as the conversation continues, suddenly the topic changes. In John 3.14-16 we read:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In this one conversation Jesus and Nicodemus move from discussing entering the Kingdom of God to having eternal life without any obvious break in the discussion. This suggests that these two phrases represent the same basic idea.

This suggestion is confirmed in Mark 9.42-10.31 where we again see kingdom of God and eternal life occurring in close connection.

Mark 9.47: And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell

Then again, the Rich Young Ruler comes and asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10.17). In the follow up discussion Jesus has with his disciples, he tells them,

“29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

In between those two mentions of eternal life, Jesus says this:

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!

The takeaway? The Kingdom of God and eternal life are two different ways of talking about the same central reality.

The Kingdom of Life, the eternal kingdom

There are a couple benefits from recognizing that “kingdom of God” and “eternal life” are similar concepts.

First, it helps us to see that although the Gospels are different from each other in a variety of ways, some of the differences are more cosmetic than actual. It appears that John, in writing his Gospel, used the “preacher’s prerogative” to shape his message to his audience. The language of eternal life requires less Jewish and OT background to understand what it means as part of God’s plan.

Second, it reminds us that the language and concepts we have for understanding humanity and God and the relationship we are created to have through Jesus is flexible. We are not stuck with just one idea.

Growing up, I don’t remember hearing much Kingdom of God theology, but lots about eternal life. I personally find “kingdom of God” more evocative and prefer that. Both are right ways to understand truths about what it means to follow Jesus. They bring distinct nuances.

As we think about our personal lives and about explaining and living gospel truths before others in our lives, it can pay to be flexible. We have more than one set of conceptual tools in our toolbox for understanding how we, and other people in our lives, are meant to relate to God in this life and in the life to come.

Covid ministry reset

The “reset” wish

One common wishful dream busy people have is to be able to stop everything. Stop all the ongoing projects. Stop all the demands and the work and the pressures of life. To stop it all, and to relax. And even more than relax, we just want time to think about what we are doing and why. We just want a little bit of time to think and reflect and strategize about what we really want to be doing, how we want to be spending our time, where we’re putting our effort in life.

Churches have these same sorts of pressure. Churches, like any organization, have incredible amounts of inertia. Projects, programs, and patterns all just keep going because they have been going and because it takes more effort to stop them than to keep them going.

Inertia: projects, programs, and patterns

Organizational inertia explains the all-too common experience in churches where the on-going projects, programs, and patterns don’t fit the church we are anymore, but we have to keep doing them. Whether to keep the traditions, to keep the bylaws, or just to keep with the familiar, we keep on keeping on. Doubtless, there is some time in the past when God used and blessed the projects, programs, and patterns we are now doing. All the more reason to keep doing them. We expect that blessing to return.

I suspect the biggest reason why we keep doing the things we’re doing is because it takes more effort to change than it does to keep doing them. Change requires thought and effort and planning. And a good deal of risk. On any given week, we are already using up most of our thoughts and efforts and planning just keeping the projects, programs, and patterns going.

It is not bad or wrong to keep doing what we have been doing. But, if we have options and opportunities to think about it and change, it might be worth exploring.

The COVID reset

I suggest that churches in general, and FBC in particular, are currently going through the sort of reset which many of us so often long for in our personal lives. Thank you COVID. Or maybe, thank you God? Of course, the COVID pandemic hasn’t been (and still isn’t) full of leisure time to think and reflect. Mostly we were scrambling around trying to figure things out on the fly. But here we are. We’ve come through a year and a half, two years, of change.

As the COVID pandemic and the various restrictions that it has placed on corporate worship come to an end (Lord willing), what benefit is there in it? Does coming out of the COVID pandemic mean a return to business as usual?

Ministry as usual?

Business as usual isn’t wrong. But it also may not be right. Now seems like an ideal time for us to consider in both our corporate and personal lives whether business as usual from two years ago is worth going back to. Perhaps the last two years have showed us some new things, taught us some new values, and prepared us for different ways of living and doing ministry.

There’s certainly no virtue in changing and destroying things just because. But there’s also no virtue in continuing to do things the same old way just because. Maybe now is a good time to challenge our imaginations about what faithfulness as a church looks like in the world we live in now, not the world we lived in before.

For our sanity and for consistency, we need to come to a new business as usual. However, that doesn’t mean we need to have the same old business as usual. The COVID pandemic can be the opportunity we’ve needed for years—maybe not wanted, but needed—to prompt some introspection. In no particular order, here are some questions I have been prayerfully considering:

  • Why do we do what we do?
  • What are we trying to accomplish as a church, anyway?
  • What could we do?
  • What should we do?
  • Why should we do it?
  • How are we involved in discipleship?
  • How are we thinking about the community that we’re serving in?
  • What is the purpose of gathering together on Sunday for worship?
  • What would be an ideal way to reach strengthen and equip people in our churches?

Seizing the reset

These questions, and many more, are worth asking. As business as usual becomes the norm again, it would be a shame if we passed up this opportunity we have been forced to have for the past two years. In this time, we have a God granted opportunity to ask ourselves if the business as usual we crave to return to is the business as usual that Jesus the Lord wants us to be doing.