Jesus and Minimalism

bluepaintRecently I watched Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things on Netflix. I’ve been a minimalist for a few years now, ever since discovering minimalism shortly after graduating college. Depending on the picture that comes to mind when you hear the word minimalism, you might not agree with my self-label if you saw all my belongings. (So many books. And notebooks. And–I confess–horse toys.)

Minimalism, however, is not about having as few things as possible and having a cold, bare home. Minimalism is about editing your life to contain only what brings you joy and adds value to your life. This is often most visible in your physical possessions, but it also plays out in how you spend your time, how you spend your money, the relationships you cultivate, the job you choose, and the activities you fill your schedule with.

As an introvert, I naturally tend toward minimalism in my schedule, but it was a revelation to me that I did not in fact need to own all the books to have my own little library. I only need the books that bring me joy, which are usually the books I read over and over, or the books I read dozens of times as a child and want to keep for nostalgia and any future children of my own.

The anti-thesis of minimalism is consumerism, which is more than just shopping a lot. Consumerism is a worldview, a mindset, that affects your finances, your career, your schedule, your hobbies, and your relationships, just as minimalism does.

This is essentially the thesis of the documentary, which I found to be a refreshing, calm film that inspired me to be more intentional about life: how I spend my time, my money, and my thoughts. I highly recommend it.

One aspect of the documentary that caught my attention was the interviews. Most of the major minimalism bloggers that I am familiar with were interviewed for the documentary, and as each described their journey to minimalism, I heard the same phrases over and over.

“I felt so empty.”

“There was a hole that I was trying to fill with buying things and doing things.”

“I climbed the ladder and did not find fulfillment at the top.”

These are general sentiments, not exact quotes, but nearly every single person experienced a variation of this. They then discovered minimalism and shed loads of excess baggage, weight, mental turmoil, and schedule craziness, and did a complete 180 in life.

Now they all described a slower pace of life with fewer possessions and commitments, with time to focus on what was truly important to them. Fulfillment and contentment, found in minimalism.

I am quite certain these bloggers have found fulfillment and contentment and joy having edited their lives and possessions. I am equally certain their original problem was emptiness, not consumerism.

As a Christian, I know there is emptiness without Jesus. Every Christian can tell their own story of life without Jesus, and life with Jesus with that emptiness filled. Emptiness is the condition of a life without Jesus, and consumerism is a treatment of the emptiness that soon becomes a symptom of that same emptiness.

Minimalism is another treatment of the original problem, and most people who give minimalism the side-eye do so because of minimalists who count their possessions and exult when they have only 100 things, or minimalists who are always skating through life by borrowing everyone else’s belongings and generosity in order to have as few things as possible. At that point the treatment has once again become a symptom.

But although minimalism is not Jesus, I think it comes much closer to filling that void than consumerism, and that’s why minimalists do feel so much happier and content with life.

Matthew 6:19-21 (ESV) says “19 Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

I will not label Jesus a minimalist. Trying to pin modern labels on the Son of God is a silly exercise, in my opinion. But I do think minimalists are on to something that Jesus was telling people about 2,000 years ago.

Jesus valued people, not possessions. He spent His time building relationships and focusing His energy on God’s purpose for Him. Those of us who have been in church for a long time are familiar with the idea that Jesus did not come to be the warrior king the Jewish people expected, but instead a savior of souls. But if we look at this from a slightly different angle, what do we find?

Jesus did not come to earth to accumulate material possessions or see how much activity He could fit in one day, no matter how worthwhile that activity might be. Luke 12:15 (ESV) says, “15 And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’”

The young man who wanted to know how to have eternal life was not interested in giving up his possessions and wealth in order to have that eternal life. Jesus’ response speaks volumes about what happens when we value the wrong things.

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24 ESV)

The point is not the wealth or possessions, but what matters to us. In minimalist terms, what we spend our time, money, and physical space on.

Do we prioritize buying the newest gadget over giving to an organization that feeds the hungry and brings the gospel to the far corners of the world? Do we spend time organizing our lives and our belongings or spending hours on our devices and put off spending time with our families? Are we too busy running from one activity to the next to notice the gorgeous sky God created or the joy of splashing in puddles? I’m certainly guilty of all this.

If Christians are on this earth to be a reflection of Christ, then living with a consumeristic mindset simply will not work. Our lives ought to be lived intentionally, with our priorities on people and God’s purpose for each of us. This includes doing things that feed our souls instead of sucking us dry and making the days flash by in a haze. This might be as simple as spending less time scrolling the internet and more time reading a book by C.S. Lewis, or as big as putting an stop to endless planning or dreaming and taking the first practical step toward your dreams and calling.

Courtney Carver, of bemorewithless, often says minimalism is love.

Jesus is love, and minimalism only works when it reflects Jesus’ values, whether the minimalist in question realizes it or not.

Emptiness, a life without God, is the problem. Consumerism is a treatment turned symptom. Minimalism is a treatment that mimics the cure.

Jesus is the cure.

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Title: Bible; Author: Jesus

I read an article on Huffington Post the other day. That doesn’t happen very often, because Huffington Post makes my laptop freeze and do strange things. But this time I was on another computer, and the article title caught my attention.

3 Ways Jesus Read the Bible that Evangelicals are Told Not to Do

Well, this article infuriated me so much I had to write a response to it. The lack of depth and logic behind the thought and writing bothered me immensely, especially since the author says, in the article, that he is an evangelical.* (Presumably he means he is a Christian.)

The author, Pete Enns, had three main points.

1. Jesus didn’t stick to what “the Bible says,” but read it with a creative flair that had little if any connection to what the Biblical writer actually meant to say.

Wow. Let me unpack this a bit.

First, Jesus is God. Jesus inspired the Biblical writers. (All Scripture is breathed out by God. 2 Timothy 3:16a)

If anyone can read the Bible creatively, Jesus is the one.

Besides, we can read the Bible over and over and learn what the Scriptures say by heart, but we will never know what the Biblical authors were thinking as they wrote with divine inspiration. To presume that one knows specifically what that writer meant is an arrogant assumption no one should make. The same is true for any piece of written literature without the writer explicitly telling us, “I meant to say XYZ with this written work.” If anyone knew what the Biblical writers were saying, it would be Jesus.

Second, to make such a broad statement as “Jesus didn’t stick to ‘what the Bible’ says … but read it with a creative flair that had little if any connection…” is to grossly oversimplifiy and completely misread Jesus’ statements.

I don’t pretend to be a Biblical scholar or a theologian, but I’m fairly certain that one can never look only at the surface of what Jesus says. He uses so many layers of meaning that his own disciples, the people listening to him explain, were confused!

Enns gave the specific example of Exodus 3:6: “And [God] said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.'” God is introducing himself to Moses through the burning bush, which Enns explains.

He then brings up Luke 20, where Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and Sadducees about God raising the dead. The Sadducees do not believe this, but the Pharisees do. (Enns says that Jesus was of the Pharisee party. I hope this is just Enns’s poor wording indicating that Jesus shared their belief about the raising of the dead. Considering how much time Jesus spends rebuking the Pharisees, he was definitely not one of them.)

Jesus directly references the Exodus passage in Luke 20:37: “‘But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.'”

Enns says, well, God was just introducing himself to Moses, which Jesus then used as a way to prove the Sadducees wrong, so he is interpreting the Bible creatively.

But Enns fails to mention Luke 20:38: “‘Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.'”

I think there is a deeper meaning here than Jesus taking an introduction and using it creatively. He has a bigger point. God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. When he calls himself the God of those who are dead, this indicates that he is still their God, and therefore will be resurrecting them.

Maybe Enns meant this when he said Jesus reused the Exodus passage creatively. I don’t know. But he certainly didn’t explain himself, if he did mean it.

2. Jesus felt he could “pick and choose” what parts of the Old Testament were valid and which weren’t.

I reiterate my first point: Jesus is the author of the Old Testament. If he says we no longer have to follow certain parts of Old Testament law, that’s his prerogative.

Enns uses the Sermon on the Mount as an example. Jesus invalidated a lot of Old Testament law in that one teaching. Enns says, “Several times he quotes something from the Law of Moses and then contrasts what the Law says (“you have heard it said) with a teaching of his own (“but I say to you”).”

And I say to Enns, so? Matthew 5:17 says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

God’s entire plan for creation centers around the fact that Jesus came to change everything. The Old Testament laws are placeholders for the incredible truth and salvation Jesus gave us with his death and resurrection. That does not at all mean the Old Testament laws are unimportant or not valuable; it means that if Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39), what he says becomes the law for us to follow.

The Old Testament is filled with God’s love for humanity. But it also tells us about a whole lot of justice befalling those who do evil. The New Testament, on the other hand, focuses completely on love and forgiveness. Why else did Jesus come to earth?

As far as Enns’s point goes, I think that if Jesus felt free to pick and choose from the Old Testament, he only gave us different views on some parts because he knew which parts would change with his sacrifice and which parts stayed the same. I will say that I don’t know how much or which sections fall into which category, though.

3. Jesus read his Bible as a Jew, not an evangelical (or even a Christian).*

This point confuses me the most. I’m still not sure what exactly Enns is trying to convey. He says, “Jesus did not agree with things about the Bible that evangelicals take for granted and consider non-negotiable–like ‘stick to the text’ and, ‘God’s word is eternal and never changes.'”

I may have mentioned it already, but Jesus is God. Humans don’t get to pick and choose from the Bible, but Jesus is the author. He doesn’t have to “stick to the text” because he is the living embodiment of the text.

Herein also lies a very large and sticky debate about which parts of the Bible are cultural and can be ignored or modified in today’s society and which parts are unchangeable. I won’t delve into that, but I will say that sin is sin is sin, no matter which millenium you live in. No excuses can change that.

Enns also says, “[Jesus] revered [the Bible] in Jewish ways, not evangelical ways,” but he doesn’t really define “Jewish ways” of revering the Bible other than saying that they debated with it and had a creative flare when interpreting it. That is probably a massive oversimplification of all the different sects and groups reading the Scriptures within ancient Jewish society, but I don’t know enough about it to go any deeper.

Anyway, Enns’s final paragraph says, “If evangelicals (and I am among them) pay attention to Jesus, they will learn a vital lesson: Our own Bible shows us that getting the Bible right isn’t the center of the Christian faith. Getting Jesus right is.”

I would think the best way to “get Jesus right” would be to read the Bible and find out what he said and did. I understand that Enns seems to be trying to refocus people on following Jesus and not obsessing over things like infant baptism and literal interpretations of Genesis and the like, but the way he wrote this entire article feels like he threw the baby out with the bathwater. Pardon the expression, if you will.

There is a lot of pressure in this society to reinterpret the Bible to permit a lot of different things, and this is where that cultural debate comes in that I mentioned above. Where do we draw the line between guidelines for our own modern lives and ancient culturally specific practices? How do we know what is still applicable and what is not? (By the way, I have my beliefs about this, but I’m not foolish enough to believe I have all the answers.)

I feel that Enns’s article does a lot of evangelical and literal Biblical interpretation bashing with sentences like this: “What Jesus is doing here [in point one] wouldn’t sit well with most Christians if, say, their pastor got up and preached like this. They’d ask him or her to try and stick to the text better and if not to start looking for another line of work.” Enns essentially gives permission to interpret the Bible in new and creative ways that can disregard pieces of the Old Testament and possibly the New Testament if it doesn’t fit quite right into how we want life to be.

I’ve explained all my feelings and logic issues with this article, but I am still disturbed by the fact that it ran on a major website with hundreds, if not thousands, of people reading it and possibly buying into it.

Living by the Word of God is not supposed to be easy. If we start reinterpreting the Bible, we should examine our motivations very carefully. Are we doing it to make our lives and beliefs easier? That is very, very dangerous.

 

Note: All Bible verses quoted from the English Standard Version.

*I need to gain a better understanding of what “evangelical” really means. I have never described or thought of myself as an “evangelical”. I’m a Christian, and I attend a Protestant church, so I’m probably in the group called “evangelicals”. But I see that word a lot in secular media, and I’m not sure that I really understand who means what when they say it, especially when writers like Enns seem to make a distinction between Christian and evangelical. (Although they might not understand either…)

 

 

Notes on Revelation

satan Passion of the Chrust

This semester, I am taking a class on the book of Revelation. It’s been a fascinating and illuminating journey as I learn the cultural context and the cultural meanings of all the visions and symbols in the book, and what John, the author, is trying to convey as his message (Inspired by God, of course).

We haven’t touched much on the futuristic aspect of Revelation and how much of it might be literal when it comes to the end times and all that. I’m not going to talk about that in this post, either.

But two particular discussions we had in the last few classes made me thoughtful.

We were talking about Revelation 12, the chapter in which John tells the story of the woman and the dragon and the story of Michael and the angels defeating the dragon, who is Satan. My professor took this opportunity to comment on Satan’s origins. Many people believe that Satan’s previous name was Lucifer, an angel, and God cast him out of heaven because a) he loved God too much and refused to bow down to humans as God’s ultimate creation, or b) that he became proud and wanted to be God’s equal.

Neither version is in the Bible, my professor said. The name Lucifer is not in the Bible. The story actually originates in a Jewish apocalypse, a book named 1 Enoch, which was written in the intertestamental period.

I confess: I had always thought that Satan used to be Lucifer and God cast him out of heaven, taking one-third of the angels with him. I don’t remember learning that at church or hearing it from anyone in particular, but now I’m rather embarassed about my ignorance.

My professor cited several Scripture references that lead people to believe this story, such as Revelation 12:9 (“And the great dragon was thrown down … to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”), Isaiah 14:12-15, in which the title “Day Star” can be translated as Lucifer, and Luke 10:17-18, in which Jesus says he saw Satan fall from heaven.

Contextually, my professor said, Revelation is talking about ultimate spiritual defeat, not some event at the beginning of history. Isaiah is actually talking about the king of Babylon, not Satan, and Jesus is also talking about spiritual defeat, not a literal event.

Now, I’m no Biblical scholar. I don’t know ancient Hebrew or Greek, and I cannot claim to understand Revelation or any of the prophetic books very well at all, let alone everything Jesus said.

But my professor’s explanation of the Scripture references made sense to me, and I started wondering why the Jewish people would give Satan an origin story at all.

After all, he is evil incarnate, isn’t he? Why would anyone want to dwell on him more than necessary?

Well, this is what occurred to me.

1 Enoch was written in the intertestamental period, approximately (like I said, I’m not a Biblical scholar). This was a period in which God was silent. He was still present, still working in the lives of his people and the events of history, but he did not speak through prophets or judges or leaders.

This would have been a period of spiritual uncertainty for a people who were so accustomed to hearing the words of God spoken through his prophets, even if they didn’t like what they heard. History rolled onward in these four hundred years, often trampling God’s people. I’m sure they wanted an explanation for their suffering, just as Christians today ask “Why?”.

If Satan is evil incarnate, he was certainly present and working against God’s people during this period. The Bible does not tell us where the serpent in the Garden of Eden came from, just that he was there. Well, God created all things, so does that mean he created the serpent, Satan, too? That’s a disturbing thought.

The Jews must have thought so. Giving Satan an origin story in which evil was his choice, defying God was his choice, removes the blame of the creation of evil from God and puts it in the hands of free will, the same thing that humans have.

So if Satan never started off on God’s side, and has always been evil, does that mean he came from God?

That’s a terrible thought. The Jews didn’t like it either, I’m sure, thus the origin story.

I believe that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and that he created everything. Better minds than mine have philosophized about the origin of evil and God’s role in that. I don’t have an answer; I just came up with a reason as to why anyone would give Satan an origin story.

The other discussion that sparked some thought for me was related to God’s incredible wrath and judgment described in Revelation. My professor has noted throughout the class that many scholars do not like Revelation and tend to try to explain it away or disregard it as part of Scripture because of the wrath. If God is love, than how can he also be so wrathful?

We are discussing the final chapters of Revelation, in which God brings justice and judgment to the wicked, those who belong to the “kingdom of the earth,” as John described them. My professor said that he sees wrath as necessary for justice. God’s people have been persecuted by the wicked, and now he is bringing justice to them by passing judgment on the wicked.

I think one reason people are so uncomfortable with the idea of God as a wrathful God, not only a God of love, is that that wrath has a target: the wicked. “But God loves everyone! He shouldn’t have wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah or the Canaanites!” people say. Well, he does love everyone. Often, his judgment is designed to bring people to repentance. But he cannot allow those who do not repent to avoid justice.

I think of it like this: Love is the beginning. Wrath is the ending.

God offers chance after chance for humanity to turn its back on evil and follow the Christ. He loves us more than we could ever imagine. But those chances are not unlimited. If humanity keeps its heart hard and refuses to accept Christ and persecutes God’s people, that does not go without consequences.

The inhabitants of the kingdom of the earth. In the context of the Bible, they are the ones who have not accepted Christ as Redeemer and Savior.

I think that those who are uncomfortable with the idea of God judging people and bringing his wrath down upon them feel that way because they don’t want to acknowledge that humans are sinful creatures; that they are sinful. God’s love is so much more attractive than his wrath because his love takes us as we are while his wrath demands repentance.

God brings judgment on those who deserve it, who have rejected him. People don’t like to think that anyone deserves judgment because that would mean admitting the sin and darkness that all humans are capable of.

God is just, however, and whether we like it or not, he will bring justice in the end times.

Remember, I’m no theologian or Bible scholar or philosopher. I’m sure people can find holes in my thought process here and pick apart my conclusions. But these two ideas needed to be written out, so that I could think them through.

Sacrifice Your Beloved

Abraham

Sacrifice makes us uncomfortable. We accept Jesus’s sacrifice because it has a purpose we understand. But the idea of sacrifice in our own lives bothers us, because sacrifice involves pain.

Genesis 22 relates the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. God told Abraham to take Isaac to the mountain of Moriah and sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering to God. Abraham obeyed, saying “Here am I” (Genesis 22:1), and he went to the mountain, built an altar, and was moments away from sacrificing his son before God intervened.

Many people struggle with the paradox of God asking for the death of a person merely to prove a point. Why would God ask Abraham to kill his only son, the son God had promised? God had passed judgment on places like Sodom and Gomorrah, which were cities filled with evildoers, but the Bible doesn’t label Isaac as evil. Many people have a problem with God’s request because of this.

One theme in this story is the theme of trust. God had a plan and was asking Abraham to trust His word. Abraham had to set aside his own doubts and fears and give up his plans and submit to God’s will. He had to decide if he trusted God to still fulfill His promises, even without Isaac.

Another aspect to this story focuses on the idea of sacrifice. Isaac was Abraham’s beloved son and was the most important person in Abraham’s life, not just because Isaac was his son, but because he represented God’s promises and answers to Abraham’s prayers. God asked Abraham, “What are you willing to sacrifice for me? Will you give me everything?” Did Abraham put God above everything else in his life, even above his beloved son?

Sometimes we find it hard to uncover a message in certain Bible stories that relates to our modern lives, especially in stories from the Old Testament. A story about human sacrifice? What in the world does that have to do with us?

Genesis 22 translates to modern life because it asks one basic question: “If God asked me to sacrifice something or someone I love for Him, would I do it?” In Abraham’s case, the sacrifice was literal. But while that seems horrific to our modern point of view, it would not have been terribly odd to Abraham. His world was filled with violence done in the name of religion, such as babies being sacrificed to the Canaanite god Moloch. Abraham knew that his God was not afraid to ask him to make hard choices.

Because literal sacrifice is not part of modern culture, it is far less likely that God would ask us to burn something (or someone) on an altar for Him. He’ll ask us to sacrifice in other ways.

God may ask for the sacrifice of a relationship or a dream. He may ask for sacrifice on a career path or the sacrifice of a passion. We might need to sacrifice an obsession that is drawing us away from Him, like social media or a movie franchise. Or it could be a dream that God has given us, but if He asks us to give it up for Him, to know that He is the most important one in your life, would we do it? Ultimately, it comes down to a choice: God or our earthly blessings.

“For now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22:12b)

God was already planning to sacrifice His son for us. He wanted to know if Abraham would do the same for Him. Will we answer, “Here am I?”