Terrorism and The Gospel :: Weekend Reading List

“Religious extremism cannot be fully addressed by acting as if man can live from bread alone,” writes Thomas K. Johnson, “without addressing the deeper human needs that lead to extremism, and these needs include the search for meaning.” Johnson, a Religious Freedom Ambassador to the Vatican, draws from Viktor Frankl’s views on Christianity, suffering, and meaning to address the modern terrorism crisis. He explains:

Frankl, who was an Austrian Jew trained as a psychiatrist, noticed… that those prisoners who found meaning in life often survived the Holocaust under conditions that should have killed them, while those who lost any meaning usually died. Meaning was a source of life.

Johnson argues that European teens are statistically more likely to join extremist groups—even when compared to majority-Muslim nations like Indonesia—because their culture has lost meaning. Groups like ISIS give the appearance that they can replace European secularism with ultimate religious meaning through Islam and secondary civil meaning through the caliphate.

Religious extremism has always torn people apart. American’s don’t have to look far to find examples—former Westboro Baptist member Megan Phelps-Roper confessed that relational and emotional disintegration were among the primary reasons she left her father’s church:

Church members disdained human feelings as something that people worshipped instead of the Bible. They even had a sign: “GOD HATES YOUR FEELINGS.” They disregarded people’s feelings in order to break their idols.

The gospel—fully integrated into every sphere of life and faith—is the only sufficient answer to meaning. The Christian gospel provides not only a robust spiritual meaning, but a powerful civil meaning as well. Faith communities must work intentionally to draw these two meanings to the forefront of worship and discipleship—something Johnson doesn’t believe happens often enough:

Obviously, addressing the need for meaning is a central task of faith communities, but within faith communities, to the extent of my experience and observation, the emphasis naturally falls on ultimate meanings. Within Christian churches we talk constantly about the hope of eternal life, about grace and forgiveness, about faith in “the gospel.” Within churches we sometimes talk about how God’s grace should equip us to become salt and light within the civil communities.

Again on Easter I heard that there are rational reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. But there is a difference in the relation between faith and reason, depending on whether we are talking about ultimate or secondary meanings. In the realm of ultimate meanings, I believe it is far better for all of us if we do not completely leave rationality behind. And in the realm of secondary meanings, when we are talking about ethical principles that should provide meaning to civil communities, it is simply foolish if we pretend to leave our respective faith identities behind.

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 11-12 (Listen – 3:39)
James 5 (Listen – 3:01)

This Weekend’s Readings
Isaiah 13 (Listen – 3:11) 1 Peter 1 (Listen – 3:53)
Isaiah 14 (Listen – 5:04) 1 Peter 2 (Listen – 3:48)

Pride and Procrastination :: Throwback Thursday

By Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. — James 4:13–14

We should have some affection to the enjoyments of this world; otherwise they would cease to be enjoyments. If we have no degree of rejoicing in them, we cannot be thankful for them. We may take delight in earthly friends and other earthly enjoyments. But by setting our hearts on these things—by fixing our minds on them so much that we cannot well enjoy ourselves without them—we show that we have our dependence on another day.

If men are proud of their worldly circumstances, it shows that they have a dependence on tomorrow; for no man would think it worth his while to vaunt himself in that which is to be depended on only for a day. Though a man has a great estate today, he will not be puffed up with it, unless he depends on having it tomorrow.

A person will not be proud of his fine clothes if he understands that he may be stripped by death and wrapped in a burial sheet tomorrow—to be carried to the grave, there to rot, and be covered and filled with worms.

When men envy others’ worldly enjoyments, their wealth, their worldly ease, or their titles and high places—their sensual pleasures, or any of their worldly circumstances—it shows that they set their hearts on the things of the world. So when they contend about worldly possessions and enjoyments, (as almost all the contentions that are in the world are about these things,) it shows that they have dependence on tomorrow.

Those who are secure in their sins are generally so because they boast themselves of tomorrow. They depend on future opportunity—they flatter themselves with hopes of living long in the world—they depend on the fulfillment of their good intentions as to what they will do at a more convenient season.

Would not your behavior be very different from what it is now if you every day lived and acted without any dependence on seeing one day more? God has concealed from us the day of our death, without doubt, partly for this end, that we might be excited to be always ready, and might live as those that are always waiting for the coming of their Lord.

*Abridged and language updated from Procrastination: The Sin And Folly of Depending on Future Time by Jonathan Edwards.

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 10:5-34 (Listen – 5:14)
James 4 (Listen – 2:25)


Ambition, Conceit, and Jealousy

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. — James 3.16

I have friends who have mentioned that they have selected a “life verse”—a single passage upon which they regularly reflect and meditate. Though I’ve never chosen one personally, I’m convinced Philippians 2.3-4 would be most helpful: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit…”—primarily because it exposes the de facto motivations of my heart.

Selfish ambition desires something for the glory of self—regardless of what’s left in the wake. Vain conceit desires something for the shame of others—proving wrong the doubters of the past. These two motivations foment in the human heart. Together they effectively erode any root system of emotional security and bear only the fruit of pride and jealousy.

James, in warning Christians against such things, calls them what they are—the wellspring of every vile practice. In examining James’ warnings about jealousy and selfish ambition, pastor and theologian Paul Cedar observes,

The Greek word for ‘bitter,’ pikros, is the same word James uses to describe the bitter water which comes from the spring [of the jealous heart]. The word denotes a sharp, pungent characteristic.

The most graphic translation of the word self-seeking would be ‘faction’ or those involved in ‘party split.’ This is the expression of mankind’s sinful nature which is preoccupied with the indulgence of wanting our own way—doing our own thing. It creates the ‘we-they’ syndrome with which we are all so familiar. It is selfish ambition at its worst.

“Vile” seems like a strong choice of words, until we trace out the full effects of these actions. Writ large, it is Bashar Al-Asad, who in 2010—a year before triggering the largest humanitarian crisis since the Nazis—ominously told Seymour Hersh, “You start with the land; you do not start with peace.” Writ small, it is Donald Trump who, in January, confessed:  “I’m very greedy. I’m a greedy person. I shouldn’t tell you that, I’m a greedy–I’ve always been greedy.”

But it is written on all our hearts. The contrast Scripture offers isn’t, be less jealous and selfish. Instead, James extends an invitation by presenting the beauty of godly wisdom:

Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

Scripture proclaims that the answer for our pride and brokenness is found in the character of Jesus. Where our disquieted hearts churn, Christ has not only sown peace but invited us to partake in the fruit of his harvest.

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 9:8-10:4 (Listen – 8:50)
James 3 (Listen – 2:38)

Justified by Works

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. — James 2.24

“Faith apart from works is dead,” James quips. The assertion flies in the face of Paul’s theology: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” The book of James isn’t the only place where this is true; Galatians implores Christians to, “not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap” and Philippians, perhaps more directly, calls the faithful to, “work out your own salvation.”

Theologians offer simple, nearly tweet-able, answers like, “We are not saved by deeds; we are saved for deeds; these are the twin truths of the Christian life. And Paul’s whole emphasis is on the first truth, and James’s whole emphasis is on the second truth.” In some ways this is true, but it is also insufficient.

James’ language, “justified by works and not by faith,” is abrasive in our current theological climate—and pushes us beyond the conversation of saved by and for. Part of the problem may be what comes to mind when we, modern Christians, talk about the idea of salvation. Joseph Dillow—whose three-volume series, Final Destiny, explores over 2,000 passages of Scripture in regards to salvation and works—explains:

It would be difficult to find a concept which is richer and more varied in meaning than the biblical concept of salvation. The breadth of salvation is so sweeping and its intended aim so magnificent that in many contexts the words used defy precise definition.

Yet these difficulties have not thwarted numerous interpreters from assuming, often without any contextual justification, that the words used invariably mean ‘deliverance from hell’ or ‘go to heaven when you die.’ It may come as a surprise to many that this usage of ‘salvation’ would have been the least likely meaning to come to the mind of a reader of the Bible in the first century.

Indeed, in 812 usages of the various Hebrew words translated ‘to save’ or ‘salvation’ in the Old Testament, only 58 (7.1 percent) refer to eternal salvation.

James and Paul aren’t bickering about faith and works—they are trying to draw our attention to the greater scope of what faith and salvation mean both now and for eternity. Dillow’s conclusion is heard best in the modern world—where nearly everything we come in contact with must have a value proposition—“when believers do not animate their faith with works, James does not say their faith is nonexistent; he says it is useless.”

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 8:1-9:7 (Listen – 7:02)
James 2 (Listen – 3:26)

The Root of Wisdom

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. — James 1.5

It’s not surprising, given their penchant for philosophy, that the Greek language uses multiple words to talk about wisdom. Ephesians, for instance, instructs, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” The Greek word for ‘wise’, sophos, alludes to intellectual precision—wisdom through thoughtfulness and intentionality.

The book of James opens by imploring Christians to pray for wisdom of a different kind. The Greek word here for wisdom, Sophia, refers to a person’s capacity to function in the world according to the understanding she’s been given. In modern language it could be called integrative wisdom—insight that catalyses and empowers life change.

The writers of Scripture believed integrative wisdom could come only through prayer. Thoughtful people can attain intellectual precision and disciplined people can force top-level changes to actions—but only the Spirit can give wisdom that changes our hearts, and through them, our lives.

A collection of prayers from Augustine reveals the aching cries for wisdom that can only come from God:

Almighty God, in whom we live and move and have our being, you have made us for yourself, so that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.

You know our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking. Set free your servants from all anxious thoughts for tomorrow; give us contentment with your good gifts; and confirm our faith accordingly as we seek your kingdom. You will not keep us from any good thing through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Grant us purity of heart and strength of purpose—that no selfish passion may hinder us from knowing your will, no weakness from doing it—in your light we see light and in your service we find perfect freedom through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Look upon us, O Lord, and let all the darkness of our souls vanish before the beams of your brightness.

Fill us with holy love, and open to us the treasures of your wisdom. All our desire is known to you, therefore perfect the work you have begun, and what your Spirit has awakened in us to ask in prayer.

We seek your face; turn your face to us and show us your glory. Then shall our longing be satisfied, and our peace shall be perfect.

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 7 (Listen – 3:51)
James 1 (Listen – 3:26)


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