FREE TO BE…

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. [Isaiah 45:7 (KJV)]

sunflowerWow! Now there’s a troubling verse. God creates evil? Since evil is anything that contradicts God’s holy nature, it’s hard to understand how that could happen. Even other translations like the NLT’s, “I send good times and bad times,” the ESV’s, “I make well-being and create calamity,” and the NIV’s, “I bring prosperity and create disaster,” don’t make this verse sound much better. How do we reconcile a God who is good, a God who is love, with a God who says he creates evil?

There’s certainly no mention of God creating evil in Genesis. We are told that He created the world and everything in it, that man was made in His own image, and when God was finished, He looked over everything and saw that it was good. This is where we again see the flexible nature of Hebrew verbs in Scripture. As discussed yesterday, many verbs such as create, harden, send, blind, or deceive are used in a permissive sense as well as a causative one. As a result, we frequently find God represented as doing something when, in actuality, He is only permitting it or predicting that it will be done. Reading it that way, God didn’t create evil but He does allow it. Nevertheless, how can a righteous, just, and loving God even allow evil?

Our being made in God’s image means that, like Him, we have intelligence, reason and the ability to make conscious choices. Personal volition means that we have a choice as to whether or not we love and obey God. When God gave us the ability to choose, He also gave us the responsibility to choose well. Adam and Eve didn’t choose wisely when they ate the forbidden fruit and we’re not much better. While we can choose obedience over rebellion or love over hate, we also can choose deception instead of truth or vindictiveness rather than forgiveness. Because God allows us to choose, we can abandon good for evil as easily as we can close our eyes to His light, shut our ears to His truth, and harden our hearts to His love. C.S. Lewis pointed out that “If a thing is free to be good it’s free to be bad. And free will is what made evil possible.”

Knowing we’d mess up by the third chapter in Genesis, why did our omniscient God allow us freedom to go against His will? Yet, if He compelled us to be obedient, wouldn’t He be more a puppet master than a God of love? Without freedom of choice, would we be unique individuals, made in His image, or marionettes moving only when He pulled the strings? A relationship must be voluntary to be authentic and love must be freely given to be genuine. God didn’t create evil but He did create a people who can rebel and turn from righteousness and it is that rebellion that creates evil.

I don’t understand it completely; someday, I will. I do know that our good and loving God has a good reason for allowing evil to exist. I also know that God can use evil for our good and His glory; after all, from man’s rejection and murder of His only Son, came our salvation!

If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. [C. S. Lewis]

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. … And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. [John 3:16-17,19 (KJV)]

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HOW DID IT GET THAT WAY?

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go.” [Exodus 7:14 (ESV)]

little blue heronThe whole matter of Pharaoh’s hardened heart and how it got so stubborn is confusing and an issue that has been debated at length by Biblical scholars. How exactly did Pharaoh’s heart get that way? Based on the verses in Exodus where God says He will make Pharaoh’s heart hard [7:3,9:12,10:20,27], some say that God deliberately hardened Pharaoh’s heart to demonstrate His power and glory. Wouldn’t that mean Pharaoh had no free will? If Pharaoh couldn’t submit to Moses’ demands, the plagues hardly seem justified. How could a just God inflict such cruel punishment on all of Egypt when He was the one who made Pharaoh so inflexible?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, citing the verses saying that Pharaoh hardened his own heart [8:15,32], other commentaries say that Pharaoh freely chose to stubbornly deny Moses and watch his people suffer. Saying that the hard heart was all Pharaoh’s doing, however, seems to contradict several other verses. The middle of the road explanations admit that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart but add that Pharaoh already was so arrogant and headstrong that God didn’t change the outcome by further hardening it. The Oxford Jewish Study Bible notes that God “does not stiffen Pharaoh’s heart initially, but only after Pharaoh has done so himself many times.”

After reading several commentaries on Hebrew grammar, I found yet another explanation. Although God-breathed, Scripture was penned by men who used the words, idioms and metaphors of the day. In Hebrew, active verbs often were used idiomatically to mean the action was allowed or predicted; verbs could be both causative and permissive. Saying God hardened Pharaoh’s heart can also mean that God allowed Pharaoh’s heart to harden. Another example of this verb use would be when Jeremiah tells God, “You have utterly deceived this people.” [Jeremiah 4:10] Jeremiah isn’t accusing God of being a liar; he’s saying that God allowed the people to be deceived (two very different things).

Instead of looking to commentaries, I finally looked to Scripture for my answer about Pharaoh’s hardened heart. In James, we find that, while God may test people, He does not tempt them. Temptation comes from Satan and we give into temptation when we’re seduced by our own desires. Pharaoh’s heart was hard because he was an evil, stubborn, and arrogant man. God may have allowed it but it wasn’t God who made him that way. Nevertheless, we could also say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by providing the circumstances that forced him into revealing his true colors. Had God not sent Moses, the plagues would never have happened. In the end, however, the responsibility for those plagues falls squarely on Pharaoh’s shoulders. And, in the end, the responsibility for our sins falls squarely on ours.

It is not God that blinds the eyes of men or hardens their hearts. He sends them light to correct their errors, and to lead them in safe paths; it is by the rejection of this light that the eyes are blinded and the heart hardened. … Every rejection of light hardens the heart and darkens the understanding; and thus men find it more and more difficult to distinguish between right and wrong, and they become bolder in resisting the will of God. [Ellen G. White]

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. [James 1:13-15 (ESV)]

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LET MY PEOPLE GO!

But when Pharaoh saw that relief had come, he became stubborn. He refused to listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had predicted. … “This is the finger of God!” the magicians exclaimed to Pharaoh. But Pharaoh’s heart remained hard. He wouldn’t listen to them, just as the Lord had predicted. … But Pharaoh again became stubborn and refused to let the people go. [Exodus 8:15,19,32 (NLT)] 

frogThe Book of Exodus tells of the many times Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh with the Lord’s message that Pharaoh should let the Israelites leave Egypt. Pharaoh, unwilling to see his slave labor depart, demanded miracle upon miracle to prove that the Israelites’ God had sent them. The series of plagues that followed was the ultimate “smack-down” between God and all of the Egypt’s gods. The waters of Egypt were fouled with blood, frogs covered the land, and dust became an infestation of gnats. Even though Pharaoh’s magicians conceded to Moses, the headstrong ruler refused to believe the marvels before him. The Israelites remained unaffected by these calamities and Moses could both start and stop every plague but Pharaoh remained intractable and unconvinced.

More afflictions were visited on the people of Egypt: swarms of flies, diseased livestock, boils on people and animals, and a devastating hail storm that was followed by swarms of locusts. Yet, Pharaoh refused to budge. The ninth plague, three days of darkness, should have been enough to convince anyone that the Israelite’s God meant business. Nevertheless, no matter what sort of punishment rained down on the Egyptians, Pharaoh stood his ground. He would concede only long enough for Moses to end each affliction and then change his mind once the plague was lifted. It was not until the final plague, the death of every first-born creature which included his son, that Pharaoh relented. Even then, he recklessly sent his soldiers after the fleeing Israelites only to have the entire army destroyed.

What distorted sense of pride kept Pharaoh from admitting he was wrong? How arrogant he was to think foiling the God of the Israelites took precedence over the welfare of his people. Pharaoh’s hardened heart resulted in Egypt enduring terrible affliction and loss. I wonder; do we ever barge ahead, ignoring the consequences, simply because we are more concerned with being victors than right? Like Pharaoh, are we ever so arrogant and uncompromising that we’re unwilling to accept the possibility that we could be wrong? Do we ever harden our hearts to the truth? Do we ever harden our hearts to God?

Your ancestors refused to listen to this message. They stubbornly turned away and put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing. They made their hearts as hard as stone, so they could not hear the instructions or the messages that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies had sent them by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. [Zechariah 7:11-12 (NLT)]

For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes—so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them. [Matthew 13:15 (NLT)]

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FALL PREVENTION

If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. [1 Corinthians 10:12-13 (NLT)]

The Lord directs the steps of the godly. He delights in every detail of their lives. Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand. [Psalm 37:23-24 (NLT)]

scarecrowLast week was “Fall Prevention Week” but it wasn’t about keeping summer’s flowers blooming or preventing Jack Frost from coloring the maple trees. Although accidents can happen, most falls are preventable and last week was dedicated to preventing those falls. Apparently, because my age puts me in the group most at risk of falling, my son sent me an article identifying the best ways to prevent falls. Instead of clearing walkways or installing non-slip tape and a grab bar in the tub, I ended up thinking about ways to prevent another kind of fall—the one into sin. In reality, I’m far more likely to fall that way than to stumble over my entry rug.

When most of us think of sin, we usually think of the “felony” sins: theft, murder, adultery, drug abuse, drunkenness, perjury, idolatry, bribery, extortion, wantonness, sorcery and witchcraft. Billy Graham, however, described sin as “any thought or action that falls short of God’s will.” Falling short of God’s will includes all sins, even those  “misdemeanor” ones like complaint, envy, attachment to possessions, selfishness, irreverence, laziness, arguing, hypocrisy, greed, backbiting, whining, jealousy, anger, broken promises, shortness of temper, and even gluttony. Sin isn’t just missing the target; it’s anything short of hitting the bull’s eye!

While the bathroom is the number one danger zone for slips and falls, it’s probably not our biggest danger zone for sin. That zone is harder to identify and probably varies from person to person. For some it may be the computer or refrigerator, for others the water cooler at work or an afternoon with the bridge group. It may seem as obvious as a bar, bachelor party or casino or as innocuous as the mall, TV, or the in-law’s house. It’s wise to identify our personal danger zones and either avoid them or do our best to slip-proof them. Sometimes hazards, like a child’s toy or spilled water, can be where we least expect them. Even a chat over coffee after church can turn into gossip or disparagement. No matter where we are, if we want to prevent either kind of fall, we should always be looking for hidden hazards. Keeping homes and work places tidy by cleaning up our messes is another bit of advice that works both ways. When our personal lives are in disorder and disarray, when we’re too rushed to spend time in prayer, when we’re not honest with others or ourselves, when we’re disgruntled or discouraged, sin has a way of tripping us up as easily as can a pair of shoes left in a hallway.

According to the fall prevention article, one of the best ways to prevent falls is exercise which increases flexibility, builds muscles, and improves balance. We don’t need get in our 10,000 steps or lift weights to avoid falling into sin but we do need to build up our spiritual muscles with Bible study, Christian fellowship and prayer. Using things like night lights, photocell outdoor lights, or photoluminescent tape to light the way was the final bit of advice in the article. While fine ideas, they’re not very effective when avoiding sin. A better solution is the light of Christ; He’s the light of the world and our never-ending supplier of spiritual light. His light allows us to spot temptation and step away from sin. His Holy Spirit enables us to look at life and people with godly eyes—and walk in God’s will. Stay safe!

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”  [John 8:12 (NLT)]

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THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? [Jeremiah 17:9 (NLT)]

For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. [Mark 7:21-22 (NLT)]

Grand Canyon of YellowstoneI recently saw a play in which the only character, Lisa, presents a monologue about her life and family. The audience learns that her father, Walter, a German-born Jew, escaped to the U.S. as part of the kindertransport effort but that the rest of his family perished at Auschwitz. During her monologue, Lisa tells of taking her then 75-year old father to visit the Auschwitz Memorial. While touring the concentration camp, Walter tells his daughter about attending school with members of the Hitler Youth. Being a Jew, he couldn’t wear one of their uniforms but another boy in his school, a Gentile, refused to wear one. Her father then tells her that, in spite of the horror of Auschwitz and the loss of his family, he is glad he was born a Jew—because he didn’t have the option of becoming a Nazi! Unlike the Gentile boy who refused to join (and suffered because of it), Walter realized that, had he not been Jewish, he might have joined the Nazis. He knew that part of him could have been as merciless and evil as the men who rounded up and exterminated his family.

After the war, Walter returned to Germany as an interrogator of German personnel. In her soliloquy, Lisa tells how he admitted to callously browbeating one prisoner into confessing that he’d rounded up Jews from the Ghetto. Rather than turn the prisoner over to the allies for trial, Walter handed him over to the Russians, men he knew would summarily execute the German in the woods. Perhaps Walter was right; in other circumstances, he might have joined the Hitler Youth.

Hearing this story made me wonder what darkness lurks in my heart. In other circumstances, could I spew hate, inflict pain, ignore my conscience, turn my back on my brothers and sisters, or close my eyes to evil? Could I ever be like Haman (who plotted to exterminate the Jews) or Abimelech (who killed his 70 brothers)? Could I have worn a Hitler Youth uniform? Sadly, in another time, in another place, perhaps my heart could have deceived me to do just that.

Just because I’m capable of evil, however, doesn’t mean I have to be evil. Rather than betray Jesus as did Judas, I could be as faithful as John. Rather than the closed minds and murdering hearts of those who stoned Stephen, I could be as holy and forgiving as the martyred man. While I could be as scheming and immoral as Herodias, I also could be as obedient and fearless as her victim John the Baptist. Yes, I could have joined the Hitler Youth, but I also could have refused to be part of such evil and willingly suffered the consequences.

There is something terribly wrong with our hearts that, if allowed to grow, can become horrendous and unthinkably evil, but there also is something beautifully right with them. We are made in the image of God; deep inside us there is something of Him and He has written his law in our hearts. He gave us the gift of free will and, with every choice, we either become more or less like the person God made us to be. Because our hearts can be deceitful, corrupt, and self-serving they can lead us astray but they don’t have to! When led by the Holy Spirit, our hearts can be so filled with good that there is no room left for evil.

For I was born a sinner—yes, from the moment my mother conceived me. … Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. [Psalm 51:5,10-11 (NLT)]

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. [Galatians 5:22-24 (NLT)]

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SPINNING

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. [Psalm 32:5 (NLT)]

great blue heronHaving just returned from the East Coast, I had a lengthy “to do” list and thought I could fit in a few errands before picking up my mother-in-law for her doctor’s appointment. As I pushed the cart through the store, I glanced down at my watch to check the time and gasped. To my dismay, I’d lost an hour! I should have been picking her up right then; there was no way we would make it to the doctor’s on time. Leaving the cart in the aisle, I rushed to my car. Rather than think how to save the situation, my first thought was how to spin it! Other than my own carelessness and stupidity, what valid excuse could I have for my tardiness? As I started the car, I glanced at the clock on the dash and realized that hour hadn’t disappeared; I’d left it back East. While my watch was still on EST, my car, mother-in-law, the doctor and I were in CST and there was still plenty of time.;

Rather than a complete fabrication, spinning is selectively gathering facts, omitting relevant truths, and then shaping them to support our version of the story. Spinning reshapes people and events with half-truths, diversions, exaggeration, inaccuracies, emotion-laden words, attacks and euphemisms. Spinning gives us “alternative facts.” It calls bombs “lethal defensive weapons,” cheating on emissions tests “possible non-compliance,” adultery an “inappropriate relationship,” embezzlement a “personal failing,” and information we don’t like “fake news.”

Although spinning is just a nicer way of saying deceiving, we all do it. Sometimes, we spin to save someone’s feelings but, far more often, we do it to save ourselves from a reprimand, consequences, embarrassment, or humiliation. The first spinners, of course, were Eve and Adam who spun the apple story to shift the blame. Eve said it was the serpent’s fault and Adam placed the blame on both Eve and God (for giving him the woman in the first place)! Detouring around a troublesome question, Cain spun when he answered God’s question as to the whereabouts of his brother with a question of his own. We spin so we don’t have to admit our failings. Aaron spun the golden calf incident by blaming the evil Israelites rather than his weak leadership.

When we can’t make an accusation disappear, we spin it to explain that what we did wasn’t really that wrong. Told to completely destroy everything in the Amalekite nation, Saul disobeyed by sparing the king’s life. His troops destroyed only what was worthless and took the rest for themselves. When confronted by Samuel, rather than admitting his greed and disobedience, Saul spun the story. Making no mention of the monument he’d set up for himself, he claimed the prohibited plunder was to be a sacrifice to God. Sometimes, we spin when it isn’t even necessary. When Jesus asked the crippled man at Bethesda if he wanted to get well, rather than a simple yes or no, the man blamed his disability on those who wouldn’t help him to the pool.

David had a perfect opportunity to put a spin on his adultery with Bathsheba. When confronted by Nathan, the king easily could have blamed the beauty for seducing him or Joab for misunderstanding his directions regarding Uriah’s fate. Instead, David did what all of us are expected to do: confessed and said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Although we prefer making excuses and laying the blame for our failures elsewhere, let us never forget that we, like David, must always take full responsibility for our actions.

But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. [Luke 18:13-14 (NLT)]

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