The power of “and”

“And” is a powerful word.

In order to understand why, Americans need to read Hebrews 11. But since many won’t, Christians in America should strive to demonstrate Hebrews 11 in our speech and in our use of social media.

Hebrews 11 is the “by faith” chapter. It explains and celebrates the ways in which many people in the Old Testament walked through the world “by faith.” These heroes of the faith show contemporary believers what faith looks like, how it acts, and the ways in which faith responds to trials, hardships, deprivations, unfulfilled longings, and hope deferred.

Among the men and women listed stand Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, and David. Each is described as living “by faith” and is presented as a commendable example of the kind of faith described in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

These men and women are, in fact, commendable. They did, in truth, exercise biblical faith during trying times and in diverse circumstances. Each modeled true faith.

And . . .

“And” is a potent word. It serves to connect things that otherwise might be held apart. It is sunny outside, and it is cold. “And” brings a fuller picture of truth than either statement alone could offer. It is not either sunny or cold. It is sunny and cold.

“And” is powerful.

Abraham modeled true faith, and he repeatedly lied, jeopardizing the life of his wife on more than one occasion. Sarah modeled true faith, and she laughed in disbelief when the LORD revealed to her that she would bear a son in her old age. Jacob modeled true faith, and he deceived his father, defrauded his brother, and swindled his uncle. Moses modeled true faith, and he murdered an Egyptian man, burying his body in the sand. Rahab modeled true faith, and she made her living as a prostitute before serving the LORD. Gideon modeled true faith, and he named his son “my father is king” even though God, not Gideon, was the King of Israel. Samson modeled true faith, and he broke the vows to God he had taken as a Nazarite. David modeled true faith, and he committed adultery with Bathsheba, thereafter arranging for the untimely death of her husband.

And. Each of these people both modeled true faith and committed great sins.

Our nation seems incapable of “and.” The notion that I can be in favor of lovingly protecting the lives of my neighbors and in favor of a robust economy at the same time seems lost on many people. But I like sunshine and I like a summer shower that relieves the heat. I trust God for provision and I work hard at my job. I think pepperoni and black olives belong on pizza. But not pineapple—that’s just an abomination. In any case, you get the point.

So Christian, when you speak and engage on social media, think about Hebrews 11. Christians should refuse to say, “Abraham was only sinful, not faithful.” We should likewise refuse to say, “Abraham was only faithful, not sinful.” Both are lies, because both neglect “and.” In the same way, our public discourse should include lots of “and,” as we refuse to lie or to pit one truth against another truth. I want to love my neighbor by not infecting him, and I want to love my neighbor by making sure he has a job. And.

In a world that has forgotten about “and,” you, Christian, remember to use its power, and use it often.

Is “righteous indignation” righteous?

Righteous indignation. You’ve felt it.

It’s that burning anger that arises within you when a driver flies past you, crossing a double yellow line in a school zone, driving 30MPH over the speed limit, risking the lives of children.

But how do you know that your indignation is actually righteous? We all become indignant. Each of us occasionally mounts our moral high horse, glancing down our nose at those whom we categorize as wicked, chastising the moral evils we see in others. I’ve done it. So have you. But what if your moral high horse isn’t so moral? Would you even know it?

The conscience is a funny thing. Your conscience is your faculty of discerning moral evil. It accuses you when you’ve done wrong. It acquits you when you’ve done right. Your conscience produces righteous indignation when the driver flies you by because it believes that such behavior is wrong. But is your conscience infallible? Sadly, it isn’t.

Your conscience acts like a filter. It lets through thoughts, words, and behaviors that it believes to be good, true, and right, and it prohibits that which it believes to be evil, false, and wicked. But it only acts according to what it knows.

If you were raised in a home in which “doo-doo” was considered a bad word, your conscience will accuse you if you say it. It will also accuse others, believing them to be immoral in their use of words. You might even experience “righteous indignation” at what you perceive to be their crass speech. But if you grew up on a farm, and “shit” was simply the word that you and everybody else you knew—including the leaders at your church—used to describe animal waste, then you wouldn’t think twice about saying it. Your conscience would not accuse you or others.

Individual conscience therefore differs from person to person. What causes righteous indignation in one person may be perfectly acceptable to another. Who’s right?

If there is no God, then none of us ever has the right to exercise righteous indignation. You can only sit back and sigh, frustrated that the man who flies by you in the school zone has a conscience that is—in your opinion—like a colander whose holes are too big. It might work well to strain out big, bow-tie pasta, but its useless for straining small macaroni. But if there is no God, then there is no moral standard, and therefore no way other than personal conscience to determine evil. Then the man in the car isn’t really a jerk, and he’s not really wrong. He simply has a conscience that allows him to do something your conscience would reject. And who’s to say that you’re right and he’s wrong? When there is no moral standard, it’s awfully hard to find a moral high horse to mount.

But blessedly God is, and he alone determines right from wrong. The more you subject your conscience to the Word of God, the more it will function properly. The Bible shapes your conscience, like forming colander along biblical lines, cutting the holes precisely the right size in just the right number, such that your conscience more and more aligns with the character of God himself. The Scripture provides an unchanging moral standard by which to calibrate your conscience.

Proverbs 8:12 says, “The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.” If you fear the LORD, righteous indignation will sometimes rise within your breast, and it ought to. For evil is real, and those who love the LORD hate it.

But before you mount your moral high horse, make sure it’s a biblical horse.

Asking the Better Question

“Why is this pandemic happening?” Maybe you’ve asked this question. Maybe you’ve heard a number of people trying to answer. Me too.

Recently I read an article in which the author asserted that the present pandemic represents a judgment from God against the sins of the world. I also read a different article in which the author asserted that the present pandemic does not represent a judgment from God against the sins of the world. Both authors profess Christ. What is the average Christian to make of such stuff?

The Scripture helps us in a number of ways. First, it tells us that plagues and pestilences will continue to be a part of life until Jesus returns to renew the Creation. In Luke 21:11, as Jesus spoke to his disciples about the time between his first coming and second coming, he said: “There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences.” Christians ought therefore to be wary of anyone who identifies a particular disease as a particular judgment from God against a particular sin, for diseases are a part of the fallen world in which we live, and they will remain so until the return of Christ.

The Scripture cautions us, moreover, by revealing that we are not privy to God’s thoughts. We know about God exactly and only what he has chosen to reveal to us, and in his revelation of himself he has said in no uncertain terms: “[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). To speculate about God’s reasons for his providential actions is to pry into something he has not chosen to reveal. Even as Moses declared in Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Moses taught that you don’t need to speculate about what God has not revealed, but rather to obey what he has.

To assert, “This virus judges that sin,” is therefore unwise and unbiblical. God interprets his own providences in Scripture, and without his divine interpretation of any given event, man ought not to guess what God is thinking or to assign motives to his actions. You could easily find yourself to be lying about God.

But we can and should warn. Christians should see tragedies, natural disasters, and even pandemics, not only as an opportunity to express compassion, and to offer physical and emotional aid to those who suffer, but also to call men and women to repentance and faith in Christ. You may be thinking: “But isn’t that harsh? Isn’t using human suffering as an opportunity to tell people to repent callous?” No, because that is precisely what Jesus did.

In Luke 13 Jesus used a natural disaster—an earthquake that caused a tower to fall—in order to call men and women to repent. Jesus asked, “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” And he answered, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

That doesn’t sound very compassionate, does it? Certainly Jesus protected those whom the tower crushed from character assassination. He made clear that the tower did not fall on them specifically as a punishment for their sin. Those who died were not morally worse than those who lived. But Jesus did use their tragic deaths in a way that we may find uncomfortable—to encourage others to repent. We tend to define compassion as care for a person’s physical and emotional needs, but Jesus’ compassion is more searching than ours. He loved grieving people enough to offend them by warning them that if they died in their sin a tragedy would befall them greater than that which befell those crushed under the tower. Jesus saw this very real human tragedy not merely as a chance to offer physical and emotional care, but also to offer a deeper, spiritual compassion—to exhort each of us to address our sin before a Holy God and be reconciled to him.

Are you still speculating about God’s providence? Or are you doing what Jesus commands? You may never know the reasons behind God’s actions, or why COVID-19 arrived when it did or for what purpose, but in the end what you do know is far better. You know your Heavenly Father’s character, for he has revealed it at the cross of Christ. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ’s death demonstrates God’s love toward sinners like you and me, and holds out the promise of salvation to all who will believe. While many are rightly seeking temporary physical safety from COVID-19, they are sadly neglecting the eternal physical and spiritual safety from sin and its consequences that the Lord is offering. But he is offering still. How will you respond?

“Why is this pandemic happening?” Maybe the better question is, “How should I respond to this pandemic?”

Because while providence is mysterious, salvation is not.