The following devotional is by Skip Heitzig, founder and senior pastor of Calvary of Albuquerque. This devotional can be found in the Faithlife Study Bible, along with devotionals and articles from more than 40 contributors.
What is the proper response to violence? In an increasingly violent culture, this is a question we must all ask ourselves. And as Christians, we must answer this question in a way that is not only practical but also faithful. It isn’t just a question of what “works” to reduce violent crime; it’s also a question of how God has called his people to live. In what follows, I will offer my own convictions, though I readily admit that fellow Christians will differ in their responses to this sensitive subject.
I can think of no better place to start—for this or any other issue—than with Jesus. So let’s begin by considering what he has to say on the subject.
How to be sons of your heavenly Father
When asked about the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40).
Jesus does something radical here. He doesn’t simply list the most important commands—he reframes the entire Law in the light of one basic mandate: love. Love is the reason for every command God has given.
This concept is so important that all three Synoptic Gospels include a similar account (see Mark 12:28ff and Luke 10:25ff), and in the Gospel of John, Jesus narrows it down to just the second half. “This is my commandment: that you love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12–13).
Jesus essentially says that love of neighbor (or “one another” or “friends”) is how you show love to God, and he defines that love as sacrificing yourself for the sake of others. This echoes what he said in the parable of the sheep and goats, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). And such love of God via love of neighbor fulfils the Law, as Paul and James would later confirm (see Romans 13:8–10, Galatians 5:14, and James 2:8).
But “who is my neighbor?” This question was posed to Jesus in Luke’s account cited above. Jesus responded with a parable. And in this parable—we call it “the good Samaritan”—Jesus cast the most unlikely of characters for the role of neighbor. Jews hated Samaritans. They viewed them as the lowest of the low. Yet this is who Jesus said to love.
But that’s not all Jesus taught. He didn’t merely say, “Love the neighbors you don’t really like.” He also said, “Love your enemies.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43–48)
Jesus taught that love of enemies is so important, it defines us as sons of our heavenly Father. God loves his enemies, and so must we. But who is my enemy? And what does it look like to love them? Let’s jump back a few verses to give context to Jesus’ words:
“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. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38–42)
When Jesus spoke of those who force you to go a mile, he was referring to the Roman soldiers occupying Israel. These violent men were known for executing Jews at random, just to show off their power and keep their subjects in line. Yet these are the kinds of people Jesus said we must love—evil people intent on harming us.
In Luke’s parallel account, Jesus further explains how to love our enemies, “. . . do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28). And when we do this, “. . . you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35–36).
Having seen the importance of Jesus’ mandate to love everyone—including those who would do us harm—we’ll now look at how Jesus lived this principle in his own life. John tells us that “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). So we must consider how Jesus responded to violence, for we ought to respond in the same way.
To that end, let’s examine the most violent episode in Jesus’ life—his arrest and crucifixion.
Buy a sword . . . but don’t use it
Shortly before his arrest, Jesus told his disciples, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). Why did Jesus say this? Was he preparing them to defend themselves? Not quite. Jesus explained, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37).
The disciples said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords,” to which Jesus responded, “It is enough” (Luke 22:38). Enough for what? Two swords would hardly have provided sufficient defense against “a great crowd with swords and clubs” (Matthew 26:47), but they were enough to fulfil the Scripture. Alternatively, many translations (CEB, CEV, HCSB, ISV, etc.) suggest that Jesus’ response is better rendered, “Enough of that!”—indicating that the disciples had misunderstood his intent.
When an armed band of soldiers came to arrest Jesus, his disciples asked, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” (Luke 22:49). Then Peter, failing to wait for Jesus’ response, drew his sword and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear (John 18:10).
Jesus said, “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51). “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:52–54). And he healed the servant’s ear.
To the crowd he said, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matthew 26:55–56).
Jesus then allowed himself to be arrested, endured a mock trial by the Sanhedrin, and ultimately came before Pilate, who said, “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” (John 18:35). Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).
Jesus endured scourging, mocking, humiliation, beating, spitting—all with no attempt at retaliation. He then went to Golgotha, where he allowed himself to be crucified between two criminals. While dying on the cross at the hands of his enemies, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
In summary, Jesus prohibited his disciples from using a sword, even in self-defense. He instead entrusted himself to the Father, enduring the suffering that followed. He made it clear that his kingdom does not follow the pattern of this world—his followers do not fight. And as his ultimate response to the violence he had suffered, Jesus forgave those responsible for his persecution.
At this point, an observation should be made. Jesus had a very specific mission to accomplish. He was in the process of fulfilling Scripture and atoning for the sins of mankind. Though we may face violence, we will not do so under these same circumstances. Does this negate the idea that we should follow Jesus’ example, at least in this instance?
Peter—having walked in the Spirit for some time since his incident with the sword—provides us with a definitive answer to this question:
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:20–23, emphasis added)
Having now examined both Jesus’ instructions and his example, let’s consider how we can practically live this out.
The first thing to clarify is that Jesus never told us to adopt a position of passivity. He did not mean that we should simply let evil have its way and do nothing to stop it. For this reason, I tend to like the term “nonviolent resistance” better than “pacifism.”
But didn’t Jesus say, “Do not resist the one who is evil”? That is one possible translation, but it isn’t without its difficulties.
Here’s what Preston Sprinkle has to say in his book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence:
The Greek word for “resist” is anthistemi, and it often (though not always) refers specifically to violent resistance. Throughout the Old Testament, for instance, anthistemi refers to military action: Israel resists its enemy in battle, and the Canaanites weren’t able to resist Israel in the conquest. In the New Testament, other words related to anthistemi refer to violent revolts, insurrections, and war. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, almost always used anthistemi in ways that convey some sort of violent action. So when Jesus tells His followers not to resist evil people, He uses a word that suggests a violent resistance.
N.T. Wright, in Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, translates this phrase as “don’t use violence to resist evil!” Rather than prohibiting resistance, Jesus prescribed a very different kind of resistance. No longer should we respond in kind—“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We should instead respond by turning the tables on our aggressors. N.T. Wright explains further:
Jesus offers a new sort of justice, a creative, healing, restorative justice. The old justice found in the Bible was designed to prevent revenge running away with itself. Better an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth than an escalating feud with each side going one worse than the other. But Jesus goes one better still. Better to have no vengeance at all, but rather a creative way forward, reflecting the astonishingly patient love of God himself, who wants Israel to shine his light into the world so that all people will see that he is the one true God, and that his deepest nature is overflowing love. No other god encourages people to behave in a way like this!
So Jesus gives three hints of the sort of thing he has in mind. To be struck on the right cheek, in that world, almost certainly meant being hit with the back of the right hand. That’s not just violence, but an insult: it implies that you’re an inferior, perhaps a slave, a child, or (in that world, and sometimes even today) a woman. What’s the answer? Hitting back only keeps the evil in circulation. Offering the other cheek implies: hit me again if you like, but now as an equal, not an inferior.
Or suppose you’re in a lawcourt where a powerful enemy is suing you (perhaps for non-payment of some huge debt) and wants the shirt off your back. You can’t win; but you can show him what he’s really doing. Give him your cloak as well; and, in a world where most people only wore those two garments, shame him with your impoverished nakedness. This is what the rich, powerful and careless are doing. They are reducing the poor to a state of shame.
The third example clearly reflects the Roman military occupation. Roman soldiers had the right to force civilians to carry their equipment for one mile. But the law was quite strict; it forbade them to make someone go more than that. Turn the tables on them, advises Jesus. Don’t fret and fume and plot revenge. Copy your generous God! Go a second mile, and astonish the soldier (and perhaps alarm him—what if his commanding officer found out?) with the news that there is a different way to be human, a way which doesn’t plot revenge, which doesn’t join the armed resistance movement (that’s what verse 39 means), but which wins God’s kind of victory over violence and injustice.
Such nonviolent resistance is risky. It makes us vulnerable. But it also exposes our aggressors’ sins for what they are. And if we believe what Jesus said—that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52)—then our nonviolent response is actually much safer than carrying a weapon. Wouldn’t you rather entrust yourself to the God who rules the universe than to a piece of steel?
For more specific suggestions on how to respond nonviolently, along with real-life examples, check out Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried by Ron Sider.
But in this violent world, there are no foolproof methods of preventing violence. When we choose to live in nonviolent love, we accept the possibility that we will “share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13). When that happens, we have one further response—one more way in which we follow the example Jesus left for us.
It would be easy for me to speak of forgiveness when I have had no major offenses to forgive. So I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to close this post by pointing you to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof joined them for an evening Bible study. After initially participating with their study, he pulled out a gun, and he murdered nine people. If there was ever a case for retaliation—for responding to violence with violence—surely this would be it? But that’s not what happened.
This is how the survivors and relatives responded:
“No matter how much hate there is in the world, it’s no match for love” Chis Singleton, son of slain Sharonda Singleton, said. “Love is always stronger than hate.”
And the daughter of Ethel Lance, addressing the killer directly in court, said, “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her ever again. But I forgive you.”
She added: “You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people. May God forgive you.”
Anthony Thompson, husband of the slain Myra Thompson, echoed Lance’s daughter’s words. “I forgive you, my family forgives you,” he said.
Felecia Sanders, the grandmother who shielded her 5-year-old granddaughter from the gunfire, but lost her son in process, told the killer that the parishioners “welcomed you Wednesday night at our Bible study with open arms.”
She continued, fighting tears: “You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know . . . And it will never be the same. But as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you. May God have mercy on you.”
Alana Simmons, granddaughter of victim Daniel Simmons, said: “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate . . . everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived and loved and their legacies will live on.”
“Hate won’t win,” she concluded firmly.
A relative added, “I am a work in progress and I acknowledge that I am very angry. But we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate so we have to forgive.”
Studying in community allows Christians to ask questions, learn, and grow together. Christianity is not a religion of isolation. Jesus taught his followers to create a community of believers, and this Christian community keeps each member connected and accountable.
“Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused.”
—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Theology is complex. It is a journey meant to be shared with others whose lives have been touched by God. When Christians unite to study the Word they are able to access the Word in a new and powerful way, with combined insights and levels of experience. There are opportunities for Christians to join groups within the church, but what about individuals who want to dig deeper into specific theological topics? How can those individuals get plugged in?
Learn in community this summer
This summer, for the first time ever, Mobile Ed users were able to learn together in online groups moderated by Mobile Ed’s very own editors. Participants in Summer Session courses explored the world of Jesus and the Gospels, examined a missional approach to world religions, and studied techniques for dynamic preaching all together in community, using Faithlife Groups for communication. This type of enhanced learning experience allows participants from all over the world to get involved, interact, and engage in discussion regarding various theological issues.
Although the final Summer Session course will be wrapping up soon, you can still access the discussion questions written by the course moderators and stimulate your thinking on these topics by reading the discussions that have taken place within each course’s Faithlife group. From daily prayer to lively debate, participants are encouraged to learn and grow together whether they are in a moderated course or are accessing the Faithlife group of another Mobile Ed course to engage with others who are working through the same material.
Today, the term “liberal” has a very different meaning than it once did. In a theological discussion, you should be cautious about bestowing this label on fellow believers.
It may not mean what you think it means.
On Faithlife Today, Dr. Mike Heiser explains what this term means in the context of theology.
Heiser says that in theology, “Liberal refers to the notion, really, of the denial of the supernatural. In some cases the denial of the existence of God. In other cases, if we do believe there’s a god, a liberal would sort of downplay, or deny, totally, that God can do anything, such as miracles. Liberal is a word that is really loaded even still today, and we need to be careful how we use it.”
To the general public, this word obviously means something else entirely, and it is most often used in terms of politics, not theology. However, when the conversation includes people you don’t know, or don’t know well, your use of the word may be interpreted differently than you intend. In that instance, the burden should not be on the listener to not be offended or hurt, but rather, on the speaker to choose appropriate terms out of love.
In response to a comment on the episode, Heiser explained the roots of political liberalism as well.
“Political liberalism has historically been the antithesis of conservatism. The latter seeks to preserve the status quo; the former wants things to ‘progress’ and change. Political liberalism has historically been the antithesis of conservatism. The latter seeks to preserve the status quo; the former wants things to “progress” and change. So, for instance, in the late 19th century the status quo meant the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism and all that went with it (children in industrialized labor, no protections for workers, low wages, tenant towns that were infamous for squalor—but also amazing inventions, mass production, monopolies, and mega wealth that ultimately filtered down to the masses via philanthropy). This era marked the rise of the progressive movement—which is the genesis of today’s liberalism . . .”
Being a political liberal is not the same as being a theological liberal. To the Christian, the difference between political liberalism and conservatism is largely grounded in the relationship between faith and culture.
“Today political liberals may believe in God, but they are opposed to the country remaining moored to its old “outdated” culture (things like an originalist view of the Constitution and Judeo-Christian moral values). They want change—they want “progress”—they want their faith to adapt to the culture (as opposed to the faith challenging or rebuking the culture—a conservative position).”
The point Heiser seeks to make here is to illustrate that we need to be careful with the labels we impose on others.
“Someone who wonders about (or takes a position contrary to the evangelical majority) on things like the authorship of the Pentateuch, Daniel, or Isaiah (just examples) are not theological liberals because of those views. They aren’t denying the supernatural, or the incarnation, or the resurrection, or inspiration. It’s more about real literary phenomena in the biblical text that produce problems for traditional authorship positions. They might agree with a liberal position on authorship of a biblical book, but they wouldn’t agree when it comes to the doctrines of God and Christology.”
The sentiment applies to far more than this one particular label: you should always be cautious to pass judgment on another person (Matthew 7:1–2). You should also always be cautious about how others may interpret the words you choose to use as a Christian.
For more insights from scholars like Dr. Heiser, watch more episodes of Faithlife Today!
I once read that if you really love books, you don’t just love the best sellers. Anyone can find something to love in a best seller. If you really love books, you can find something to love within a book you snagged at the dollar store. You love watching narratives unfold, characters develop, and ideas take shape so much that you can appreciate those things even within the most convoluted, clumsily articulated books.
What if we loved Jesus so much that we could recognize and appreciate his qualities in even the worst of his followers?
It doesn’t mean you should cringe your way through sermons or clench your teeth through worship or prayer to prove your love for Jesus.
It means you can find something to appreciate among the flaws: that’s what Jesus does every time he looks at us. Seek the pieces of truth and glimpses of glory, wherever you find yourself in the global body of Christ.
Seeing the cup as half full instead of half empty doesn’t make you delusional. You know the cup isn’t full. But you appreciate what’s there more than you criticize what’s not.
This doesn’t mean that we simply ignore the faults in our churches and fellow believers. On the contrary, the more we love who Jesus is, the harder it is to tolerate misrepresentations or distortions of his character.
But no matter where you look within a church, and no matter how many churches you visit, you’ll always find something that’s not quite right or that could be better.
You will never find the perfect church
Flawed individuals cannot form a flawless group of people.
When you have the freedom to choose between multiple churches, countless reasons arise to choose one over the other. Some differences are theological and some are superficial.
“This church has a better teaching pastor.”
“That church has better child care.”
“I don’t like the way [insert church name] handled [insert situation].”
These may be deeply personal reasons. They may be completely valid concerns. But if you can’t find a church that satisfies you, consider these words from Charles Spurgeon, The Prince of Preachers:
You that are members of the church have not found it perfect and I hope that you feel almost glad that you have not. If I had never joined a Church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all! And the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect Church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.
In his sermon, “The Best Donation (No. 2,334),” Spurgeon goes on to say,
. . .the Church is faulty, but that is no excuse for your not joining it, if you are the Lord’s. Nor need your own faults keep you back, for the Church is not an institution for perfect people, but a sanctuary for sinners saved by Grace, who, though they are saved, are still sinners and need all the help they can derive from the sympathy and guidance of their fellow Believers.
* * *
Want more powerful insights from Spurgeon? You can read and search every sermon he ever wrote with The Complete Spurgeon Sermon Collection.
I was talking with a friend recently about how I’d been spending a lot of time reading books about the Bible, but less time reading the Bible itself. The spaces between my personal reflections on Scripture were growing wider. I still felt like I was growing and learning, but deep down I knew I was missing something.
Our conversation turned to my parents, who have been incredible, faithful examples of what it means to follow Jesus all my life—but they rarely read the Bible. For my parents, years of task-oriented, check-the-box dedication to Bible study left them with a bitter taste in their mouths. Reading the Bible and memorizing its verses had been impressed upon them so strongly that they could no longer read the Bible without also recalling the negative reinforcement and guilt that often accompanies regimented Bible-reading groups. Both of my parents have preferred to learn and grow by reading someone else’s reflections on Scripture rather than diving into it themselves.
They were spiritually scarred by their perspective of Bible study.
I grew up thinking, “But that’s still no excuse.” Yet, as I found myself encountering similar methodologies for Bible study, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this going to wear me out too?” My parents were once just as enthusiastic about Bible study as I was.
The church has more Bible study plans, methods, groups, and techniques than we know what to do with. But here’s the thing: these methods help you create discipline to do something you should want to do. If you don’t see the purpose behind the methods, you’ll burn out. On their own, Bible reading plans and verse memorization techniques are overwhelming—they take time and effort, and can leave you feeling guilty for missing a day, a week, or a meeting.
What’s the point of Bible study plans?
Starting a Bible reading plan is like starting a new diet.
Changing your diet takes discipline. Even if it’s something you really want for yourself, it’s easy to slip up and forget about it. If you let bad habits keep footholds in your life, you’ll fail before you start, and you’ll never create the healthy new habits you want.
When you have a sodium deficiency, your body craves salty foods. You might not even notice that you’re craving salty foods in particular, but your body is reacting to that deficiency by creating a desire for something that restores it.
Many non-Christians have no desire to read the Bible. They want nothing to do with it. But that doesn’t mean that as God’s creation they don’t, on some level, crave his truth, his wisdom, his love, or his perspective. I see non-Christians all the time who have no idea how closely their innermost desires parallel God’s desires for them.
A Christian, though, is much more likely to notice the source of this spiritual deficiency—we’ve already been exposed to the source of God’s wisdom, truth, and perspective. God’s Word is meant to permeate every aspect of our lives. Our knowledge of him is supposed to transform us into “the aroma of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:15), but something smells fishy.
The more the spaces grow between my daily readings, the more I find myself saying things like, “That reminds me of a verse in [book of the Bible],” or, “That sounds kind of like the passage where . . .” Before I know it, I’m not just paraphrasing Scripture anymore—I’m making vague references to it, or letting other sources have a greater impact on my understanding of God’s character.
In those moments, losing sight of the value of daily Bible study is more like cutting caffeine from my diet. I’ve never been a coffee drinker, but I have energy drinks all the time because they help me stay alert and focused when I need to be. Caffeine is something I’ve made a part of my regular diet for a purpose—and when I stop having it, I feel it. I don’t have the energy I used to throughout the day. I can’t focus as long. Or, worse, I get headaches.
Without your daily dose of Scripture, it’s tough to be at your best all day.
But reading your Bible isn’t just something you need to do to stay spiritually healthy. It’s not a pill you have to swallow or a chalky vitamin you have to chew. Reading the Bible is something you should do because you want to.
What if I don’t want to read the Bible?
Imagine that your parents wrote a book for you—it’s the history of your family, their marriage, your childhood, how you’ve become the person you are today, and their hopes and dreams for your future. Woven throughout the book is a clear, underlying theme: they love you very much. Maybe, just maybe, you pick up on another theme as well: you haven’t always known what was best for you, and they usually know what they’re talking about.
How do you think they would feel if you told them, “Look, at least I read a chapter today”?
How much you read and how frequently you read is not the point.
Part of my job at Faithlife lets me write reflections on Scripture or dig into biblical topics. To do that well, I need to dig into the Bible daily. But whenever I read the Bible for work, I’m reading with an agenda—I’m hunting for a verse or prowling through a passage. For Scripture to penetrate my heart and permeate my life, I have to read it just to read it, too.
Reading the Bible exposes you to the history of the creator’s relationship to creation—that includes you. If you want to know who God is, he had 40 people write a whole book about him over the course of about 1,500 years. Now all you have to do is pick a Bible up off the shelf, read the Bible online, or download the Bible on your phone.
However you read the Bible, you’re going to get the most out of it if you do it because you want to.
Don’t do it because someone is making you.
Don’t do it to show off how much you read.
Don’t memorize verses to get a cookie, a prize, or acknowledgement.
Those can all be useful motivators to help you get on the right track and create healthy spiritual habits you want to have. But don’t let those be the reasons you read the Bible.
Read the Bible because it excites you.
Read the Bible because you want to know God.
Read the Bible because it’s living and active (Hebrews 4:12).
Read the Bible because it can speak powerful truth into your life right now.
Read the Bible so that your life reveals more of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:3).
Those are reasons to open your Bible every day.
So why bother with Bible reading plans?
I lead a small group of high school freshmen boys. Every two weeks this year we’ve read a chapter of Mark and talked about it together.
Every time we meet, at least half of them say, “I didn’t have time to read it.”
One chapter. Two weeks.
Without discipline, you’ll never read the Bible regularly—no matter how badly you want to.
My wife started a diet because she wanted to. At first, she knew that she wouldn’t always be able to resist the unhealthy foods she used to have whenever she felt like. A group of her coworkers started dieting too, and together, they held each other accountable. Sometimes my wife would decline cookies because she knew she would have to tell her coworkers she’d cheated on the diet. But she didn’t start the diet because of her coworkers. She started because she wanted to eat healthier. After eating healthier for a few months, the reasons why she started were enough to keep her going. She didn’t need reminders or accountability.
In the same way, those external factors that help us read the Bible regularly are not the reason why we read. But they are, hopefully, tools we can use until we’ve created healthier habits and made Bible study part of our daily lives. These tools, coupled with meaningful, personal reasons to read the Bible will help you have a far richer spiritual life.
My church recently went through a series called, “Room for Cream.” The premise was that if we want to have room for God in our lives, we couldn’t “fill our cup” until there’s no room for the good stuff. If you don’t have time to read your Bible, what do you need to remove to make time?
The conclusion was profoundly simple:
If you want room for cream in your life, put the cream in first.
If you’re trying to make Bible study a habit, start your day with it. Don’t wait until you’ve filled your day with everything else. Don’t wait until you’re too tired.
You could even read the Bible right now.
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Is swearing inherently sinful?
As I read Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle, this question crossed my mind. Scattered throughout Boyle’s inspiring narrative of his more than 20 years of working with gangs in Los Angeles were numerous instances of explicit language. Some of these were quotes from current or former gang members, and others were from Father Boyle himself.
If the context of “swear words” serves to build up the church, are the words themselves “wrong”?
In Tattoos on the Heart, there were numerous instances where Father Boyle used profanity when revealing profound, personal truths about who people are, or when challenging them to see how ridiculous gang life is. Explicit language was used both to build people up, and to correct and redirect. Does it matter how the words are interpreted by the listener, or is explicit language disqualified from Christian vocabulary regardless of setting?
As a Young Life leader, I constantly find myself entering a foreign culture—high school. Most of these kids are not like me. They don’t think like me. They don’t believe what I believe. They don’t talk like me. If I’m not well versed in “kid-culture,” it creates a disconnect between us, and that disconnect can add to the conception that the gospel isn’t for them—they aren’t interested in being like me. Obviously there is a different dynamic in effect in this relationship (I’m an adult and they’re kids), but Christians spread a gospel that was written for the whole world—every culture, every person, every language (Mark 16:15, Matthew 24:14, Psalm 96:3, Revelation 14:6–7, Matthew 28:19–20). How do we reconcile that with what social science teaches about how vernacular, dialects, and cultural context shape our interpretation of language? Are swear words always inappropriate, “unwholesome,” “corrupting,” and therefore sinful (Ephesians 4:29)?
As we bring the gospel to youth, gangs, and other cultural contexts where swearing is not only acceptable, but a major component of the vocabulary, is it acceptable for Christians? Can “swear words” be part of a conversation that points someone to Jesus, or helps someone understand how much they are loved by God?
So what does the Bible say?
Both testaments of the Bible have numerous verses addressing the language we use—Ephesians 4:29, Ephesians 5:4, 1 Peter 3:10, James 3:9–12, James 5:12, Luke 6:45, Colossians 3:8, 2 Timothy 2:16, Matthew 5:37, Matthew 12:36–37, Exodus 20:7, Psalm 10:7, Proverbs 10:32.
A handful of other verses are often brought into the conversation as well, but if the central issue is whether or not particular words are inherently sinful, these appear to be the most applicable.
Frequently, when people say that the Bible clearly addresses swearing and cursing, we run into contextual issues. The verses that are “most clear” are actually least relevant to the conversation.
James 3:9–10 talks about “cursing people.” While swear words can definitely be used that way, they are used in other ways as well. In the same way, countless words we would consider innocent in themselves can be strung together into the worst of curses. How often does cursing someone start with “I wish [person’s name] . . .”? Probably more than we’d care to admit.
James 5:12 clearly says, “do not swear.” Here though, swearing is tied to promising, or establishing an oath. This verse is more relevant to a conversation about swearing on the Bible in court than one about the sinfulness of individual words. If anything, it’s more condemning of the phrase, “I swear on . . .”
Outbursts of anger
If you hit your thumb with a hammer, or someone cuts you off in traffic, how do you instinctively react? These are cliche situations where profanity may leave someone’s lips. Again though, are the words the issue? When a buildup of frustration prompts you to say something out of anger, I’m not sure it matters what those words are—your attitude makes it sinful. Psalm 37:8–9, Proverbs 25:28, Proverbs 19:11, Proverbs 15:18, Proverbs 14:17, Proverbs 16:32, Proverbs 22:24, Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8, James 1:19–20, James 4:11–12, Matthew 5:22, and numerous other verses address the danger and consequences of anger.
However, there are still plenty of verses which appear very relevant to the selection of words Christians use. To dig into these, I took my question to ChristianDiscourse.com.*
What do other Christians say?
Christian Discourse users were quick to jump into the conversation.
Alex brought up the point that our words can be misinterpreted. Someone’s perception of a word can easily affect how they understand your use of it. In Tattoos on the Heart, Father Boyle is speaking to teens and a community who perceive swear words very differently than the typical Christian or even the average middle class citizen might.
Not everyone shared the same perspective though:
Ellyn concluded that words we would consider explicit are not pure, beautiful, or good, and therefore have no place in our vocabulary. She also brought up a point which is related, but which I hadn’t addressed—taking the Lord’s name in vain. The Bible seems to be pretty clear about that (Exodus 20:7).
Another user asked, “Why would a Christian use swear words?” and suggested Christians should use Philippians 4:8 as a filter for our language.
Circling back to the perception of words, one person shared an anecdote to highlight that there are other words we don’t consider “swear words” that can still be offensive:
I remember a story about my daughter who was 5 years old at the time. When I was talking to my sister, her aunt, all of a sudden my daughter said, ‘Daddy curse!’ I instantly went to rehash mode trying to remember what I said. Did I use the ‘F-bomb’ or the ‘S- word’?! For the life of me I couldn’t remember what I said that my daughter would react the way she reacted. Then she said you used the ‘S-word’—now I’m really freaking out. I started to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and she said, ‘You used “stupid.” That is not nice.’ With relief I told her she is right and I said sorry to my sister. Both my sister and I laughed hard after she said ‘now give her a hug’ and she ran off to play.
Whatever you conclude about the sinfulness of specific words, it’s important to remember that not using swear words doesn’t excuse the way you use the rest of the English (or any other) language. Your words can still be considered “corrupting talk” (Ephesians 4:29); “filthiness”, “foolish talk” or “crude joking” (Ephesians 5:4); “evil” or “speaking deceit” (1 Peter 3:10); “cursing” (James 3:10, Psalm 10:7); “slander” or “obscene talk” (Colossians 3:8); “irreverent babble” (2 Timothy 2:16); “careless words” (Matthew 12:36); and yes, even “swearing” (James 5:12, Matthew 5:37).
When you have something to say, what you say, how you say it, when you say it, and where you say it can all shape how your words are received by the listener—and ultimately God (Matthew 12:36–37).
So what do you think? Can Christians use swear words? Comment below with your thoughts.
*This post originally appeared in June 2015. Since then, ChristianDiscourse.com has become unavailable.
For some, not knowing the people in their church can be a significant barrier to church involvement. When it’s hard to find a familiar face in your church, it’s tough to see that Christian community as family. Unfortunately, this can become a self-perpetuating cycle—you don’t know people, so you don’t get involved, so you don’t meet people.
That may or may not be true for you, but I think we can all agree on this:
Weekly handshakes and hellos are not enough to get to know your church.
If your church desires to be a community that feels like family, your congregation needs opportunities to build relationships.
Create opportunities for community
Recently, Faithlife found itself experiencing a similar situation. With over 420 employees, Faithlife is larger than the average church (though certainly smaller than many churches). We’re big enough to know that people who have worked here for years still haven’t had a chance to meet everyone.
Eric Olson has been with Faithlife for over 10 years, and he says, “Many years ago I knew all 60 people in the company, but now that there are over 400 of us, there are many people I’ve never met.”
We have numerous departments and teams within those departments which build close friendships through daily interactions. But beyond that, how do you get to know all those people you have so much in common with, yet never see?
To solve this problem, Auresa Nyctea, a developer, created a special Faithlife Group open to all Faithlife employees. Its purpose? Facilitate opportunities for employees to meet people they’ve never met or worked with. Each week, employees who have joined the group are put into a group of four people from other departments. From there, it’s up to the individuals in the group to coordinate their schedules and settle on a time and place to meet and chat.
“I don’t get to interact with very many people outside of my department on a regular basis,” says Lynnea Fraser, an editor from the publications department. “I’ve been at Faithlife just over two years now, and I still don’t know a lot of my coworkers throughout the company.”
Lynnea was among the nearly 50 employees who were eager to meet new faces. Lynnea says, “I haven’t spent additional time with anyone I’ve met yet. But I do say ‘hi’ if I see them around campus now. And I actually know their names, which makes it less awkward.”
Having some context for meeting new people makes it easier to connect and share. “During the first meet up, we took turns giving a three-minute summary of our personal history—where we grew up, where we went to school, our families, and how we came to work at Faithlife. We took turns talking about our role at Faithlife—what projects we work on, what our typical day looks like, etc.”
These meetings have no structure. There is no curriculum. Just people. Every meeting looks a little different because they happen organically.
“Gathering together around food or coffee is my ideal way to get to know people better,” says Michael Schoonmaker, a developer at Faithlife. “That kind of fellowship runs deep in my family, my faith, and among my friends.”
Now imagine what this could look like for your church.
Start your church group now
Groups like this take little upkeep—people join because they want to get to know each other. By creating the group and pointing people to it as a church, you get to be the catalyst that helps people build community. If you’re staff is already stretched too thin, delegate the group to a member of your congregation—just don’t delegate the responsibility to tell people about your group.
If you want people to join your group, make it clear that the church is recommending it. Slip it into your announcements. Include it in your contact information. Send an invite in your newsletter, or share the link on social media. Show people that the Faithlife Group is a place the church suggests you go if you would like to get to know other members in another setting.
You’ll also want to adjust your group’s privacy settings so that anyone from your church can find the group and join.
Take your congregation further
If you or someone at your church has time to invest in the group, it’s easy to add curriculum, share church documents, or encourage further learning or serving opportunities. You can add official documents right to the group to keep all of your crucial information in one place.
If you want these group meetings to have more structure, create some sample questions designed to spark meaningful conversations and help people get to know one another.
Your Faithlife account is free.
All Faithlife Group features are free.
Join Faithlife Groups today, and get started with your church.
Recently on an episode of Faithlife Today, Dr. Michael Heiser shared some unique insights into what the Bible says about ghosts.
“A lot of people think that the Bible really has nothing to say at all about ghosts, but that’s actually mistaken.”
Watch the video (Heiser starts at 2:53):
Elohim—God, gods, and more
Heiser digs into 1 Samuel 28, where Saul summons the spirit of Samuel through a medium. He says, “I have to talk to a man who has died . . . will you call up his spirit for me?” (1 Samuel 28:8, NLT). After he tells her to “call up Samuel,” the medium tells Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.”
To dig into this passage, let’s head to the Faithlife Study Bible, where Heiser wrote an article called “Elohim as ‘Gods’ in the Old Testament”(find it in the study notes here).
The Hebrew word translated as “a god” in 1 Samuel 28:8 is elohim—a word which Heiser says is used to refer to capital “G” God (Yahweh), the heavenly council (Psalm 82), foreign gods (1 Kings 11:33), demons (see note on Deuteronomy 32:17), spirits of the dead (1 Samuel 28:13), and angels (see note on Genesis 35:7).
Heiser explains the diversity of this word:
This variety demonstrates that the word should not be identified with one particular set of attributes: elohim is not a synonym for God. We reserve the English “g-o-d” for the God of Israel and His attributes. Despite their usage of elohim, the biblical writers do not qualitatively equate Yahweh with demons, angels, the human disembodied dead, the gods of the nations, or Yahweh’s own council members. Yahweh is unique and above these entities—yet the same term can be used to refer to all of them.
Ghosts, demons, and evil spirits
The first layer of notes in the Faithlife Study Bible comments on verse 13: “No longer constrained by his human body, Samuel looks like a divine being.” Saul recognizes Samuel, but he no longer looks the same.
In the video, Heiser says, “the passage illustrates that there is a concept in the Hebrew Bible about the disembodied human dead.”
The Bible forbids communicating with “the disembodied human dead,” and Heiser makes sure to point out that he is not at all justifying the medium’s actions, but it is interesting to note that Heiser says that another Hebrew word used in other passages, ʾiṭṭîm (parallel to the Akkadian word for ghost, etemmu), is distinct from this usage of elohim—indicating that what we would call a “ghost” is not necessarily the same thing as what the Bible refers to as an evil spirit or demon.
So why are so many spiritual beings referred to as elohim?
Let’s see what Dr. Heiser says:
All beings called elohim in the Hebrew Bible share a certain characteristic: they all inhabit the non-human realm. By nature, elohim are not part of the world of humankind, the world of ordinary embodiment. Elohim—as a term—indicates residence, not a set of attributes; it identifies the proper domain of the entity it describes. Yahweh, the lesser gods of His council, angels, demons, and the disembodied dead all inhabit the spiritual world. They may cross over into the human world—as the Bible informs us—and certain humans may be transported to the non-human realm (e.g., prophets; Enoch). But the proper domains of each are two separate and distinct places.
Within the spiritual world, as in the human world, entities are differentiated by rank and power. Yahweh is an elohim, but no other elohim is Yahweh. This is what an orthodox Israelite believed about Yahweh. He was not one among equals; He was unique. The belief that Yahweh is utterly and eternally unique—that there is none like Him—is not contradicted by plural elohim in the Old Testament.
All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Numerous beings are called “elohim” in the Bible, but only one of those beings is also called God.
In English translations, we typically miss these associations.
Dr. Heiser says, “modern English translations often obscure the Hebrew text’s references to plural elohim. For example, the NASB renders the second elohim in Psa 82:1 as ‘rulers.’ Other translations—more faithful to the original Hebrew—opt for ‘gods’ or ‘divine beings.'”
If you want to start digging into ancient Greek and Hebrew yourself, consider taking Dr. Heiser’s Mobile Ed course, Learn to Use Biblical Greek and Hebrew with Logos 6.
Preorder the course today for over 50% off the regular price!
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Want to watch more episodes of Faithlife Today? Head to Today.Faithlife.com!