Thursday, November 17, 2011

Moneybags Superstition

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about superstition:

Q:  On many occasions this year, I have received emails or seen social networking posts that the way days of the week fall within a month or the way numbers align in the date have the potential to bring wealth, luck, or other benefits if I take certain action.  First, is this legitimate?  Second, is it acceptable for a Christian to trust in such things to receive the promised benefits?

I have seen these posts myself.  One of them claimed that the circumstance that there were five Fridays, five Saturdays, and five Sundays occurring during July 2011, was called “moneybags” and only happened every 823 years.  It claimed that if a person re-posted or forwarded the message, they would receive money, but if they did not, the message warned, they would be without money. 

Another message attached special significance to four particular dates:  1/1/11, 1/11/11, 11/1/11, and 11/11/11 with similar promises and warnings that the recipient’s actions, which must occur at or before 11:11 on 11/11/11, would bring them either a blessing or a curse. 

To begin with, claims such as the “moneybags” myth mentioned in the first example are factually inaccurate.  The phenomenon described actually occurs once every 5-11 years, depending on where the leap years fall.  Secondly, even if the events described were as rare as they are claimed to be, there is no observable evidence that the benefits described have occurred in the past. 

For Christians, 1 Timothy 4:7 gives perspective on practices such as those described above.  In that verse, Paul says, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths.  Rather train yourself for godliness. 

In the Old Testament, God had forbidden all types of divination, which was the practice of seeking guidance or knowledge of the future through manipulating or observing elements of nature unrelated to the events in question.  So, for example, kings of unbelieving nations might ask a priest of their religion to slaughter a sheep or goat and study its organs to find out how an upcoming battle would go, or they might observe the pattern in which a flock of birds fly to discern which strategy to use.  Horoscopes are an example of how this ideology continues even to this day. 

God clearly commanded His people that they were not to engage in such practices, and connected this command to the First and Second Commandments, which forbid idolatry, and the misuse of God’s name.  As such, these prohibitions continue into the New Testament era for Christians.  Because all of the above actions describe trust in some other force than the Triune God for blessing, they are a form of idolatry to be avoided by Christians. 

The Bible does at times speak positively about discerning the signs found in nature, but these are always observed natural correlations between an event and the result which follows, such as the color of the sky relating to weather which might follow, or the color of leaves indicating the change of seasons. 

Regarding the alignments of days in a month or dates in a year, we must also note that our modern calendar is not a divinely-given system, but rather a humanly-devised method or organizing time.  So, as such, it would bear no correlation to divine promises for blessing. 

Finally, assumptions such as those above are opposed to a Christian worldview.  In the religion from which these superstitions arise, it is assumed that the god/gods/universe are against us and inclined to do us harm, and it is only if we act in the specified ways that they will be forced to bless us. 

Christianity, on the other hand, proposes that God, in fact, desires to act on our behalf and takes the initiative Himself to bring us blessing.  He does this by providing for our obvious needs of food, clothing, shelter, etc. but more importantly by forgiving sins because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for all who trust in Him. 

Even though it might appear that we need to appease the deities and forces of the universe by our own action, the God who created them has already acted, both through creation and through His Son, to provide us with all of our needs of body and soul, not based on our own worthiness or ability, but because of His own kindness and righteousness. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Grace vs. Works?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about salvation by grace alone:

Q:  I know Lutherans and most Protestants teach that people are saved “by grace alone,”(based on Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 3, etc.) but I see so many verses in the Bible which seem to say otherwise (James 2:24, 1 Peter 4:8, etc.).  Which is true?  Do these Bible verses contradict each other, or is there some other explanation?

Verses like those noted here can be very challenging for those who understand that humans can only be saved by grace and contribute nothing from themselves to receive it, because the verses seem to contradict that idea. However, there is a subtle distinction which helps to shed light on why James and Peter can speak in this way, which seems drastically different from what we see Paul saying in Galatians, Ephesians, and Romans.

This distinction is that there are two kinds of righteousness portrayed in the Bible, and along with them two kinds of justification. This word, justification, can be used as a technical term for the forgiveness of a sinner by God as a gift, but it also has a more general meaning of validating or confirming the truthfulness of our position or actions in the eyes of other people.

The first type of righteousness acts in a vertical direction--that is between God and man. This vertical righteousness is what we normally think of as Lutherans when we hear the word, justification.  This is the type of righteousness that comes from God as a gift to us, apart from any worthiness on our part.

The second type of righteousness occurs in a horizontal direction--that is between man and his fellow man. While the vertical sort of righteousness or justification is where our salvation occurs, we continue to live in relationship with other people in our everyday lives. It is within these relationships that the horizontal sort of righteousness or justification occurs, where the actions of the Christian are intended to validate or confirm the truthfulness of the claims of Christianity in the eyes of those who observe our lives

So, when James says, “You see that a person is justified by works, and not faith alone,” he is speaking of the way that our actions serve to validate or invalidate the Christian faith we claim to believe, when our actions are viewed by other people, particularly those outside of the Church.  If we act in a way that reflects what we believe, it confirms the Christian faith in their eyes.  If we act hypocritically or in habitual sin, it invalidates the Christian faith in their eyes.  If we read James' words in context, we can see that this is the sort of thing he is speaking of with the word "justification" and that he is not discussing how we relate to God.

Just as there are two directions in which righteousness and justification occur, there are also two directions in which sin occurs. We can sin against God alone by breaking any of the first three commandments. However, when we sin against the remaining commandments, we sin not only against God, but also against our fellow man. When Peter says, “Above all, keep loving one another, since love covers over a multitude of sins,” he is speaking to those who are already Christians.  So, when he talks about love covering a multitude of sins, this is what he speaks of--not that our love reduces the burden of our sins in God's eyes (because Jesus has already completely fulfilled that need), but that love covers over or abates the division and discord that are the result of our sins and separate or embitter the relationship between the sinner and the one against whom he has sinned.