Two of our three websites (this one and LivingWithFaith.org) have blogs, and we usually publish a post on each of these two sites every week. But in order to concentrate on production of new free e-books, we will be rotating the blogs for a while – a new post will appear on this site one week and on our other site the following week. As a result, our latest blog post ("Why the Philosopher Was Wrong") appears today on our sister site. There are, of course, hundreds of past posts that you can select from on this site (see the "Categories" links on the right side of this page). But if you are looking for something new, our other site with today's blog is only a click away, here.
There is a language you can learn in order to better understand many verses in the Bible. That language is not Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic – it is simply the “language” of gestures and actions we call “body language.” We are all familiar with body language in our own cultures and absorb it subconsciously as we grow up. We learn from a very early age that if a parent stands with fists on hips as he or she is about to speak to us that we are probably in trouble! As we go through life we routinely “read” the gestures and postures of others without thinking about it, but those same clues are a very real part of our understanding of what is happening in the world around us.
In some cases, the body language mentioned in the Bible is similar or identical to that found in many modern cultures. For example, the act of bowing before important individuals or before God mentioned so often in the Bible is perfectly understandable to us today, and even more subtle gesture expressions make sense to us, as when the book of Proverbs tells us that “Whoever winks with their eye is plotting perversity; whoever purses their lips is bent on evil” (Proverbs 16:30).
The Bible draws attention to many of these non-verbal forms of expression – especially those involving the hands or feet. For example, the book of Ezekiel records God commanding the prophet Ezekiel to gesture by clapping his hands and stomping his feet regarding sinful Israel (Ezekiel 6:11). Such gestures were commonly used in both ancient Israel and the nations surrounding it. The book of Job mentions pagan worshipers of the sun and moon gesturing by kissing their hands to bless their gods (Job 31:26-28), and in both the Old and New Testaments we see that in blessing a group of people it was common to lift the hands toward them as the blessing was spoken (Leviticus 9:22; Luke 24:50).
But there are some things we should remember in understanding the body language mentioned in the Bible. First, we sometimes find different body gestures being used with the same meaning. The book of Genesis gives several examples of oaths being sworn by a person placing his hand under another’s thigh or hip – as Abraham’s steward is said to have done in promising that he would get a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s relatives (Genesis 24:2, 9), and as Joseph did in swearing not to bury his father Jacob in Egypt (Genesis 47:29-31). But later in the Old Testament references to taking an oath usually show individuals doing so by raising a hand toward heaven (Deuteronomy 32:40; Daniel 12:7; etc.), and in the book of Ezekiel God himself is said to take an oath by raising his hand in this way (Ezekiel 20:5, 15, 23).
Another factor to keep in mind is that many societies assign unique meanings to gestures and postures, and we cannot always assume that a body language “signal” meant the same thing to those in other places or times that it does to us. The gesture of clapping is a good example of this. We usually understand clapping the hands together positively - to signify applause. But in biblical times we see not only that same meaning of this gesture as applause (2 Kings 11:12) and praise (Psalm 47:1), but also clapping was used to signify negative reactions such as anger (Numbers 24:10), revulsion (Ezekiel 22:13), and even contempt or derision (Job 27:23). So when we read of people clapping in a Bible verse (compare for example, Ezekiel 6:11 and 25:6), we should realize that we need to look at the different possible meanings of this gesture to see which best fits the context.
In a similar way, removing one’s shoes was often a gesture of reverence or respect, just as Moses was commanded to do this at the burning bush (Exodus 3:5) and Joshua in the presence of the angel of the Lord (Joshua 5:15). But removing shoes could also be a sign of grief (2 Samuel 15:30), of disrespect (Deuteronomy 25:6-10), or even of sealing an agreement (Ruth 4:7-8). In fact, most gestures mentioned in the Bible have multiple meanings and need to be understood in context. The gesture of throwing dust in the air onto oneself or others was used by those who were grieving (Joshua 7:6, etc.), but also as a gesture indicating scorn or anger – as when the man Shimei did this against David along with cursing him (2 Samuel 16:13). The same gesture is seen in the New Testament when an angry mob responded to Paul’s defense by crying out and tossing dust into the air (Acts 22:22-23).
In the New Testament, bodily gestures and expressions are frequently noted in the Gospels and this is especially true – as we might perhaps expect – in the Gospel of Luke the physician. But body language appears in some form or other in most books of the Bible, and looking out for it and learning to “read” it correctly can often help us to better understand what is happening in the narrative or to notice points that the biblical writers especially wanted to stress.
Are you afraid of change? I’ll admit it right up front: I often am. In fact, at some level we all are. Psychological studies have found that people are often afraid of change in their lives because of experiences they have had where changes led to less desirable situations. Those experiences can often give us an almost hard-wired resistance to changing the status quo. If you don’t believe that, think about the last time you switched checkout lanes in a grocery store because your lane was moving so slowly – only to find the lane you changed into then slowed down even more – and the resultant feeling of frustration with the change you made.
More rigorous psychological tests have proven the deep-seated nature of our frequent frustration with change. For example, a University of Illinois study examined the multiple-choice tests of students and interviewed those who had changed their minds on questions, and thus changed their answers during a test. The significant finding was that when they were questioned afterwards, the students who had changed answers indicated that switching a correct answer to an incorrect answer was much more frustrating and memorable than failing to switch to a correct answer from an incorrect one!
And so it is, from tests in school to lines in stores and in countless other ways we experience small but memorable frustrations with change and may often resist it as a result. These are hardly catastrophic experiences, but the human brain remembers little things like that so when we are tempted to change something in our lives, the suspicion that it may make things worse kicks in almost immediately.
But we need to remember “the other side of the coin” of change: that change is necessary in order to enjoy all of the most satisfying aspects of life. We change in order to move from childhood to adult life, from school to career, from single status to marriage, and in many other ways as we grow and mature. As Paul told the Corinthians “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11, ESV). Like Paul, most of us are happy to give up childish pleasures and satisfactions for mature ones.
Spiritually, we might expect the principle of giving up old wrong ways for better ones to be appealing, too, but human nature and the fear of change we so often develop can slow us down in this area. In addition, limited understanding of the guidance the Bible gives us for change can affect us, too. We may know that the New Testament counsels us all to “repent” or to change our ways (Acts 2:38, etc.), but that command is not a one-time thing – it is an ongoing way of life.
The apostle Paul had something to say about the fact that we need to continually focus on distinct areas in which we should change: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers … Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).
Think about these words for a minute. The idea of being transformed by renewal is an ongoing one in what Paul wrote. Being “transformed” simply means to be “changed,” of course, and the ongoing “testing” Paul then talks about in these verses refers to accepting the need to change and testing or trying new, better ways in various aspects of our lives. That is not a natural process and it is not always a comfortable one – if it were, Paul would not have had to “appeal” to us to do it. But the good news is that this kind of change is always positive and for the best when it is accomplished – and that is what Paul meant in saying it is “good and acceptable and perfect.” So how do we put the need to change into practice? Primarily, we do so in the way we study the word of God. We do so by reminding ourselves every time we read a section of Scripture not just to read for inspiration, but also to focus on commands or challenges to do or be something different from the way we are. It means asking ourselves: “Is this me?” “Should this be me?” and “How do I need to change to make it me?” Because, spiritually, the only change we really ever need to fear is the change not made.
During the course of the past year we published over a hundred blog posts here and on our sister site. The list below gives the 12 posts that were the favorites on this site, so check out the list to see how it compares with your own favorites and to see if you missed any...
The holiday season and the end of the year are traditionally times for giving to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and even many people who do not normally give to charitable causes throughout the year give at this time. But whenever we choose to give, we can increase the power of our gifts – large or small – by using tactics that function as force multipliers to increase the effectiveness of what we can give. There are a number of tactics we can use in this way, but in this post we will look at just three. First, and most importantly, we can ensure that we are giving wisely There are so many causes clamoring for our money that it can be confusing trying to select a worthwhile one, but it is vital that we do. Unfortunately, there are many registered charities that spend massive amounts of the money they receive on overheads and administrative expenses so that in some cases only a small fraction of what is given actually gets to those for whom the help was intended. In other cases, overheads may be relatively low but large amounts of funding go to peripheral causes that are not the activities we want to support.
That is why the use of a good charity ranking organization such as CharityNavigator.org is imperative if we want to make what we can give have maximum effect and not be wasted or diverted. There are several charity ranking organizations, but the Charity Navigator site clearly and simply details how charities spend the money they get and shows what percentage of those funds actually go to the programs they claim to support. The site grades each charity with a score that is simple to compare with the scores of other charities. Charity Navigator also provides carefully prepared lists of different types of charities – including a great list of charities that they have ranked with 100% scores. Assessing this information does not take long and can transform our giving in terms of what it actually accomplishes.
For example, Charity Navigator gives a perfect 100% score to the organization Lifesong for Orphans that provides adoption and financial assistance for homeless children around the world – so if you gave to them, you would know your gift was helping in that particular area about as much as is humanly possible
Beyond giving carefully with intelligent checking of the organizations we want to support, we can also often make our gifts go further by giving boldly. Giving boldly does not have to mean giving more – though if we are able to do so that is good, of course. Giving boldly often simply means giving to charities that are doing truly innovative and unusual work – perhaps helping take the Gospel to unreached people groups – what we might call “Giving boldly where no one has gone before.”
That sometimes means being on the lookout for newer and likely smaller charitable organizations that may not even be rated yet, but in many cases we can still find out enough about the organization to warrant our support. A great example is the Children in Christ ministry that is carrying the Word of God to whole people groups that have not heard it by means of children's clubs and other innovative ways. Although this smaller charity is not numerically rated by Charity Navigator yet, it is possible to find plenty of information showing how effectively and cost effectively it functions (the CEO even works on a volunteer basis), so you know that contributions are truly accomplishing something.
Finally, we can often give more than we think we can because giving doesn’t just have to be about money. Perhaps we can increase the power of our gifts by sharing products we produce or by giving items we no longer need – or don’t need as many as we have. Most people are aware of the opportunities to give in these ways through the food banks, Salvation Army or other helping agencies in our own communities, but we may not be aware of some of the excellent charities that send products and lightly used items to distant places around the world where the needs may be far greater than those of our own communities.
An example of this kind of charity is Matthew 25: Ministries (another Charity Navigator 100% rated charity) which aims to help “a needy world with the things we throw away.” This innovative charity collects and passes along used items that can truly help those in need nationally and internationally – including things we may not often think of such as empty prescription pill bottles which are sent to areas where what medicines are available are often literally wrapped in leaves or paper and subsequently are spoiled through moisture and in other ways. Yet another organization, Christian Resources International, specifically focuses on sending used Bibles and religious books to areas where they are not generally available.
All these tactics require thought and perhaps a little time on our part – but they are simple things that can make a very real difference. So if you choose to give this season, think about the advantages of giving wisely, boldly, and in more ways than just cash. The effectiveness of our giving can be doubled if we do. * You can find interviews with the CEO’s of some of the charities mentioned in this post in the "Works of Faith" section of our sister site, LivingWithFaith.org.
The Bible has much to say about encouragement – and shows that it is something even the strongest individuals of faith need at times (Moses, David, and Elijah, to name only three). The Scriptures also show that there is a difference between being encouraged in physical things (Proverbs 13:12, etc.) and the kind of spiritual encouragement we all need from time to time in the Christian walk (1 Thessalonians 5:11, etc.).
When problems and difficulties fill our lives, spiritual encouragement can sometimes seem distant, but our new article shows five ways to find it. You can read the article in our Tactics section, here.
A few weeks ago we announced our new website, FreeChristianEBooks.org, dedicated to making quality Christian e-books (our own and selected others) freely available for reading on any computer, e-reader or smartphone.
The new site has received a lot of visitors and positive comments already and we are excited that it has had such a great reception. There is an obvious and growing need for Christian e-books that can be read on any electronic device, but although there are numerous websites offering free Christian literature, their books all too often offer a narrow denominational perspective, are only “occasionally” or “partially” free, and often require registration with an email address that leads to advertising or other “follow ups.” Perhaps that is why our new site has been an immediate success with its non-denominational approach and completely free downloads without any strings, conditions or registrations. And there is more good news. Free Christian E-Books is not intended to be a static library – we plan to add new titles to the site on a regular basis. We have already added a number of new e-books and more are on the way. The new additions include a small selection of Bible translations as well as Bible study and Christian living helps by established Christian authors. There is already a wide selection of titles to choose from, but the new additions make the site even more attractive. So if you haven’t visited yet – or to see the new titles – you can visit FreeChristianEBooks.org here.
There is a sobering but meaningful verse in the Book of Malachi regarding the blessings we have been given. In this scripture God says: “If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name ... I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings ... because you have not resolved to honor me” (Malachi 2:2).
Notice that Malachi does not say God will necessarily take away our blessings, but that our behavior leads to those blessings becoming curses. Why would this be? Malachi’s words allude to the great “Blessings and Curses” narrative (Deuteronomy 11) in which God reminded ancient Israel that faithfulness and obedience to His laws would result in individual and national blessings – whereas turning from God would lead to many resultant curses. The prophet’s words also have a specific reference to the priests who had become corrupt and were not honoring the God they were supposed to serve – but the principle is one that can apply to all of us, in our marriages, families, careers or finances.
The Bible shows that we can lose blessings or see them become curses for a number of reasons; the Old Testament may even be described as a book of the giving and losing of blessings – from Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden to the expulsion of Israel and Judah from their homelands. Many of the Old Testament prophets elaborate on this theme (see for example, Malachi and Haggai), but it is not just an Old Testament concept. The New Testament also shows we can lose God’s blessings – the fact is stressed throughout the Bible.
Look at a few examples. We can lose blessings by putting them – the physical things themselves – before God. We don’t necessarily do this by making idols of them, but sometimes just by focusing on them to the point that our character suffers and our spiritual lives decline. This idea is found in the words of Solomon: “A faithful man shall abound with blessings: but he that makes haste to be rich shall not be innocent” (Proverbs 28:20) and Jesus: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). We can miss the point of these scriptures if we think this only applies to avaricious greed and not to letting such things as desire for promotion in our careers or “trying to make a comfortable living” come between us and God. It’s a matter of focus.
We can lose blessings or have them become curses by being unwilling to share them where we can (Romans 15:27, 2 Corinthians 9:9). We can also lose blessings by taking them for granted (Hebrews 12:17). In all these ways, and others, we can fall into the trap that Malachi warns of – that our focus is not on honoring God by keeping him first in our lives.
It’s something we can think about this Thanksgiving season. Is our focus on the blessings or on the One who ultimately gives them? Our Thanksgiving should perhaps be about more than just enjoying our blessings – and the big game of the day. Psalm 50:23 tells us that “Those who sacrifice thank offerings honor me” and the principle of offering sacrifices of thanks certainly applies to the Thanksgiving holiday. But Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity not only to give thanks for physical and spiritual blessings, but also to remind ourselves to live our thanks by honoring God, as Malachi urges us to do.
“while I was still searching but not finding – I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all” (Ecclesiastes 7:28).
On the surface of it, the author of the biblical book of wisdom called Ecclesiastes seems to give women a pretty bad rap. While this writer – probably the wise King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1:12) – admits there are few good men to be found (“I found one upright man in a thousand”), he seems to have been unable to find a good woman at all!
But is that what this verse is really saying? There are actually a number of possibilities that the verse is not putting women down at all, and we will look at three of these individually.
First, we should notice that the writer is referring to himself in the first person in saying “While I was searching … I found …” This is important as the book is giving the writer’s personal experience from its introduction almost to its conclusion. He continually stresses his own personal reactions and feelings – as when he writes: “I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me” (Ecclesiastes 9:13). As a result, it is perfectly possible that the writer is simply talking about his own experience rather than making a statement about all women everywhere. The fact that he was a king might make this more likely, as we will see next.
Second, the Hebrew word translated “woman” (ishah) can mean wife as well as woman and the phrase “to find a woman” can mean to look for and find a wife. If that is the meaning in this verse, the king evidently could find an occasional man who made a good friend, but was unable to find a good wife. 1 Kings 11:3 tells us that Solomon had one thousand wives and concubines, but it is entirely possible that most of these women were striving to win position or favor for themselves or their families. As someone who admittedly was primarily seeking pleasure in life (Ecclesiastes 2:1, etc.), he may have cut himself off from women who he would have respected more. From this perspective Ecclesiastes 7:28 is simply applying the fact that money (even kingly riches) cannot buy happiness in the realm of marriage.
Yet another possibility can be seen in the fact that the Hebrew word translated man in this verse (adam) can often mean “human.” If that was the intended meaning, the writer could simply have been stressing that his experience was that only one in a thousand people were good individuals – though admitting that his “sample” consisted entirely of men and no women.
There are even other possibilities for the original meaning of this verse, but we can see from the three mentioned here that whatever the writer of Ecclesiastes meant specifically, he need not have been putting down all women. It is more likely that he was complaining of his own sad experience based on his own particular circumstances. Additionally, if the author of Ecclesiastes was indeed Solomon, we should also compare this verse with the many proverbs of Solomon that do show a high regard for women (Proverbs 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; 31:10; etc.).
We are very happy to announce the launch of our latest website: Free Christian E-Books! Our new site brings you more food for the soul – in the form of Christian e-books that you can read on any computer, e-reader or smartphone.
Naturally the new site carries all of our own e-books (including the latest 2nd editions and new titles) and also carefully selected books ranging from classics like The Pilgrim's Progress to recent titles by some of the leading Christian writers of today. Books have been chosen to reflect our non-denominational perspective, and while some authors are affiliated with specific denominations, the works we have selected do not focus on denominational topics.
Also in keeping with the philosophy behind our website ministry, all the books we offer on the new website are completely free and do not require any registration or email address to download. The site is newly launched, but there is already a wide selection of titles to choose from, and new books will be added regularly. Why not come on over to visit and pick up a couple of free books while you are there! You can visit FreeChristianEBooks.org here.
The more we grow spiritually, the more we desire to please God; but how do we most effectively do that? The New Testament mentions a number of ways in which we should please God – that we cannot please him without faith (Hebrews 10:38), without “walking in the Spirit” (Romans 8:8), etc. But in his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul makes a statement that summarizes the many answers to that question (Colossians 1:9-12). Paul tells us he prayed that believers “… may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way…” (vs. 10, emphasis added), and he then follows this thought by speaking of four specific ways that, taken together, please God in “every way.”
Paul’s statement is almost startling in both its reach and its simplicity. No other passage in the New Testament claims to tell us how to be completely pleasing to God, so we should look very closely at the characteristics the apostle tells us fulfill this goal. The four things are:
1.Bearing fruit in every good work (vs. 10). Paul makes it clear throughout his epistles that although good works do not save us, God expects us to produce good works as a result of being saved (Titus 3:8, 14, etc.). Throughout the New Testament the expression “good works” primarily refers to works done to help others (Hebrews 13:16, etc.), but it also includes our obedience to God (1 Thessalonians 4:1, Hebrews 13:20-21, etc.). We should also notice Paul’s stress in Colossians 1 is not that “some” good works will please God, but that we are urged to “every good work” – to as many good works as possible!
2.Growing in the knowledge of God (vs. 10). Paul next cites our ongoing growing in the knowledge of God and his ways as being central to our ability to please God. It is only as we come to know God that we can learn to properly love, fear, trust, and obey him (Psalm 147:11). Knowledge itself is of no use without application (1 Corinthians 13:1-2), but growing in knowledge can enable us to better grow in good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The first two points Paul gives for how to please God correspond directly with the apostle Peter’s summary admonition that we should “…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18, emphasis added). Paul also stresses these same two characteristics elsewhere in his writing (Philippians 1:9), but in Colossians 1 he goes further to add two more points that we need in order to fully please God:
3. Being strengthened by God (vs. 11). This is not strength for its own sake, of course, rather “… that you may have great endurance and patience” (Colossians 1:11, Ephesians 3:16, etc.). Given what Paul says in this verse, there is no question that this strengthening is actually something God must do in us: “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might,” yet we must make this possible by asking God’s help and trusting him in faith to supply his strength. In that sense, this characteristic includes the quality of faith itself, as the basis of our strength, endurance and patience (Hebrews 11:6).
4. Giving thanks to God (vs. 12). The final characteristic that Paul tells us is pleasing to God is deep gratitude on our part: “… giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.” In fact, thankfulness is a theme to which the apostle returns numerous times in this short epistle (Colossians 2:7; 3:15, 17; 4:2) – in this way reinforcing our understanding of its importance in God’s eyes.
So Paul’s four summary characteristics of believers who truly please God are not what many of us might guess. Humanly, we might suppose that never-failing obedience, great sacrifice, frequent or long periods of prayer, or any number of other things that relate to our own lives might be what please God. But Paul’s four characteristics do not focus on our lives – they are all primarily outward looking toward others and God himself. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the things Paul says greatly please God are all expressions of our love for others and love for God. That is basic enough, but the four specific characteristics Paul enumerates are worthy of our careful study – if we want to please God, they are among the highest goals for which we can aim.
The men and women who constitute our first responders – the police, fire, paramedics and other public servants – selflessly accomplish an untold amount of good for which we all can be grateful. The majority of those first responders have answered a call in which they put others before themselves and they are often the most trustworthy people we can find.
But this blog post is not about our societies’ first responders, but our personal “first responses.” It is a fact of human psychology that our first responses in many situations are often anything but trustworthy. Think about this for a moment. If someone were to suddenly insult you, throw a rock at you, or to kick your new car, what would your first response be – to immediately retaliate verbally or in some other way? For most of us the answer is probably yes – whether we would eventually calm down and restrain ourselves or not. Perhaps there are a few people whose first responses to negative or provocative stimuli are always calm and rational, but I have not personally had the honor of meeting any of them.
What I do know, and what you probably have found as well, is that in all too many situations in life, no matter what our level of sincerity or dedication to our beliefs, our first responses are often not our best responses. People often talk about “trusting our first instincts,” but like it or not, our first reactions to problematic situations and stimuli are usually those hardwired into our human nature and almost always wrong. Anger, denial, justification of our behavior, shifting of blame, and countless other negative first responses are the stock-in-trade of human psychology.
So whenever the potential for a problem occurs or some kind of interpersonal difficulty actually arises, we do need to focus on our responses and not just let them happen. There are several things we can do in this regard. Consider the right responses involved in a physical emergency situation. First response organizations advocate three essential steps at such times: (A)ssess the situation, (C)all for help, (T)alk to people who have been affected, calm them, and address their needs. These three “A.C.T.” steps can be utilized spiritually in our interpersonal relations just as much as they can be used in physical situations – a fact we see frequently in the wisdom found in the Bible’s book of Proverbs.
(A)ssess the situation: Our first responses are often the wrong ones because we follow human impulses without considering their outcome. Many statements found in Proverbs urge us to avoid that. For example, “the one who acts hastily sins” (Proverbs 19:2 Holman) refers to the need to assess situations carefully before acting, and “do not answer a fool … answer a fool” (Proverbs 26:4-5) likewise counsels us to remember that different responses are needed in different situations. We must assess first, but once it is clear that we have a problem, we should move to the next step.
(C)all for help: First responders urge people to call 911 or their local emergency number to get help as soon as they see what the problem is and confirm the seriousness of its nature. When it comes to getting our spiritual responses right, as soon as we realize we have a problem, prayer should likewise be our first call. Proverbs assures us that “The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:29), and this especially applies in any spiritual emergency situation where we need help to respond in the way we should. God is the ultimate first responder and as Christians we should make it a habit to seek his help in quick silent prayer, whenever possible before our interpersonal problems escalate.
(T)alk to people who have been affected, calm them, and address their needs: This emergency situation technique can certainly be utilized when we are faced with difficult interpersonal situations. Being aware of the natural prevalence of wrong first reactions in our own lives can help us to be mindful of the need to help others through their own first reactions. We do this by first working to calm them rather than reacting in such a way as to make the situation worse. Proverbs makes this point very clearly: “A gentle response diverts anger, but a harsh statement incites fury. The wise speak, presenting knowledge appropriately…” (Proverbs 15:1 ISV). Just as a first responder will work to help with people’s needs in a physical emergency, we can also focus on the needs of the other person with whom a problem has developed rather than concentrating on our own hurts and perceived needs.
These may all be basic approaches to working with situations such as arguments, accidents, misunderstandings, and other problems that may occur in our lives, but their simplicity makes them all the more effective if we can learn to utilize them. First responders urge us to “A.C.T.” when physical problems occur that are of an emergency nature. In the sphere of everyday interpersonal problems, remembering the acronym “A.C.T” can also help us – before our problem circumstances get to the level of a spiritual emergency!
MannaBooks – the free mobile phone application that offers the ability to both read and publish Christian books and devotionals. Launched in 2018, MannaBooks is a relatively new ministry based in Abuja, Nigeria. Founded by Anthony Joseph and Gideon Oyediran, it is a non-denominational Christian ministry aiming to serve the whole Christian community.
What makes MannaBooks different, and the reason you need to know about them, is the unique approach they have taken to publishing the gospel. As their website explains, “Our mission is to make great Christian books available to the world.” This goal is being accomplished in both established and novel ways. First, MannaBooks produces a free app that works on any recent android smartphone (4.4 and up). The app not only allows searching their catalog for Christian books and downloading and reading them, but also provides access to tools and help for Christian writers to publish their work through the MannaBooks platform.
Looking at these aspects individually, the MannaBooks app functions smoothly and with most of the “bells and whistles” that can be found on the best e-book readers. It is a cleanly designed program and very straightforward to use. Rather than just being lumped together in a jumbled “catalog,” titles can be selected from a number of useful categories. The reader uses the ePub e-book format and displays books flexibly for comfortable reading, so font size, layout, and background color can all be customized.
Although selection is not yet extensive on this new platform, there are a number of good books already available (including all of our LivingBelief and TacticalBelief e-books) and more titles are being added all the time. Current titles include classics like The Pilgrim's Progress as well as works by selected modern Christian writers. All the books in the current selection are free, and although selected titles will be added for purchase as time goes on, free Christian books will always be featured. Audiobooks are also planned, as is an iOS application for iPhones.
The second aspect of the MannaBooks app is equally impressive, and perhaps unique. The free services available through the app and website help Christian authors to prepare and publish their works. In an area of publishing already crowded with established authors, MannaBooks publication services can be a tremendous help for new authors trying to get their work out who may find it difficult to meet the costs associated with self-publication.
Once written and prepared for publication, the app also gives authors a platform to share their books with a focused audience that will be interested in them. Basic publishing services are offered free, and premium services like book distribution and editing, ePub conversion, cover designs, and ISBN registration are also offered to authors. A book publishing arm of MannaBooks, where new titles that do exceptionally well on the app can be published physically, is also planned.
For those not involved in Christian writing themselves, the MannaBooks app is still worthwhile in giving readers access to a growing array of Christian books and devotionals on the go. The app is great for use during commutes or at any time and is an excellent way to be able to have a Christian library with you without having to carry a bulky laptop or e-book reader. There is no cost for the application or for downloading any of its free books, which may be a blessing for many people around the world.
So this is an app that deserves to succeed in its goal of making Christian books available to people everywhere, and we might think about ways in which we can help bring that success about. MannaBooks staff members are working as volunteers to make the project possible, so consider contributing to MannaBooks to aid its development. Even by simply downloading and using the free app you can help support this worthwhile ministry. By doing so you will have a dedicated Christian e-book reader on your phone with access to many free titles, and you will also be helping to provide an audience for Christian writers everywhere.
You can download the free MannaBooks e-book app directly to your phone from the Google Play Store, here, and from the Apple App store soon.
“The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil” (Proverbs 15:28).
We don’t always think about words as having “weight,” but they do – whether they represent “weighty” thoughts or not. Putting this fact another way, although we may sometimes use the expression “all words and no action,” the truth is that all words are actions that create reactions. That is why, in the expression used in Proverbs, the heart (mind) of the righteous weighs its answers before speaking them.
We all understand that just because something comes into our mind doesn’t mean it should come out of our mouths, yet most of us fall down in this area to some degree. Perhaps because there is more of a time-lag involved, we tend to do better in what we write. How many times have you typed an email or text message and then thought better of it, or at least made changes before clicking “send”? Yet the spoken word seems to occur at closer to the speed of light – no sooner do we think something than all too often we hear ourselves saying it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can learn to stop and weigh our words before speaking them if we choose.
We weigh physical things such as recipe ingredients on a scale to make sure they are enough for what is needed, but not too much. Weighing our words is the same because we can err by saying too much or too little.
On the one hand, we can err in not saying enough – in not verbalizing appreciation in our lives (Psalm 107:8-9, etc.), in not speaking up to help others when we should (Proverbs 31:9, etc.), and in many other ways. Matthew 18:15 alerts us to one of those situations: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” If we fail to do this, we fail in our relationship. Weighing our words involves thinking about this kind of thing – asking ourselves if we have said what we should say in a given situation.
On the other hand, saying more than we should is an even more common problem – and often the most serious. Once again, there are numerous ways this can occur.
Sometimes saying too much is just a matter of too many words. As the book of Proverbs puts it, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19). Depending on the circumstances, not saying too much may even mean not saying anything at all – as Proverbs also tells us: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (Proverbs 17:28) – a thought that is sometimes humorously worded “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” But although not speaking at all may only apply in occasional and extreme situations, the Bible does stress that we should “Avoid godless chatter” (2 Timothy 2:16), and this may be an area in which we should all weigh our words.
Sometimes saying too much is not just about the number of words spoken, of course, but about the harmful nature of even a few words spoken in anger or frustration. We have all heard the advice to “count to ten” before saying something when we are angry or upset, but counting may just be delaying our reaction. What we really need is to weigh the words before they are spoken – to assess the probable results before we speak – and that’s what Proverbs 15:28 is specifically talking about.
We may understand that relationships are often broken or damaged when things are said that are better left unsaid, but such “unweighed” words do not just include hurtful things such as unjust criticisms or angry retaliations; they can also include gossip, lies and exaggerations that hurt others (Psalm 34:13). Although we may not think of it this way, the use of irreverent, vulgar, or profane speech can also hurt both ourselves and others. That is why the apostle Paul urged, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).
There are even other circumstances where not weighing our words can lead to problems, not through saying something wrong, but perhaps through committing to do things we can’t or don’t do, for example. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us in this regard that: “It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin” (Ecclesiastes 5:5-6). In these and many other ways we can fall down spiritually if we do not think about what we say before we say it. That may be difficult for most of us, but it’s why we should strive to weigh our words continually. As the apostle James wrote: “my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak …” (James 1:19 ESV), and we should never forget the warning that Jesus himself gave: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). If we need one, that’s a very good reason to weigh our words before, rather than after, they are spoken.
THE CITY ON A HILL: LESSONS FROM THE PARABLES OF JESUS By R. Herbert. Second edition, revised and expanded, Living Belief Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-942573-62-3
This new edition of one of our popular e-books has been revised to make its information more accessible. It also includes new material and a new appendix on the parables of the Old Testament. The City on a Hill: Lessons from the Parables of Jesus is a practical but carefully researched commentary on all of the parables found in the Four Gospels. Use it as a study aid or reference, to prepare lessons or sermons, or simply enjoy it as a profitable Christian read!
Like all our e-books, The City on a Hill is free and free from advertising. It is available in multiple formats for reading on any computer, e-book reader or smart phone. You do not need to register or provide an email address to get a copy – simply click on the link on the download page of our sister site here.
The subject of which Biblical laws apply today can be confusing for many Christians. This is because some claim a great many of the laws given to ancient Israel still apply today while others claim none of them do and that under the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-33) believers are only responsible for fulling the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2) or the “law of love” (Matthew 22:37-40; James 2:8).
To come to a sound biblical answer to this question we must first understand that the laws given to ancient Israel were of different types (Jeremiah 7:22-23; Hebrews 8:13):
1. The ritual or sacrificial laws. Of the more than 600 laws found in the Old Testament, the great majority are the ritual laws pertaining to the temple, its priesthood, and sacrifices (see Leviticus 16:18-19, for example). This is the easiest category to deal with as the New Testament unequivocally shows that these laws foreshadowed the work and death of Jesus Christ and were fulfilled by him as the ultimate sacrifice (Hebrews 9:11-14).
That is why the apostle Paul draws a clear distinction between the ritual laws of the Old Testament and the spiritual or moral laws (see below) in verses such as this: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” (1 Corinthians 7:19).
2. The civil or governmental laws. These laws were given for the civil administration of the physical nation of ancient Israel (see Deuteronomy 24:10-11, for example). The purpose of many of these laws was to provide an identity for Israel as the people of God and to separate them from the pagan nations around them. Because we do not live under the government of ancient Israel, these laws do not directly apply to us today. In fact, rather than being called to be separate from the nations, Christians are called to carry the gospel “into all the world” (Matthew 28:19). Yet the principles behind many of these laws can still be applied today in keeping ourselves separate from the sinful aspects of the societies in which we live (2 Corinthians 6:17) and in other ways.
For example, the Old Testament civil law states that the people of God were not to muzzle an ox, but must allow it to eat as it was used to thresh the grain (Deuteronomy 25:4). In the New Testament, Paul uses the principle behind this law to show that it is not wrong for a minister of the Gospel to be supported by the work he does. Here, and in other cases, Paul argues from an old civil law to a modern application of its principle.
3. The spiritual or moral laws. These are actually a minority of the laws of the Old Testament, yet they are the most important (see Exodus 20, for example). The Ten Commandments are particularly vital because they summarize the moral or spiritual laws given to Israel, and many scholars feel that there is clear biblical evidence of all ten commandments being understood before the nation of Israel came into existence. We certainly find them being followed in the later writings of the New Testament, which shows that they were not like the sacrificial or governmental laws pertaining to Israel alone and that they continued beyond the death of Christ (see Ephesians 6:1-2, for example). As a result, we can say that the spiritual or moral laws found in the Old Testament transcend time and space and are perfectly applicable today.
We may have heard that all we have to do as Christians is to love God and our fellow humans, but the spiritual or moral laws show us how we do that. That is why the apostle John (the “apostle of love” himself) tells us “this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome,” (1 John 5:3).
Although the ritual laws of the Old Testament were fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice, and the civil laws of Israel are no longer applicable because the church is not a separate physical nation, the basic moral laws of the Old Testament are clearly reflected in the New Testament (Romans 13:8-10; Colossians 3:5-10, etc.).
In many cases we can also learn valuable principles from the other types of laws found in the Old Testament – which is why Paul tells us that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 NKJV). But Paul is equally clear in showing that the Christian should not become enslaved to laws that were fulfilled or no longer apply (Galatians 5:1-3).
So the Bible shows that the moral principles found in the Old Testament and reaffirmed in the New Testament are valid for us today and guide us in living out the new life to which God calls us (Galatians 5:16-26).
Today, Sunday September 22, is widely observed as Freedom Sunday – a day dedicated to stopping the human trafficking and slavery that is rampant in the world in which we live.
Many people think of slavery as something of the past, but the problem is far greater than is often realized in our own age. It is estimated that there are now over 45 million people enslaved throughout the world – actually more than at any other time in history!
Modern slavery is also incredibly widespread. Slavery or human trafficking for the purposes of slavery has been detected in 167 countries of the world. This includes Western nations such as the United States and Great Britain, but 58 percent of people in slavery are living in just five countries: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. The International Justice Mission, which organizes the annual Freedom Sunday efforts, also lists Guatemala, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines as being particularly problematic. Even this long list does not include totalitarian regimes such as North Korea where virtual slavery as political punishment and repression is also a fact of life.
Slavery can take many forms. Although modern slavery includes people literally being owned by other people – just as in the past – it more often takes the form of people being exploited and completely controlled by others, without the possibility of escape. But in all cases it involves the use of kidnapping, trickery, lies or violence to force a person to work for little or no pay – often in demeaning and destructive circumstances. Even apart from the physical dangers involved for those who are kidnapped or manipulated by traffickers, the psychological and emotional problems suffered by those enslaved are often devastating.
As a result of the horrendous nature and extent of the problem, many governments are acting to curb human trafficking and slavery, but the sad truth is that nowhere near enough is being done to truly eradicate this curse. In countries where the problem is most pronounced, the governments themselves often turn a blind eye toward what is happening. Yet there is much we can do as individuals.
Four Ways to Fight
Consider the following four possibilities for involvement in the fight against slavery:
Educate Yourself: It is hard to successfully fight an enemy we know little about. But educating ourselves about modern trafficking and slavery is relatively simple and can supercharge our own desire to fight these evils. Take a few minutes to read about the basic facts of slavery today by looking at the Wikipedia article on Slavery in the 21st Century or at the information on websites such as those of Anti-Slavery International or International Justice Mission.
Spread the Word: This weekend, thousands of churches around the world will dedicate part or all of their services to share stories and facts about the reality of slavery and to urge congregants to get involved in the fight. If we have educated ourselves in relation to the problem, there are various ways (using social media, for example) in which we too can spread the word as individuals.
Support Organized Efforts: Anti-Slavery International and the International Justice Mission are leading the fight internationally against slavery, though there are other organizations also doing valuable work in this area. Checking out their websites may give you ideas for ways you can support this kind of organized effort.
Pray: Even if we do nothing else in the fight against slavery, we certainly can, and should, pray for those actively working to stop the problem at different levels, especially those working in law enforcement and international justice. We can also pray for the eyes of those in positions of authority around the world to be opened to see the evil of slavery and what must be done to end it.
Free the Oppressed
As Christians we should take seriously the many biblical injunctions to help those who are oppressed. Isaiah 1:17 tells us: “Seek justice and defend the oppressed” and Isaiah 58:6 shows us that even our spiritual activity can be meaningless if we do not do what we can in this fight: "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” The fight for freedom is ongoing and applies just as much to us today as it did to those who fought to curb slavery in the past.
We are familiar with the legal requirement that a person must promise in court to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” and certainly the Scriptures clearly and repeatedly teach that lying – saying something that is untrue – is wrong (Psalm 31:18, 63:11, 101:7, 119:29, Proverbs 6:17, 12:22, 19:5, 9, Zechariah. 8:16, Ephesians 4:25, 1 John 2:21, Revelation 21:27, 22:15 to mention only a few examples!). But, apart from legal contexts where we promise to tell the whole truth, does the Bible teach that we must always tell all the truth – that it is lying if we do not speak everything we know about a situation?
In past articles we have shown the Scriptures make it clear that it is not wrong to word statements and answers in such a way that an impression will be created that protects innocent individuals who might be harmed if we were to tell the whole truth in a given situation.
This is the kind of situation posed by the classic moral question of “Should a person give a full and true answer if asked if they know the whereabouts of innocent individuals being hunted by those who would clearly harm them” (as in World War II Nazi hunts for Jews in hiding)? Most Christians can see the need for withholding known facts in situations like this, and there are biblical precedents for such behavior.
The story of the midwives protecting the newborn male Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-21) and the woman Rehab protecting the Israelite spies (Joshua 2:4-6, 6:17, 25) are two such cases. But the clearest example of this is where God himself is said to have instructed the prophet Samuel to tell King Saul that he was going to Bethlehem to offer sacrifices and to omit the detail that he would anoint the young David as king while he was there (1 Samuel 16:1-5). Had Samuel told all the truth to Saul in this situation, Samuel’s life may well have been endangered, and at the very least he would probably have been blocked from doing what God had instructed him to do. A similar situation is found in Jeremiah 38:24-27 where the prophet Jeremiah, although asked, does not repeat all the details of a conversation that could endanger him.
But while it is relatively easy to see the morality of withholding information in such cases, what about situations where lives are not endangered, but telling everything we know may cause unhappiness if not actual harm? We must be particularly careful in situations such as these, but once again there may be biblical precedent to guide us.
Genesis 18 tells the story of how the patriarch Abraham was visited by three “men” – one of whom was clearly God himself in human form (Genesis 18:13-33). In this well-known story, the Lord announces to Abraham that despite his advanced age (Abraham was some 90 years old at this time), God would give him a son and heir. Hearing this, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who was nearby “… laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’” (Genesis 18:12 ESV).
We are then told that the Lord asked Abraham “…Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’” (vs. 13). Interestingly, the Lord did not repeat Sarah’s exact words or her complete statement, only what was necessary for his purposes. He did not repeat Sarah’s specific comments on her own condition or Abraham’s, which would have been embarrassing and perhaps hurtful if repeated.
This would seem to be a clear example that it is sometimes not wrong to withhold the whole truth from someone – without saying anything untrue – when all of the truth might be hurtful or distressing. In exactly this way, as parents we might not give our young children all the facts of a medical report or what a doctor tells us regarding a child’s illness.
It is true that in withholding part of the truth we may sometimes be creating a situation in which people may get the wrong idea regarding given circumstances. So in these cases we must always be sure that we are withholding facts for the sake of others – not to protect ourselves or for our own advantage in some way.
We see this careful withholding of information in the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. John’s Gospel tells us that prior to a religious festival in Jerusalem Jesus told his family members: “You go to the festival. I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come” (John 7:8). However, a few verses later we read that “… after his brothers had left for the festival, he went also, not publicly, but in secret” (John 7:10). The secrecy involved in Jesus’ actions indicate that he may well have gone separately in order to protect his family members from the danger he knew he might bring on them, but John makes it clear that in order to protect them in this way it was necessary for Jesus not to tell them all the truth regarding his plans at that point. We do not have the perfect character and wisdom of the Son of God, of course, so scriptures such as these are not invitations to “juggle with the truth” using our own human understanding as we go through life. But what the biblical examples do show us is that sometimes it is not wrong to withhold specific information that might endanger, hurt, or embarrass others. The Bible shows that, of itself, is not lying.
We take idioms for granted in our own language. When someone says, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” we don’t expect to see falling animals – we understand that words used in idioms don’t have their usual individual meanings and that the expression has taken on a new significance altogether. So we easily understand the idiom to “see the light” as meaning simply to understand or the expression to be “in hot water” to mean to be in trouble.
This use of idioms is common in most languages and when it comes to the Bible, ancient Hebrew was no exception. In fact, the Old Testament is particularly rich in this regard. A great many Hebrew idioms have to do with body parts – especially the face, hands and feet – and these are often “guessable” in context even if they sound strange to our ears – as when we read “his face was fallen” (Genesis 4:6) and we sense the meaning is that the individual was sad. To take a couple of other simple examples, in the Old Testament to have “clean hands” is to act purely (Psalm 24:4) and to have “closed hands” is to act selfishly (Deuteronomy 15:7).
These examples may make sense to us, but at other times it is not quite so easy to see the underlying meaning of Hebrew expressions. The idiom “his nose burned” means “he was furious” (as in Genesis 30:2), and the expression “the length of two noses” means “to be patient” (as in Exodus 34:6 and elsewhere). Fortunately, translators usually make such expressions understandable for us, and the more modern the translation, the more idioms tend to be translated with modern expressions rather than literally.
An example is found in 1 Samuel 24:3 where the Hebrew expression “to cover his feet” is translated literally, word for word, in the King James Bible (KJV), but more modern versions translate the meaning “to relieve himself,” as we find in the New International Version (NIV) and English Standard Version (ESV). While the KJV translates the Hebrew expression “having uncircumcised ears” literally in Jeremiah 6:10 and elsewhere, the NIV and ESV translate the idiom accurately as “not listening.”
This kind of idiom-to-meaning translation is particularly important because idioms can confuse us even though we may think we understand them. We may know that in Hebrew the idiom “hearts and kidneys” (KJV “hearts and reins”) means what we would call our “thoughts and emotions.” But even knowing that “hearts” means “thoughts,” we may miss the fact that the Hebrew expression “heart lifted up” does not always mean to be “happy” (as in 2 Chronicles 17:6), but can also mean “prideful” (as in Deuteronomy 8:11-14).
Again, most modern translations help us make sense of idioms such as the ones we have looked at, but they will also sometimes leave idioms untranslated. This is particularly true in the New Testament – and especially in the Gospel of Matthew which was likely originally written in Hebrew. We see this throughout Matthew when he speaks of the “kingdom of heaven” as opposed to the “kingdom of God” as we find in the other Gospels. In Hebrew, the word “heaven” was used idiomatically for “God” so a true meaning-to-meaning translation would render “kingdom of heaven” as “kingdom of God” in Matthew also.
Consider another example from Matthew. In Matthew 19:24 we read the famous words of Jesus: “… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Most English translations from the KJV to the NIV translate this verse in this way, but for centuries commentators have disagreed on the origin for the phrase “a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” Some have speculated that the expression is based on a small “needle gate” next to a larger gate in Jerusalem – the smaller gate being left open at night so that a camel, kneeling down and without its rider, could just pass through. Attractive as this explanation might sound, there is no proof of it and no historical evidence of any such gate. In reality, the expression is based on a known idiom. The Hebrew word gemala translated “camel” does often mean camel, but idiomatically it can also mean a thick rope, and this is more likely the original meaning of Jesus’ words – that it is easier to thread a small needle with a thick rope (as opposed to a thin thread) than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
At least one modern translation does translate the idiom in this way, and the lesson for us is simple. No matter how much we may be attached to an older translation of the Bible, such as the KJV, we owe it to our understanding of the Scriptures to at least occasionally read a newer translation. Certainly no version is perfect, but good modern translations are more likely to translate Hebrew idioms with accurate meanings rather than with word for word translations that are often not fully understandable to the modern reader. A person who knows biblical Hebrew may recognize the idioms left untranslated in the KJV, but for most readers, a good modern translation will help render those idioms understandably – rather than with expressions that may require “the length of two noses” to understand.
Does the Bible teach peacemaking (the avoidance of conflict when it is possible) or pacifism (the complete avoidance of conflict under any circumstances)? It’s especially confusing for many people because some claim that the Bible teaches the first of these ideas while others claim it teaches the second.
Nevertheless, both the Old and New Testament give a consistent picture when it comes to this question, so rather than try to look at all the possible scriptures on the subject we can focus on one or two clear examples.
In the Old Testament One of the clearest examples of the Bible's approach to this question can be found in the story of the patriarch Abram/Abraham – the “father of the faithful” as he is called (Romans 4:11) – and his nephew Lot. In Genesis 13 we read:
“… quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s…. So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” (Genesis 13:7-9).
We need to notice that this was not a simple parting of the ways of the two men. The “quarreling” that erupted between Abram’s servants and Lot’s was apparently intense (the Hebrew is translated “strife” and “adversary” in other passages). Although Abraham was the senior family member, he calmed things down even to the extent of allowing Lot to choose the best area and taking what appeared to be “second best” himself. This is a classic example of peacemaking at its best – where someone in a position to act otherwise nevertheless shows humility and great flexibility in order to avoid strife.
But only a chapter later in Genesis we read that Lot and all his family and servants were subsequently taken captive by raiding kings of four nearby cities, and Abram’s response was quite different:
“The four kings …carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions … When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people” (Genesis 14:11-16).
So, despite Abram’s obvious desire to avoid conflict when this was possible, in circumstances where peacemaking simply would not have worked and people’s lives were at stake, Abram was willing and ready to use force. The fact that Abram had trained men ready to fight* but only used them in such circumstances shows Abram was a man of peace, not pacifism.
In the New Testament
When we turn to the New Testament, we find this same attitude of avoiding conflict whenever possible – yet with the understanding that this is not always an option. We find Jesus teaching: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), but also showing that while there are circumstances where the “sword” is not appropriate, there are perhaps others where it is (Luke 22:36). But it is in the writings of the apostle Paul that the New Testament teaching on peace is most clearly laid out.
First, we should note Paul stresses that God is a God of peace (2 Thessalonians 3:16) and as a result he tells us “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace” (Romans 14:19). But in the same letter to the Romans Paul also writes: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). Here Paul clearly indicates that there are circumstances where it is not always possible to live at peace – as when we or others are attacked and need to defend ourselves. In such circumstances, as Paul’s words must mean, the responsibility of peace depends not on us, but on others. If others will not walk peacefully, then the use of defensive force may become unavoidable. Pacifism claims that there are no circumstances where it is morally acceptable to resort to force, but the Bible nowhere clearly teaches this view and gives many examples of the defense of self and others. Certainly we should avoid strife as much as possible in every circumstance. The author of the book of Hebrews makes this clear in saying that we should “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14). But making every effort to avoid strife – loving peace and seeking peace wherever possible – is peacemaking, not pacifism.
Our recent e-book production schedule has precluded us from updating our "Books in Brief" review page for a while, but we have finally been able to select a few more titles to recommend to you! They are the classic The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, David Jeremiah's recent Overcomer based on Ephesians 6, and the soon-to-be-published Double Crossed, the fascinating true story of the Christian missionaries who played a crucial role in the Allied victory in World War II.
Of course, if you haven't already downloaded our own most recent title, Discovering the Bible, be sure to check that out (see the blog post directly below this one. Like all our e-books, our latest publication is entirely free and free of advertising and does not require any reghistration or email address to download. Simply choose the format of your choice and click the link on the download page.
Finally, we are happy to confirm that we have almost completed a revised and expanded 2nd edition of our very first e-book, TheCity on a Hill: Lessons from the Parables of Jesus – a practical study of all the parables of the New Testament. Look for the announcement of that 2nd edition soon!
DISCOVERING THE BIBLE: AN INTRODUCTION TO EACH OF ITS BOOKS By R. Herbert, Tactical Belief Books, 2019 ISBN 978-1-64370-227-8
Our latest free e-book is a straightforward guide giving a brief introduction to each book of the Old and New Testament: who wrote it, why it was written, and what it says. Summary verses and verses to think about are also included. If you are only now beginning to read the Bible – or would like to refresh your knowledge of its individual books – this guide will help you discover, or discover more fully, the individual books that make up the “book of books” – the Bible.
As is the case with all our e-books, Discovering the Bible is completely free and has no advertising. You do not need to register or give an email address to obtain a copy – just click on the link hereto go directly to the download page.
Even great writers occasionally experience “writer’s block” – the seeming inability to write a few meaningful sentences – despite the fact that they may regularly write thousands of words in a day. In a similar way, even the most faithful of prayer warriors can experience times when praying seems to be difficult. There may be different reasons for this – prayer may become difficult because of feelings of guilt, exhaustion, discouragement, defeat, sadness, anger, or other reasons. But whatever the cause, if we are finding it hard to pray, there are several simple strategies we can employ to help us get back to God – back to wanting to pray. Next time you feel it is difficult to talk to God, consider trying one or all of these techniques:
Get Some Rest
One of the most frequent causes of difficulty in prayer is simple tiredness. Whether it is because we are trying to pray at the end of the day when we are already tired or because of exhaustion resulting from illness or other factors, tiredness greatly impairs our ability to think clearly and to pray effectively. The answer in these situations is often simply to get some rest and try again. As Psalm 127 tells us: “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves” (Psalm 127:2). The God who planned for sleep in our lives knows that sometimes we need rest before we can proceed. Difficulty in prayer at night can often disappear by morning.
Give Yourself a Spiritual Check Up
If difficulty in prayer continues, we may need to take the time to examine our lives and determine that we are not compromising our beliefs in some area. When we settle into a habit of making allowances for thoughts, words, or deeds that we know are not good, we set up dissonance in our minds and our prayer is usually the first thing to be affected. The book of Genesis shows that the first sin led immediately to a reluctance to talk with God (Genesis 3:8) and, as is often said, prayer can stop us sinning, but sin can stop us praying. In these situations, as we determine to change we find it easier to pray again – and to get the help that true change requires.
Pray for Others
Sometimes it is our own feelings or problems that, for whatever reason, are pulling back on our ability to pray. In situations like these it is often helpful to simply try to concentrate on the problems and needs of others (so often so much worse than our own!). There is something about doing this that makes our own efforts to pray more effective. The book of Job tells us that “After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes …” (Job 42:10) and this story perfectly illustrates the way active concern for others pulls us closer to God despite our own situation.
Use a Prayer from the Bible
On occasion, our difficulty with prayer can be that we simply do not know what to say. Perhaps we feel ashamed for something we have done, or possibly we admit we feel angry with God for something that has happened in our lives. In these situations, when we just do not know quite how to put our thoughts into words, it can help to simply pray out loud one of the prayers recorded in the Bible. The prayer outline we call “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13) can work well as can Psalm 23, Psalm 51 or one of the other psalms, depending on the circumstances. Praying these prayers out loud can often help us feel like adding our own words and thoughts as we go along – and that is getting back to where we should be.
Just Pray it!
We began this article talking about “writer’s block.” Professional writers know they cannot afford to allow themselves the luxury of continuously not writing, and most know that the best way to overcome such a block is to “Just say it!” – simply to make themselves write something. Just putting the words down somehow gets the creative juices flowing again and while it may not be great literature, it’s usually better than nothing!
Prayer is like that, too. When we feel unable to pray we often need to “Just pray it!” Pray something – anything – just to get the process started again. Using one of the techniques we have looked at can often help us accomplish this. But we should always remember that no matter how awkward or even artificial our prayers may seem at these times, God is more than happy to accept our efforts and even to help us in ways that we may not even imagine (Romans 8:26-27). That’s one of the great things about prayer itself – when it gets hard we can pray for help in praying. And that’s a prayer that God will always answer.
* For more information on prayer, download our free e-book Your Call: Using the Direct Private Line of Prayer. You can download a copy to read on any computer or e-book reader here.
The apostle James uses the word “religion” in a specific sense. Rather than meaning religion in the sense of the body of beliefs we hold (as in “the Christian religion”), James uses religion to mean what we do about our beliefs (as in “he practices his religion”).
The verse most of us remember in this context is found in the first chapter of James’ epistle: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
But this verse, so often quoted in isolation (or marked in our Bibles that way) is actually only part of James’ teaching on this subject. When we read James 1:27 in context we see that his thought actually begins in the verse before this one: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
Now, if we read these verses together – as we should – we find something interesting: that James is giving us not two, but three distinct tests of our religion or personal religious practice. First (in verse 26), he gives us the test of speech. James does not give us any specific examples here; he just tells us plainly that religion that is not worthless involves control of our speech – whether it be the restraint of negative or impure speech or the use of positive uplifting speech.
Next (in verse 27), James tells us that religious behavior that God accepts includes good deeds. Here, he does give a specific example – to look after orphans and widows in need. But the principle is obviously a broad one of which this is just an example. The care for orphans and widows clearly represents our actions toward everyone in need – our willingness to act on our religious beliefs on their behalf.
Finally (in the second half of verse 27), James tells us that religion acceptable to God also includes keeping oneself from being “polluted by the world.” Here again James does not give any specific example of what he has in mind, but we can gain insight into his meaning by comparing this verse with what the apostle says later in this same letter: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
Here, James is also talking about the problematic ways in which the wrongful aspects of the world around us can influence us negatively. Although this influence can affect our actions and words, interestingly it is our thoughts that James has in mind here. We see this from what James says directly before verse 4: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want” (James 4:1-3).
So the setting of James 4:4 has to do with our thoughts and attitudes. That means that the three tests James gives us in James 1:26-27 are, respectively, tests of what we say, do, and think. Thinking, saying and doing embrace most of what we are as individuals, of course, and James makes the point that our religion, if it is to be true, must involve all three – the behavior of the mind, the tongue, and the hand: our thoughts, words and deeds.
But the wording James uses is particularly important because he stresses that no matter how good our religion may be in one of those areas, it is meaningless if it is not matched in the others. James tells us that it doesn’t matter what good deeds we do if our thoughts or words are not also right; it is of no importance if our thoughts and words are right, but our deeds do not follow through. All three must be right.
These combined tests of what constitutes true religion should give us all pause. It is only as we analyze our own behavior in all three areas and ensure that, with God’s help, we are living out our religion in all of them* that we will pass the tests James gives us. *See our article on the surprising order of importance the Bible gives to words, thoughts, and deedshere.
Self-esteem is a “hot item” these days. For several decades we have been told that a strong concept of self-worth is absolutely vital for mental health and wellbeing. As a result, most Western educational systems now focus on the early development of self-esteem above many, if not most, other goals.
Unfortunately, the unmodified stress on self-esteem from early childhood onward all too often leads to a false sense of accomplishment. As psychotherapist Jennifer Coon-Wallman has written, the purpose of many school programs is simply “to dole out huge heapings of praise, regardless of actual accomplishment.”
Worse yet, in recent years it has become clear that an unbalanced sense of self-esteem invariably leads to the development of self-centeredness and to social problems that result from that flawed view of the world. As a New York Times article pointed out as far back as 2002: “Last year alone there were three withering studies of self-esteem released in the United States, all of which had the same central message: people with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem, and feeling bad about yourself is not the cause of our country's biggest, most expensive social problems.”
It is not that a concept of self-worth is somehow bad, but that self-esteem by itself is not good. We must be able to balance that concept in order to properly see ourselves in perspective, to properly relate with others, and for society to function properly.
Interestingly, we see this necessary balance in the Biblical story of the first humans. The first chapter in the Bible’s first book, Genesis, tells us: “ … God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:26), and this should give us all the fuel we may need for the development of a healthy self-concept. If we believe what this verse plainly says, we can all rest assured that we are of great worth by virtue of our very nature and that we do not need some kind of fake praise to create an artificial and skewed self-esteem.
On the other hand, the very next chapter of Genesis tells us, with equal clarity: “… dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 2:19). If knowing that we are the work of the very Creator of the universe is ever a temptation to pride and inordinate self-esteem, this verse quickly puts things in perspective. Knowing that at our very best we are still merely dust that comes and goes like a transient vapor (Psalm 39:5) should prevent us from taking too high a view of ourselves.
In that sense, the story of the creation of humans as recorded in Genesis carries with it a built-in and balanced self-worth prescription that both elevates and restrains our concept of ourselves at the same time. According to the Bible, both statements – that we are as gods (John 10:34) and that we are as nothing (Galatians 6:3) – are equally true. Both statements are also equally necessary for individual and social well-being.
Perhaps some of us need to focus more on one aspect of self-image than on the other, or perhaps we all need to focus on both aspects according to our current state of mind. When we feel pretty pleased with ourselves or our achievements, it does not hurt to remember that we are still dust, but when we are afflicted by self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness it is always good to remember that we are children of God created for his purposes.
Simplistic as it may sound, it’s a dual prescription that can prevent arrogance and pride on the one hand and discouragement and depression on the other. It’s a balanced prescription for the attitude we all need if we are to gain and maintain the kind of self-identity God intends us to have.