My Unforgettable Cedarville Experience

(The following is an expanded version of the speech I gave at this year’s CU Scholar Dessert Reception.)

The first thing I ever decided about Cedarville University was that I would not, under any circumstances, attend. Since my administrator’s son, Drew Flamm, worked in admissions at CU, I had been inundated since before I could remember with calls to become a yellow-jacket, and out of sheer stubbornness of heart, I refused.

Almost seven years later, and I stand before you all with the hopes of graduating next May. What changed? Well, for starters, God’s grace was, well, irresistible for even a stubborn high school student named Joshua Steele. While I don’t have time now to recount all the details, suffice it to say that receiving this scholarship was the final capstone of a tumultuous and miraculous college search process. I offer my sincerest thanks to the members of the selection committee. I stand before you now on nothing but a mountain of God’s grace, of which your generosity has been no small portion.

As I near the end of my Cedarville experience, two things have made my journey thus far particularly unforgettable and life-changing: Continue reading “My Unforgettable Cedarville Experience”

Wedding Vows: My Personal Take on the Traditional Version

The Traditional Wedding Vows

In case you didn’t know, the “traditional” wedding vows – in English, at least – are found in the Book of Common Prayer.

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the marriage vows read as follows:

I M. take thee N. to my wedded wife, to have and to hold,
from this day forward, for better for worſe, for richer for poorer, in ſickneſs and in health, to love and to cheriſh, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.

I N. take thee M. to my wedded huſband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worſe, for richer for poorer, in ſickneſs and in health, to love, cheriſh, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.

When we got married in August 2012, my wife, Rachel, and I decided to write our own vows, at least loosely based upon the traditional vows. (Give us a break, we weren’t yet Anglicans!)

So, here are the vows I wrote, and still endeavor to keep as Rachel’s husband!

My Wedding Vows

I, Joshua Patrick Steele, pledge myself to you, Rachel Elizabeth, as your husband.

I solemnly vow:

to love you as I have been loved by Love himself,

to take joy daily in your beauty and worth as God’s precious daughter,

to cling to you faithfully with mind, soul, and body,

in light and in darkness,

in summer and in winter,

in springtime and in harvest,

in plenty and in famine,

through Sheol to Eden,

in sickly decay and in healthy vigor,

in unspeakable joy and in bitter sorrow,

in the tempests of chaos and in the calms of perfect peace.

And, by your side, to pursue relentlessly God’s grace and shalom

until Death parts us

or Death itself is vanquished by our coming King,

in whose presence I hereto pledge you my faithfulness.


For more personal posts of mine, go here.

The Book of Romans, Distilled and Paraphrased

The following is an attempt, written in 2012, to distill and paraphrase the main argument/message/story/logic of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. 

Romans 1:1-17

If you don’t catch anything else from what I’m about to say, remember this:

God is righteous. He is just. He is faithful.

God has proven himself faithful to his promises of restoring the world, working through his faithful Son, the Messiah, to bring about both our faith in and our faithfulness to him.

Allow me to explain this further.

But first, the objections:

Romans 1:18-32

See, at first glance, the big idea above seems ridiculous. God is faithful? Have you seen the world recently? It’s corrupt to the core. Idolatry, sexual immorality, violence, deception, hostility, etc. Because people refused to believe that God is who he says he is, Sin and Death have infected and affected every layer of human existence. If God is truly righteous, why is his world so unrighteous?

(For a theological essay about what the Bible is and why it’s important, read this piece.)

Romans 2:1-29

Furthermore, look at his “chosen people,” the Jews! They are no better than anyone else, despite their privileged position as the ones through whom God promised to work.

They have failed to understand that their identity as God’s people was more inward than outward, and by boasting about their possession of God’s law (instead of allowing God to change them from the inside out), they have become just as unrepentant and stubborn as the rest of the world!

Romans 3:1-8

Doesn’t Israel’s utter failure to have faith in God and fulfill their role as a conduit of God’s grace to the entire world mean that God’s plan and promises have failed?

No. Just because some of the Jews failed does not mean all of them have.

And it especially does not mean that God has.

He is still faithful and righteous. But more on that later…

Romans 3:9-20

Even though everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, is corrupt…

Despite the fact that Sin and Death, God’s cosmic enemies, have polluted his creation…

Although Scripture itself testifies that we are all unfaithful…

Although the Law which was supposed to guide us in our pursuit of God has only highlighted just how broken we are and how far we have fallen…

Romans 3:21-31

Despite all of these things, God is righteous.

God has revealed his covenant faithfulness to us through Jesus the Messiah, the True and Faithful Israelite through whom God has kept his redemptive promises. Through his death, the Messiah has absorbed the wrath of God which our unfaithfulness merited. What’s more, he has reconciled us to God and made possible the truly human life, one which honors God by living in perfect relationship with him and the rest of his creation. Through the Messiah, God is proving his faithfulness in redeeming the entire world.

Romans 4:1-25

However, you’ll notice I said “made possible” above. This is because the benefits of what the Messiah has done are only appropriated to us, as they always have been, through faith. The unrepentant Jews made the mistake of assuming that their cultural identity of Torah-obedience was the source of their identity as God’s people. Not so! Look at Abraham! The righteousness of God was appropriated to him because of his faith. After all, he wasn’t even circumcised yet! Therefore, just as Abraham, we all receive the benefits of and incorporation into God’s redemptive mission through faith, and not through the Law. The key is putting our faith in the faithful Messiah.

Romans 5:1-21

Pardon me, but this topic is so important that I’m going to run with it for awhile!

See, this combination of the Messiah’s faithfulness and our faith in him means that God has declared us faithful (righteous). Did you hear that? Not only is God faithful, but despite our unfaithfulness, he declares us faithful as well because of his faithful Son and our faith in him!

This means that we now have PEACE (and not enmity) with God!

This is possible because, get this, at every point at which our father Adam (and everyone ever since) failed, the Messiah has perfectly succeeded!

Before placing our faith in the Messiah’s faithfulness, we were all “in Adam.” That is, we were at enmity with God because of our unfaithfulness to him which deserved condemnation. However, the Messiah’s faithful obedience didn’t just undo our unrighteousness, putting us back on level ground. Instead, it has taken us to the soaring heights of God’s own righteousness! We are now “in the Messiah”!

Romans 6:1-25

But that’s not the only transfer that’s happened! Being moved from “in Adam” to “in the Messiah” also means that we’ve been moved from the Death which Sin brings to the Life which the Messiah offers to us! While we were “in Adam,” we were slaves to Sin and Death, dominated by them and without freedom. However, now that we are “in the Messiah,” we have choices! Free choices! Sin still brings death, but we have been set free and we have the ability and opportunity to make proper choices and live life to its fullest by being truly human, giving glory to our gracious Creator!

Romans 7:1-6

All of this has radically changed our relationship to God’s Law. Through the transfer from Adam to Messiah, from Death to Life, we have been set free from the Law’s condemnation! We can now live a life where God’s Spirit writes the Law on our hearts!

Romans 7:7-25

See, beforehand, while we were still “in Adam,” the Law didn’t really help us out. Because of our initial unfaithfulness, the Law highlighted our brokenness and need for a Messiah Savior. It condemned us in the sight of a holy God. Although there was nothing wrong with the Law itself, there was something profoundly wrong with us, and the Law was very good at showing that!

Romans 8:1-30

But our faith in Jesus the faithful Messiah changes things. As I mentioned above, we have now been set free from the Law’s old condemnation! The Spirit of God writes God’s law on our very heart. Not only that, the Spirit also gives us the power to live a life which is pleasing to God, in right relationship with our Creator and all of his creation. The Spirit is both our GPS and our engine. Therefore, we no longer have to worry about being condemned by the Law, because the Spirit guides and enables us to fulfill the Law’s requirements as those who are “in the Messiah.”

Romans 8:31-39

Take a moment to think about all I have said so far. Despite the unfaithfulness of all humanity, God has proven himself faithful, most notably through his faithful Son, the Messiah. Look at all God has done for us and given to us through the Messiah! Consider the depths of his love for us! Nothing can separate us from the love of God and the love of our Messiah! God is indeed righteous. Although the plan has not yet been fully accomplished, he is well on his way toward redeeming all that he has made.

However, we still haven’t covered everything. If you’ll remember, there’s still that tricky bit about the failure of God’s chosen people. Even though God has done all of this for us through the Messiah, doesn’t the failure of Israel damage his righteousness?

Can God still be fully faithful if it appears his specific promises to/about Israel have failed?

Despite the apparent failure of Israel, God is still righteous and faithful!

Consider three reasons why:

Romans 9:1-29

Firstly, if you will remember, God never promised to use every single ethnic Jew as one of his chosen people. Consider Abraham’s descendants, they were numbered through Isaac and not Ishmael. Similarly, Isaac’s descendants were numbered through Jacob and not Esau. This does not mean that God is unfair, for he is not obligated to show mercy to anyone! It also does not mean that God was eternally unloving to those he did not choose at specific times to work through in Israel’s history toward the coming of the Messiah! The main point isn’t that Ishmael and Esau were damned to hell. It’s that God has never promised to choose and use every single ethnic descendant of Abraham. It is therefore unfair to act as if God has promised to always use all physical Jews. As I alluded to before, the *true* Jews have always been so inwardly, not just outwardly.

Romans 9:30-10:21

Secondly, let’s not blame God for what the Israelites themselves failed to do! Just because many (but not all!) Israelites have failed to have faith throughout the years does NOT mean that God is no longer faithful. Although God never promised to choose and use every ethnic Jew as one of his chosen people, all Jews did have more than enough opportunities to place their faith in God and live in faithfulness to him! However, as mentioned toward the beginning, they failed to realize the key role that faith played in the process. They boasted in their ethnic/national identity of Torah-following instead of boasting in the faithfulness of their God and fulfilling their priestly duties to the world. Please do not blame this failure on God. He has remained faithful and gracious.

Romans 11:1-36

Thirdly, and finally, the story is not yet over! The failure/rejection of Israel is neither total nor permanent. God has always preserved a faithful remnant. That is, there has always existed, within ethnic Israel, the true Israel, the faithful people of God. Despite Israel’s failures, there has always been a remnant, graciously preserved by God to accomplish his purposes. But this remnant will not always be partial! There will come a day in the future when God will do through Israel abundantly above and beyond what he has ever done before. A complete, full generation of Israelites will someday be rescued and used by God to bless the world, completely dispelling any notions that God has somehow failed his people. Despite Israel’s faithlessness, God has remained, and will always remain, faithful and righteous.

This is more than even I can comprehend!

Praise be to God!

Romans 12

In view of God’s righteousness, his faithfulness in redeeming the world and putting it back together again through his faithful Son, the Messiah, let’s consider what it looks like to join him in his redemptive mission! If you’ll remember, our faith in the faithfulness of the Messiah is designed to bring about our own faithfulness as well!

What does this faithfulness look like, in response to all God has done?

It starts with a refusal to conform to the world’s ways of life. Remember my mentioning of the consequences of Sin and Death earlier? Well, in addition to those things, you must also refuse to be conformed to the ways of pride and division. Instead of conformity, pursue transformation. Allow the Spirit of God to renew your mind, and it will revolutionize your relationships. Pursue things like unity, genuine love, harmony, and peace. In all circumstances, even when you are being persecuted, refuse to be overcome by evil. Instead, overcome evil with good.

Romans 13

This all more-or-less makes sense when applied to fellow believers and neighbors, but when we start talking about persecutors and the government, things get tricky!

The crucial thing to remember is that, although God is in the process of invading this fallen world to establish his righteous kingdom, this does NOT mean that you should go violently overthrowing the Roman Empire, or any other empire for that matter! This is because the King we follow stands for, as I’ve just mentioned, genuine love, harmony, and peace. This rules-out violent rebellion and vengeful retaliation.

I’m NOT arguing, by any means, that you should mindlessly participate in the currents of society and government which go against God’s kingdom. Stay alert and faithfully follow the Messiah!

However, instead of trying to overthrow the Empire, you should reasonably and respectfully participate in society. Trust God’s sovereignty over human affairs by submitting to the authorities and paying your taxes. God’s kingdom will be established from the inside out!

These things are all related. The same characteristics of your love for each other and for your neighbors should be applied to persecutors and the governing authorities. If “in Adam,” then this stuff sounds ridiculous. However, we are “in the Messiah,” and this radically changes everything. Let us live in LOVE, the fulfillment of God’s law, as we await our Messiah’s return…

Romans 14-15

…which brings me to the most pressing issue I wish to address.

See, all of this means very little if it does not impact how you Jews and Gentiles relate to each other within the body of the Messiah, the Church. Now that you are both accepted as full members of God’s holy people, I realize that there has been quite a bit of social tension created, specifically with regards to food! While I could give you an apostolically-prescribed menu, that would defeat the purpose, because my main goal (and God’s main goal, for that matter) in this is to see you unified, harmoniously working together as Jews and Gentiles for God’s kingdom.

Here’s why this is important. If you allow something as simple and amoral as food to fragment you, think of what a slap in the face that is to the Messiah, who moved heaven and earth to defeat Sin and Death and reconcile you all to God.

Sin and Death destroy relationships.

Our Messiah destroyed Sin and Death.

If you, then, go back and destroy relationships over things such as food, you are effectively undoing the work of the Messiah.

Do not let this be so! Overwhelm each other with grace and love as you pursue unity!

Use these principles within the body to settle all further and future differences as well, for your unity and love for one another prove that God’s mission is working in the world!

Romans 16

I am confident that God has been and will continue to be at work in your lives. Deeply consider the things I have said to you. But take heart, for we serve a God who loves human beings, and that is why he has chosen to use us in his redemptive mission!

Just don’t forfeit this precious role by allowing people to cause dissensions among you!

I have now come full circle in my argument.

Despite our failures, God is righteous in his mission of redeeming the world through his Son, the Messiah, and through his people, the Church, of which you are a part.

His faithfulness to us through the Messiah is designed to bring about (through our faith in him) our own faithfulness and obedience to him.

May our righteous God and our faithful Messiah be praised and given glory forever!

Amen!

Unity?

The more I study the New Testament, I become more convinced that the unity of the Church is of utmost importance to God.

What bothers me is that this has never been taught to me before. All of the things I’ve learned (specifically in my studies on Philippians, Galatians, and now Romans) about the importance of unity for the sake of the Gospel mission and the Kingdom of God have come as somewhat of a shock.

It’s not that I’ve never heard about the importance of unity before. But when the topic has been addressed in the past, it’s amounted to little more than being nice to my friends…people who are already likely to be remarkably similar to me, people already within  the little camp of Christianity in which I have grown-up.

But it’s never been encouraged to spread to other Christian “camps.” Forget the Pentecostals, Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, etc. If the pastor’s feeling a bit edgy, we can partner with them on service projects, but unless the “others” get their act together, they are to be tolerated at best, and at worst ridiculed.

Instead, in my particular stream of Christianity, the focus has been placed on two things: doctrinal orthodoxy and moral purity.

Please don’t hear me wrongly, I am not denying the importance of either of these two things. God is meant to be known well, and to do that we must think, talk, teach, and speak about him well. Theology is not to be a shoddy enterprise, and we must constantly examine ourselves, aware of the shortcomings of our humanness, in the pursuit of understanding of Yahweh. Furthermore, Yahweh is a holy God. He hates Sin and Death, and if we are serious about following him, we must hate Sin and Death as well.

Christ calls us to live Genesis 1-2 lives in a Genesis 3 world.

But, wait a second. Go back and read that again. “Christ calls us to live Genesis 1-2 lives in a Genesis 3 world.” What popped into your head as you read that sentence? What should characterize that Genesis 1-2 kind of life?

I fear that, if you’ve inherited the same stream of Christianity that I have, unity and interpersonal relationships were not the first things to color your vision of what Genesis 1-2 would look like today. Instead, we (conservative evangelical North American Christians) are much more likely to think of living a morally spotless life driven by a flawless theology. With no sin to fetter us and lead us toward doctrinal laxity, we would be free to enjoy God forever.

We have flattened Christianity by focusing on these things at the expense of focusing on the rich vision of community and unity that we find in the pages of Scripture. Read Genesis 1-2. We were created to enjoy God, yes. We were created to live without sin, yes. But we were created to enjoy and be enjoyed by each other. We were made to know and be known. God’s perfect shalom included much more than moral purity and doctrinal orthodoxy. It included perfect relationships: with God, with each other, with our own “self”s, and with all of creation.

And likewise, the Fall of Genesis 3 broke relationships. It separated us from God, estranged us from each other, introduced discord within our own psyches, and infected the creation in which we dwell. Sin and Death were unleashed into the cosmos, and they have polluted and twisted every layer.

The call back to Genesis 1-2 therefore involves much more than right doctrine and moral purity. God is in the process of redeeming everything. And every time we cut his redemptive mission in half (or sometimes smaller), we do so at our own peril.

…toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ – the things in heaven and the things on earth. (Ephesians 1:10 NET)

I believe that God’s heart breaks over the lack of unity in his Church today. Is he pleased with the individual moral sins we love to emphasize? By no means. Is he pleased with bad theology? No way. But something is seriously amiss if we do not think that God’s heart breaks over the fragmentation within the Body of Christ.

What do you think about this issue? Why does this not bother us like it should? And most importantly, what can we do to address this problem?

Grace and peace,

~Josh

The Good News of Christmas

After reading The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight, who makes the claim that the gospel is the saving story of Jesus as Messiah, King, and Lord as the completion to the story of Israel, I started to notice some profound gospel messages in the Christmas carols we often sing during this season.

I have found that several of these carols go much deeper (much more biblical) than the personal salvation “gospel” of sin-management that we often preach and sing about. What’s tragic is that, even though these carols are quite possibly the best-known Christian songs, their familiarity (and the fact that we only break them out for 1/12th of the year), makes it quite easy to ignore their substance.

Christians, my brothers and sisters,

instead of allowing Fox News to persuade us that the “War on Christmas” is being fought in the stores when people say “Happy Holidays,”

instead of thinking that our Messiah’s main “sorrow” in December is that more people are not saying “Merry Christmas” more often…

…let us examine ourselves. How guilty are we of reducing our “King,” “everlasting Lord,” “Prince of Peace,” “Sun of Righteousness,” and our Messiah into an individual savior whose birth, life, death, and resurrection accomplishes nothing more than getting us into heaven when we die and helping us to manage our personal sins in the meantime?

Perhaps we should be more concerned with our emaciated versions of the gospel than with how we are greeted when entering and exiting our society’s temples to consumerism and greed. 

Please join me in attempting to look through the unfortunately and undeservedly trite familiarity of this song to see its portrayal of the gospel:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

May your hearts and minds be set upon Jesus the Messiah, King, Lord, Savior, and Prince of Peace.

And may you all, in doing so, have a very Merry Christmas.

~Josh

Church and State

 

(Note: for a more recent piece on the relationship between Church and State, see my essay: “Improvising Church and State.”)

I just read an article by Kevin DeYoung at The Gospel Coalition: “Thinking Theologically About Memorial Day”. Listen to his intro:

This post probably has something to make everyone unhappy. But here goes.

With Memorial Day on Monday (in the U.S.) and, no doubt, a number of patriotic services scheduled for this Sunday, I want to offer a few theses on patriotism and the church. Each of these points could be substantially expanded and beg more detailed defense and explanation, but since this is a blog and not a term paper, I’ll try to keep this under 1500 words.

DeYoung goes on to cover five main points:

  1. Being a Christian does not remove national and ethnic identities.
  2. Patriotism, like other earthly “prides,” can be a virtue or vice.
  3. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country are not inherently incompatible.
  4. God’s people are not tied to any one nation.
  5. All this leads to one final point: while patriotism can be good, the church is not a good place for patriotism.

Overall, I really appreciate this attempt to arrive at a balance between those who simply baptize their American patriotism and call it Christianity and those who view every instance of patriotism as damnable idolatry. I loved DeYoung’s last paragraph:

In some parts of the church, every hint of patriotism makes you a jingoistic idolater. You are allowed to love every country except your own. But in other parts of the church, true religion blends too comfortably into civil religion. You are allowed to worship in our services as long as you love America as much as we do. I don’t claim to have arrived at the golden mean, but I imagine many churches could stand to think more carefully about their theology of God and country. Churches should be glad to have their members celebrate Memorial Day with gusto this Monday. We should be less sanguine about celebrating it with pomp and circumstance on Sunday.

In the end, while I want to avoid the extreme position of viewing every form of patriotism as idolatry, I think that American Christians too often give unthinking allegiance and support to the country in which we live. Without demonizing the country in which we live, the amazing freedoms which we are able to enjoy, and the men and women who have sacrificed to secure and preserve those freedoms for us, we need to always remember that we, if we belong to Christ, are ultimately citizens of a greater Kingdom than the United States of America. DeYoung has this to say about the compatibility of allegiance to God and allegiance to one’s country:

If you read all that the New Testament says about governing authorities in places like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, you see that the normal situation is one of compatible loyalties. The church is not the state and the state is not God, but this does not mean the church must always be against the state. In general, then, it’s possible to be a good Christian and a good American, or a good Ghanaian or a good Korean. Patriotism is not bad. Singing your national anthem and getting choked up is not bad. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country do not have to be at odds.

Correct, allegiance to God and allegiance to country do not have to be diametrically opposed. Christians should live as respectful citizens of their respective nations. However, do we really believe that Ghanaian and Korean Christians are every bit as good as American ones? I know everyone’s going to say “yes,” but do we really believe this? What if those Ghanaian and/or Korean Christians don’t like the United States of America? Are they still as pleasing to God in our eyes, or does their righteousness depend on their support of the Red, White, and Blue? Because a lot of what I have seen/heard/experienced in the American church seems to subtly teach that our country is the best and most deserving of God’s favor. I retweeted the following recently:

I’m waiting for the Iranian and N. Korean editions of the Patriot’s Bible. http://www.americanpatriotsbible.com.

Why does something like this have the potential to upset so many American Christians? “Iran and North Korea are clearly more morally evil than the United States,” some will say. Maybe so, but since when does our country get to claim the right of being God-approved? Can Christians in Ghana sing “God bless Ghana”? Perhaps our reactions to tweets/messages/statements like the one above only prove the problem.

Before someone calls me a heretic or an anti-American, please know that simply questioning the American church’s commitment to the USA does NOT immediately make me into someone who burns flags and pickets soldiers funerals. That would be swinging to the other end of the spectrum, and I do not believe that such a dichotomy exists. If someone does not give unquestioning allegiance to the USA, it does not mean that they automatically align themselves with the crazies over at Westboro Baptist Church.

I am a Christian.

I am also an American citizen. I obey the law, salute the flag, am respectful of the men and women in the armed forces, grateful for their sacrifices, and thankful for the fact that I live in a country where I can enjoy unparalleled freedoms (such as writing blog posts like this without having to fear for my life).

…but I do not give my ultimate allegiance to the American flag, or any other national standard for that matter. I pledge my ultimate allegiance to Jesus the Messiah. And while most Christians in the United States of America would nod their heads and agree with that previous statement, I think that we all need to consider whether we are living it out or not. Will our church services on Memorial Day reflect this?

May our eternal and infinite God bless his global bride, his global people, his global Church as Christians from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language follow their true King, Jesus the Messiah.

~Josh.

What Does the Bible Say about Poverty? – The Book of Proverbs

Introduction: Poverty and Wealth

In contrast to the affluence of mainstream American culture, poverty is a harsh and painful reality. It can be found in abundance in the urban centers of this country, and in countless other places around the globe.

Modern day slavery “more cruel than any beast of prey” (Wright 2005, 136), it traps human beings created in the image of God in a lifestyle of hunger, sickness, anger, and darkness.

However, one can effortlessly go through daily life in middle class America without giving much thought or care to the billions of people living in poverty worldwide. Furthermore, one can even profess faith in Jesus Christ and regularly attend an average evangelical church in the United States without being prompted to pay the poor, underprivileged, and oppressed of this world any mind.

In this milieu of wealth and poverty existing side by side in an atmosphere of confusion and apathy, the book of Proverbs provides relevant insights into the nature of poverty, the nature of Yahweh, and how his people should respond to it.

(For more on how Christians should think about poverty and wealth, see my essay “Christians and Wealth.”)

Descriptions of Poverty: Effects and Causes

Many proverbs are devoted to describing the harsh realities of poverty, showing that the Hebrew sages were well aware of its existence and characteristics.

Effects

These proverbs frequently describe the poor in direct contrast to the wealthy. Consider Proverbs 10:15:

“A rich man’s wealth is in his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”

The force of the antithetical parallelism of this verse is hard to overlook. Whybray explains that the main point “is that wealth protects the rich from the vicissitudes of life, while the poor, having no resources to fall back on, are easily vulnerable to total disaster” (1994, 165).

The word used for “poor” here is dal. While Whybray states that this word is synonymous with the other Hebrew terms for “poor” (˓ānı̂, ˒ebyôn, and rāš)in Proverbs (1994, 165), The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) differentiates dal from the other three, saying that “unlike ˓ānı̂, dal does not emphasize pain or oppression; unlike ˒ebyôn, it does not primarily emphasize need, and unlike rāš, it represents those who lack rather than the destitute.” Dal refers to the lack of both material and social resources (Harris, et al. 1999).

This lack of social resources can be seen in the proverbs that describe how poverty affects relationships. Proverbs 14:20 says that

“The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.”

This same theme is reiterated in chapter 19:

“Wealth brings many new friends, but a poor man is deserted by his friend” (19:4).

Expanded across two verses, it reads:

“Many seek the favor of a generous man, and everyone is a friend to a man who gives gifts. All a poor man’s brothers hate him; how much more do his friends go far from him!” (19:6-7a).

These three proverbs contrast the social standings of the wealthy and the impoverished. Alden’s comment on 14:20 is apt when he says that “the unfortunate truth [is] that greed is a more compelling trait than generosity; people are more eager to have rich friends than poor ones” (1983, 114).

Proverbs 19:6-7a expands upon this, describing how people are naturally drawn to relationships that give them material benefit. It is rare, however, to find people who are drawn to relationships that would cost them materially. Even a poor man’s family members “hate him”!

Bridges says it well:

“As the winter brooks, filled from the opening springs and the torrents from heaven, are dried up and vanish before the summer heat; so these friends of the poor go far from him, cold, distant, and vanishing in the day of his calamity” (1987, cf. 1846, 312).

Materially and socially, poverty wreaks havoc on the lives of those it entraps.

Causes

Given the terrible effects and characteristics of poverty, Proverbs naturally contains many admonitions to avoid its causes.

Causes of poverty listed in Proverbs include (but are not limited to):

  • a “slack hand” (laziness) (10:4),
  • ignorance of instruction (13:18),
  • endless talk (without toil/labor) (14:23),
  • hastiness (21:15),
  • the love of pleasure (21:17),
  • drunkenness and gluttony (23:21),
  • worthless pursuits (28:19),
  • and stinginess (28:22).

Of particular interest is the repetition of the warning against excessive slumber if one is to avoid poverty (6:10-11; 20:13; 23:21; 24:33-34).

Proverbs 6:10-11 and 24:33-34 include the almost verbatim admonition:

“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.”

Sleep (as compared with labor) might give the initial benefits of rest and relaxation, but when developed into an excessive habit, it can have disastrous consequences.

John Chrysostom comments upon 6:11:

“Is work at first difficult? Then look to its results. Is idleness sweet? Then consider what comes out of it in the end. So let us look not at the beginning of things, but let us also see where they end up” (Wright 2005, 50).

This approach perhaps summarizes most of the practical warnings in Proverbs about avoiding poverty. What initially seems like the easiest and most comfortable choice will rarely, if ever, lead to success.

Set apart from the practical warnings of avoiding poverty, however, is Proverbs 22:16:

“Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.”

The verb “oppress” here is the term ˓ā∙šǎq, meaning “mistreat, i.e., treat a disadvantaged member of society unjustly with the effect of causing one to suffer ill-treatment” (Swanson 1997).

Although the Hebrew of this verse is quite difficult and there is little concurrence among commentators as to its proper interpretation (Whybray 1994, 322-323), the sense of it seems to be that the end result of oppressing the impoverished for material gain is only further poverty.

Proverbs 30:14 comes to mind:

“There are those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mankind.”

These verses make the transition from descriptions of poverty to responses to its existence, highlighting the uncomfortable truth that improper treatment of the poor can bring disaster.

Responses to Poverty: Yahweh and the Poor

It is clear that Proverbs gives its readers a thorough understanding of the dreadfulness of poverty and the importance of avoiding it.

However, this understanding does little to inform the audience of how we should respond to the existence of poverty.

The surest foundation for a proper response to poverty is undoubtedly the character of Yahweh with regards to the oppressed and impoverished.

Consider Proverbs 14:31:

“Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.”

The first line of this proverb is echoed in 17:5a, and the second (seemingly unrelated) line of 17:5, “he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished,” has been taken by some commentators to refer to those who rejoice over not just calamity in general, but specifically the ruin of the poor (Whybray 1994, 255 and Clifford 1999, 164).

If this is the case, then these two proverbs taken together make the same point with both a positive promise and a negative warning. Clifford states the main point particularly well:

“The dignity of each human being comes from being created by God. Contempt towards anyone insults the person’s maker. The example of the poor person, the type perhaps least likely to gain respect, is used to dramatize the point. Every human being, irrespective of wealth, is worthy of respect” (1999, 164).

The same point is made in Proverbs 22:2, which states:

“The rich and the poor meet together; the Lord is the maker of them all,”

and also in 29:13:

“The poor man and the oppressor meet together; the Lord gives light to the eyes of both.”

Our treatment of the poor needs to be based upon the fact that they have been made in the image of Yahweh and are therefore worthy of dignity and respect. To deny them the treatment that each and every human being deserves is not just stinginess, it is an insult and an offense to the Creator.

However, Proverbs goes further than appeals to imago Dei in its teachings about our treatment of the poor.

Atkinson says it well:

“The oppression of the poor is both a violation of someone who should be respected because he or she bears the image of the Creator, and also an attitude which does not reflect the character of the Creator, who is himself on the side of the poor” (1996, 111).

Proverbs 22:22-23 delivers a stunningly vivid warning:

“Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the LORD will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.”

The reader is told to not take justice from the poor because they have the LORD as their defender at the gate (the site of legal proceedings). “The poor, by not having human protectors, have Yahweh as their protector. Paradoxically, their poverty gives them a more powerful protector than the rich could afford” (Clifford 1999, 207).

This gives a glimpse into a thematic truth of Scripture that has been called God’s “bias to the poor.” Atkinson quotes Karl Barth to further explain:

“The human righteousness required by God and established in obedience – the righteousness which according to Amos 5:24 should pour down as a mighty stream – has necessarily the character of a vindication of right in favour of the threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans, and aliens.

For this reason, in the relations and events in the life of his people, God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it” (1996, 111-112, cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 [T.&T. Clark, 1957], p. 387)

God’s heart for and even bias toward the poor extends well beyond the book of Proverbs. If one pays close attention, it is readily apparent that Scripture is saturated with it.

  • Yahweh intervened to save his people from the oppression and poverty they suffered in at the hands of the Egyptians (cf. Exodus 3:7-9).
  • He made his frustration at his people’s improper treatment and distortion of the impoverished and the needy known through the prophets (cf. Isaiah 10:1-3; Jeremiah 5:26-29; 7:5-7; Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:10-15; 6:4-7; Micah 2:2).
  • Jesus the Messiah cited his own mission as one that was inextricably tied to the poor and oppressed (cf. Luke 4:16-21).
  • The final judgment will be executed (at least partially so) with regards to the treatment (or mistreatment) of the poor and the needy (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).

Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God’s heart is for the impoverished, destitute, and oppressed.

It is important to establish this truth well in order to rightly proceed in our actions and attitudes toward the poor and the oppressed. This is because it is entirely too easy to think of God’s actions and attitudes as being most closely aligned with people who are just like us.

However, for the vast majority of Christians in the United States who live life in relatively extravagant comfort and ease, it comes as somewhat of a shock that God’s bias might actually be against us if we do not take this issue seriously!

Proverbs reflects that what is at stake here is much more than just our consciences, the minor twangs of guilt or moments of self-righteousness we too often experience in our infrequent interactions with the poor.

Responses to Poverty: Consequences and Rewards

The teachings in Proverbs regarding the treatment of the poor can be divided into three categories:

  1. those that display negative consequences for improper treatment,
  2. those that display positive rewards for proper treatment,
  3. and those that juxtapose the two.

Negative Consequences

Proverbs 21:13 states:

“Whoever closes his ears to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.”

The frightening reciprocity of this verse hits hard when, in our culture, we are too often distracted by other things which are “more important” than attending to the needs of the poor. When we find ourselves in a moment of dire need, how can we expect to be answered if we have not answered the needy when we were able to do so?

Another warning against mistreating the poor that includes a form of retribution against the offender is Proverbs 28:8:

“Whoever multiplies his wealth by interest and profit gathers is for him who is generous to the poor.”

Whybray claims that the word for “interest” refers to “interest which was levied by deduction from the original loan but which had to be repaid in full,” and that “profit” refers to “an additional charge levied on repayment” (1994, 391).

The point is that money taken from the poor will not do its wicked owner any good, and has the potential to end up in the hands of righteous men which will in turn help to meet the needs of the poor.

Positive  Rewards

In addition, Proverbs contains several verses that positively portray, and thereby encourage, generosity towards the poor and preservation of their justice.

Consider Proverbs 19:17:

“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”

This proverb promises a reward to those who treat the poor with generosity. However, the main point is not to treat them with benevolence out of desire for a reward.

Whybray captures the point well:

“there is no idea here of a quid pro quo: no intention to encourage generosity simply for the reward which it will bring. The underlying thought is that generosity is characteristic of a person who is righteous; and the proverb reflects the basic belief that righteousness is, and ought to be, materially rewarded” (1994, 282).

A virtually identical point is made in Proverbs 22:9:

“Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.”

Furthermore, the well-known wise woman discussed in chapter 31 “opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (31:20). Giving generously to the poor is a mark of a righteous person, one whose life will be blessed by Yahweh.

Combinations

Finally, some proverbs combine the negative and positive aspects of the previously mentioned verses through antithetical parallelism.

A prime example is Proverbs 14:21:

“Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”

This verse highlights the benefits of generosity against the backdrop of the consequences of scorning one’s neighbor.

In a similar fashion, Proverbs 28:27 says that

“whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.”

Whether or not the curses come from the poor who have been denied assistance, or from Yahweh himself, the point remains that there are rewards in caring for the impoverished and consequences for not doing so.

In addition to generosity, however, the Hebrew sages also expressed concern for the justice of the poor.

Proverbs 29:7 makes it clear that

“a righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.”

The importance of justice for the poor is also stated later in the chapter in verse 14:

“If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever.”

Given Yahweh’s “bias” toward the poor and their status as his image bearers, it would do one well to be concerned with their legal rights.

It is not enough to simply not oppress the poor. Proverbs, along with the rest of Scripture, seems to mandate advocating for their justice.

Conclusion

In our current context of extravagant wealth and abject poverty existing side by side in a realm of confusion, apathy, and even malice towards the impoverished, Proverbs contains some timely and powerful teaching.

The Hebrew sages had a firm grasp on both the tempting causes and terrible effects of poverty. They, therefore, put a strong emphasis on avoiding it at all costs through diligence and hard work.

However, this did not lead them to abandon a proper view towards the poor, and they grounded all of their teachings about the proper treatment of the poor in the unchanging and perfect character of Yahweh, who is firmly committed to their protection and justice.

The modern readers of this ancient book would do well to heed its teachings regarding poverty, and to proceed with attitudes and actions in imitation of Yahweh in their interactions with and opinions of the poor, destitute, and oppressed of this world.

Bibliography

Alden, Robert L. Proverbs: A Commentary on an Ancient Book of Timeless Advice. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983.

Atkinson, David. The Message of Proverbs: Wisdom for life. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Bridges, Charles. A Commentary on Proverbs. Southampton: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1987, cf. 1846.

Clifford, Richard J. Proverbs: A Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Estes, Daniel J. Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Harris, R. Laird, Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. (electronic ed.). Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.

Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament). (electronic ed.). Logos Research Systems, Inc. Oak Harbor, 1997.

Whybray, R. N. New Century Bible Commentary: Proverbs. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. , 1994.

Wright, J. Robert, ed. Ancient Commentary on Scripture: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005.

My High School Graduation Valedictorian Speech was a Poem

My Valedictorian Address, a Poem

The following is my valedictorian speech, delivered at my high school graduation in 2009. As you’ll see below, the majority of the speech was an original poem. Sure, I’m tempted to be a bit embarrassed by the poem today, but I’m also proud that I went for it. Let me know what you think!


GRADUATION!

Such a mix of emotions comes with this simple word…

Students are exhilarated to finally be done with yet another chapter of their lives.

Parents are also excited, yet saddened perhaps by the fact that their little babies are now about to embark into the real world.

Faculty are relieved to get such a motley group of troublemakers out of their school!Guests are happy to watch it all come together in one orchestrated ceremony,

Guests are happy to watch it all come together in one orchestrated ceremony, which is customarily concluded by a farewell address from the graduating valedictorian:

A poor individual who must say goodbye while also addressing all parties and emotions involved, all within the space of a short speech.

Fortunately, Mrs. Covrett, my English teacher, taught me that poetry is the language of both emotion and economy.

Earlier this year, amidst the trials and tribulations of AP English Literature and Composition, we read a poem entitled “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”

This poem, written by John Donne about a love that transcends physical separation between him and his beloved, inspired me to compose my own work in the interests of avoiding both triteness and plagiarism on this most auspicious occasion.

Now, John Donne forbade his beloved from openly mourning his departure.

While I do not think it fitting for me to forbid anyone anything, please indulge me a few moments of your time as we look both back at the past and ahead into the future by way of my poem, entitled:

A VALEDICTION

The years, a road before us
This school, the path behind
And who can know what lies ahead?
The twists and turns we’ll find

Our time, it passes swiftly,
This life will soon be gone
When we look back upon our days,
What is it we’ll have done?

The world has many pleasures
its riches and its fame
Yet none of these are lasting treasures
for all face death the same

We’ve all one life to use now,
Our time will soon be past
And though this world will pass away,
What’s done for Christ will last.

For years, we’ve learned and grown here,
a foundation has been laid.
The future looms before us now,
a choice has to be made:

To waste our lives upon ourselves?
To build on sinking sand?
Or found ourselves upon the Rock,
Who holds us in His hands?

The choice may seem quite simple now,
as though the battle’s won,
but day by day, the world cries out
“Don’t fret! Go play! Have fun!”

Our lives will have their share of joy,
Good gifts from God each day.
But don’t be fooled, there’s pain as well
There’s bumps along our way.

Should we be scared? Can we succeed?
Is there hope amidst the fear?
Will we press on? or stop to heed
those voices in our ear:

“Turn back! This way is difficult!
It’s much too hard for you!
Too frightening, there’s no comfort there,
You’ll never make it through!”

Don’t stop! Press on! For don’t we know?
and have not we been told?
It’s only through the fire
You obtain the purest gold.

We have a God in Heaven
A Father and a Guide
He gives the strength to carry on
To those who would reside

in Him. we find our purpose
In Him we find the way
to live our lives unwasted
,to boldly face each day.

For He alone knows how much time
we have to walk the road
And He alone knows every trial,
The weight of each our loads

Though high school is now over
We’ve so much more to do!
The door has been flung-open,
and now we must walk through–

We’ll miss the loving people here
Who’ve helped us on our way.
Though time and distance come between,
Our thankfulness won’t fade.

So, Mom and Dad, we thank you for
The time and love you give.
You’ve been there through our best and worst
To show us how to live.

Our teachers, better mentors
We would be hard-pressed to find.
They’ve taught us both to seek the Truth
And always guard our minds.

So many more deserve our thanks,
Yet words cannot convey
The boundless debt of gratitude
That we should rightly pay.

And now we say “farewell”
“Goodbye,” as we depart.
One journey ends, another’s here
on which we must embark.


(For another original poem of mine, check out “From a Grateful Son,” which I wrote for my mother on Mother’s Day in 2009.)

From a Grateful Son: A Mother’s Day Poem

The following is an original Mother’s Day poem of mine, that I wrote for my mom (the best mom ever, of course) back in 2009. It’s called “From a Grateful Son,” and I hope that you enjoy it.

From a Grateful Son – A Poem for My Mother

Thank you, Mom, for having me
that day so long ago.
Thank you, then, for holding me
and now for letting go.
Thank you, Mom, for giving me
your patience, time, and care.
And thank you, Mom, for loving me
for always being there –

Thanks so much for teaching me
both how to read and write.
For every single grueling day
and every sleepless night.
Thank you, Mom, for aiming high,
for helping me succeed.
For never letting me forget
that you believe in me.

Mom, you mean so much to me.
My words cannot convey
The debt of love, of care-filled work
That I should rightly pay.
Though distance, time, and life itself
may take me far away,
I’ll always be your little boy
with these three words to say –

“I love you.”


(For another original poem of mine, check out “A Valediction.”)

What’s next? Well, whether you enjoyed the poem or not – or whether or not Mother’s Day is even nearby on the calendar – I think you know what you should go and do next after reading this post:

Call Your Mother! 🙂