Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 3: Gender-Inclusive Language and the NIV

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In this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, in Part 1 we looked first at translation theory in general and some basic guidelines for choosing a translation, and in Part 2 we looked at the King James Version specifically. Here in Part 3, we will be looking at the question of gender inclusive language and how it relates to the New International Version.

The “Nearly Inspired Version”?

During my undergraduate studies, I had to learn Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, and our final project was to translate 1 John and then analyze other translations based on our reading and translation of the Greek text. For my analysis, I chose the NKJV, the NIV and the Message.

I had heard people joke that the NIV stood for “Nearly Inspired Version” or the “New Inferior Version,” so I was curious to see how it stood up under scrutiny. Much to my surprise, the NIV was much more literal and accurate than I had expected. The Message, however, does not qualify as a translation at all, in my opinion, but is rather a commentary – as in it, one person (Eugene Peterson) gives his interpretation of what he deems the text to mean, not what it says.

Side note: any translation that is made by one person should be suspect, especially when that person is pushing a particular agenda, as in the case of the Passion Translation.

A Case Study: Hebrews 11:6

Some of the main criticisms that are leveled at the NIV, are that it waters down the meaning of the text, and that it imposes gender inclusive language on the text. This week on Calvary Live, the call-in radio show that I host on Mondays, one caller pointed out Hebrews 11:6 as an example of this. Let’s take this as a case study to see if there’s any validity to it.

  • NIV: And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
  • KJV: But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
  • Greek: χωρὶς δὲ πίστεως ἀδύνατον εὐαρεστῆσαι, πιστεῦσαι γὰρ δεῖ τὸν προσερχόμενον τῷ θεῷ ὅτι ἔστιν καὶ τοῖς ἐκζητοῦσιν αὐτὸν μισθαποδότης γίνεται.

Here’s my hyper-literal translation of the Greek text:

Without but faith impossible to please (a direct object), believe (a direct object) because must he who comes to God that (object) exists and those who seek him [he] rewards.

So, which translation is more accurate? Both are good translations which convey not only what the words say, but what they mean.

Gender-Inclusive Language

As can be seen in the example above, the NIV tries to use gender-inclusive language when possible. The word προσερχόμενον – means “he who comes” and is in the male singular accusative case. Yet the NIV translates this with the gender-neutral “anyone who comes.”

The question is whether this accurately reflects the meaning of the text or whether it is imposing a modern bias towards gender inclusivity upon the text.

In academic writing today, gender-inclusive language is required whenever possible, including moving away from terms like “mankind” in favor of “humankind,” and “every man” to “everyone.”

In some cases, this is warranted and more accurately reflects the author’s intent. For example: Colossians 1:28 in the NASB says: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.”
Paul is clearly speaking about “every human being,” not only about males. So most modern translations translate it: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
In this case, gender-inclusive language more clearly communicates what Paul was saying.

Another example worth considering is Leviticus 24:15. NASB: “If anyone curses his God, then he will bear his sin,” versus the NIV: “Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible.”
In this case, it is not only gender-inclusive language, but a removal of the concept of “bearing one’s sins” being rephrased as “being held responsible.” While the latter may justifiably be called a “watering down” of the text, since the word “sin” is in the original text, the gender-inclusive language could be justified in the sense that this law did not only apply to men but to men and women.

The NIV does not go as far as some other translations when it comes to gender-inclusive language, like the Holman Christian Standard Bible which replaces the often-used “Brethren” with “Brothers and sisters.” Again, it could be argued that this is still appropriate in that it conveys the fact that the people being addressed are both men and women.

However, there are other examples of gender-inclusive language which do actually have theological implications, and therefore are inappropriate impositions on the text. Examples of this would be replacing the masculine “Father” with “Parent”, or “sons of God” with “children of God.” In the case of “sons” versus “children,” there were very specific differences in the way that sons specifically were treated in ancient society regarding rights and inheritance. Whether this was fair or not, that understanding is built into the use of the term “son” as opposed to children in general, and therefore has direct theological implications. The same is true of the masculine pronouns and terms used consistently throughout the Bible for God. To change these is actually to change the meaning of God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures.

To those who may feel that it is odd for a female to consider herself a “son of God,” it should be noted that men are similarly included in the feminine term “bride of Christ.” These terms paint pictures by making allusions and parallels to things which are diminished by disregarding the gender-specificity of “son” and “bride”.

There and Back Again

The NIV has dabbled in varying levels of gender-inclusive language, including a 1997 Inclusive Language Edition, which was only released in the UK, but quickly discontinued.  In the early 2000’s, the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) was released, which included changes such as “children of God” instead of “sons of God.” However, the TNIV was also discontinued, and the most recent update to the NIV (2011) actually reinstated some of the gender-specific language which had been removed in the TNIV, because of recognition of the theological importance of the gender-specifity of those terms.

Conclusion

While I don’t think the NIV is the best translation available, I don’t think it’s the worst either. As we have seen, some gender-inclusive language may be justified and warranted. The question is whether gender-inclusive language is being introduced because of cultural pressure or by a desire to accurately translate and convey the meaning of a text.

Even the best translation, however, won’t benefit you if you don’t read it. So, go do that!

Anthony Bourdain, Suicide & the Bible

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We woke up to the news that Anthony Bourdain of CNN’s Parts Unknown committed suicide at age 61. He was wealthy, successful, famous and got to travel the world doing what he loved – the kinds of things that many people aspire to, but may never get to experience. And yet, he chose to end his own life.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, since 1999, suicide rates have increased in nearly every US state, with 25 states having increases of more than 30 percent.

The most at-risk group for suicide according to their study is middle-aged white men.

Factors contributing to the suicide epidemic are:

  • Access to firearms.
  • Isolation, which contributes to mental health problems.  Read: Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out
  • A sense of hopelessness and despair, resulting from:
    • family instability
    • lack of job prospects
  • Poor physical health

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted at: 1-800-273-8255.

In the Bible we read about several heroes of the faith who struggled with what seem to have been depression and suicidal thoughts:

Many heroes of the faith, expressed that they reached such a point of despair that they wanted to die:

  • Moses had a death wish (see Numbers 11:13-15)
  • Job sought death as a comfort, a way to end his suffering
  • David had times when he wanted to die
  • Jonah sought his own death first to atone for his own sins and then because of frustration with his circumstances

Another notable example is the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 19:4, we read:

“[Elijah] sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”

Here’s what’s surprising: right before this, Elijah had experienced unprecedented success in his ministry. Only a few hours before this:

  • Elijah prayed for rain, and it came, ending a 7-year drought.
  • Elijah had singlehandedly won a showdown against some 850 pagan priests, when God sent fire from heaven in response to Elijah’s prayers.
  • As a result of these things, many people in Israel had turned back to God – which was the goal of Elijah’s ministry.

And yet, like with so many people: in spite of experiencing great success, Elijah was depressed and wanted to die.

Isolation

“Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree” – 1 Kings 19:4

Despite having a huge crowd of supporters after the showdown on Mount Carmel, Elijah chose to isolate and cut himself off from the community.

Isolation is a common practice of people who are struggling with depression, but it is one of the worst things a person can do. Statistics show that isolation causes and exasperates mental health issues.

Physical Exhaustion

Even though it was a successful day, it was a long and exhausting day. I have found that the times when I am particularly worn out, I tend to be more susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings which are not from God.

Notice what happens next: Elijah gets some rest. He goes to sleep. While he’s asleep, God sends an angel to cook him a meal. The angel wakes Elijah up, feeds him, gives him something to drink – and then sends him back to bed to sleep some more! Then, the angel wakes him up again, feeds him another meal, and then sends him on his way to continue his ministry.

In other words: Elijah’s depression, while certainly a spiritual attack, was related to and exasperated by his physical exhaustion. Rather than giving him a lecture, God sent him a companion, some good meals and some well-needed rest.

Rather than giving him a lecture, God sent Elijah a companion, some good meals and some well-needed rest.

As noted above, the CDC mentions poor physical health as a contributing factor to the suicide epidemic. Taking care of your body is important for your mental health, and the Bible encourages us to see that.

Hope

Finally, this messenger from God tells Elijah to rise up and go on his way – and Elijah does. Rather than stay down, alone, sleeping under this tree in the wilderness – God reminds Elijah that He has a purpose and calling upon his life, and Elijah responds by getting up and moving forward into that calling.

The gospel gives us more hope, affirmation and purpose than anything else ever can. It give us hope because of the promise of redemption. It gives you a community; not only community with God, but to become a Christian is to be brought into the “People of God.”

The gospel gives us affirmation and purpose; Jesus gave his life for you, which means that even though God knowns everything about you, He still wants you. He still loves you and He still has a purpose for your life.

God’s purpose for your life goes beyond living for yourself; it is to use you in His mission: for His glory and for the good of people in the world. It is in giving your life for that mission that you will find true life. For more on this, check out: Mission and Mental Health

Let’s do what we can to recognize the signs and help people who are struggling before it’s too late.

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 2: the King James Bible

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In Part 1 of this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, we looked at the fundamentals of how Bible translation is done, why so many translations exist and some guidelines for choosing a good translation.

Here in Part 2, we will be looking at the King James Version (KJV) specifically. In Part 3, we will look at the New International Version (NIV) and the question of gender-inclusive language.

When it comes to the King James Version of the Bible, some people feel very strongly that it is the only Bible that English speakers should use. Why is that, and is that a good position to hold? Let’s consider the main issues at stake in this discussion:

Manuscripts: Textus Receptus

The King James Version was translated based on a collection of Greek New Testament manuscripts called the Textus Receptus (Received Text). The Textus Receptus was compiled in the 1500’s by Erasmus Desiderius of Rotterdam, a Catholic priest and humanist.

Although he was a humanist and his work played a significant role in the Reformation, by putting the Word of God back into the hands of the people, Erasmus remained loyal to the pope. Martin Luther disputed with Erasmus over theology, which you can read more about here.

There are two kinds of KJV adherents: those who trust the Textus Receptus, and those who trust the KJV itself.

As discussed in Part 1, the Bible doesn’t change, but language does. As a result, new translations of the Textus Receptus have been done, most notably the New King James Version (NKJV), which also uses the Textus Receptus as its basis, but which translates it into modern English. Those who are trust in the Textus Receptus are happy to use the NKJV and other translations of the Textus Receptus which use current rather than archaic English, such as KJ21 and MEV.

However, there are some KJV Only loyalists who reject any translation other than the original KJV, showing that they are not loyal to the Textus Receptus, but to the KJV itself. This brings up several problems:

KJV Only Problem #1: Which King James Version?

The King James Bible has undergone three revisions since its first publication in 1611, which updated the spelling and use of many words – in order to make them more comprehensible in the common language of the people. If you buy a KJV Bible today, you will be getting the 1769 version, unless you go out of your way to get a 1611. So the question for KJV loyalists is: which KJV are you loyal to? If you accept the 1769 (which is almost all KJV’s available for sale today), then you are dealing with what was essentially the NEW King James Version of the 18th century. There seems no reason in this case then to reject the New King James Version of the 20th century either.

KJV Only Problem #2: What About Other Languages?

As a missionary in Hungary, I remember times when people would come from America to serve at our youth camp, and they would bring English KJV Bibles to give out to the kids… Hungarian kids, who not only don’t speak English, but who certainly don’t understand Shakespearean English from the 1600’s. I have heard stories of American churches buying boxes of KJV Bibles to send to orphanages in Mexico.

Do people need to learn English, and specifically archaic English, in order to read and understand the Word of God?

Other languages have translations of the Textus Receptus which predate the KJV, including the German Luther Bible (1522) the  the Spanish Reina translation (1569), and the Hungarian Vizsoly Bible (1590).

Furthermore, when the KJV was first introduced in 1611, it was criticized for being too easy to understand, because it was written in the common language of the people at that time. When the Bible is translated for the first time into a new language today, it is translated into the language the cultures speaks today, not the way they spoke 400 years ago.

Thus, it seems unreasonable to be loyal to the KJV itself, rather than the Textus Receptus. Next, let’s look at the Textus Receptus:

Is the Textus Receptus the best manuscript of the New Testament?

Since Erasmus assembled the Textus Receptus in the early 1500’s, many Biblical manuscripts have been discovered which are older and more accurate than the manuscripts in the Textus Receptus. What these manuscripts show is that the later Textus Receptus manuscripts contained several additions to the text, which were not present in the older manuscripts.

It should be noted: none of these “textual variants” have any significance for Christian theology. They were added, it seems, as forms of commentary, or to help bring clarity – but they seem to have been added nonetheless.

Do Newer Translations Remove Verses?

As explained in the section above, the Textus Receptus includes some verses which older manuscripts show us were later additions to the text by zealous scribes who were trying to help, but which were not a part of the original manuscripts.

So, rather than newer translations “removing verses”, what you actually have is that the KJV (or the Textus Receptus, rather) has added verses to the Bible – something which is also forbidden by Revelation 22:18-19.

See: On Those Missing Verses and Why are newer translations of the Bible missing verses?

Both the KJV and more modern translations are upfront about these facts. The KJV indicates words which have been added for clarity by using italics, and newer translations use brackets or footnotes to show places where the Textus Receptus includes text which is not found in the oldest manuscripts.

Landing the Plane

Our loyalties as Christians should be the original texts of the Old and New Testaments, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, not to any particular translation of those words which God inspired. It is often helpful to look at several translations in order to get a full understanding of the meaning of a text.

Further reading: The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? by James R. White

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 1

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It has been said that the best Bible translation is the one you will read. It’s true: the point is for you to read and understand God’s message to you. The best translation in the world won’t profit you anything if you don’t actually read it.

However, what if you’ve moved past that point – and you are reading the Bible? What are the differences between various translations, and how should you go about choosing the right one?

According to the American Bible Society, since William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English in 1526, about 900 English translations of the Bible have been published.1 Why so many – and what are the differences between them?

The Bible doesn’t change with time, but language does.

Language is something that is constantly in flux. Language uses sounds and symbols to refer to unchanging realities, but the words we use to refer to those realities do change over time. For example, the word gay has a different meaning in the modern vernacular than it did 100 years ago. The word Awful, in the past meant “awe inspiring” – but in modern English it no longer means that.

Another example is the word Terrible. In the King James Bible, this word is used many times, e.g. Psalm 47:2 – “For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.”
The word Terrible used to have the meaning of our modern Awesome, which is why more modern translations translate this verse: “For the LORD Most High is awesome.” The word Terrible has come to have an expressly negative or pejorative meaning.

One of the reasons for newer translations is not to change the Bible, but because languages change over time. (Further reading: “What are some English words that have changed in meaning since the translation of the KJV?”)

The Tension of Translation

I am bilingual; I speak Hungarian fluently and occasionally work professionally as a translator and interpreter. Anyone who is bilingual will tell you that there is an inherent tension in translating or interpreting between simply translating the words someone said and conveying the meaning of what they said.

For example, in Hungarian there is a term: Zsákbamacska. It literally means: “a cat in a bag,” but what it means is to trick someone, promising them one thing and then giving them an unwanted surprise. In English, we would call that: “pulling a fast one” – or “a switcheroo.”
Furthermore, in English, we do have a colloquialism about a cat in a bag; we say: “Don’t let the cat out of the bag,” or “she let the cat out of the bag” – which means to reveal something earlier than it was meant to be revealed.

In other words, it is possible to translate that phrase directly, but to do so would actually convey something different than what the original writer or speaker had intended to convey. To actually be accurate, you must translate the meaning of the term, not just its words. However, if you only translate meaning and ideas, some of the power of the language will be lost, because particular words conjure pictures (like a cat in a bag), which are rich with insinuations, allusions and other communicative forces.

The ideal translation of any text or speech from one language to another does both, and it is a very difficult balance to reach.

Remember: every translation is inevitably an interpretation.

Because of the nature of language, it is impossible to translate something in a purely clinical, sterile way without getting your “fingerprints” on it.

For example, if in the source language there is a word for which there are two words in the target language, then the translator must decipher which word best matches the meaning they discern the speaker/writer to intend.

For example, in Greek there is one word: pisteuo – for which we have two words in English: faith or belief. There is a difference between faith and belief in English, but not in Greek. Conversely, in Greek there are four words for love, whereas there is only one in English; so if you tell someone you love them in English, in order to translate that into Greek, the translator must interpret what you meant: Do you love this person as a brother/sister? Do you love them romantically? Do you merely feel an empathetic bond to them?

All translations are inevitably interpretations, which is why it matters who translated your Bible and what their underlying theological beliefs and assumptions were.

Some Comparisons for Consideration

All translations fall on the word-for-word and idea-for-idea continuum.

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I personally use and recommend the ESV and the NASB. After those, I would consider the NKJV and the NIV. I will explain my reservations about the NKJV in part 2 of this post, as well as answering some common assumptions about the NIV – however, both can be avoided by choosing the ESV or NASB 🙂

The reason I prefer these translations is because they are more literal translations – meaning that they attempt to translate word-by-word as much as possible, rather than paraphrasing the basic idea in modern vernacular. For example: the statement “he who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4 ESV) is interpreted as “those who do right for the right reasons” in the CEV.

I prefer more literal translations because I believe that the very words, not just the ideas of Scripture were inspired by God and are thus very important. Much of the theological richness of certain words or metaphors inevitably tends to get washed out in a thought-by-thought translation, even if that is not intended.

The ideal translation is one which accurately translates the original text, but yet is readable. This is a difficult balance to strike, which is why there are so many translations out there – and why I choose the ESV, because it does both well.

Here is a comparison from Romans 3:24:

  • (ESV) justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NASB) justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NIV) justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
  • (KJV) Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NKJV) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (CEV) God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins.
  • (NLT) Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.
  • (Message) Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

Every translation is an interpretation, but at what point does an interpretation become a commentary?

Notice the word “justified”, which has enormous theological implications, appears in the more literal translations, whereas in the thought-by-thought translations they take the liberty of explaining what the word “justification” means (or at least what they understand it to mean). That explanation may seem nice, but by doing so, they are crossing the line from being translations to being commentaries. The Message in particular, should not be considered a translation, but rather a commentary, as it is focused on explaining ideas and concepts rather than translating the original text into English.

Click here to read Part 2 of this article, where I look at the King James Version specifically.

If Jesus is the Son of God, Why Did He Call Himself the “Son of Man”?

Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself was as the “Son of Man”. This term is used of Jesus 88 times in the New Testament, and Jesus refers to himself  as the “Son of Man” more often than as the “Son of God”.

I am often asked why this is, and why Jesus preferred this term over the term Son of God. Here are some thoughts on what that term means and why Jesus may have preferred it:

Son of Man is a Messianic title from the Old Testament

The title: “Son of Man” was a reference to a prophecy found in Daniel 7:13-14:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

This description of the “Son of Man” matches that descriptions of the Messiah found elsewhere in the Old Testament. What is particularly interesting is that the Son of Man is exalted, divine, and is sent from Heaven – and yet, is distinct from “the Ancient of Days”. This is in line with Trinitarian theology, which states that the Son and the Father are distinct persons within the Godhead.

The Son of Man according to this prophecy is both human and exalted. He does the work which only God can do, indicating that he is God, and yet he is distinct from the “Ancient of Days” who sends him. This tells us that the Messiah would be human, but he would also be God at the same time, while a distinct person from the “Ancient of Days”, AKA the Father.

As I discussed in a previous post – Why Did Jesus Tell Some People to Keep Quiet About His Miracles and Identity? – although Jesus was sometimes very explicit about his identity, other times Jesus was more subtle and implicit in how he revealed his identity. In that post I delve into some reasons why that was, but here it suffices to say that by using the term “Son of Man”, Jesus was using a term by which those who had ears to hear would pick up what he was putting down.

Son of Man speaks to Jesus’ humanity

The term Son of Man emphasizes the fact that Jesus was truly and fully human. Although he was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, he is nevertheless fully human.

Why are you telling me this?

Remember that the Gospels were written by humans under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What that means is that there is a particular telos or objective inherent to what they have written and how they have written it. This is true of any historical account: any time anyone tells a story, they include certain details and leave out other details depending on what they want to emphasize for their audience. This is true of the Gospels as well. So what is the telos or objective of the Gospel writers in making sure we know that Jesus often used the title “Son of Man” in referring to himself (other than the fact that he actually did)? Probably it is to emphasize that Jesus was truly and fully human.

Trinitarian theology

We know from early church history, that there was a tendency amongst some Christians to emphasize the deity of Christ to the negation of His humanity. The converse was also true, and these discussions and debates culminated with the codifying of the doctrine of the Trinity at Nicaea and in the Athanasian Creed. Even to this day, there are some Christians, e.g. Coptic Christians, who are “monophysites”, which means that they believe that Jesus only had one nature: a divine one, and that he was not fully human. The use of the term “Son of Man” emphasized Jesus’ true humanity.

Son of Man actually had more significance in that context than Son of God

To the Jewish mind, the term Son of God might be used to refer to any person without too much controversy, because they would agree that we are all created by God, and therefore could be called “sons” of God. For example, Psalm 82:6 says, “You are all sons of the Most High.”

The same could be said of “Son of Man” for that matter, in the sense that all humans are sons or daughters of men. The difference is that in the Jewish context, the term “Son of Man” actually carried more significance because of Daniel’s prophecy.

Remember that Jesus actually did call himself the Son of God on several occasions, as John’s gospel in particular records. Again, this gets to the point of the telos of John’s gospel, which is to emphasize Jesus’ deity – whereas other gospels aim to emphasize his humanity.

But it is not only in John’s gospel that we see Jesus being called “Son of God”, which reminds us of the importance of his two-fold nature as both fully God and fully man, a nature that was necessary in order for him to be the perfect Savior that we need.

A case study

I will leave you with these words from Mark’s gospel:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

Notice in this text:

  • Jesus said he is the Son of God
  • Jesus called himself the Son of Man – and connected that term with the imagery directly from Daniel 7:13-14
  • This was understood by the Jewish people to be a claim of deity, which is why they accused him of blasphemy and condemned him to death.

The Prodigal Mom: What Eunice and Lois Teach Us About Motherhood

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In his second letter to his protégé, Timothy, Paul mentions Timothy’s mother and grandmother, who played a formative role in his life and his faith:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. (2 Timothy 1:5)

Timothy’s mother and grandmother are also alluded to in the third chapter of that same letter:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

Here’s what we know about Timothy’s mother and grandmother:

Eunice Wasn’t Always a Woman of Faith

Timothy’s mother was Jewish, but Timothy’s father was a Greek pagan, and as a result, Timothy was not circumcised (Acts 16:1-3). This tells us two things: that at the time of their marriage, and during Timothy’s early years, his Jewish mother was not practicing her faith. Married to a Greek, she would have been “unequally yoked”, and going against Jewish custom and God’s instructions in the Old Testament that Jewish people should not marry people of other faiths.

Perhaps more interesting, is that “Jewishness” is passed down through the mother, and yet the fact that Eunice never had Timothy circumcised indicates that she was not actively practicing her faith during his childhood.

However, what we know is that Eunice at some point became a Christian and joined the church in Lystra. Paul met Timothy on his second missionary journey when he visited the church there. Timothy was likely in his teens at the time, and Timothy then left home to join Paul in his missionary work.

Eunice: A Single Mom?

The fact that we don’t know much about Timothy’s father, and the fact that his grandmother played an active role in his upbringing could indicate that Timothy’s father died or left at some point, leaving Eunice a single-mom raising her son. At very least, it seems that Timothy’s father was not involved in his spiritual upbringing since only his mother and grandmother are mentioned as contributing to his faith by acquainting him with the Holy Scriptures.

Lois as the Mom of a Wayward Daughter

We can only imagine what must have gone on in Lois’s (Timothy’s grandmother’s) life in regard to her daughter Eunice marrying an unbelieving Greek pagan. Perhaps she grieved to see her daughter not living out the faith that she had raised her to have in the God of Israel, or perhaps Lois herself had been a nominal or non-practicing Jew and had raised her daughter in that same way.

Either way, we know that Lois also came to put her faith in Jesus, and then together Lois and Eunice poured into young Timothy, introducing him to the Scriptures, taking him to church, and sharing their faith with him.

The Best Gift Mothers and Grandmothers Can Give Their Kids

We don’t know what kinds of birthday presents Lois and Eunice gave young Timothy, or if they ever took any family vacations, or if they ever bought Tim a pony or an iPhone. The one thing we know is that they gave him the most important gift a mother and grandmother can give to their children and grandchildren: a knowledge of the Word of God, and a heritage of modeling what it looks like to love him, obey him and seek him. This is what changed the trajectory of Timothy’s life.

On this Mother’s Day, may I encourage you mothers and grandmothers that whatever good gifts you give your children and grandchildren, the very best gift you can give them is to point them to Jesus.

Teach them the Word of God. Present Jesus to them in all of his goodness and beauty. Explain to them how you came to surrender your life to him, and why you love him. Help them to see Jesus and his gospel as the most desirable, wonderful, source of joy and hope – as he indeed is!

Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out

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There is an interesting phenomenon in Western society; in the words of one comedian: “Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

We live in the most wealthy, technologically advanced society that has ever existed in the history of the world, and at the same time there are incredibly high rates of depression and mental illness which lead to suicide and acts of violence.

One key question many people are asking is: Why?  What is the cause of the increase in depression and mental illness in developed countries? 

The late Dutch psychiatrist J. H. van den Berg wrote and researched on the topic of psychopathology and he wrote a highly regarded book on the subject titled, A Different Existence: Principles of Phenomenological Psychopathology.

In this book, van den Berg uses a case study to analyze several common conceptions about psychiatric illness, and in the end he draws his conclusion from his research: that psychopathy is related to the experience of loneliness. Among his thesis statements, he declares:

“Loneliness is the nucleus of psychiatry.”

“If loneliness did not exist, we could reasonably assume that psychiatric illnesses would not occur either.” [105]

This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that it is generally recognized that Western society is experiencing loneliness at higher levels than ever before.

See: “A Culture of Loneliness and What to Do About It”

Our Society is Lonelier Than Ever Before

A survey taken by Harris Poll in 2016 showed that almost three-quarters (72 percent) of Americans experience loneliness.1

Our time has been called “the age of loneliness.” Although we are more connected than ever before via the internet, the internet itself is exacerbating the problem.

In January of this year, the United Kingdom appointed its first “Minister for Loneliness”, who is tasked with helping to combat what Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life.”

Loneliness is Literally Killing Us

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a 75-year study of men, concluded that loneliness is toxic. Loneliness is contagious, and the more isolated people are, the less happy they are, and brain function declines as well as physical health. 2

Medical studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. Vivek Murthy, the former United States surgeon general, has written that loneliness and social isolation are “associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” 3

How Do We Break Out of this Toxic Cycle?

One really important factor is that we must recognize that Western society has been sold a bill of goods related to individualism and the “autonomous self”. American culture, in many ways, is permeated by a culture of fear and an obsession with privacy. We have been told since the Enlightenment that this is the ultimate path to happiness, but the above data shows just how much it has left us in tatters.

The gospel shows us another way:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

When a person embraces the gospel, they become part of the people of God. Sinclair Ferguson put it this way:

 “We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.”

The Apostle Paul makes this point as well:    

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God  (Ephesians 2:19)

In other words: part of God’s work of salvation through Jesus includes saving people out of individualism, calling them into redeemed community which has a mission and a purpose bigger than any individual member. Clearly this presents a powerful antidote to the modern pathological phenomenon of loneliness and isolation. The gospel is a holistic remedy which addresses the greatest needs of the entire person: soul, mind and body. It is truly good news.

Why Did Jesus Tell Some People to Keep Quiet about His Miracles and Identity?

I received this question from a reader:
There are a number of times in the gospels that Jesus performs a miracle and then tells the person healed and those who witnessed to not tell anyone…. I wonder: why?
The obvious answer from a human perspective is because he feared the Jews and those who wanted to shut him down. But since He is God, why would he not just be glad for the good news to spread far and wide? Being fearful of sinful men strikes me as not really his nature…
Thanks for this question, this is one that many people wonder about. Here are a few things to consider which help us understand why he did this on occasion:

Sometimes Jesus told people not to tell others about his miracles and identity, but other times he told them to tell everyone.

There are three main instances in which Jesus instructed people not to tell others who he was or what he had done:
  1. After confirming to his disciples that he was indeed the Messiah, Jesus instructed them not to tell anyone. (Matthew 16:20; Mark 8:29-30; Luke 9:20-21)
  2. Jesus healed a leper and told him not to tell anyone that it was he who had done this. The man, however, did not comply with this request. (Mark 1:40-44; Matthew 8:1-4; Luke 5:12-15)
  3. Jesus told demons not to speak about him and tell others who he was. (Mark 1:34, 3:11-12)

Conversely, there are occasions where Jesus tells people to go out and tell everyone what he did for them:

  1. Mark 5:18-20 (also found in Luke: 8:38-39): As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.
  2. Matthew 28:18-20 (also Mark 16:15-16): And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

What was the reasoning behind these different approaches, and why would Jesus ever tell people not to tell others what he did or who he was?

Here are two reasons:

A Matter of Publicity

One problem with people spreading the word about Jesus healing them was that it resulted in large crowds following him around. This was the case with the leper who did not comply with Jesus’ request that he keep quiet about it. That man went out and “began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news,” and the result was: “so Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.” (Mark 1:45)

If everyone was crowding around him trying to touch him and clamoring to be healed, it would be harder for him to preach – and preaching, not healing, was his primary objective (see Luke 4:42-43).

When it came to demons, Jesus understandably didn’t want demons to be proclaiming who he was, lest people associate him with demons, or they misrepresent him.

Furthermore, the Jews had many misconceptions of who the Messiah was going to be. Some didn’t believe there would be a Messiah; others thought there would be two Messiahs (a king descended from David and a Levite priest); still others were waiting for a warrior-king to overthrow the Romans. In many cases, Jesus wanted to introduce himself to people first, before telling them that he was the Messiah, so he could teach them things without the baggage of their expectations influencing the way they heard the things he said to them.

A Matter of Timing

Jesus had a very keen sense of timing.  According to prophecy, he had to die in Jerusalem at the Passover. (For more on that, check out: Easter Math: How Does It Add Up?)

There are several passages which show Jesus’ sense of timing and his caution to not come out too early.

  • John 2:4: Jesus tells his mother that the time to begin his ministry had not yet come.
  • John 7:6: when his brothers challenged him to go to the festival, Jesus tells them that “the right time for me has not yet come.”
  • Luke 9:51: it says that the time was approaching for him to be taken to heaven, and at that time, he turned his face resolutely toward Jerusalem.

In John 6:15 we read that some people, hearing that Jesus was the Messiah, wanted to come and make him their king, by force!

However, once the timing was right, Jesus revealed himself as king on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21), and encouraged his followers to tell everyone. For Jesus, this was a matter of publicity and timing.

David Silverman, American Atheists and the Attempt to be Good Without God

Last week American Atheists issued a statement that they had fired their firebrand president of many years, David Silverman, as a result of moral failure.

In an interview, a spokesperson for American Atheists stated that Silverman was dismissed because of an issue regarding promotion of a recent book, as well as for a conflict of interest issue where he promoted a girlfriend to a high level position. It then came out that there were accusations of sexual misconduct with two other women who had come out to the media. Right before that story broke, American Atheists’ board quickly met to dismiss David Silverman.

The thing which is most intriguing about the statement from American Atheists is the closing sentence:

We have zero tolerance for the type of behavior alleged in these accounts. We will continue to demand the highest standards and accountability from our leaders, staff, and volunteers.

This brings up several very important issues:

If morality has no basis, then it is only opinion.

In the above statement, they mention demanding “the highest standards”. What are those standards, and how do they determine them?

The idea that people can be good without God is a major tenant of modern popular humanism and atheism. Many atheists would suggest that their ability to be good without God shows that they have more inner fortitude than “religious” folks, because they don’t need to have a threat of punishment over them in order to coerce them into good behavior.

Christians who understand the gospel are actually willing to agree with this in one sense. Belief in God does not automatically mean that a person will be morally superior to those who do not believe in God. It should not surprise Christians to find atheists or people who follow other religions who are honest, hard-working, kind people. After all, people do not become Christians by their moral effort but by their trust in God’s gracious work on their behalf.

The question is: is morality an innate thing, which people intuitively know, or is it a social construct?

Most prominent atheist thinkers argue that it is a social construct. As I have written about before – see “Why Ethics Depends on Origin” – prominent atheist writers say that ethics are not based in reality, they are social constructs which help our society to function better.

But what about when they don’t?

For example, eugenics (the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics) might actually help our society function better. If we were to abort all babies who were seen to have disabilities, if we were to forcibly end the lives of those who are a drain on society, then wouldn’t that be a benefit to society? That’s what the Nazis and others in the 19th and 20th Centuries suggested… And yet people push back against that and say it is wrong. Why? If morals are not actually based in reality but only exist to help society, then why not take that thought to its logical conclusion?

The reason is because:

Nobody believes that morality is only a matter of opinion.

The idea that morality is a social construct brings up other big questions, such as: what if my morality is different than your morality?

For example, David Silverman has denied any wrongdoing in regard to the above mentioned allegations. Essentially, he is saying that he thinks the things he did were just fine. In other words, the idea that he did something wrong is just the company’s opinion.

It could be argued that male-initiated, non-consensual sex is practiced regularly in some cultures of the world. So, they can’t really say that what he did was wrong, only that they didn’t like it.

The problem is: nobody actually believes that. We all believe that rape, murder and the like are wrong. Even with people, like David Silverman, who claim that nothing is wrong with what he did, others look at it and say: That’s wrong – and it’s not just our opinion, it’s just flat out wrong.

Mark Clark puts it this way:

We do believe in right and wrong. We believe hurting a child is wrong. We believe raping and pillaging the environment is wrong. We believe all races should be equal. That there is such a thing called justice that tells us mercy is better than hate. That loyalty is a virtue, and that there is evil in the world. All of these convictions give meaning to our lives, but if there is no absolute right and wrong, all of them go away; they are but a mirage. Meaningless. Weightless. Worth abandoning with every other construct of modernity.

Case Study: The Sexual Revolution vs. the Vietnam War

Take the 1960’s and 1970’s for example: On the one hand, there was a “sexual revolution” in which people were saying “No one can tell me what to do with my body, don’t try to impose your moral standards on me.” And yet, those same people protested the Vietnam War by saying that it was unjust and immoral because of the use of bombs and napalm.

They didn’t want anyone to impose a moral standard (regarding sex) on them, but they didn’t think twice about trying to assert their moral standard (regarding war and napalm) on others. They said on the one hand that morality is subjective, and in the next breath they said that there is a morality which everyone should accept as normative.

Case Study: Arguments

CS Lewis begins Mere Christianity by talking about the topic of: arguments.

“That’s my seat, I was there first”—“Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm”—“Why should you shove in first?”—“Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”—“Come on, you promised.” People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups. Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior, which he expects the other man to know about. . . . It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed.

So, then – if morality is not merely a social construct, but is actually something we intuitively or innately know, then:

Morality points us to the existence of God.

The idea that there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong points us to the fact that there is a design. If there is a design, there must be a designer.

If there is a moral rule or standard, then there must be something or someone which determines this standard.

The Bible explains this point in this way:

“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires . . . they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14–15).

The fact that we are repelled by things such as sexual misconduct, lying and cheating, and that we advocate for equal treatment of all people regardless of their race, economic level, gender or physical ability – all those things things point to something beyond what is simply natural. They are proof of the fact that the heart of God is stitched into our very being.

Is Good Friday Actually “Good”?

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This is the day on which we celebrate the death of an innocent man – and not just any man: the greatest man who ever lived. It is the day when we remember that the Light of the World was overcome by darkness; that the Savior of the World was murdered by those He came to save.

Why in the world would we call this day “Good Friday”?

John Stott put it this way:

“The essence of sin is that we substitute ourselves for God; we put ourselves where only God deserves to be … that’s the essence of sin. But the essence of salvation is that God substitutes himself for us; God puts himself where we deserve to be … that’s the essence of salvation.”

2 Corinthians 5:21 says: “For our sake he (God) made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In this verse we see what it is that makes Good Friday so incredibly “good”. It is something we call “imputation”, and it has two sides: On the cross, God imputed your flawed record to Jesus, so that He could impute Jesus’ perfect record to you. On the cross, God treated Jesus as if he had lived your life, so he could treat you as if you had lived his life.

Jesus’ act of substitution, God’s act of imputation – lead to our reconciliation with God.

And the way to receive this gift of God’s grace, the Bible tells us, is to “receive him, who believe in his name.” (John 1:12) This kind of belief isn’t merely to believe that it happened, but to believe it personally, in the sense of trusting in it, relying on it, and clinging to it.

If you do that, then today will indeed by a Good Friday for you!