Christianity: a journey from selfishness to selfless-ness

June 18th, 2014 No comments

In the Bible, when someone receives an act of healing, Jesus always affirms the faith of the individual.  When someone encounters Jesus, he or she reaches out in an act of faith, knowing that Jesus is capable of healing them.

Today, one’s “conversion experience” may look a little different.  True, the act of faith is certainly there.  We know that when someone comes to Jesus, it is the Holy Spirit’s drawing us, in conjunction with faith in Christ, as well as our own free will to receive God’s gift.  But there is another element at play.

I received Christ when I was seven years old. I heard stories about this Jesus guy, that he loved me and that he wanted to have a relationship with me.  As a person with a disability, Christianity had a particular appeal to me.  Like some characters in Scripture, I was one viewed as weak.  As someone with a disability, I certainly knew that I was different from others.  I couldn’t do some of the things other kids my age could do – I couldn’t ride a bike, I couldn’t do sports, and I certainly was no track  star.

Most of all, I was terrified of the idea of going to hell when I die.  After all, what seven-year-old kid wouldn’t find that terrifying?

Others come to Jesus for different reasons.  Perhaps they are drug addicts. Perhaps they come from dysfunctional homes.  Perhaps they have lost one or both parents and are forced to raise themselves.  Perhaps they are victims of violent crimes.  Perhaps they were born with physical or mental disabilities. Or perhaps they, like me, fear death.  Or perhaps they simply want to go to heaven.

Thinking over some of these things, I realized something that I at first found a bit disconcerting.

One’s Christian walk begins, at least in part, with some element of selfishness.

If you need more proof, consider the traditional Western model of evangelism.  We want to save souls (more properly, we acknowledge that God uses us as his means to save souls).  How do we appeal to our people?  By talking about Christianity in terms that sound appealing.  “If you accept God’s gift of salvation, you will live in heaven when you die and receive an eternal reward.”  Or, “Jesus loves you and wants to save you.  He wants to rescue you and bring restoration to you and your life.”

While all of these things are certainly true, notice where the focus is.  If someone comes to Christ, THEY get something out of it.

So it was with me. My weakness and my fear of death compelled me to choose Christ.  I came to Christ for selfish reasons.

But the remarkable thing is that, as one progresses through his or her Christian walk, things begin to change.  For the Christian, the Holy Spirit is constantly changing us into the likeness of Christ, gradually restoring the image of God in us that was marred by the Fall.  One eventually comes to realize that the Christian life is MUCH MORE than what is traditionally presented to us by modern evangelists.

As the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer, one becomes remade more and more into the likeness of Jesus.  That’s one of the remarkable things about Holiness theology – it’s not what we do ourselves, but what God does in us.

As I progressed through my teen years and into my twenties, I discovered that the idea of a “reward” for my faith – be it in heaven or on earth – did not matter quite as much as it did at the beginning of my faith journey.  The reason?  Through his regenerative work, the Spirit transforms us.  Where we might once have begun our Christian journey out of a selfless motive, the Holy Spirit has transformed the believer.  We have moved – or, more properly, the Spirit has moved us – from a spirit of selfishness to one of “selfless-ness”.  Once, we did Christian charity with the expectation of reward – now, we do Christian charity for the benefit of others, and often, at the expense of our own selves.  What a radical difference!



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Risky Business: the call of the prophet

June 7th, 2013 1 comment

Recently, I had an opportunity to present a paper to the Students of Religious Studies conference at the Mid-Western Regional meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (that’s a mouth-full!).  My paper examined a word used frequently in the book of Daniel, בהל (bahal).  Traditionally, this word is translated as something akin to “alarm,” “distressed,” or “disturbed.”

This word is used as Daniel goes before King Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his visions.  My paper argued for an alternative rendering of the word, focusing on linguistic evidence, as well as literary themes found in the book, to support a translation that is something much stronger than mere distress or alarm–I argued that bahal is a word denoting fear, or perhaps even stronger than that, terror.

The book of Daniel is an example of apocalyptic literature.  Strange visions are common (and indeed, characteristic) to this type of literature.

Daniel’s visions are, indeed, quite strange.

Everyone remotely familiar with the book of Daniel knows that God gifted Daniel with the ability to detangle and interpret these strange visions.  He is  so sought after that his career spans across the reigns of three kings (and probably more, depending on whether or not there are time gaps in between these kings).

A frequently recurring word in the Daniel stories (particularly through chapter 11) is the word behal.  The same root appears all across Hebrew scripture, and frequently is translated as “to hasten” or “to hurry.”  In Daniel, though, the word seems to have a different nuance.  Many translators render behal as “to be distressed”, “distraught”, “disturbed”, or even “anxious”.

Is this translation good enough?  Does any of these words properly carry the force intended by behal?

I argue that it doesn’t.

While it is true that the word does mean “to hasten”, every single time the word occurs in the book of Daniel, the person who is behal’d is undergoing some sort of crisis.  For instance, Nebuchadnezzar finds out that his kingdom under attack, so he behals to go out and subdue the threat, utterly destroying his aggressors. In another event, his face grows pale and he is behal‘d.  In another case, the object of the verb shakes and trembles.

Is this mere “hastening?”

And now we come to Daniel.

While Daniel as a book is located in the Writings of the Hebrew scriptures (as opposed to the Prophets, as it is in English), Daniel as a person was clearly a prophet.  In the Ancient Near East, a prophet who goes before a king with bad news usually did not fare well.  Many times, bad news resulted in his death.   Daniel was likely very much aware of this.  Moreover, Daniel had just witnessed what happened to his friends Shadrach, Meshak and Abednego as a result of their disobedience–they were thrown into a fiery furnace. Daniel’s messages to the respective kings definitely were not full of good news.   King Nebuchadnezzar’s great power would be lost, and he would go nuts.  Belshazzar would see the very hand of God write on the wall of his own destruction.  And Daniel himself would be behal‘d of the visions in his own head.

Is Daniel merely “alarmed” or “disturbed?”  The context of the various passages seem to suggest that there is a lot more than mere worry going on here.

As I examined, translated, and studied these passages, I began to think.  These passages are so strange, so vague. Why even include them in our Bible? What is the point of Daniel?

Aside from the would-be messianic passages, I think Daniel has a singularly unique purpose for Christians:

Daniel shows us the potential catastrophe of what it means to be a prophet of God.

The theological take-away of these passages where behal occurs is that Daniel, like all of us who are called to the ministry, was simply a man delivering God’s word.  While Daniel is not included among the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures, Daniel is such because he declares what God is going to do.  I believe that when Daniel went before these authority figures, knowing that his very life was at risk,  he was frightened out of his wits.  He was terrified, scared to death to do what God had appointed him to do.

And yet, Daniel did it anyway.

As preachers and teachers of God’s word, our calling is to communicate God’s message of salvation to a world that desperately needs it.  Many brothers and sisters in foreign countries do so at the risk of their own lives.  They, like Daniel, are no doubt terrified.

And yet, they do it anyway.

How far are we willing to go for the sake of God’s message?  Will we go as far as Daniel did, willing to proclaim the Gospel, no matter what the cost?



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