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Posts Tagged ‘oppression’


Last year at this time I was preaching through Jonah. I wish I had Tim Keller’s latest book at the time. The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy should raise any controversy with the title. I’m sure there will be plenty to annoy some. But I loved reading this book.

The book is dedicated to John Newton whose life and ministry made a big impact on Keller. Those familiar with Newton’s writings will find his influence in many places.

He makes two passes through the book, exploring the themes that are found there. The first pass (9 chapters) handles the text sequentially. The second goes back through thematically to address our relationship to God’s Word, God’s world and God’s grace.

It is in Keller’s typical winsome style that points out where we tend to go wrong whether to the left or the right. He’s an equal opportunity offender, but it is so gentle I don’t understand how people get so mad at him. He’s generally right.

In the introduction he alludes to one of his other books. In the first half of the book Jonah is like the younger brother who goes to the far country to avoid his father. In the second half he’s like the angry older brother who is upset about the Father’s joy in repentance.

Jonah stands out as the willfully disobedient prophet to a willfully disobedient people. He is the representative Israelite. Jonah doesn’t trust God. He doesn’t trust that God has his best interests in mind. He is so like, … us.

“And that is the problem facing Jonah, namely, the mystery of God’s mercy. It is a theological problem, but it is at the same time a heart problem. … The story of Jonah, with all its twists and turns, is about how God takes Jonah, sometimes by the hand, other times by the scruff of the neck, to show him these things.”

Keller starts with the storms of life. “All sin has a storm attached to it.” (btw: I read people who claim Keller never talks about sin, or uses the word. What are they talking about?!) Jonah’s disobedience brought a literal storm not only into his life but the lives of the Gentile sailors. Sin’s storms don’t remain isolated to the particular sinner in question. “Sin is the suicidal action of the will upon itself.” He does clarify that most storms are from the condition of sin, meaning that we live in a fallen world and we don’t need to find the particular sin/sinner behind each hurricane, flood or drought. But know that when we sin, there are often earthly consequences.

For the Christian, the storms of life (afflictions) are meant to produce good. He is at work in this storm to bring Jonah to Ninevah for them to receive mercy. For example, I saw a recent interview with Donna Rice who experienced a storm of publicity due to her affair with Senator Gary Hart. She said that the storm brought her back to her Christian faith.

Next Keller explores the idea of who our neighbor is. These Gentiles are better human beings than the prodigal prophet. God is using the disobedient prophet to lead Gentiles to faith and repentance through his disobedience. Jonah only wants to see himself as an Israelite, as part of a faith community. He needs to also see himself as part of humanity, the broader community. Frankly, Christians have the same problem. We don’t have much concern with those around us as long as our lives are going okay. And so Keller explores common grace.

He then moves into the “other”, the question of identity and those who have a different identity than we do. Jonah’s national identity blinded him in many ways. The early church would struggle with the same problem. We use that identity to exclude other people unnecessarily. We dehumanize people who don’t share our ethnic, national or political identities. We’ve seen this as one of the early steps in the holocaust and other genocides (Rwanda, Armenian etc.). This was very helpful as I preached thru Philippians 3 and the false identities we can boast in.

Keller moves to the pattern of love, and the heart of the gospel with substitution. Jonah is a type of Jesus who would die for our sins instead of sins of his own. The storm of God’s merciful wrath (the phrase I used in my sermons, adapted by a phrase of Luther’s) is stilled.

“To deny God’s wrath upon sin not only robs us of a full view of God’s holiness and justice but also can diminish our wonder, love, and praise at what it was that Jesus bore for us.”

In this context he connects wrath with love too. God’s wrath is directed at actions (and people) who harm what He loves. He again clearly articulates the gospel contrary to what the discernment blogs claim about him.

The Gentile sailors end up offering praise and sacrifices to YHWH after the storm is stilled. Keller notes the irony in that Jonah sought to avoid bringing truth to Gentiles, aka wicked pagans, but actually does anyway.

Image result for jonahHe then delves deeper into grace as Jonah wrestles with God in the belly of the fish. He’s gone as low as he can go (the literary irony) because he didn’t go up to Ninevah. Jonah “does business” with God only when he can no longer run from God. He’s trapped and finally admits the ugly truth. Often God has to bring us to similar places before, like addicts, we admit we’ve made a complete mess of things by our disobedience and can’t fix it.

With Jonah finally going to Ninevah, the discussion moves to repentance. They repented of their injustice, and moved toward justice. They were a violent, oppressive people. Repentance meant turning away from their violence and oppression. When the gospel calls us out of sin, it also calls us out of injustice. This is Keller’s connection between the gospel and “social justice”. He’s not preaching a social gospel, but the gospel of Christ’s penal, substitutionary atonement with implications for justice in society. He’s not preaching a privatized faith nor a civil faith or religion. Personal faith is lived out in society as well as the community of faith.

With God relenting another storm arises, this time in Jonah’s heart. He’s beyond angry. In Jonah’s mind, relenting from destruction means the inevitable destruction of Israel. He’s blind to Israel’s sin, apparently, just as we tend to be to our sin and the sin of our communities.

God responds with patience and instruction. He is not only concerned about Israel, but all these people who also bear His image. He even cares about the livestock. That’s who He is. Unlike Jonah, Jesus wept over Jerusalem over the impending destruction for its wickedness.

“They want a “God of love,” but a God of love who does not get angry when evil destroys the creation he loves is ultimately not a loving God at all. If you love someone, you must and will get angry if something threatens to destroy him or her.”

Both God’s righteousness and His love are functions of His goodness! We don’t play them against one another but embrace them both as grounded in His goodness. So, this same God can justify the wicked because He loved them in sending His Son as a propitiation for their sin. Jesus satisfied His righteousness and His love. He didn’t satisfy His righteousness so God was then free to love.

Keller then moves to the three final themes of his book. Like Jonah (following Adam and Eve) we struggle to believe God’s Word is good for us. We minimize His wisdom and magnify ours. We trust our word over His.

“Sin always begins with the character assassination of God. We believe that God has put us in a world of delights but has determined that he will not give them to us if we obey him.”

Keller defends the substitutionary atonement from the charge of “divine child abuse” as infamously made by Steven Chalke. That charge does damage to the Trinity, not simply atonement. The one God in three persons works to save us. Jesus is not some lesser being offered to change the mind of an angry deity.

IImage result for dodo birdn terms of our relationship to God’s world he returns the question of our neighbor. Calvin, he notes, reminded us that all our neighbors bear the image of God and we must remember that. Keller applies this to politics. We must find a way between the erroneous beliefs that we should just preach the gospel and avoid politics, or that politics is all-important. The two party system tries to push a “package deal” on us instead of allowing us to vote “a la carte”. Pro-life Democrats are going the way of the dodo. But this doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Republican. They have anti-Christian views too. The gospel of the One who died for us when we were His enemies, calls us out of our partisanship and demonization of the other side. Loved by One we hated, we can begin to love ones we hated.

Keller moves into how privileged status can play out in perverting justice. The same laws should apply to all within a society. He mentions “citizens over immigrants” without any mention of their legal or illegal status as immigrants (I think this matters in light of Romans 13). But immigrants and other vulnerable groups should not be taken advantage of by the powerful. Christians, who worship a just God, should care about justice.This is not at the expense of the God but on account of the gospel.

“We must realize that since all our social problems stem from our alienation from God, the most radical and loving thing you can do for a person is to see him or her reconciled to God.”

IImage result for c.s. lewisn our relationship to God’s grace Keller clearly puts a changed life as a result of salvation, not the cause of salvation. In this it differs from every other religion. Here he explores Lewis’ The Four Loves to discuss our attachment to our people and culture. Lewis affirms a love for our people, but notes “We all know now that this love becomes a demon when it becomes a god.” Love of country is not the same a fascism or racism. Lewis rejects anti-patriotism as extremism just as he rejected any nationalism that begins to denigrate and destroy those who are different. [It is important to understand what is meant when someone uses the term ‘nationalism’. It can simply refer to the love of country that is normal for most people, and not the political movement used to justify the supremacy of a nation.] When do you know love of country has gone toxic? When it ignores the blemishes of its past. EVERY country has very ugly blemishes in its past. In the present, every country is full of “good” and evil people (law abiding vs. criminals). Lewis notes that when a country begins to intentionally suppress or erases its misdeeds they begin to express racial/national/ethnic superiority. We then find ourselves on the doorstep of racism and oppression. This is a very helpful section. This is pertinent because it helps us to understand what Jonah experienced in himself. Turning from grace he was in the throes of a toxic nationality that wanted to withhold God from other people groups.

Jesus purchased people from every tribe, tongue, nation and language. The gospel mission focuses on loving other people groups, not just your own. This is the heart of Jonah’s struggle and ours. Will we embrace the mystery of God’s mercy or will we try to bottle it up as exclusively for people just like us? Jonah doesn’t resolve that question in his life, because it isn’t fully resolved in the readers. The question is, what will you do next knowing that God cares about those people too?

In the future I hope to read Anthony Carter’s book on Jonah,Running From Mercy: Jonah and the Surprising Story of God’s Unstoppable Grace, which was released at about the same time.

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Thanks to Augustine hope and despair have been on my mind. In the wake of the recent events in Ferguson, I’ve had many thoughts about all if it. Like most people I’ve read lots of musings on the situation, some of them good and some not so good. I find that most commentators hit one aspect of the situation. That is okay as long as we don’t expect them to speak exhaustively. As I’ve turned this over in my mind I see so many angles to it.

On Sunday I used Isaiah 9:1-7 for my sermon text. I’d already planned on that text well over a month ago. It proved very appropriate in the wake of a week like last week.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

The Light arrives in the midst of darkness. Here we see the darkness of injustice and oppression. The Son of David would come to end injustice and oppression. His reign is one of justice and righteousness. We who are Christians affirm the NT teaching that this child is Jesus the Light of the World and the Son of David who sits on his eternal throne now.

Scripture and history point us to an already/not yet understanding of this text. Jesus has already come to redeem His people. Jesus already sits upon the throne. Jesus has not yet removed all injustice and unrighteousness. That awaits His second advent. The kingdom has been inaugurated, continues and awaits consummation or completion.

This means we live in the time between times. We, as Christians, have the capacity to treat others with justice and righteousness. But we live in a society that is marked by injustice and unrighteousness. This should not surprise us. We see this in Hebrews 2:

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.

Nothing, it says, is outside His control even though it may not look like it. There is still rebellion within His realm. Remember, we were numbered among the rebels. It was His role as the Lamb of God that removed the guilt of our rebellion. We, too, deserved the just wrath of God for our part in the unrighteous and injustice of the world. Those who suffer injustice often respond with injustice and unrighteousness as well. There is a dark, vicious spiral involved. It requires the grace of God to break it. First He breaks it in individuals. Those individuals can work to break it in society by seeking just laws or enforcing just laws. Those who have been oppressed need to share in the power, not to bring an opposite form of oppression but pursue righteousness and justice.

Christ holds off His return, as I mentioned Sunday, to apply the redemption purchased to the elect. This is what is going on behind 2 Peter 3:

9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

We see that God is working out a number of purposes, seemingly in conflict with one another. He is bringing grace to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is showing justice to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is working out judgment and salvation, as well as guiding His people into righteousness all in the midst of the darkness of this world.

“Often times the poor man is the oppressor by unjust clamors. We should labor to give the best interpretation to the actions of governors that the nature of actions will possibly bear.” Richard Sibbes

Many of us see this and are tempted to despair. We see these eruptions of injustice and violence and fear that we’ve made no process. Despair can kill us. We can give up and just let the situation continue unabated. We can give up in a deeper sense and either forsake the truth or fight the monster and become the monster in the process.

There is some cause for despair, in a good and not giving up sense. While we have been justified, Christians are not fully sanctified.This means we still sin. We still have blind spots (race issues can be one of them!). The gospel has already begun to transform us into the image of Christ but has not yet finished its work.

Note what Calvin says about us:

Let each of us go on, then, as our limited powers allow, without departing from the path we have begun to tread. However haltingly we may travel, each day will see us gaining a little ground. So let us aim to make diligent progress in the way of the Lord, and let us not lose heart if we have only a little to show for it. For although our success might be less than we would wish, all is not lost when today surpasses yesterday. Only let us fix our gaze clearly and directly on the goal, trying hard to reach our objective, not fooling ourselves with vain illusions or excusing our own vices.

This sentiment found its way into the Heidelberg Catechism.

114. Q. But can those converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with earnest purpose they do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God.

If we cannot act with perfect righteousness and justice how can we expect an unbelieving world to do so. So, we should despair or give up hope in human governments accomplishing this. As Isaiah 9 notes, only the zeal of the Lord will accomplish all this. Hope, as Red noted in The Shawshank Redemption, is a dangerous thing. If our hope is in earthly perfect apart from the return of Christ, we will experience the bad form of despair that resorts to resignation or violence.

“A holy despair in ourselves is the ground of true hope.” Richard Sibbes

Let us set our hope on God’s promises to be fully accomplished upon the return of Christ. This hope can sustain us in the midst of the continuing darkness. It also helps us to rejoice over the modest gains as we see people exhibiting righteousness and justice. We need to remember that God works on the behalf of those who wait for Him. Such waiting is not passive. For instance, William Wilberforce longed to see England free of slavery. He worked for years, first to end the slave trade and then to end slavery. It took decades, and many setbacks, but he saw God bring this about. Yet there was still much work to be done in the human heart which is “naturally” filled with evil and inclined toward unrighteousness.

18 Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
    and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
    blessed are all those who wait for him. Isaiah 30

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him. Lamentations 3

Righteousness and justice do not come easily or quickly. It times waiting for them feels like we are dying. We want everything to change now. A rightly understood hope enables us to wait. And suffer while we wait if need be.

16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. 1 Peter 4

Peter, who watched Jesus suffer unjustly, suffered unjustly. We do well to receive his counsel to the early Church. If we suffer we should entrust ourselves to our Faithful Creator and Redeemer. Instead of a useless rage or foolish resignation, we trust. As we trust, we continue to do good.

Doing good can have many faces. It includes forgiving those who acted with injustice. This prevents bitterness from growing and corrupting your response to injustice. It includes helping those who have been harmed by injustice. You can help them pick up the pieces of their lives. It can mean running for office or seeking a promotion that enables change.

Let us remember that there is a despair and a hope that can kill us. There is also a form of despair and hope that can grant life as we lean upon Christ.

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I just finished reading Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just.  I was going to do a single review of this book.  But, there were too many important things that stood out to me.  So, there will be a few posts on this book.

A quick review though: Keller’s book is a more theoretical companion to his earlier book, Ministries of Mercy: the Call of the Jericho Road.  It is too short of a book as I was left wanting more.  I consider it an important read, one which may challenge some of your assumptions about justice.  I highly recommend it.

He wrote the book for a few audiences.  One was the group of young Christians who have a highly developed social conscience.  They are concerned about justice, but it doesn’t seem to alter their personal choices.  He seeks to connect their faith with their desire to help people in need.  Another was those conservative Christians who are suspicious of talk of justice.  They separate justice from sound doctrine and spiritual dynamism.  Scripture teaches that justice flows from them.  He also writes to those younger evangelicals who have put aside sound doctrine to pursue social justice.  Lastly, he writes for non-Christians who think that Christians poison everything.  He wants to give them a biblical vision for life and godliness that encompasses justice.

8 He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

This is an important passage in the first chapter which explores justice.  Justice would appear to be anything but voluntary for a believer in Christ.  If we love God’s mercy, or faithful love (it is the Hebrew word chesedh) we are also to act justly.  The love is the motive of the justice.  God is both chesedh, or agape in the Greek, and just.  He is not one or the other.  He is both, and calls us to be both as well.  We act justly because we love mercy.

Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care. … mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of the widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor- those who have been called the “quartet of the vulnerable.”

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Job shifts to a series of shorter speeches.  Not quite sound bites, but more succinct than the first cycle of speeches.

Eliphaz basically says ‘you’re wrong, and tradition is on our side’.  He continues to say that Job must be suffering because he has a sin issue, so stop blaming God.

Job continues to assert his innocence AND God’s great anger.  His former position of honor has been stripped from him and he is despised by all.  He is weary of his friends.

Bildad is weary of Job’s stubborn claims.  Ho-hum, only the wicked suffer.

“How long will you torment me and crush me with words?  Ten times now you have reproached me; shamelessly you attack me. (19:1-2)”

Job feels surrounded by God, under seige.  He has been abandoned by all his friends- particularly those who now accuse him.  Zophar continues the attack as Job grows weary.  Job adds to his complaint.  He says that the wicked often prosper, which often dismays God’s people.  Like today, many non-Christians live well and enjoy life.  In light of their rebellion against the fabric of the universe, this is disheartening at times for those who love and fear God.  Particularly when things are very difficult for us.

Finally Eliphaz lays out some concrete accusations:

“Is it for your piety that he rebukes you and brings charges against you?  Is not your wickedness great?  Are not your sins endless?  You demanded security from your brothers for no reason; you stripped men of their clothing, leaving them naked.  You gave no water to the weary and you withheld food from the hungry, …. And you send widows away empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless.  That is why snares are all around you …. (22:4-10)”

He accuses Job of being an oppressor.  Job must begin to submit to God to find peace and then prosperity will return.

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