The last few days in our country have been harrowing. For many of us, yesterday began and ended with the news of injustice ending in death. The day began with the news of yet another preventable and therefore unjust killing of an African American man by a police officer. The day ended with the news of the unjust retaliation killing of five police officers by an African American man in Dallas, TX. So again, I will write, it is very easy to be silent in times like this. It is very easy to withhold judgement until all the facts are in. It is very easy to let various situations blow over with the wind of the next big story. It is very easy to let hard realities for others have no effect on ourselves. However, the Bible calls us to a better response. At the very least, Scripture calls us to respond with tenderheartedness, self-examination, prayer, and theological precision.
We must be tenderhearted toward those in pain. This means our hearts will be broken both for the those with whom we naturally identify and those with whom we do not. Our identifying with the pain of our brothers and sisters in Christ cannot be tempered by our identity in this world.
We must examine ourselves. If we can mourn with only one side, there is a problem. If we refuse to mourn with one side until all the facts are in, but have immediately broken hearts for the other side, there is a problem. If we refuse to mourn with one side regardless of the facts, there is a problem. We must ask, are we willing, when we or someone with whom we identify has been wronged, to hear the imperatives of Romans 12:21 and 1 Peter 3:9? Both of these verses were written in the context of persecution, the latter in the context of persecution by the state.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, ESV).
“Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9, ESV).
Are we willing not only to look to Christ in faith as the One who has made satisfaction for our sin, which we must do, but also to look to Christ in faith as the One whose selflessness is an example for all who are united to him by faith? This is precisely what Scripture calls us to.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:21-25, ESV).
As Christians, we are to follow in the steps of our Savior who suffered at the hands of others for the sake of others. Our unwillingness to walk in this way is an unwillingness to be identified with Christ, and we must repent of such faithlessness.
We must pray. There is but one source of wisdom by which the problem of evil in this world will be solved, but there is a source for such wisdom.
We must think with theological precision, letting our thinking inform our doing. The theological issues that were forced to the fore for me last night revolved around the question of why? Why is this happening? And is there a solution?
James writes in the fourth chapter of his epistle,
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask (James 4:1-2, ESV).
In his letter James acknowledges two important points. First, our passions are longing for something we don’t have. Second, we don’t have, because we don’t ask.
What is it that our passions desire so strongly? To answer this we must understand what humanity lost in the fall. The Westminster Shorter Catechism #19 is helpful, “What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell? All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever.” We could summarize this by saying that by the fall all mankind lost their hope, identity, and security. We lost hope in that the misery, death, and hell to which we are made liable are forever. Without something changing, without some intervention there is not hope. We lost identity in that we lost communion with the One in whose image we were created. If we are going to know ourselves rightly, we must know ourselves in relation to God, but we have lost communion with him leaving us clamoring for an identity. We lost security in that we are liable to the miseries of this life which are many.
The introductory verses of Hosea make the same point. Hosea is called to live out a real life metaphor of God and his people by taking a prostitute for a wife with whom he has three children – Jezreel, No Mercy, and Not My People. Those are rather odd names, but they were given to make a point. The meaning of the names is recorded in the book of Hosea as follows.
And the LORD said to him, “Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.” She conceived again and bore a daughter. And the LORD said to him, “Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen.” When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. And the LORD said, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God” (Hosea 1:4-9, ESV).
Jezreel indicates that God will put an end to the kingdom of Israel, a loss of security. No Mercy indicates just that, God will no longer have mercy on Israel, a loss of hope. Not My People again indicates something obvious, they are not the people of God and he is not their God, a loss of identity. The same point could be made from numerous texts. For example, Genesis 3 records the fall of man into sin. As a result of Adam’s disobedience we see the following happen. Adam his wife, Eve, were removed from the Garden of Eden over which they had reigned and in which they had walked with God (a loss of identity), were told that their work would produce thorns and thistles (a loss of security), and were barred from re-entering and eating from the tree of life and living (a loss of hope).
It is this lost hope, security, and identity that our passions desire. It is this lost hope, security, and identity that we try to seek out in this world. It is this lost hope, security, and identity for which we will quite literally kill. In our effort to establish hope, security, and identity on our own two things tend to happen. First, we run to whatever we can in order to find hope, security, and identity, destroying whatever and whomever we need to take hold of it. We may run to seemingly noble realities such as family, work, intellect, financial stability, ethnic heritage, etc., or we may run to ignoble realities such as sexual conquest, drugs, rank materialism, mutilation, etc. And indeed, we may find a close enough approximation of what we are looking for to remain satisfied for quite sometime. The second thing that happens is, when our worldly source of hope, security, and identity fail us, we will eventually simply turn to easing the pain of not having hope, security, and identity, often using the same false sources and often at the expense of those around us. But make no mistake, it is the lost hope, security, and identity that our passions long for.
When we live for and by a worldly hope, security, and identity, our response to a perceived threat can quickly become extreme. Yesterday I asked a hard question regarding the effect of sin on a police officer, not to accuse, but to drive a point home. Today I will turn the tables and ask a similarly hard question going the other way, again not to accuse, but to make the point. What might be the effect on how an African American man responds to injustice from police toward black men if they are seeking to find their hope, security, and identity in their ethnic heritage? Let me be clear, this is not to say that there can be no identification with or pride in our ethnic heritage, neither is this to say that finding hope, security, and identity in ehtnic heritage is an issue unique to African Americans, nor is this to say that there is only outrage over injustice because of sinfully finding hope, security, and identity in ethnic heritage, (on this point I would point you to the many African Americans who have grieved the death of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile [and many others], who have feared for their own children’s lives, who have called out injustice as such, who do strongly identify with their African American brothers and sisteres, but who, finding their hope in Christ are just as quick to call out the injustice carried out by the man in Dallas who vengefully killed 5 police officers.), rather this is to say, when we make what this world offers by way of hope, security, and identity ultimate we defend it as such.
However, recall, James made a second point. He wrote, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2, ESV). Do you hear what he is saying? That thing that your passions so desperately long for, that lost hope, identity, and security, is yours if you ask. This is what Christ has restored by dealing with our sin on the cross. We see it so very clearly when we return to Hosea. Hosea 1:4-9 announced the loss of hope, security, and identity through the naming of Hosea’s children. Look now at what is recorded in Hosea 1:10-2:1.
Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel. Say to your brothers, “You are my people,” and to your sisters, “You have received mercy” (Hosea 1:10-2:1, ESV).
God immediately promises that he will do the work of restoring the hope, identity, and security of his people. “Where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God’” (Hosea 1:10, ESV) – the promise of identity restored by God’s gracious initiative. “And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel.” (Hosea 1:11, ESV) – the promise of security restored by God’s gracious initiative. “Say to your brothers, ‘You are my people,’ and to your sisters, ‘You have received mercy’ (Hosea 2:1, ESV) – the promise of hope restored by God’s gracious initiative. What sin stole away and our souls so desperately long for, God promises to secure for his people. Ultimately this will come through the finished work of Jesus Christ. This is why Peter writes to those Christians suffering under the heavy hand of the state,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10, ESV).
In Christ, because of his finished work, hope, security, and identity have been restored for the people of God. We need not clamor for it in this world any longer. We can decry the injustices of this world without prejudice and without fear that by unjust means anyone in this world can rob us of the hope, security, and identity that is ours in Christ Jesus. It is this very fact that frees to suffer, to love, to fight injustice, and to conquer to the very end. Peter says as much as he continues his letter.
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:11-12, ESV).
Once again, It is very easy to be silent in times like this. It is very easy to withhold judgement until all the facts are in. It is very easy to let various situations blow over with the wind of the next big story. It is very easy to let hard realities for others have no effect on ourselves. However, the Bible calls us to a better response. At the very least, Scripture calls us to respond with tenderheartedness, self-examination, prayer, and theological precision.