Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Getting to the Good Stuff

[James said] "Grant us, therefore, not to be tempted by the devil, the evil one."  The Lord answered and said, "What is your merit if you do the will of the Father and it is not given to you from him as a gift while you are tempted by Satan?  But if you are oppressed by Satan and persecuted and you do his (i.e. the Father's) will, I [say] that he will love you, and make you equal with me, and reckon [you] to have become beloved through his providence by your own choice.  --  from The Apocryphon of James 4:29 - 5:6*
I have been encouraging a few friends lately to read the books of the Bible without using any outside sources:  no commentaries, no references, and no one else's opinion -- "Let the words themselves speak to you first."  Since I have learned so much more about God and myself this way, I think it's the best way to read the Bible.

It's not that I'm against knowing the history or the cultural context, or the literary and linguistic background of these writings.  I think all this can add to our understanding.  But if we immediately jump to that background stuff or to what someone else thinks a passage means, we will miss out on what the words have to say to us personally.  We will then be reading the Bible more for information (i.e. history, culture, theology, etc.) than for enlightenment; we will then be examining faith as an object rather than becoming subject to it.  

These last couple of weeks, I have become interested in learning more about the Dead Sea Scrolls and The Nag Hammadi Library.  After listening to and reading several interpretations of specific passages in some of these texts from the scholars, I thought I should take my own advice, and go directly to the source.  So I found a copy of "The Nag Hammadi Library" at the local used bookstore, and read the first book it contains.

The Apocryphon of James describes an interesting dialogue between Jesus and James and Peter.  The specific words attributed to Jesus are unlike any I have read in the four biblical Gospels, but maybe that is because those words have become so familiar to me over the years, and these words are new.  I imagine that the more I read these words, the less strange they will seem to me.  Even now, having read the dialogue several times, I can see that the meaning is often not that much different from what I have read in the Bible.

The language used did, however, present some challenges.  I personally don't think of evil or temptation as being personified in the form of Satan or the devil.  But that is how ancient people thought about evil (and how many faithful people today think about evil).  So when I come to language like this, I'm learning to make accommodations for the unique perspective of the person who thinks like this, and not let that get in the way of what I can learn from them.  I know that if I let little differences in understanding like that get in the way, I would miss out on a whole lot of good stuff.

For many of the passages in this tract resonated with specific questions and concerns I have been having lately.  This often happens to me when I read, so I shouldn't have been surprised.  But this was like having every question I've had for the past several weeks answered in one conversation.  I can't help but wonder how much guidance I would have missed if I had just continued listening to or reading what someone else thinks it all means. 

The passage I quoted above speaks to me about living a faithful life.  I sometimes think that such a life should be easier than it is.  If God wants me to do something, then it should go well; it should be easy and successful.  If it's not easy and I'm not successful, then I begin to wonder if I'm really doing what God wants me to do.  Unfortunately (or, fortunately, depending on how you look at it), there are plenty of stories in the Bible that attests to the opposite:  of godly people who found following God's word to be extremely challenging. 

In fact, we have just been reading about Elijah in Eugene Peterson's "The Jesus Way," in our Tuesday morning book study.  Elijah had a very difficult calling:  he had to convince the people of Israel that they were worshiping the wrong god.  They should have been worshiping Yahweh, not Baal.  His message was so unpopular that his life was threatened on more than one occasion.  At one point, he felt so unsuccessful that he sat under a broom tree and gave up.  Needless to say, I could relate.  I was having my own "broom tree moment" just the other day.

But God sent an angel who fed him.  Like Jesus who was tempted in the wilderness, God sent angels to sustain him.  Now I've never seen personified goodness in the form of an angel anymore than I have ever seen personified evil in the form of a devil, but that doesn't mean we don't experience both.  We do.  I experience temptations, serious difficulties, and my own inadequacies, all the time.  I also experience being fed, sustained, and uplifted by God's guidance and grace, all the time.  Reading this text was one of those times.  

Living a faithful life is not easy, but it is filled with very good stuff, indeed.  So, do you take the difficult road or the easy road?  For me, though I may sometimes be tempted otherwise, there is really only one choice.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
 be with you 


*from "The Nag Hammadi Library," James M. Robinson, General Editor, Revised Edition (1988)

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