Greg Boyd on Legalism

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 13, 2009 by Jeff

Greg Boyd has quickly become one of my favorite theologians because of writing like this.

People like the Pharisees who keep a pretty nice polished image of themselves are much more apt to think that they’re pretty holy on their own and thus are capable of earning God’s acceptance by a good performance. So they’re more inclined to hear Jesus’ teachings as a challenge for their self-righteous effort. The more difficult the teaching, the more strenuous their effort. So when they hear Jesus say “be as perfect as God,” they don’t crumble up and cry out for mercy: they desperately strive to actually do this! And for them, salvation hangs on this.

This is not only a serious misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings, it is also extremely destructive. If one really believes that his salvation hangs on his own goodness, he can only live with himself by convincing himself that he is in fact “perfect enough” for God. But since everyone is sinful, in their heart and mind if not also in their behavior, this perfectionism entails that such religious people must become experts at living in self-deception. … They must systematically suppress every introspective thought which might tell them that they are failing to meet Jesus’ “challenge.” This is why legalistic religious people are usually very shallow — the leaders more so than the others because they are the ones who have “proven themselves” to be “successful” at this self-deceptive game. Everything that doesn’t fit the religious image these people want so hard to maintain must simply be “shoved in the closet.” It must go below the surface of their consciousness.

This is simply sick. It means that every problem that needs addressing in these peoples’ lives, and every wound that needs healing, can never be addressed or healed. All emotional and spiritual sickness is treated like an indictment and is therefore covered over by religious pretense. And the consequences of this are obviously very destructive. Every neurosis, Scott Peck says, is the result of refusing to confront the truth. You can temporarily cover over reality with a polished appearance, but reality, in the end, always wins. This is why legalistic individuals and churches are frequently so dysfunctional. They stuff everything which needs to be exposed. What happened with Jimmy Swaggart is, I suspect, a classic case-in-point.

In any case, I think it is perfectly clear that the central thrust of Jesus’ teaching was to do just the opposite of what legalism does. Rather than inspire giant feats of self-effort which result in denying the sinful reality of our inner life, Jesus was trying to bring about the end of all self-effort by getting us to examine the sinful reality of our inner lives. And it works, if one hears Him rightly.

When one hears the impossibility of Jesus’ ideals, when one finally gives up on his own self-effort as a means of impressing God, when one finally realizes that all he is and ever shall be before God is due to God’s performance, not his, then one is free to be real with what is going on in one’s life. One is free to be open and honest about all his faults, shortcomings, sin, etc. One can see that nothing hangs on pretending he’s something he’s not. As a friend of mine (Jeff Van-Vondren) says a lot, “Only when how things look is irrelevant can how things are be addressed and changed.” And this, every psychologist will tell you, is the central ingredient to all mental and emotional (and spiritual) health!

From Letters From A Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father’s Questions about Christianity by Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd, pp. 173ff.

Dear God, Please Kill Babies. Amen.: Application & Conclusion

Posted in Uncategorized on December 13, 2009 by Jeff


This series so far:

Over the past week and a half, I have been chronicling my thoughts on the imprecatory psalms, those psalms which are filled with anger, vengeance, violence, and cursing. As I admitted in the very first post, I don’t think I have answered every possible question related to these psalms. I don’t think I have all of those answers. These psalms still disturb me greatly. However, the things that I have mentioned in this series are the considerations which have helped me to come to peace with them.

The only thing left to discuss is in the realm of application. If the considerations that I have mentioned put our minds at ease about the potential ethical conflict with the teachings of Jesus, that is all well and good. But how does it impact my life today?

Consider these words by Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner:

We conclude, then, that it is not open to us to renounce or ignore the psalmists … But equally it is not open to us simply to occupy the ground on which they stood. Between our day and theirs, our calling and theirs, stands the cross. We are ministers of reconciliation, and this is a day of good tidings.

To the question, Can a Christian use these cries for vengeance as his own? the short answer must surely be No; no more than he should echo the curses of Jeremiah or the protests of Job. He may of course translate them into affirmations of God’s judgment, and tinto denunciations of “the spiritual hosts of wickedness” which are the real enemy. As for the men of flesh and blood who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” or who make themselves our enemies, our instructions are to pray not against them but for them; to turn them from the power of Satan to God; to repay their evil with good; and to choose none of their ways. (from Psalms 1-72, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 1973, pp. 31-32)

Perhaps the greatest lesson that I have learned from these psalms is this: When we pray, we are to pray with our WHOLE hearts. Not just the pleasant parts of our hearts, the parts that we show to everyone else. No, we especially need to give to God the dark parts of our hearts that we try to hide from everyone else. Certainly, God already knows what’s there (Luke 16:15). But when we fail to give this ugliness to him in all of its hideousness, in a raw and unfiltered way that God may then take it off of our shoulders and bear it on his own, which are, after all, infinitely more capable of bearing them.

Dear God, Please Kill Babies. Amen.: Godward Anger & Context

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on December 13, 2009 by Jeff


This series so far:

Having looked at several considerations that must be taken into account when thinking about the imprecatory psalms, I now come to to the last one that I will discuss. This consideration is actually quite elementary and obvious. However, one mistake that many exegetes make is to speed past the most basic parts of the text in an effort to plumb their depths. I think that these psalms would have made much more sense to me originally if I had adequately considered two facts: they are directed to God and we have no context!

For any of the psalms to be properly understood, the reader cannot forget that the psalms are primarily man’s word to God rather than God’s word to man. They are certainly inspired by God. But their purpose in Scripture is to give us examples of godly communication from man to God in prayer, praise, and song. So the words arise out of the dirt and grime of a sinful world rather than coming down from the pristine ideal of heaven. (I know my language may prompt questions related to my understanding of inspiration. That is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that I believe the psalms are fully inspired, yet they arise from the human experience.)

The desires expressed in the imprecatory psalms reflect the dirt and grime which gave birth to them. But a key point is that they are desires that were not acted upon, but were entrusted to God. They are desires which arose from feelings and emotions that are , whether we like it or not, a part of the human experience. As fallen beings, we will have anger, hatred and violence at work within us. Our task in these situations is to give those feelings to God so that God can heal the parts of us that gave rise to those emotions, and also so that God can take responsibility for rectifying the external factors involved. I believe that, in the imprecatory psalms, the psalmist is taking the sinful human emotions that he was feeling, expressing them in a raw, unfiltered way, and entrusting them to God. When looked at from that angle, these psalms suddenly have a respectability that they didn’t have before.

Another factor that we must keep in mind when studying these psalms is that these words were not spoken/written in a vacuum. They are the cries of real people who were shedding real blood and real tears at the hands of real enemies. While we are not privy to the context in which these psalms were written, we know that there was certainly a context. Our limited perspective makes it easier for us to pass judgment on these psalms. God’s unlimited perspective very well may see things very differently.

Perhaps a good illustration of this point can be made by looking at the following words:

I curse the messenger who told my father,
“Good news—you have a son!”
Let him be destroyed like the cities of old
that the Lord overthrew without mercy.
Terrify him all day long with battle shouts,
because he did not kill me at birth.
Oh, that I had died in my mother’s womb,
that her body had been my grave!

Some may assume that these words were taken from one of the imprecatory psalms. The language is certainly reminiscent of the language found therein. However, as interpreters of Scripture, we have a huge advantage when considering these words that we do not have when looking at the psalms — we know the context.

The above quotation is actually from Jeremiah 20:15-17. We know that Jeremiah’s curse of the man who didn’t perform an abortion on his mother was an outburst that took place during a dark stage in his life in which he was doubting/questioning his calling as a prophet. We also know that this dark season of Jeremiah’s life actually strengthened and deepened him in the long run. Yet if these words were recorded as Psalm 151 with no surrounding narrative, we would be shocked by them in much the same way we are with the imprecatory psalms.

Context means everything. In the psalms, we don’t have the context to tell us “the rest of the story.” However, we must rest assured that God heard these words within the context of the lives of the psalmists. God knew the exact faces, incidents, dates, and times involved in every tear shed and every ounce of blood spilled.

So while we have difficulty understanding these psalms due to the lack of contextual clues, we must remember that these were outbursts of anger and vengeance that were entrusted to God rather than acted upon. If only we could do the same with our sinful outbursts. Perhaps that is why we have these psalms — to show us how even with the most heinous of desires can be put on God’s shoulders.

Dear God, Please Kill Babies. Amen.: Hyperbolic Art

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on December 9, 2009 by Jeff


This series so far:

Continuing my musings on the imprecatory psalms, I now come to a consideration that seems far more weighty than the ones previously mentioned. The core desire for justice and the pre-cross worldview may be foundational to making sense of these psalms, but the level of moral disturbance generated by them is still present (for me at least) until I come to this consideration. Namely, we must remember that the Psalms are art.

Art is, by its very nature, an abstract expression of reality, not a concrete one. Much of scripture is written in more concrete terms such as doctrinal statements, historical accounts, and legal codes. The narrative accounts in Scripture often bridge the gap between the concrete and the abstract by containing elements of both. But more than any other portion of Scripture, the psalms are purely artistic. They are poetry. They are lyrical. They are musical. They are abstract.

Moreover, the reality that the psalms express is often emotional reality. With the psalmists, we rise to mountaintops of spiritual ecstasy, but we also join them in the pits of despair. We get caught up in their wave of praise flowing forth from divinely wrought victory, but we also join their all-to-human seething, vengefulness, and anger. The purpose of the psalms is not to teach us how to feel. Rather, they were written, compiled, and divinely preserved to show us what to do with those feelings.

Also, as abstract, artistic writings, the psalms often use figurative language to get their point across. One of the frequent figures of speech used in the psalms is hyperbole (exaggeration for the sake of emphasis). One of my early instructors used to define hyperbole as “truth standing on its head in order to get attention.” So while the psalmist prays for some pretty horrible things, we cannot therefore conclude that those literal actions were the actual desires of his heart. To be sure, we also can’t conclude that they were NOT the actual desires of his heart. Nevertheless, this consideration should give us reason to at least pause in our judgment of the psalmist.

An illustration: I have been known at various points in my illustrious career as a licensed operator of a motor vehicle to become quite irritated at my fellow motor vehicle operators. At times when I feel especially wronged by a driver who performs a dangerous maneuver in traffic, putting me and my family in danger, I have been known to call out wishes for that driver to have misfortune come his way. “I HOPE HE WRECKS HIS CAR AND BREAKS BOTH LEGS!!!” might be a phrase that would aggressively and loudly come out of my mouth during such a moment. Now, if I were to write a position paper (a concrete form of communication) on what I really desired for that man, it would not include a desire for him to have a wreck and break both of his legs. However, in the emotion of the moment, such a hyperbolic statement is the only way to adequately express the very real emotions of that experience. If I said in a flat tone, “I really do hope that that chap corrects his dangerous actions and henceforth refrains from putting himself and others at risk” it simply would not convey accurately the emotional element of the moment. Therefore, although factual, it would not be an accurate/truthful expression of my experience in the moment. So I increase my volume, exaggerate my language, and blurt out something emotional. In some ways it is a more truthful form of communication than a dry factual statement would be.

I think that illustration fairly closely parallels what may be happening with the psalmist in the imprecatory psalms. To try to write a poem made only of dry facts would not accurately convey the emotional/spiritual reality of the moment. So he does the literary equivalent of shouting in orderly to convey his pain, anger, frustration, confusion, etc. more adequately.

I will close this post with a quote from Derek Kidner’s commentary on the Psalms in which he makes some similar observations. He writes:

Such immoderate language has an air of irresponsibility which cries out for criticism, yet it would be a mistake to wish it away. It has as valid function in this kind of context as hyperbole has in the realm of description : a vividness of communication which is beyond the reach of cautious literalism.

This brings us close to the heart of the matter, which is that the psalms have among other roles in Scripture one which is peculiarly their own: to touch and kindle us rather than simply to address us. The passages on which we may be tempted to sit in judgment have the shocking immediacy of a scream, to startle us into feeling something of the desperation which produced them. This is revelation in a mode more indirect but more intimate than most other forms (Psalms 1-72, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, pp. 27-28).

More to come …

Dear God, Please Kill Babies. Amen.:Imagine A Cross-less World

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on December 7, 2009 by Jeff

This series so far:

As I continue to try to make some sense of the ever-disturbing Imprecatory Psalms and their conflicted relationship to the teachings of Jesus, I come to another point which needs to be made in order to be sure that we have looked at this issue from all angles. However, as with my last post, I don’t think that any of the points that I have made (or will make) completely smooth out the difficult and disturbing aspects of these psalms. Rather than reconciling everything neatly and nicely so that I can tie a nice bow on these parts of scripture and consider myself done with them, the considerations that I am outlining here have enabled the tension and apparent conflict between these psalms and the teachings of Jesus to dwell peacefully in my mind. In other words, these considerations are what keeps these psalms from damaging my faith in spite of the tension that I continue to recognize. After all, we don’t have to have all of our questions settled in order for our faith to be real, and all parts of scripture don’t have to fit neatly together in order for our faith to be informed.

A Christian must keep in mind when reading these psalms that they were written before the cross.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to dismiss the Old Testament’s relevance for modern Christians. I agree with the following assessment by Al Maxey, found here:

As for the tired argument that the inspired writings of the Old Covenant are not for those living under the New Covenant, that is simply not even consistent with the writings of the NT canon itself, which appeal to the OT documents countless times in order to illustrate and illuminate the principles and precepts of our Lord for His Church. Decades after the day of Pentecost, the apostle Paul informed the evangelist Timothy that the “sacred writings are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). He then immediately states, “ALL Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (vs. 16-17). To the brethren in Rome the apostle Paul wrote, “Whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

While I don’t discount the Old Testament’s relevance for today, I do think that the world changed dramatically at the cross. It is difficult for those of us on this side of the cross to remove ourselves from everything we have known and get into the mind of someone that lived long before that wonderful and horrible day. However, in order to make some sense of the imprecatory psalms we must do just that.

Imagine your life without the Gospel. No Jesus; no nativity; no Sermon on the Mount; no cross; no empty tomb; no ascension; no Pentecost (at least of the Acts 2 variety); no New Testament. Imagine having no assurance of a final righting of all wrongs; no expectation of a new heavens and new earth in which the effects of Edenic sin are reversed.

Don’t you think that the absence of these Christian hopes would affect your attitude towards fellow sinners? Don’t you think it would affect your attitude towards your present sufferings and injustice?

Without the clear picture of God’s justice provided in the life and death of Christ and the apostles, I would most certainly feel a greater desire to enforce my own brand of justice. Without the teachings of the New Testament on the blessings that can be associated with suffering, I would be less willing to submit to it. Without a Christ hanging on a Cross, I would be less likely to turn the other cheek.

God spoke of his ultimate justice and grace and the eventual righting of all wrongs in the Old Testament, to be sure. However, what was revealed only in shadows before the Cross is now revealed to us in flesh and blood. Our worldview is, therefore, completely different from that of those before the world was turned upside down by the God-Man and his followers.

As I look at the curses and violence in the Imprecatory Psalms, I remember that they were cries from a man living in a world that had not been given the same picture of hope that ours has. This realization at the very least gives me pause in my judgment of the psalmist.

At least two more considerations yet to come. Stay tuned.

Dear God, Please Kill Babies. Amen.: Justice Is At The Core

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on December 2, 2009 by Jeff

This series so far:
Dear God, Please Kill Babies. Amen. (or, my thoughts on the Imprecatory Psalms)

The first factor that I think we need to keep in mind as we read these psalms of cursing and anger is that, at their core, these psalms are pleas for justice to be done and righteousness to be triumphant. There is absolutely nothing inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus in that desire.

Jesus, in Luke 18:1-8, told the following story:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’ ”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

Notice the number of times the Lord mentioned justice. The core point of this parable was that we should be persistent in prayer. However, I think it is more than a coincidence that the subject of the prayers used in the illustration was justice. Perhaps that is because justice is a legitimate concern of God’s and a legitimate topic for prayer. Jesus’ reassurance that God is concerned about justice for his people (vv. 7-8) confirms this.

Also, Revelation 6 paints a picture of Christian martyrs crying out to God for justice and, yes, vengeance.

They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (v. 10)

Additional passages could be listed, but the point stands – the desire for justice and even vengeance are not inconsistent with the spirit and teachings of Jesus, and this is the fundamental desire behind the cries in the imprecatory psalms.

I realize that this point alone still does nothing to address the specific things that are said in the imprecatory prayers that are so shocking and offensive. While I can understand the godliness of desiring justice being godly, I still can’t understand how praying for our enemies to suffer a slow, torturous death while watching their children do the same is in any way consistent with the teachings of Jesus on how we are to think about our enemies. These psalms seem to go beyond the fundamental desire for justice into other, darker, territory.

So while this consideration alone still leaves the greatest questions unanswered, we can’t move on in our consideration of these difficult portions of scripture until we understand it.

Once again: At their core, these psalms are about a desire for justice and the triumph of righteousness, which is a godly desire.

I will continue with another consideration tomorrow (hopefully).

Dear God, Please Kill Babies. Amen. (or, my thoughts on the Imprecatory Psalms)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on December 2, 2009 by Jeff

If you were to ask the average Christian what the Psalms are about, I suspect that she would likely answer praise, comfort, peace, etc. The psalms encourage us, inspire us, and comfort us. They ease our pain and stress, sending us into green pastures and loving arms, even when our lives are in very dark places. As a spiritual caregiver to the sick, dying, and grieving, I refer to the psalms more than any other part of Scripture for this very reason.

As examples of the comfort offered by the psalms, consider the following:

You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations.

You sold your people for a pittance,
gaining nothing from their sale. …

Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.

But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals
and covered us over with deep darkness. …

Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.

Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?

We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.

Rise up and help us;
redeem us because of your unfailing love.
~Psalm 44:11f, 14, 18f, 23-26

Can you feel the peace coming over you? I sure can! Let’s look at another one:

Appoint an evil man to oppose [my enemy];
let an accuser stand at his right hand.

When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
and may his prayers condemn him.

May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.

May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.

May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven from their ruined homes.

May a creditor seize all he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.

May no one extend kindness to him
or take pity on his fatherless children.

May his descendants be cut off,
their names blotted out from the next generation.

May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD;
may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.

May their sins always remain before the LORD,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.
Psalm 109:6-15

I have never felt so encouraged in all my life!! Now lets close with praise:

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us-

he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:8-9

OK, so all of the psalms aren’t as positive and uplifting as we may like to think after all. In fact, some of them seem downright cruel, hateful, and (dare I say) ungodly! These are known as the “Imprecatory Psalms,” and there are several of them (7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137, and 139). This label comes from the word “imprecate,” which means “to invoke evil upon; to curse.” So they are psalms which are about cursing or calling for evil to come upon another. Perhaps C.S. Lewis put it best (as is often the case) when he said,

In some of the Psalms, the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth. (Reflections on the Psalms, p. 20)

So they strike us on the surface as being all that we believe is opposed to godliness. This impression is only bolstered when we look at the teachings of Jesus. Consider the following:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Jesus, Matthew 5:44).

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Jesus, Luke 6:27-28).

If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head (Jesus, as quoted by Paul, Romans 2:20).

The tension between the psalms and the teachings of Jesus are truly perplexing. I’m not sure that I have it worked out in an air-tight way just yet. However, I have come to realize a few things about these psalms which help me to make sense of their place in Scripture and even see some applicable principles that can be gleaned from their presence in Scripture. In my next few posts, I’ll go through some of the things that help me as I try to make sense of the imprecatory psalms.

Until I get to my next post, I am curious to know how others make sense of them. Please share in the comments.