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Friday, September 20, 2013

The Appearance of Evil

A conversation I had this morning with my brother Kevin tied in nicely with the content I’m studying about biblical hermeneutics. That’s the fancy, high-falutin’ word for interpretation. We’ve been reading about the cautions for how we interpret scripture, and pointing out some of the pitfalls of not considering the context and culture a passage was written in.

Kevin had asked me to explain the meaning of an old hymn lyric. He’s going to be performing a part of that hymn in church on Sunday, and he said (wisely, I believe) that before he sings something, he wants to know what he’s saying and make sure it’s consistent with truth. I told him he was like the Bereans, turning the pages of the scriptures to be sure that the good NEWS Paul was sharing with them was in accordance with what they already knew to be true. It was. So was the hymn lyric. But sometimes, our modern interpretations of what we think we understand create new doctrines which are not in accord with the truth. And that led us to this discussion.

Language usage changes and sometimes things that were crystal clear get obscured. That language evolution is one of the reasons why adhering rigidly to a single Bible translation, such as the KJV translation only, can sometimes be a drawback to the church. We don't understand words the same way as people did back then. One of the most messed-up examples for us today is a misapplication of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. In the KJV it is translated, "Abstain from all appearance of evil."

With our contemporary understanding and application of the word “appearance,” that sounds like a doctrine of controlling outward appearances, doesn't it? It sounds like one should somehow be able to figure out what everyone else thinks "looks like" evil, and then abstain from those things.

But that is an anti-Christian doctrine, if so. Jesus never complained about people who looked "evil" on the outside. He did, however, vehemently criticize the ones who looked GOOD on the outside when inside they were selfish, not submissive to God, greedy, oppressive, self-justifying, concerned about their own status over God’s glory or the good of those in need. Outward appearances of righteousness mean nothing to God. They even offend him greatly if they are accompanied by an unconverted or self-protective heart.

The scripture wasn't wrong. The KJV wasn't wrong. It wasn’t a bad translation—at the time. But back then, people understood "appearance" to mean "manifestation." When evil literally shows up in your presence, you abstain from it. THAT is consistent with Christianity.

You who are indwelt with the Holy Spirit are therefore holy. Use that indwelling for discernment not to disassociate and therefore appear, in the external sense, good. But use that indwelling to associate, and  rely on that indwelling to discern when to reject real evil.

Other, more modern translations use different wording for that verse, which communicates to our modern ears what it was really about. The ESV, which is very close to the KJV, says: Abstain from every form of evil. (Not just something that looks like it might be evil, but the real form of it. We have always been meant to live in the real, material, three-dimensional world, and not just the world of the mind and appearance.) And the NIV says: Reject every kind of evil.

How we hear those words today is in accord with how the original readers of the KJV would have heard the word “appearance” then.

But whole boatloads of Christians today hear that translation and apply their modern understanding to it, without comparing it back to the whole of scripture. As a result, they put on the outward appearance thing and think they are right in doing so. They let their minds be conformed to the patterns of this world in order to react to those patterns with an external response that they believe gives them an appearance of holiness. And they count on that appearance of holiness to translate to real credit for obedience in God’s eyes.

In doing so, it becomes accepted, even justified, to reject opportunities to BE the church in the radical associative ways that Jesus was, because we can think we are obeying an archaic translation, which we did not hear in the terms of the language at the time the translation was made. It's a tragic paralyzing of the church, and it’s a false gospel. We never save ourselves by trying to be approved of by the world.

If we turn the pages like the Bereans did, then we find that in the original Greek writings, there are different words used for the “outward appearance” of righteousness that Jesus condemned, and the “literal manifestation” that Paul told believers to recognize and abstain from. The KJV recognized this by attaching the word “outward” in the former case, and omitting “outward” in the latter.

Christianity is about the heart. It’s also, even before that, about the God who left glory and crossed into his creation, because he cared too much to disassociate from it. He got dirty doing so. He is the literal manifestation, the appearance, of all that is truly holy and righteous, and he associated with sinners, the dirty ones, intimately.

It didn’t look good on the outside to his critics. It looked quite evil, actually. He intentionally invited himself to the home of those known for stealing money from the people. He drank with those known for being drunk. He let women touch his body and scolded pious and self-justifying men for complaining about it and judging him. He was not unrighteous in taking the side of a woman caught “in the act” of adultery. He touched the unclean. He appeared to break Sabbath rules. He wrecked the conventional and fully accepted trade tables in the Temple. He chose on purpose to send away all his followers so that he could meet alone with a woman who needed him, at a time of day when he knew there would be no spectators, no “chaperones,” and then used that encounter to powerfully draw a community to himself through her, formerly a throw-away harlot. A dirty woman. Even the woman thought he was out of his mind to wait for and associate with her. Her own judgment of herself caused her, at first, to judge him from the outside—at first.

By filthy-looking association, he set captives free.

Those who would justify themselves by their pure outward appearances smelled of carrion to him. He called them “whitewashed tombs.” Pretty on the outside, and completely rotten on the inside. And we know from the account of his arrival at Lazarus’ tomb that such a stench made him recoil in deep emotion.

It’s always about the heart. That’s where God’s concern is. That’s what he’s interested in. That’s where he is.

And even if we say, “But I want to be sure I am above reproach,” we are deceiving ourselves. I can never, in my own outward actions, ever be above reproach. The truth is I am not, in the sense of worldly measurement, above reproach. I lost that claim at conception. The only one who is above reproach is the one who is honestly confessing his or her sins, the reason for reproach, to the one who promises to forgive and wipe clean the record. Then he is faithful and just to forgive us of all unrighteousness, and the accuser has no claim any longer, no matter what an outward appearance may look like to those who don’t know that purity exists internally, and informs and directs external behavior. It isn’t the other way around. Starting from the outside in is a false doctrine which elevates the self to god-status.

But even that isn’t hopeless. That’s the starting point for all of us. And that’s who Jesus came to "dirty himself" to save. He didn’t, like the ones condemned by the story of the Good Samaritan, cross over to the other side of the road to keep himself externally and ceremonially clean. He entered into this filth, this refuse, this carrion, to open our eyes to our false doctrine of self-justification. He causes the scales to fall off, so that in humility and utter reliance on him, in the full knowledge of his literal presence with us, we can stop worrying about what others think of our outward appearance and follow him. Follow him to associate where he calls us to do so, in full assurance that our favor with him can never be taken from us—no matter how “dirty” the mission may appear to be.

Neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation—not EVEN the mistaken interpretations of those who seek to think evil of you—can separate you from the permanent, established, forever love of God in Christ Jesus.

And that’s good news, which prompts a response.


Anonymous said...

Wow. A lot to 'sink in' from a little phone screen. I would like to compose a well thought out reply. I do not know if I am understanding the phrase correctly, but I do not believe that Jesus came to "dirty himself" if that is the case, he should have had relations with the prostitute. He was in the world, not of it

--Rebecca said...

That is a GREAT point, and definitely worthy of much more ruminating.

I probably should have put "dirty himself" in quotes, like you did, for the purpose of this piece. Because he did not, by association, literally become dirty. He was, of course, literally affected by the soil and sweat and those types of dirt of this earthly existence. The stuff he washed from his disciples' literal feet. But no, he never entered into sin and never truly dirtied himself by way of sinning. And that was not his purpose in coming.

But he was willing to APPEAR dirty in the eyes of the judgmental legalists who sought to keep themselves CEREMONIALLY clean and who thought that was what it was all about. And that was the point of my statement.

But, if we really want to think deeply into this and go further with what you've raised: what he did between Gethsemane and the cross is truly, without himself committing sin, dirtying himself by taking on the sin of the world, by BECOMING sin, as the scripture says. How can we ever understand that? How was that sin actually transferred to him so that he BECAME it in order to remove it from his beloved forever?

For 15 months, this misapplication of the KJV translation has been brewing with me, and this morning's conversation with my brother finally pushed me to write about it. Maybe another 15 (or 30, or more) months from now, writing about the transfer of sin to our pure Lord will happen. It's going to take a great deal of time thinking and praying and reading and asking him to reveal something of the supernatural nature of that before I can even hope to respond--if ever.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

--Rebecca said...

In order to help clarify, based on the first anonymous comment above, I am editing the original to put quotes around that statement. I hope that helps the real intention--that he entered into the creation and truly dwelt in it, even when that behavior offended others' sense of what "clean living" ought to look like.

Carolynn Markey said...

I'm learning a little about this from "How to read the bible for all its worth" that I am attempting to pick through right now :)

--Rebecca said...

Carolynn--It's good to hear from you again.
Are you reading independently, or are you taking classes? I remember you said in a previous comment that you hoped to go to seminary one day.

You're still in my prayers from time to time about other things too. Maybe, if you ever want to do so, you could email me an update about your life. I feel like we are friends who've never met. :)

Translate this, if you would like to
rjcandwkc (at) g mail (dot) com