She had been an active youth leader in her church until extremely painful life events assaulted her faith and left her, in her own words, “incapacitated, numb, and lifeless.”
More of Her Story
She continued: “The shame associated with my divorce made it difficult for me to leave my home, impossible to pray, let alone attend or enjoy a traditional church service. There was too much hurt, and disappointment that God had not protected me from such a painful experience.” Compounding her tragedy, she could find no Adventist programs of help. There may have been some, but she couldn’t find any.
Her note to me continued: “It has taken years to be able to return to prayer, Bible study, and regular church life. I owe that mainly to the love, support, and prayers of my church family and close friends who never stopped checking in on me, even when my church attendance was sporadic at best. I am grateful for online church. I found a small-group Bible study that let me be a part of them and did not require me to participate. I floated on their faith, their prayers, their hope, when my own faith was on life support. Friendship has been the salve to heal my faith wounds.”
It isn’t always clear, to us humans at any rate, who is on which side. Speaking of the group she found, my friend said, “They saved me.” She loves her church, and says so. But it was not her church that she spoke of when she said, “They saved me.” It was just a bunch of Bible-studying youth who apparently loved and supported everyone who came along.
I have wondered much since hearing that story. Did her group all live up to the standards of her church? I do not know. Neither does she. But she knew whose side they were on.
Being right, rather than left, or wrong, perhaps, is very important to the little or grand binary conceptions of Christian moral reality (what else is there?). So we turn to Jesus often enough to resolve the problem of “sides” as we encounter it. Sure, we turn to Him because He knows everything: “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” reside in Him (Col. 2:3, NIV). And yes, we turn to Him because He can do everything: He is the “Lord God Almighty” (Rev. 19:6, NIV)—stated more mightily for some in the King James Version: “the Lord God omnipotent.” But sometimes we’re particularly glad because His omniscience and omnipotence will prove that we are right, or at any rate that I am, and they are not.
Now, our turning to Jesus is no guarantee that the problem that brings us to Him so desperately needs resolution. Or that a problem truly exists; or that Jesus Himself thinks of it as a problem. We have been known to turn to Him for answers because of our philosophical ignorance, exposed by His responses, if not by the questions themselves: there’s Peter, interested in justice, or rather, fairness, or reasonableness, or spiritual realism, perhaps, inquiring, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matt. 18:21).
And there’s the Sadducees, who deny the resurrection, probing with “Teacher, Moses said that if . . .” (Matt. 22:2, NIV). Their introduction indicates their point of departure: it is sacred writing, the word of the Lord through His servant Moses. Planted on this firm foundation, they launch their assault on truth in the form of a question on something they see as problematic. Their dilemma? Seven brothers, following Moses, successively marry a woman. None of these seven marriages is blessed with children, the Lord’s heritage (see Ps. 127:3). This detail, though incidental to them, is crucial to their question. The frustrations of barrenness or impotence; the bitterness of emotional loss bereaved survivors in the family must continue to suffer; the anxiety of successive spouses haunted by biology and mortality, and damned by the fate of their failed and faded siblings—such matters are of nothing but neutral consequence to them. These matters do count, but only for the validation of their question. The Sadducees’ real care is allegedly about what happens at the resurrection: if in this life a woman successively loses seven husbands in death, then, “in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had her” (Matt. 22:28, NKJV).
The Holy Spirit has already explained to readers the true interest of these questioners. They have approached Jesus after the Pharisees, a rival Jewish leadership group, has challenged Jesus and failed “to trap him in his words” (verse 15, NIV). Trapping Jesus in His words now would be its own sensational accomplishment. It would also mean that their “side” went one better than the Bible-obsessed Pharisees. But theirs is a strategy devoid of all virtue. Their trivialization of pain and suffering as incidental betrays their disconnection from human compassion. And the insensitivity heard in their phrasing exposes the disgrace of their effort just as well. Their rhetorical climax is not about the unsatisfied, God-implanted craving to have a baby of one’s own, or about a woman numb from the unimaginable grief of losing her husband again, six times again. It is not about the misery of knowing that this one poor woman has had to bury seven husbands. Rather, it is the declaration “They all had her.”
Jesus is not to be boxed in by any of our logical premises.
The Sadducees’ sharp focus on some conceivably intellectually titillating hypothetical question, with the wretched blindness that attends it, is a warning on the potential imbalance of scales of rightness among the most proper and Christian of humans, a comment on the undying yearning to be on the side that wins. For our noble interest in standing “for the right [not the left, or the wrong] though the heavens fall”1 is capable of inspiring its own disastrous alignments, if only by implication of the labels we wear on our sleeves or paint across our placards: the 47 percent of US adults who identify as pro-life2 must be dismayed by the rest of their nation’s anti-life, yea, pro-death position. And the 49 percent who are “pro-choice”? They must surely be outraged that in the land of the free and the home of the brave they live the damnation of coexistence with citizenry willing to submit to tyranny and dictatorship. Pollsters play games with words, we say, dismissively: they phrase questions to get the results they want. And statisticians play games with numbers, we accuse: they manipulate them to get whatever results they want, to prove whatever point they wish.
Still, our dismissals of social research and its numerology, designed to demonstrate our commitment to some transcendent accuracy, run the risk of belittling the big, of minimalizing the major point. That big, major, unyielding truth remains completely true regardless of how much manipulation may actually be practiced by pollsters answered or rebuffed, by statisticians loved or despised. The truth is that whether educated or unlettered, manipulated or tyrannized, humans can come to the place where their fellow humans, and notably, even fellow Christians, based on thoughts that differ from theirs, are identified as the adversary.
Our interest in resolving the problem of right versus left, and standing with the right though the sky caves in, is hardly whimsy: we know for a fact that God cares about our being on the right side. The vast majority of Adventist Review readers care about what God cares about. Readers who may not necessarily care about a Higher Power still cherish many good humanistic reasons for choosing better over worse. They respect the nobility of my caring God who has repeatedly stated how much right matters to Him.
Apart from His repetition, He has announced His preference in language of certainty where the consequence of choosing incorrectly is final
and drastic. In the book of Deuteronomy Moses gives Israel a summary review of their recent experience. They also hear, again, God’s exhaustive counsel for them once they enter and become established in the land long promised. As He speaks, they have already begun to occupy this land, already conquered and occupied multiple Amorite cities (Num. 21:25). But the successes of their present and the brightness of their future are conditional, something Moses urges the people to appreciate. They must make the right decision for tomorrow, not the least of reasons being that it will affect their children.
Having laid out the options before them, Moses begs, “Choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deut. 30:19, NIV). Choosing the right side matters, both for the present and ultimately: “I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse” (Deut. 11:26, NIV) is how he put it at an earlier point in his farewell communication. And Joshua, his chief lieutenant and chosen successor, will also lay the options out before the nation in his own farewell presentation. Interestingly enough, Joshua’s offer acknowledges the frustration that parents and mentors—and God, too, though overlooked—may experience because they allow their protégés to choose sides. He says: “If serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15, NIV).
What God has never required of us, though, is determining who is actually on which side in the ultimate sense of things; who deserves His affirmation or shall receive His denunciation. All of our obligation to find and know and be liberated by the truth (John 8:32) still does not give us the responsibility or even permission to consign any to heaven or hell. There is individual responsibility: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12, NIV). There are stories of miraculous doings by solo operators filled with the Holy Spirit bringing instant death on sinners by the word of their mouth (Acts 5:1-11). And there is work to do in consultation that brings rewards for consultation, for “victory is won through many advisers” (Prov. 11:14, NIV; also Prov. 15:22; 24:6).
And there is church duty: responding to the news of distorted sexual conduct by someone in the Corinthian congregation Paul admonishes: “When you are assembled . . . , hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:4, 5, NIV).
But except you personally determine yourself to be now filled with the Spirit—and you do not—neither the individual nor the team of advisers nor the church in session will ever become the arbiter of any human’s destiny. Paul enquires: “Why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt?” (Rom. 14:10, NIV). And summarizes: “Each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (verse 12, NIV).
Jesus’ interaction with His disciples is sufficiently instructive upon the idea that I can determine your side, or that you on your own may declare mine. Two small stories suffice. In the first episode the group is in Capernaum, second most featured city in Jesus’ ministry after Jerusalem. As often through the years of their discipleship, the group has been haggling about their great- and greater-ness, drawing up line-and-staff charts on superior and inferior in the imminent kingdom. As before and subsequently, Jesus exposes the stupid haggling they have tried to keep secret from Him, and tries to lay out the rules of humility, in contrast with their rules of conceit, that will actually prevail in the kingdom.
Jesus’ definition triggers John. We know him to be of the more explicitly ambitious and aggressive, still nearer to the beginning than the end of his learning curve. Jesus’ comment on humility puts him down, but does not knock him out. He of the indomitable spirit, pride, finds a comeback that will still privilege him above someone else: “ ‘Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us’ ” (Mark 9:38, NIV). John will be nonplussed by Jesus’ expansive reply: “ ‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said. ‘For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us’ ” (verses 39, 40, NIV). The Bible study group may not share your uniform, logo, T-shirt slogan, or pom-pom-practiced cheer. None of this is proof that they aren’t on the right side.
But because Jesus is not to be boxed in by any of our logical premises, the Holy Word preserves another of His life’s stories, in which He does not silence His ambitious young disciple, but rather smothers and stifles His critics. They accuse Him of working with—through the agency of—Beelzebul. To which He hurls at them multiple rejoinders all at once: 1. Beelzebul would be destroying his own kingdom then. 2. If that’s what I’m doing, then that must be what your kids are doing! 3. You may be seeing, in Me, the evidence that God’s kingdom has come to you. 4. The kingdom of evil is collapsing before My greater power! 5. Whoever is not on My side is doomed (Luke 11:14-23). Or, in the NIV statement: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (verse 23).
The reason humans can’t see, don’t know, and aren’t capable of everything is that God in His wisdom created us finite. Finitude is natural, of original sinlessness, of our God-given first state. He means for us to love and embrace it; to embrace the other who thinks and knows differently and who by that very token is a statement of sharing in my divine heritage of limitedness. Our Christian passion for moral definition has lost its way when it excludes those whom Jesus includes.
I’m wondering: Whose side are you on? Are you more familiar with your church’s fight song than with the song of the Lamb?
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.