Is God in Paradise?

That’s a silly question, don’t you think?  Isn’t God “our father in Heaven”? In the traditional Greek dualistic way of looking at the world, God infinitely far away from us, “up there,” in the realm of everything good and beautiful. Down here is the squalid, sinful earth that is going downhill rapidly and one day will perish.

Looking up the word “paradise,” (paradeisos in Greek), we do find that in Luke 23:43 Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he will be with him in paradise. In 2 Corinthians 12:4, Paul describes being caught up in paradise and hearing inexpressible things. So yes, it’s correct to say God is in paradise.

But interestingly, the Greek word paradeisos actually means “garden” or “park.” It’s a loan word related to pardes, a Hebrew word for garden. Solomon said that he planted himself gardens using that word. In Genesis, the Garden of Eden is “gan aden” in Hebrew, but was translated as paradeisos in the Greek Septuagint.

When we read “our father in Heaven,” in the Gospels, the Greek word is uranos, which means “sky.” I think there the contrast is between our earthly father and our heavenly Father, not really about how he is in paradise. It is to say that God is our “heavenly Father” – he truly is a loving father to us, even though we have a human one too. The word uranos, or shemayim in Hebrew is often spoken of as the realm of God – the sky is his throne, while earth is his footstool.  But the idea is not that we will go to shemayim when we die.

In Hebrew, the word they use for Heaven in that sense is Gan Aden. Another phrase they use is olam haba, meaning “the world to come.” There, the sense is that God has promised to redeem this world, so it looks forward to a perfected world, in contrast to olam hazeh, which is the present (corrupted) world. I think that it is more hopeful to speak of Heaven as olam haba, looking forward to what God is doing to restore creation, to “make all things new,” as it says in Revelation.

All that being said, I love what Isaiah 57:15 says:

I live in a high and holy place,
but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, 
to revive the spirit of the lowly 
and to revive the heart of the contrite.

There, it actually says that God also lives with the one who grieves, the one who is crushed by the burdens of life here on earth. He really dwells here too, but the place you find him most is in the squalor – the depressing places that no one wants to go.

This actually changes my perception of God. I used to think of God as happily disconnected from us here. I would ask God why we all couldn’t be happy like he is. But then it hit me that if I genuinely love someone who is hurting, I don’t live a happy life as long as they are in pain. If God is truly empathetic with his people, he really doesn’t dwell in paradise. If our goal is only to be happy, we’re asking for something that even God doesn’t have, until he brings healing and redemption to the earth. In that sense, I think God yearns for olam haba just as we do – it’s not here yet for any of us. (OK, maybe since God is eternal, he is already there. But he is also really here, where life isn’t so great.)

In Isaiah 63:9, it says, “In all their affliction, he was afflicted.” God suffers as long as his people do. He is both on his heavenly throne, but fully with us here, and the place we can most join him is in healing the hurts of others.

Published in: on September 20, 2007 at 6:37 am  Comments Off on Is God in Paradise?  

Thinking about the Days of Awe

L’Shana Tovah – Happy New Year! 

Yesterday was Rosh HaShana – the Jewish New Year. It is the biblical “Feast of Trumpets” mentioned in Leviticus 23:23 and Numbers 29:1. The tradition is to blow a shofar – a ram’s horn – with a shrill, wailing blast to signal the coming of a new year.

There are several fascinating traditions that are part of this holiday. It’s actually a somewhat solemn holiday because it begins the “10 Days of Awe” – the 10 days of waiting before the great Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. They imagine that God has his “books” open to examine the lives of everyone during this time, and whether he will reward or punish you for your past conduct in the coming year. Each day starts with the blowing of a shofar, like an alarm clock going off to wake up a person to repent of his sins.

As a Christian, I’m somewhat ambivilent about the whole idea of fearing God’s judgment. But I really love the wisdom from another recent observance. This past month was Elul, and it’s traditional to examine one’s self throughout the month and repent of your sins then too, in preparation for the Ten Days of Awe. But a common midrash (imaginative sermon) that they like to share is that the letters of the name “Elul” are aleph-lamed-vav-lamed, and these are the first letters in the phrase, “Ani l’dodi ve dodi li” – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. This is the highly romantic phrase from Song of Songs that is often carved on wedding rings. They say that Elul is the time to remove  any little sins of yours that have made a distance between you and your beloved, the Lord, and to come into a closer relationship during this time.

The traditional reading for this time is Genesis 22, the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac by Abraham. As I’ve said before, I find it amazing that they ask God to forgive them of their sins for the sake of Isaac, who was willing to lay down his life at his father’s request. They point out that the shofar reminds them of the ram that God supplied as a substitute for Isaac, and they say that part of why they blow it is to remind God of how he supplied a substitute before.

Published in: on September 14, 2007 at 8:22 pm  Comments Off on Thinking about the Days of Awe  

God Should Get the Firsts

Throughout biblical times, there was a general principle that the firstfruits of everything belonged to God. It was the most appropriate offering to give because it was understood to be the best.

What is so special about “firsts”? Obviously, the person who has first choice can choose the best. And during a bad harvest, it takes faith to believe that if you give God a cut off the top, there will be enough left over to get you through until the next year. With children, there is always a specialness about the firstborn because he or she is the one who changed your life, and made you into a parent.

WheatThis was so important that no one was allowed to eat the fruit of a field until the first offering of it had been given to God. The whole field was assumed to be set apart and holy as the fruit matured, and only after God had been given his portion could humans enjoy the fruit. The custom was widespread in ancient times, and some traditional tribes in Africa still do this.

Knowing about firsts is also important for understanding the story of Cain and Abel. Abel offers the “fat portions of the firstborn of his flock” whereas Cain just offers “some of the fruit of the ground.” (Gen. 4:3-4) Abel is wholeheartedly offering the best of the best, and Cain is begrudgingly giving the minimum. It’s no mystery why God accepted Abel’s worship and not Cain’s.

All this in mind, I’ve also been pondering this as I organize my life. I admit that whenever I have some important task like writing an article or preparing a talk, that I always ask myself if there is anything else that I need to do first. I hate little distractions of things that need to be done, so why not get them out of the way? And truthfully, if I dread writing something, it makes a great avoidance technique. By pushing the writing to the end, I can control the time I spend on it by not allowing it to take longer than the time that is remaining. (I know there are others like me out there!)

What I’m realizing now is that when I write an article or talk first thing, it is a gift to God out of my best available time. I can spend as long as is required to make it nice. I can give God an opportunity to inspire me by having moments after its done to think and pray about it again. It is like an offering of my firstfruits.

But an article or presentation that is written last thing isn’t an offering at all – it is what I’ve been compulsed to do. Its purpose is more to serve my needs than God’s — to meet a deadline, or to have a decent talk together. Usually the project comes together just fine anyhow, and God graciously gives me inspiration at the late hour. But in terms of giving God my best, I know I haven’t done it.

What would happen if I always gave God my firstfruits?

Published in: on August 23, 2007 at 9:08 pm  Comments Off on God Should Get the Firsts  

Learning from the Tzitzit

If you’ve learned much of anything about Judaism, you know about the commandment to wear tassels on the corners of one’s garments in Numbers 15:37-41, which Jewish men still do today. In Jesus’ time, tzitziyot (plural of tzitzit) were worn all the time, and some Orthodox still do. Others wear them only on prayer shawls during times of prayer and worship.I used to think they were just a silly legalism, but it turns out that they are deeply significant and are full of meaning. (I wrote about this before.) In ancient times, tassels were a sign of nobility, and blue dye a sign of priesthood. God was giving the Jews a special uniform to wear to make them stand out as his representatives, a nation of priests. He tells them that when they look at their tassels it will remind them to be obedient – since everyone knows how they’re supposed to live. What a tough thing to be told to always wear a uniform that says that you represent a holy God!

In Jesus’ time they were quite simple, but at some point a tradition of winding elaborate knots began. Various patterns in the knots and windings point to the 4 letters of God’s name, the 5 books of the Torah, the 613 commandments, etc. At one point in time the need for one blue strand was dropped when the dye became extremely expensive. (All of these details are just tradition, but they really are beautiful and wise.)

Despite all of these beautiful customs about tzitziot, one observation about them has always bugged me. Since before Jesus’ time they’ve been considered the holiest part of one’s garment (which is why the woman grasped Jesus’ tassels), and like every Jewish holy thing, they are made with great care. So why is it that they always hang down at random lengths, one or two strings much longer, the rest at all different lengths too? Considering how much emphasis that they place on beautifying God’s commands, I find this really surprising. It used to bug me every time I looked at them. I had a huge urge to go around with a scissors and give everyone a trim.

If you can’t tell, this kind of silly observation about tzitzit only comes from someone who has a problem with perfectionism – who sees things around her that need to be “corrected” and spends way too long doing everything so that it is “just so.” Who can even sacrifice the feelings of others for the sake of having things perfect, and insists on having everything her way, the only perfect way.

Then I learned a lesson by finding out more. The reason they are not trimmed is because once they are completely wound together, they become holy. A person prays before and during their making, and as they work, they are producing an object dedicated to God’s use. As soon as they are done, a scissors cannot touch them — they are to be used as they are, uneven lengths and all.

What I learned from the tzitzit is that these little objects become holy to God in all their imperfection. In all their scraggly-looking unevenness, God calls them “done.” He likes them the way they are, and doesn’t want them trimmed any more.

To me it is a lesson that holiness is not the same as earthly perfection. That once God gives us a task to do and we accomplish it, it becomes holy and special to him, warts and all. Often he even uses the warts to his glory. I think it’s just human pride to get angry at yourself for not being perfect – why do you think you even could?

Now when I look at my bathroom wallpapering job and see seams that don’t quite butt together and bumps in the wall underneath, I proclaim it good enough, beautiful as it is, and enjoy the fact that God has given me the skills to do as well as I did.

It’s very freeing to let God be perfect, and not have to be perfect myself.

Published in: on May 24, 2007 at 3:47 pm  Comments (1)  

Hebraic Thinking is that of Oral Culture

I recently heard a fascinating theory about why our modern Western culture thinks so differently than the way the Bible does. The Eastern thinking of the Old Testament in particular is very concrete and image-oriented, and it uses stories and parables to explain, rather than abstract logic. It is relational and group-oriented rather than individualistic, and it focuses on action rather than internalized belief. If you read many of the articles at, you know that you miss a lot of the most important truths of the Bible if you don’t understand the way it thinks.

In Orality and Literacy, by Walter Ong, he theorizes that the reason for the difference in our thinking is the rise of literacy in Greece in ancient times. He points out that oral communication is universal among humans, but writing is a fairly recent invention. When a culture becomes deeply literate, people’s patterns of thought completely change. He describes studies done in cultures which have never had a written language that find that they tend to be of the mindset that we call “Eastern.”

This means that the biblical, Hebraic pattern of thought is actually the more universal pattern – it is us that have changed and moved away from it! Now that I think about it, this makes sense with the fact that I’ve heard Africans, Asians and Native Americans all say that the Eastern way of thinking is actually the way that they think. Of course they are literate cultures, but they have internalized its patterns of thought less than ours has.

It is difficult for us to even imagine living without writing. In oral cultures, learning was always by direct experience, or by relationship, or by stories told within the family. One learns cooking or hunting by being with another who knows the skill, never from a book. Knowledge is never a disembodied group of facts – it always is concrete and comes from ones senses, and other people.

In our culture we are taught that learning comes through reading. But think what happens in that process: you interact with a text – a set of abstract characters, and in your mind you reconstruct what they mean. You forget about the person who wrote the text and focus only in on the concepts in your mind. You also don’t interact with anyone else with your learning – you really can’t while reading. What happens is that you are aquiring the habits of individualism, abstract thinking and internalization – all characteristics of the Western mind.

One distinctive feature of many oral cultures is the emphasis on learning by memory. In Jesus’ time, it is likely that boys memorized the Torah and much of the Scriptures by heart. Still today there is a strong emphasis on memorization among Orthodox Jews. I think this is why Jesus’ teaching is peppered with brief allusions to the Scriptures – he assumed his audience knew it all by heart, so the smallest of reference was all he needed. Rabbis still do this today.

Also, much of rabbinic commentary is done by linking together passages, noticing that one rare word is found in two important places. For instance “ve’ahavta” (and you shall love) is found in Deuteronomy 6:5 – “And you shall love the Lord your God” and it is also found in Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jewish thinkers before Jesus had connected the two passages because as they recited the words, one passage reminded them of the other. When you have it all memorized, this is easy and obvious, but if you don’t, it’s not something you’d ever guess.

Of course there are enormous advantages in literacy – you can communicate at a distance, and learn from others than those directly around you. You can construct lengthy, complex chains of reasoning that you couldn’t without something to write it down as you go. Despite the advantages of literacy, I wonder if our loss of memory has disconnected us with Jesus too.

Published in: on May 22, 2007 at 8:28 am  Comments Off on Hebraic Thinking is that of Oral Culture  

Faith as Taking the Third Option

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Hebrews 11:17-18

Recently I heard a wonderfully Hebraic definition of “faith” from a woman who has been a missionary in Nigeria for many years, and has picked up the Eastern way of thinking.

Remember the story of Abraham – God had promised to make a great nation of him, and had miraculously given him a son after he had waited faithfully for many years. Once Isaac was born, he must have breathed a sigh of relief when he saw how God’s promise finally had a chance to move forward. Then, shockingly, God seems to thwart the plan that took him so long to get going – he tells Abraham to offer up Isaac to him as a sacrifice!

The tension in those two options seems enormous – on the one hand, Abraham is supposed to raise up a family of faithful followers to God; on the other hand Abraham is supposed to destroy the only chance he has to do that. And on top of that, commit murder, and sacrifice a child, something God calls abhorrent later in the Bible. What in the world would you do in that situation?

The missionary woman talked about how Abraham took the third option – of simply walking in obedience, and clinging to the fact that he knows that God is good and able to do all things. He didn’t know what would happen as he and Isaac climbed the mountain together. Somehow Abraham knew that God could accomplish the seemingly impossible and give Isaac back to him, perhaps even resurrecting him from the dead. (Hebrews 11:19)

Abraham had two mutually conflicting options, and held onto both of them, and knew only God could allow him to do both. In the same way, this woman talked about how the Muslims who turn to Christ are presented with death threats and hate from their families, and they go through seemingly impossible options. Should they move away and protect their lives in order to raise their families, or stay and be witnesses? If they are persecuted, should they ask the government to punish their tormentors so that conditions will improve for Christians in their land, or should they simply turn the other cheek?

Honestly, I really struggle with taking the path of the “third option,” and I’m not always sure that God wants us to do the extremely dangerous thing, expecting him to save us. Jesus himself hid from those wanting to take his life. But I heard this woman tell story after story of deliverance, when people opt for the “third option.”

I admit that I got upset with Corrie Ten Boom’s sister Betsy (in The Hiding Place) who when asked by the Gestapo officer in her kitchen where they were hiding Jews, answered him truthfully, “under the table.” They had a potato cellar under their rug, and the Jewish man was inside it. In the story, the officer yanked the tablecloth off the table and didn’t think to look at the rug.

I actually struggle with Betsy’s need to be truthful when she was putting the life of another at risk. (I wrote about this before.) The rabbis point out that there is another commandment that she should have been aware of – “Do not stand by when your brother’s blood is being shed” (Lev. 19:16), and in their thinking, the command to save life trumps the command not to lie. And I think of the fact that by helping her family forge or steal ration cards, she hadn’t been “truthful” according to the law, but now, she insists on doing something that could cost another his life. I know it shows her integrity, but now???

And yet, the Lord honored her by not allowing her to be caught in her effort of chosing the difficult “third option” of pleasing Him. Wow.

What strikes me is that when people dare to take the “third option” of faith when all seems impossible, that is when God does the greatest miracles.

Published in: on May 16, 2007 at 7:14 am  Comments Off on Faith as Taking the Third Option  

Having Coffee with the Lord

Last summer I was in Israel for five weeks – it was my fifth time of visiting the Land. I wasn’t entirely surprised to experience something that I had felt before there – a sense of spiritual dryness and the lack of closeness to God, because my prayer life was sporadic.

I’ve heard other people complain about the same thing. Many people expect to powerfully and continuously encounter God as soon as they step off the plane in Israel. Instead, their prayer life is disrupted when their time fills up with the small needs of travel – organizing their suitcases, washing socks, chatting with new friends, and being short on sleep. At home they might have a regular quiet time, but it gets pushed aside for all the demands of the trip. A person needs to be intentional about carving out time for prayer, and it’s much harder when you’re traveling.

At home, my tradition is to crawl out of bed and head straight to the coffee maker, to brew up some Jack’s Blend. While the coffee is dripping, I turn on my laptop and get out my Bible. Those hours at my breakfast table have been golden – hovering over a big stack of books and my Accordance program – thinking, writing, praying. On Saturdays they often stretch until lunch time, with me still in my PJ’s.

Some summers, when I’ve taken Hebrew courses, I’ve had a tradition with my roomie Mary Okkema of brewing up hot water for instant coffee and tea with the electric teapot that is standard issue in nice hotel rooms in Israel. We would sit on our beds and sip from our cups while reading our Bibles and journaling. But what can you do if the room doesn’t come with a teapot? I actually bought a 220 V travel-sized Israeli teapot in a Jerusalem appliance store last year.

Last summer I had a lovely experience that just reinforced the need to be intentional about that. It was after I had been there several weeks and experiencing the usual dry, sporadic prayer life. We stayed overnight at Ein Gev, a beautiful hotel on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, and my balcony overlooked the water.

I happily brewed up the water in the standard-issue teapot and didn’t wait for it to cool from boiling before pouring it in my cup. It was so hot that I poured milk in to the very brim, and carefully walked over to the balcony with my over-full, boiling hot mug of coffee. I stood there gently blowing on the surface to cool it down. The scenery was so beautiful and calm, I felt like the Lord had come to enjoy the morning with me.

Then I opened my Hebrew-English Bible to the first page, and read the first lines once again.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters…

This line caught me as I looked again at the Hebrew word for “moving” – merehefet. The word is special – it means to flutter or tremble or hover, as a bird’s wings do. Many people have pointed out that our picture of the Holy Spirit is of a dove, and it is as if the Holy Spirit was hovering over the waters like a bird hovers over its brood in the nest, ready for life to begin.

But that morning I thought of a different aspect of the word – that merehefet also means to tremble or shiver, and that ruach can mean wind, spirit, or breath. As I was mulling over this sentence, I was blowing on my coffee. I looked down at my mug, and it hit me that I was trembling or shivering the surface of my coffee with my breath. I wonder if that isn’t actually the picture there – God was rippling the surface of the water with his breath.

The picture I get now from that line is that God was ready to give his first great command, “Let there be light” and his presence and breath are felt very powerfully, before he even speaks. Like when you turn a microphone up to the maximum, so that even when you breath near it, everyone can hear it.

And then I looked up at the Sea of Galilee rippling with the wind.

Hmmm… the coffee… the sea… the first waters of creation…

It felt like the Lord was saying, “You start your day by blowing on your coffee. I started my first day of creation by blowing on the waters of the deep.” I felt humbled that the Lord would sit down beside me and enjoy the early morning with me, and share this lovely imagery with me.

Ever since then, I’ve been intentional about enjoying the morning’s coffee with the Lord.

Published in: on May 4, 2007 at 6:49 am  Comments Off on Having Coffee with the Lord  

Singing in the Rain

As is typical in the midwest in the Spring, it is rainy today, as it was yesterday too. Our area is really beautiful right now when it’s sunny — our yards are green and our tulips are coming out — so many people would say, “Rain, rain, go away…”So I was really fascinated to read that in Jewish thought, rain is a great blessing. Of course in Israel, where for six months no rain falls at all, a person appreciates it more. Here is a good article, Rain in Jewish Tradition. One quote it shares is, “The sending of rain is an event greater than the giving of the Torah. The Torah was a joy for Israel only, but rain gives joy to the whole world, including birds and animals, as it is said: ‘You take care of the earth and irrigate it.’ (Psalm 65:10)”

I enjoyed the comment that the rabbi made that a rainy day is a good day for prayer – God is in a good mood to give out gifts, so you might as well bring your requests then too!

This simple change in attitude has actually made a big difference in my daily mood. I used to use the weather as a chronic source of complaint, whenever it didn’t perfectly suit me. I realized that what I had been doing is saying in effect, “God wasn’t faithful today – he didn’t show up to please me!” Besides accusing God, it also made me feel like God was distant and unconcerned about my life. My complaining colored the whole day, and I was missing the fact that God was actually giving me a great gift in the form of rain.

Jesus also knew that rain was a good thing. He even points out that it teaches us that we should love our enemies. He says, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:44-45) People probably read the rain God sends as a bad thing, but Jesus meant that God gives good gifts to all humanity, sinners included.

Published in: on May 1, 2007 at 5:46 am  Comments Off on Singing in the Rain  

What Did Jesus Mean by, "Do Not Judge"?

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2[This article is the April En-Gedi Monthly Article. If you are interested in receiving them by emial, sign-up online at ] (1)

What did Jesus mean by “do not judge?” This is one of those sayings of Jesus that can be unclear. It is can sound like Jesus is saying to look the other way when you see sin. From everything else that Jesus says, Christians know he couldn’t be suggesting that we show no discernment, but we still struggle to find a way to sort out wrong but never actually call it that, so that we don’t judge. While Jesus’ demands are high, we can give up trying to follow them if they don’t make sense to us.

An alternative is to listen to some of the discussions going on among others in Jesus’ culture, and see if they can shed some light on his words. Interestingly, other rabbis of Jesus’ time taught ideas close to this concept of “do not judge.” While their words do not have the authority of Jesus’, and we need to be discerning about our conclusions, they have some good ideas that Jesus may have been expanding on in his teaching on judging. Personally, the insights I have found in the rabbinic context have made it one of the most important commands that Jesus gave, which applies to my life every day.

Judging Others FavorablyWe can find some of the discussion of Jesus’ contemporaries in the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish sayings which was written about two hundred years after Jesus but includes teachings from Jesus’ time and before. The most important reference was from a rabbi who lived over a hundred years before Jesus who said, “Judge everyone with the scales weighted in their favor.” (Yehoshua ben Perechia, Avot 1:6) In a later source, the Babylonian Talmud, it says “He who judges his neighbor favorably will be judged favorably by God.” (Shabbat 127a). It is interesting to see how reminiscent this is of Jesus’ saying, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” To “judge in favorable terms” was considered as important as visiting the sick and devotion in prayer, and teaching the Scriptures to your children! A story was told to illustrate the point:

A man went to work on a farm for three years. At the end of
this time, he went to his employer and requested his wages
so that he could go home and support his wife and children.
The farm owner said to him, “I have no money to give you!”

So he said to him, “Well, give me some crops I’ve helped
grow.” The man replied, “I have none!”

“Well then, give me some of the goats or sheep, that I’ve
helped to raise!” And the farmer shrugged and said that he
had nothing he could give him. So the farm hand gathered
up his belongings and went home with a sorrowful heart.

A few days later his employer came to his house with all of
his wages along with three carts full of food and drink. They
had dinner together and afterward the farm owner said to
him, “When I told you I had no money, what did you
suspect me of?”

“I thought you had seen a good bargain and used all your
cash to buy it.” Then he said “What did you think when I
said that I had no crops?”

“I thought perhaps they were all leased from others.” He
then said, “What did you think when I said I had no animals?”

“I thought that you may have dedicated them all to the
Temple.” The farmer answered him, “You are right! My son
wouldn’t study the Scriptures, and I had rashly vowed all of
my possessions to God in my prayers for my son. But, just a
couple days ago, I was absolved of the vow so that now I
can pay you. And as for you, just as you have judged me
favorably, may the Lord judge you favorably!” (2)

This story has elements in it of not condemning another, and also a parallel of, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Could this enlighten us to the gist of what Jesus is saying? The idea from the text is that the hired hand always gave the employer the benefit of the doubt, by imagining the best possible motivation for his actions that otherwise seemed suspicious. This is exactly what the rabbis meant by always judging a neighbor favorably.

This seems like a nice thought, but hardly an earth-shaking interpretation of Jesus’ words. But, what if we applied it to our own lives, what would happen? Just imagine going to church one morning and all the choices you make in deciding how to react to the situations around you.

• On the way there, a car passes you on the road and cuts you off. Why? The driver is has no regard for speed laws! He is just trying to impress people!
or, maybe the driver is late for something, or his kids are driving him crazy.

• In church you are told to greet the people around you, but the woman in front of you was obviously avoiding you, trying not to make your acquaintance. Why? She is obviously a snob and you didn’t dress well enough today!
or, maybe she is new to this church or uncomfortable meeting people.

• A woman asks you afterward about the surgery she had heard that you had. Why? She is a busybody who just wants to put her nose in your business!
or, maybe she genuinely worries about others, and wants to share your burdens.

In almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good motivation or a bad motivation behind other people’s behavior. The way we interpret others’ motivations has a profound effect on our reactions toward others. This idea of the rabbis to “judge favorably” certainly was a great one, even if it isn’t exactly what Jesus said.

Imagine another scenario, where a “worship war” has broken out in a congregation, with the older members want to sing hymns and the younger members want a rock band. Typically, the older people say things like, “They have no appreciation for the richness of hymns – they only want to be entertained!” And, the youth say, “The old folks don’t care about reaching the lost – they just want to do things the same old way!”

What would happen if each group stopped assigning negative motivations to the other group? What if the “hymns only” group started saying, “Maybe the younger members of our church think that they can bring new meaning to the service by putting it in their own words…” And what if the “rock band” enthusiasts started saying, “Maybe the older members find more meaning in what’s familiar rather than in what sounds strange to them…” How long would the conflict last in that church? How long would it be before both groups would try their best to love and accommodate each other?

Interestingly, Jewish culture even up to the present day has tried to instill in its people the ethic to “judge favorably.” There is a Jewish group that meets simply to practice finding ways to give the benefit of the doubt when it appears someone has done something unkind. They reflect on hurts in their lives and then propose ways to excuse the perpetrator. For example, when one of them didn’t receive an invitation to a wedding, they would say, “Perhaps the person was under the impression that they had already sent an invitation,” or, “Perhaps they couldn’t afford to invite many people.”(3) One Jewish website called, “The Other Side of the Story” is filled with stories of situations where a person looked liked he was doing wrong, but then turned out to be innocent.(4) The point is simply to teach others the importance of judging favorably.

Jesus’ words, “Do Not Judge”Even though the rabbis’ words are wise, they aren’t exactly what Jesus said. How does Jesus teaching about “do not judge” compare? Personally, I think that Jesus was starting with what the other rabbis taught, and then increasing the challenge. His audience already knew about judging favorably, from a hundred years before him. The famous rabbi Hillel who lived shortly before Jesus said, “Judge not your fellow man until you yourself come into his place.” (Avot 2:5) His idea was that we shouldn’t judge because don’t have full knowledge of another’s life experience. You can’t know if someone struggles with depression or some wounding in their past. Hillel’s idea is a step closer to what Jesus said, and it shows that the discussion of “judging” was still going in Jesus’ time.

But, Jesus’ reasoning is different even from Hillel’s. He was a realist who knows what humans are like. Given what we know about human nature, we expect that people will sin willfully and intentionally. At some point it will be undeniable that a person’s intention was evil, and we can’t pretend that it wasn’t. Jesus points out that our response must be to remind ourselves of our own sinful hearts—the only hearts we really can know. When we realize that we are sinners ourselves, we know that we can’t demand judgment on others. We need to put aside condemnation and extend mercy instead, if we want God to have mercy on us. As Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…For with the measure you use, it will be measured out to you.” (Luke 6:35-38)

Instead of saying, “Judge favorably,” perhaps Jesus would have said, “Judge mercifully! Do everything you can to extend mercy to others.”

Obviously, this not saying to avoid having discernment. We can discern whether an action or an outward attitude is wrong. According to Paul, the church is also obligated to discipline sinful practice among its members (1 Cor. 5:1-5). And if the wrong is committed against us personally, Jesus tells us to show the person his sin in hopes of his being repentant so that we can forgive. (Matt 18:15-17) Also, in Leviticus 19:17-18 it says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”

While we can discern sin in practice, only God knows the whole motive of the heart, so we need to leave final judgment up to him. To judge another is to presume to have both the knowledge and authority of God himself. So when we are in a situation where we are tempted to condemn another, we need to step back and hand it up to the Lord, and remind ourselves that that is his job and not ours. If we want God’s mercy, we need to be merciful. As James says, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12)

Applying these words to our lives

I find that actually both the rabbis’ words and Jesus’ words are extremely useful in my life every day. My attitude toward others becomes more loving when I assume the best, rather than the worst about people. If was able to always “judge favorably,” it would be impossible to have a critical or cynical spirit towards others. I’d start saying things like, “Maybe she was short tempered today because of problems at home.” When I had an argument with a friend, I’d assume that she felt that her opinion made sense and should be defended. When I hear a negative attitude toward my faith, I’d say, “That person must have had some bad experiences in the past with Christians in order to make him feel that way.” It is a lot easier to reach out in love when I let God judge other people’s motivations, and not do it myself.

Even when people are clearly in the wrong, we can still extend mercy to them by giving them as much benefit of the doubt as possible. For instance, if someone has sinned against me, it is a lot easier to forgive after I’ve said, “Maybe she didn’t realize how very hurtful her actions would be to me….” It often helps when you confront sin too. Imagine that a man in your Bible study is becoming involved with his secretary. You might say, “Herb, I know Sue is attractive and you have worked long hours together! And you and Helen have had your difficulties and you need someone to talk to. But for whatever reason you’ve gotten involved, you need to think of your commitment to Helen.” By being merciful by giving someone the benefit of the doubt even when he is clearly in the wrong, you can more easily suggest that he change.

Other Ways of Judging

If judging (or judging negatively) is defined as believing the worst about others, it includes many other types of hurtful behavior. All insults are forms of judgment. If I like a woman who is assertive, I’ll describe her as “bold and self-assured.” But if I don’t, I’ll judge her negatively by calling her “arrogant and loud-mouthed.” A man may simply be uninformed, but when I call him “stupid” or “clueless,” I’ve judged him negatively. James says, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother judges his brother.” (James 4:11) If you think about it, gossip relies heavily on judgment. People who love to gossip usually have a habit of looking for wrongdoing in a person’s life in order to share it with others. Criticism, cynicism, and complaining are all based on searching out the negative everywhere we can find it.

Negative judgments are particularly toxic to marriage relationships. In the book Blink,(5) Malcolm Gladwell describes a study of married couples that examined at the rate of divorce compared to the attitudes that the couple showed toward each other in interviews five or ten years earlier. The interviewers looked at dozens of variables, but found only one factor that could almost surely predict divorce—an attitude of contempt. When one or both partners habitually spoke to the other with disdain or disgust, even in the most subtle ways, the marriage was often moving toward a break up. If you think about it, contempt is the end product of condemnation, which comes from a history of judging unfavorably and without mercy. It is a way of saying, “I have reached my verdict, and there is nothing good in you.”

People who struggle with chronic anger can often find the root of their problem in looking for something wrong in other peoples’ actions—by their own act of judging negatively. If you think about it, anger always involves an accusation of sin. If you invite someone to an important meeting and it’s ruined because they missed it, you may be upset about the failed meeting, but you won’t get angry if they just had car trouble. But if you discover that they didn’t come because they simply had no respect for your position and didn’t want to make the effort, then you get angry. Next time you are angry, ask yourself what sin you are accusing the other person of. Then remember that Jesus says that you are a sinner too – and you can’t ask God for his mercy if you won’t be merciful to someone else!

Christians would do well to focus more on judging favorably and extending mercy – both ways of showing God’s grace. We’ll find that over time, it really has the potential to transform our personalities to be more like Christ. To hear Jesus one more time,

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge,
and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will
not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure,
pressed down, shaken together and running over, will
be poured into your lap. For with the measure
you use, it will be measured to you.” Luke 6:35-38


(1) This essay was based on articles originally published in February 2002 & February 2003, with some new reflections on the topic.(2) B. Talmud, Shabbat 127a

(3) J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (c) 2000, Bell Tower, New York, ISBN 0609603302, p. 35.

(4) Find other links on judging favorably in En-Gedi’s article section on Jewish Ethics.

(5) M. Gladwell, Blink (c) 2005, Little, Brown & Co, New York, ISBN 9780316172325, pp. 30-34.

Published in: on April 20, 2007 at 1:05 pm  Comments Off on What Did Jesus Mean by, "Do Not Judge"?  

Learning from Sasha, the Dog

But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind. Job 12:7-10

Next door to me lives a man with schizophrenia, who is mild-mannered and friendly when he is feeling well, but on other days can be heard shouting, “I will KILL God! God deserves to DIE!”

I guess he was fine until his late twenties – he had a fiance, and had made some money and bought a house, and then the mental illness came on and life fell apart. When he first moved in by me, ambulances frequently rushed to his house – he has poorly regulated diabetes too. Now he seems to have been able to hit a better phase of life – he’s had a few roommates over the years, but now lives by himself. He has a job at Kandu (the sheltered workshop in our area) and the Dial-A-Ride bus rolls down our block each day to pick him up and drop him off.

Everyday when he goes out to the bus, he walks backward, still facing his house, wildly waving at the window, shouting, “Sasha, you’ll be OK – I’ll be home soon! I’ll be back!” His little boston terrier is the focus of his life. Most of the time he is home, he walks her up and down the sidewalks of our neighborhood. Sometimes he curses at the dog too, but she seems unfazed by it. Sasha loves him to death.

What I find amazing is that God seems to have taught the animals something that we humans haven’t yet learned – long-term loyalty and simple, unjudgmental affection. A dog doesn’t care how you smell or look or act, and it won’t file for divorce or tell you it needs to date other owners. A dog just knows how to be faithful, and that’s all it knows.

I’ve gotten more sensitive to the brokenness of the world nowadays because I have more friends who are single moms and know more folks living together. The thing that pains me most is seeing children in that situation. Normal life is being shuttled back and forth between step families, eating every meal from the drive-thru, changing schools every time Mom or Dad moves in with a different person.

One Jewish writer pointed out that the word that we translate “orphan” in the Bible actually means “fatherless” – a child of a single-parent home. In biblical times, a family without a father was impoverished because there was no way for a woman to support herself and her children. But this writer points out that even though these times are better financially, we actually have an enormous number of “orphans” now – children of single parents, or even just brushed aside because of parents too pre-occupied with money or acheivement.

I find it shocking that a whole generation is growing up with no model of a stable home life. They have no expectation that they will marry someone and commit the rest of their lives to their spouse and family. Of course I have great sympathy for my friends who have gone through divorce and are single-moms – I drove a friend’s son to school even this morning. But it sad to see brand new young fathers who think that playing video games and partying is more important than their own children. They’ve never experienced it any other way.

James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” I never thought about how this applies to my single friends and their children, but now I see that God calls us to reach out to them as much as he has the widows and orphans of ages past.

Published in: on April 19, 2007 at 7:24 am  Comments Off on Learning from Sasha, the Dog