The Problem of Evil


I wrote this post on Thursday, and was about to post it this afternoon when I heard of the horrible attacks in Paris.  I debated whether or not I should wait and post it later, in honor of the dead but I feel the best way to honor them is to call for an end of violence in the physical realm.  Here is what I wrote.

Usually in any discussion of pacifism, after I’ve laid out my reasoning about the image of God in all of us and our role as care-taker I get my first real objection. It starts out with some crazy scenario about, what I would do if a man had a gun to my wife’s head and said if I didn’t kill him or somebody else he would kill her and then me. What do we do with the truly evil people in the world?

evilhappyfaceIn order to answer that question we first must understand the origins of evil.

Evil entered the world in Genesis 3.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” [Genesis 3:1]

Satan, (Hebrew for The Adversary) represented here as a snake begins by asking questions, seeding doubt and leading astray. So the first thing you must understand about evil is that it lies. The answer to the serpent’s question should quite simply have been no. No, God did not say you couldn’t eat from any tree in the garden, he warned not to eat from a specific tree. And that specific tree is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

It’s the one word and that very important distinction that many people miss. Good and evil exist there is nothing we can do about that. So, why is it that God does not want us to have any knowledge of good and evil?

Because we can’t handle it!

God is Love. He created us out of love. What parent wants their child to know anything other than pure love? To know good and evil is to know pain, shame and judgement. God didn’t want us to know any of that so out of love he forbade it. Satan came along and made it seem like Eve was missing out on some great mystery of life, that by learning about good and evil she would someone be greater and have a fuller life. That was a heinous lie.

Think back to your childhood, before you knew the world could be a harsh and nasty place. Life was a great idyllic utopia of perfection. You were safe in the knowledge that your parents loved you and only wanted the best for you. Then something happened, maybe you discovered a friend who didn’t have the same kind of you life you had, they couldn’t afford the after school program or didn’t have a dad at home. How did that make you feel? Shocked, confused, sad, betrayed somehow? I remember when it happened to me, and those were just some of the emotions I remember feeling.

nofairAs you went through school you eventually learned that life isn’t fair and the sooner you figured out how to deal with that the better off you were. The sooner you learned to play the game, and perpetrate a little evil of you own, the easier it got to live in this often cruel and unfair world of ours. Satan won a great victory the day you accepted his lies and decided that the world was full of evil people that you needed protection from. You started to isolate yourself and build walls to keep the bad people away.

We were created to have no knowledge of good or evil. We were created to know only God and gain our living and being solely from him. When we learned otherwise we lost everything, we lost our life in the garden and nothing has been the same since.

The apostle Paul once said that his goal was to know nothing except Christ. [1 Corinthians 2:2] Dietrich Bonehoeffer said:

Man, at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things, and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with his origin.

But we do know that evil exists. The genie is out of the bottle. So what are we now to do with this knowledge?

If we accept it at face value Satan wins. We become afraid. Afraid of what could be lurking “out there” in strangers half way around the world or just up the block. We isolate ourselves from people who aren’t just like us we create segregated communities, spend thousands of dollars on security measures and buy guns for production. All because we know about evil.

But what if we didn’t know evil? How can we eradicate the damage it has done to our society? How can we rebuild our lost community with those who are just a little different from us?

Evil cannot exist, where love prevails. God is love and He cannot co-exist with evil.

Fear is mostly fear of the unknown. The best way to combat our knowledge of evil is with knowledge of another kind, knowledge of facts over rumors conjecture and innuendo, knowledge of individuals over people groups, community over cultures, specific teaching over long held and outdated tradition and knowledge of community over isolation.

The problem of evil is a problem of knowledge. What we know and what don’t know and even more sinister, what we think we know that is false.

Therefore a pacifist and a Christ-follower must confront the problem of evil people bent on violence with learning. First learn the truth, and then combat the lies that surround it. In this way we can avoid unnecessary conflict based on nothing more than misunderstanding, misrepresentation and distorted lies.

hijabwomanWhen we see ethnic minorities moving into our communities and influencing our culture don’t be afraid, get educated. Reach out, learn their stories and welcome them into our community. Those people, the ones we might consider evil people are just one conversation away from become our people. At the end of the day, we are all image bearers of God (see part 1).

But what about the really evil people, the ones bent on destruction. Shouldn’t we try to stop them by any means necessary? Yes – and No.

Yes, try to stop them by educating them in a different path, but no do not try to destroy them in kind, you are not fighting physical humans but deceptive practices and the lies of Satan. Satan wants us to destroy one another, that is one of his favourite weapons to use against God. If we kill each other, he wins and when one deceived person dies there are a thousand more ready to take his place. Violence is a no win situation for humanity.

Make no mistake, there is a war going on all around us in the spiritual realm, but we can’t fight it with physical weapons. Some may die; it is a war after all. But dying for a cause is admirable. Killing for one only plays into the enemies hands. Far fewer die when we confront evil with truth than weapons of mass destruction. Pacifists know that and practice it while they actively pursue peace in the physical realm.

For more information on The Meekonomics Project and Pacifist Lamentations write to: themeekonomicsproject@gmail.com

Meekoethics: What Happens When Life Gets Messy and The Rules Aren’t Enough? – Book Release!


MeekoethicsCoverAfter almost a year of writing and editing my second full length book hit the virtual shelves last week! Get yours today here or directly from me here.

I think this is my best book yet!  But of course I am biased.

I originally started writing it as an extended tangent to my first book “Meekonomics”. I thought I was writing a commentary on the current state of the North American Church. But as often happens when I write, what I set out to do and what the final product ultimately becomes are two completely different things. This time was no different.  Instead of writing about the church I ended up on a journey of discovery around the intersection of faith, culture and the will of God. At times it got messy, as the sub-title of the book suggests but at other times the way in which I see the world, and indeed the way in which I understand God’s role in it, achieved a startling clarity.

Here is an excerpt from the book on that type of understanding:

 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. [Revelation 22:13]

Christianity came to prominence in the west under the guidance of a Hellenistic world view. Greek philosophers have always been obsessed with essence. How far can we boil a concept down before we get at the core of the teaching? For centuries, that line of thinking has driven our understanding of God.

Don’t get me wrong. By trying to find the essence of Christianity and of God in this way, we have to a large degree discovered some profoundly beautiful truths about him.

God is Love, [1 John 4:8] was the main point on which I based my last book and remains a major theme of all my writing. We have been taught, through centuries of Hellenic thinking, that this is the essence of God. But in getting at His essence, we have missed the beauty that also lives on the outer edges of our understanding.

The word “understand” was not originally a word that meant we had all the answers. “To understand” is better described as to stand under something, to stand in submission to a truth that you don’t fully grasp. I stand under and submit to the truth that God is Love but I wrestle daily with how that resonates throughout society and touches my life. I stand under it but I don’t understand it, so to speak.

Even though our society has now largely taken on the Hellenic worldview of essence and perfection, the Bible was not written primarily by Greeks who lived out of a worldview of essence. It was written by Hebrews who live out of a completely different worldview. The Hebrew worldview is one that seeks to define the edges of the target instead of the centre of the bull’s-eye. Understood from a Hebraic point of view we read passages like Revelation 22 in a completely different way.

What God is saying to John at the end of Revelation is not “this is my essence.“ No, what he is saying is “This is what I encompass”. Any discussion of ethics therefore needs to be a discussion of the circumference of the target. God is defined by the edges, but life happens in between.

And as I have discovered, life is messy.

For more information on “life in between”, the Meekonomics Project or any of my writing and work in the area of Christian-ethics and financial planning write to: themeekonomicsproject@gmail.com and save the date for our official book launch and Financial Seminar on Oct 7, 2015.

New Book Release Announcement!


Pre-orders are now open for my second full length book!

Meekoethics:  What Happens When Life Gets Messy and The Rules Aren’t Enough?  Pre-Order Here!

snoopywritingThe final product should be ready to ship within a week and I am planning a book launch event for early October, more to come on that as details are confirmed.

Here is the synopsis I put on the book jacket.  Order yours today and save the date, Wednesday, October 7, 2015.

What is ethics? What makes Christian ethics different from, or the same as, any other worldview? Is the Christian worldview still relevant in our Post-Christian society? What about the old-testament law? In short: What happens when life gets messy and the rules aren’t enough?

These are some of the questions L C Sheil explores in this latest book – Meekoethics: What Happens When Life Gets Messy and The Rules Aren’t Enough?

Building on the foundation of his first book, “Meekonomics: How to Inherit the Earth and Live Life to the Fullest in God’s Economy”. Here, Mr. Sheil goes beyond questions of personal finance and economics and dares to ask an utterly different question:

What is the will of God?

Meekoethics is not an attempt at finding a definitive answer. Rather it is an honest exploration of the questions behind the question and a call to all Christ-followers to sit in submission to the answers they find, get comfortable with discomfort and let God be God.

L C Sheil is a Financial Coach, Corporate Strategist and Author based in Ottawa, Canada. His mission is to help people reconcile their relationships with God and money, to teach them to live debt free, build wealth and leave a legacy.

Meekoethics is, first and foremost a book about God and your relationship with His will for your life and the world we all inhabit.

Pre-order today.

From Selma to Mumbai, and Death in a Concentration Camp


Private, reflexive, ventilated rage is often justified today as a proper attack on “oppression”. The problem with that is that, once it has drawn attention to a grievance, it does not do much to change anything. Change, over the long haul, requires organization, patience, good humor, and the ability to negotiate and compromise; all of which may be energized by anger or killed by it. – Carol Tavris; Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion

selma

I used to be a very angry person. I went through a period in my life when everything seemed to go wrong. In the course of just a few years, I lost everything, my business, my house, the respect of my peers, my social circle, my pride and to large extent my sense of self. And it ticked me off to no end.

I realized I was headed for disaster one evening, after a particularly hard day when I opened my pantry and reached for the vodka bottle, not because I was thirsty, and not because I was particularly interested in enjoying the taste of an expertly mixed martini but because I wanted to relax and forget the failures of the day and the looming pressures of the coming week. I’m happy to say that I stopped myself from pouring that drink and have never attempted to use alcohol to self-medicate my depression since.

It was around that time, about 10 years ago now, that I started to research all the things that make up this blog and my personal journey from financial basket case to coach, author and trainer in personal finance and behavioral economics.

In looking at the world of macro-economics, against a backdrop of geopolitics one of the first thesis statements I coined was that “Peace without Justice is Oppression”. (Read the post I wrote about it way back in 2009 here) Lately, as I’ve been working through the implications of Anger and Self-Control (see my last two posts here – and here), I also had the opportunity to watch Selma, last year’s Academy Award Winning portrayal of the civil rights march from Selma Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery which took place in the summer of 1965.

If peace without justice is oppression, as I originally theorized in 2006, then oppression can and should be met with resistance but as Carol Tavris so aptly points out in her excellent exploration of the emotion of Anger, quoted above, it does little to create lasting change.  Change requires organization, and patience. Martin Luther King led a non-violent movement that demanded the attention of the political leaders of his day through organization, and patience. In the film portrayal of the events at Selma it is interesting to note that then President Lyndon Johnson was willing to work with King, meeting with him on several occasions both publicly and privately to negotiate a settlement. Johnson was willing to work with King as opposed to his contemporary Malcolm X because of his stance on non-violent protest. When the march in Selma turned violent, caught on film by the news media, it was clear that the police had initiated an attack on unarmed civilians. In that moment the Civil Rights movement became a movement of peaceful citizens, versus oppressive and violent government and although it still took some time, the  battle was won (or lost depending on how you look at it) the day police charged the marchers on horseback with tear gas and billy clubs.

The same thing happened in Mumbai and the surrounding Indian country side when Ghandi stood up to British rule during the 1930s and 40s. It happened again in Finkenwalde Germany when Dietrich Bonheoffer stood up to the Nazi control of the Lutheran Church.

All of these men have at least three things in common. First off, they were angry. They saw the injustice and the oppression and said, “This is not peace” and they couldn’t stand by while innocent people were oppressed. Second, they organized a non-violent movement to unsettle and unseat their oppressors. And thirdly, although they were all ultimately successful in their bids to rid the world of the oppressive practices that they were against they were all assassinated by those who sought to maintain the status quo.

Oppressive regimes are ultimately not interested in justice and they will seek to vilify and discredit anyone who points that out to them. In the end, they will fail, justice always wins in the end, but when your hold on power is built on violent oppression, the last gasp of the oppressor is always violent, it’s all you know. As the pacifist, non-violent movement gains power the oppressor becomes like a cornered animal and in a last ditch effort to regain control he will lash out with the only tool he knows how to use.   But by then it’s too late, the tide has turned and by killing the leader of the movement to unseat them they only confirm what everyone has already come to know.

Peace without Justice is Oppression and justice leads to equality, mercy, non-violence and grace. That is true peace, and that is what King, Ghandi and Bonheoffer all sought through their work.

Is anyone oppressing you in their quest for peace? How can you organize to non-violently oppose it? More uncomfortably, are you oppressing anyone in your own quest for peace?

Gut check time! Are you ready to march on your own private Selma?

Salt and Light (The Purpose of Christian Ethics)


The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book tentatively titled “Ethics; What happens when life gets messy and the rules aren’t enough?”  I’ve just finished the first draft of chapter two and have about seven more chapters to go.  With any luck I hope to release this book sometime in early 2015.  In the mean time, the second edition of “Meekonomics” is nearing completion, stay tuned for a new release information here in the coming weeks.

My best friend through high-school was a guy named Jason.  He and I were both a little nerdy and awkward.  You could say we were misfits with the whole high-school culture.  As a result we gravitated to one another.  But we were also very different in our upbringing and our outlook on life.  Jason was perhaps the first true atheist I ever encountered.  As a result over the course of about ten years he and I had some fairly lively debates about the meaning of “life the universe and everything.”  I introduced him to the Bible he introduced me to Dante, Nietzsche and Douglas Adams author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of science fiction.

Since then life has taken us in very different directions.  Today Jason and I live quite literally on opposite sides of the world.  He teaches English in Japan, while I teach financial principles and write about economics and ethics in Canada.  But through the miracle of Facebook we have been able stay in touch.  Recently we were able to have a discussion about one of my favorite subjects; morality and the roll of Christianity in the developing world.

It started innocently enough with a comment I made regarding the place of ethics in the modern church.  One Saturday morning I posted the following quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to my Facebook page;

The Church has so far failed to master the social, economic, political, sexual and educational problems.  By her own guilt she has given offense, so that men are prevented from believing her message…  The dogmatically correct delivery of the Christian proclamation is not enough; nor are general ethical principles; what is needed is concrete instruction in the concrete situations…  In brief, the Church must offer solutions for the unsolved problems of the world, and thereby fulfill her mission and restore her authority.

As it turned out Jason was not the first to respond.  The first response I received was from a reader in the United States mid-west that I do not know personally.  This reader took offense to the notion that it is the churches job to offer any kind of solution to the world’s problems.  This reader is clearly someone who does not understand what Jesus is getting at in Matthew 5 or what the early church did with his teaching in Acts, but I’ll get to that later.  What followed was a lively debate that lasted a few hours.  This individual kept insisting that the only roll of the church is to proclaim the truth of salvation and convert the un-godly and I kept asking pointed questions about how we should go about doing that without taking it to the logical next step of “offering solutions for the unsolved problems of the world”, as Bonhoeffer put it.

Finally, late in the day, no doubt as a result of the time difference between Canada and Japan, Jason joined the conversation.  This is what he said;

Isn’t the primary issue here one of credibility? Sure church groups do great good. But then, so do many secular institutions. The difference is that churches claim moral authority.

Credibility and moral authority, strong words but essentially what Jason said is that even though we do good things, we’ve lost our ability to show the world that we are any different than the rest.  One of the biggest complaints against the modern church which most often comes from moderate atheists like Jason has always been, “I’m a good person, why should I bother?  When it gets right down to it, we aren’t really the much different“.

But the purpose of Christian Ethics is to be different so that we can affect change in the very nature of the world around us.  When we receive criticism like Jason’s it shows that as a community we have utterly failed in our mission.

Salt and Light

And so it is with that in mind that I would like to turn our attention back to the Sermon on the Mount.  After spending the first few verses getting his listeners to turn away from a legalistic interpretation of the scriptures Jesus begins to lay out a plan for the way in which we are to interact with the world.  But before he gets into any specifics he first lays out what amounts to the “why” of it all.

What is the purpose of developing a Christian Ethic? Why go to all this effort?  This is what Jesus says;

 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. [Jesus, Matthew 5:13-16]

Salt is essential for all animal life.

For years we’ve been warned of the dangers of having too much salt in our diets.  Ailments like high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney failure are all linked to ingesting too much salt.  But in the right quantities salt helps nerves and muscles to function correctly and is the main factor in regulating fluid content in the body.  Too little salt in your diet and you will experience fatigue, weakness and nausea.  These symptoms are easily dismissed as a result of other lifestyle concerns but if the root cause is too little salt and the situation persists the symptoms can evolve into confusion, aggression, dizziness, seizures, coma and eventually – death.

So I’ll say it again, salt is essential for all animal life.

Salt is so essential in fact that many ancient cultures link the development of their modern economies to the production of salt.  The mining, refining and trading of salt can be traced back over 6000 years and in many areas including Europe, The Middle East and China, trade in salt is considered to have been the first “currency”.

In ancient times and right up to the beginning of the 20th century salt was used as a preservative for everything.  Before mass refrigeration, curing in a Salt Brine was the only way to keep meat and vegetables from becoming unfit for human consumption after more than a few days.  Salt is still used as a preservative today although as a mineral it has far more, less obvious industrial uses such as the production of plastics, fertilizer, and household detergents.  The fact is, less than 6% of all salt mined today is used for human consumption.

In Jesus day there were essentially two types of salt on the market.  There was the high grade pure Sodium Chloride, pulled out of the Sea, that only the rich people could afford and there was the cheap stuff that was mined out of the ground all over The Middle East.

Common salt was a compound containing several other minerals including Magnesium and Gypsum.   In order to get the valuable Sodium Chloride out you would have to place a quantity of it in water and boil off the impurities.  As a result, people would buy large quantities of this stuff and pile it up in their yards.  Whenever they needed salt for canning fruits and vegetables or to cure their meat they would go out, fill a large pot, add water and boil off the sodium chloride.

Now because people purchased this cheap salt in large quantities and kept it outside, exposed to the weather, the valuable sodium chloride would leach out over time.  Rain, wind and evaporation would cause the salt to “lose its saltiness”.  When this happened it was more gypsum than salt and the only redeeming quality it had left was the fact that it would harden in a smooth surface that was easy to walk on.   “Un-salty” salt became the first concrete that people would spread around their yards to create little pathways between buildings and up to their door steps.

With that in mind the way in which Jesus describes his followers in Matthew 5:13 takes on much deeper meaning.  A meaning that his original listeners would have recognized immediately for what it was.  If the salt pile loses its saltiness, the key component of what it’s there for, it is worthless.  Salt that has lost its’ saltiness is only good to be trampled underfoot and used as pavement.

Jesus hardly gives that idea enough time to sink in before jumping to a new analogy.  But this one is a bit easier for our modern minds to figure out.

“You are the light of the world, but who lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl?” He asks.

The image is absurd when you think about it.  Who turns on a light and then covers it up?  As the lyrics from the 1970s musical “Godspell” put  it;

You are the light of the world!
But if that light is under a bushel,
It’s lost something kind of crucial.

Given the first century context, without electricity, lighting a lamp meant lighting a fire so covering a lit lamp not only made the light impossible to use it extinguished it.  Jesus is saying here that if you do not show the world that you are different, and be prepared to explain why, the change that he has started in you will die.  You need to stand out, be different and allow people to see what you do so that the whole world will be blessed by your the good deeds, to the glory of God.  He will later warn against doing things so that you are seen by men,[Matthew 6:1, 5] your motivation is not so you will be seen but if you are following Jesus with a pure heart you will stand out and trying to cover it up only serves to sabotage the work he is using you to accomplish.

It’s disingenuous, hypocritical, false humility and the world sees right through it anyway.  I’ll get into this flat, lifeless form of Christianity in more detail later but the point here is that a ethical life of faithful Christ-following cannot help but be a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  It is “a city on a hill” that cannot be hidden.

Salt and light in the context of ethics then becomes a discussion of being set apart for a purpose, accepting that purpose and living it out.  Because otherwise you are like salt that is no longer salty or a light that has been extinguished.  You are no longer fulfilling your purpose.  You are useless.

In the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns his listeners around and get’s them to face him.  It’s not about law, it’s about something entirely different, what that is he hasn’t told them yet, and before he gets to that he makes it clear that it is going to be there mission to show the world what this difference is.

You are the salt of the earth.  You are the preservative agent that will transform the world and keep it from rotting.  You are the light that will provide guidance and safety on a journey toward me.  Without you, without your salt and your light, the world will rot away and wander aimlessly in dark.  It is your job, the job of the Church, the job of all Christ-followers is to be salt and light in a rotting and darkened world.

That is the purpose of Christian Ethics and the purpose of Christ-following.

Turn Around (You’re Facing the Wrong Way)


The following is an excerpt from my latest book project.  The working title of this new book is “Ethics; What Happens When Life Gets Messy And The Rules Aren’t Enough?”  If past history is any indication I’ll like change that title about 400 times between now and publication.  I’m shooting to release this book sometime on late 2014 or early 2015.  Keep an eye on this blog for further excerpts and revisions as I go.  As always, your questions and comments are always welcome…. Lauren

Turning Away; The Garden of Eden

Any work on Christian Ethics needs to begin by looking at what Jesus himself taught on the subject and what was considered ethical by His students.

Jesus’ students were God fearing Jews.  Jewish tradition begins in Genesis with the creation and subsequent fall of man and builds its ethical teaching on the Ten Commandments of Moses.  But before Moses we see a hint of a few dominant ethical codes that can be gleaned from early history.

First off we need to examine what mankind really did in the Garden of Eden to break covenant with God.

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” [Genesis 2:16-17]

Harsh words and not at all what you would expect from a loving father.  It smells like a trap.  How many parents know that once you tell your children not to do something, that’s all they can think about?  But that is our fallen nature coming out, at this point man had not yet sinned, the entire concept of sin was foreign to him, there was nothing in Adam that would have questioned God’s judgment, the suggestion to do other that what God commanded had to come from outside of Adam and Eve.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it;

Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin.  Man at his origin knows only one thing:  God.  It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things, and of himself.  He knows all things only in God, and God in all things.  The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with his origin.  [Dietrich Bonheoffer; Ethics][1]

According to Bonhoeffer, God’s warning to Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is really a warning not to take your identity from anything other than Him.  Once you start to take your identity from things outside of God you are on the path to learning things that you were never designed to handle.  The knowledge of good and evil is the foundation of destruction.   We were designed by a loving father, who at the end of the sixth day of creation declared all things good (even the tree of knowledge).  So for us to now “know” evil is an abomination of the original design.  It shows that we are somehow separated from our origin, as Bonheoffer put it.  The whole reason we even need to have a discussion surrounding ethics is due to this one act.

And so, foundationally the study of Christian Ethics begins in the Garden of Eden when mankind turned his back on God and first learned evil.  The story of Israel, indeed the story of the entire bible is a story of mankind’s constant struggle to regain what was lost while the story of Jesus is the story of God coming to earth and restoring our relationships both with Him and with each other in light of our “evil” knowledge.  It is not until we resolve to no longer know evil that we can begin to live an ethical life.

As the apostle Paul put it;

..I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. [1 Corinthians 2:2]

But how do we do that?

Turning Back; The Sermon on the Mount

Just was we turned our backs on God in the Garden of Eden we must now turn back around and face God, face our origins in him and as Paul put it, “resolve to know him”.

The Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7 is the longest single teaching of Jesus recorded in the any of the gospels.  Much of what he said is closely mirrored by the Sermon on the Plain as recorded in Luke’s gospel, chapter 6: 17-49.  Scholars have debated whether or not this is one sermon, remembered slightly differently by two of Jesus followers or two separate incidences where Jesus repeats himself for two different groups.  At this point in his ministry Jesus was essentially an itinerant preacher so either explanation is valid, he could just have easily given similar talks to different groups as given one talk remembered differently by two people who were there.  I don’t care.  It’s the overarching message that matters, and whether or not it was delivered once, twice or many times throughout His life doesn’t make a stitch of difference.

Throughout this work I am going to spend a lot of time hovering over these few chapters of Matthew and Luke’s gospels.  This is where the rubber meets the road, if we are going to take Jesus seriously as our greatest ethical teacher, which is what the phrase Christian Ethics implies, we need to start with his teaching.

Now don’t get me wrong, Jesus is far more than just a great ethical teacher, as I’m sure you’ll agree, but since this is a book on Christian Ethics we need to start with the assumption that he is teaching at least a little bit about ethics and morality here.  It kind of goes without saying but unfortunately much of the church today waters down or downright ignores what Jesus actually taught in favor of some more culturally acceptable facsimile.  This happens with equal fervor on both the Christian Right and Left.  It is my hope that I can ignore the temptation to swing toward either one political spectrum or the other and drill right down the middle.  At times I hope I cause concern and maybe even offence on both sides, if I do it in equal measure than I think will have done it right.

So here we go.

Jesus begins his sermon by challenging a very familiar refrain among his Jewish followers.  The first twelve verses of Matthew 5 and Luke 6:20-26 are a parody, or at the very least a re-working of Psalm 1.  When he begins, “Blessed Are…”  I’m sure most in the audience who were present would have thought to themselves, “ah yes, this old song again”.  That is until he said the next words, “the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”

What?

In order to understand why that would have been so scandalous let’s back it up a bit and look at Psalm 1.

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction [Psalm 1]

David wrote a poem about how to be righteous to a culture built on the rule of law, tribalism and hierarchy.  Not surprisingly he concluded that in order to be good you need to stay away from the bad people and follow the rules.

This kind of thinking leads to self-righteousness on the part of the followers of the law, isolationism, fear and mistrust.  Not insignificantly it also leads to a feeling of inferiority on the part of those to whom the law as not given and further isolates them from the love of a close community built up around this arbitrary set of rules.  If you do not follow the law you are wicked, like chaff to be blown away by the wind.  David opens his song book with a song of exclusionary internal community building by saying blessed is the one who isolates himself from bad influences.

Remember our old friend Dietrich Bonheoffer?  He said;

There are two possible attitudes to the law; judgment and action.  The two are mutually exclusive.  The man who judges envisages the law as a criterion which he applies to others, and he envisages himself as being responsible for the execution of the law…  The “doer of the law”, unlike the judge, submits to the law; the law never becomes a criterion for him such as he might apply to his brother; the law never confronts him otherwise than summoning him to personal action.  – Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Ethics[2]

David is very clearly in the former.  He is making the law about keeping score.  In David’s world you gain salvation by playing by the rules and at some point you will be deemed righteous enough to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus on the other hand opens his famous sermon by saying something entirely different.  It’s not about staying clear of the bad people “out there” but about going deeper within yourself to become a better image bearer of God and so project God’s influence on the world.

The opening verses of Matthew 5 illustrate that;

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted. [Matthew 5:3-4]

For Jesus it’s not about separating yourself from the wicked, it’s about recognizing your own weaknesses, your own part in sin and wickedness, and mourning your shortcomings.  It’s all in the attitude.  This, as Bonheoffer put it is how you become a “doer of the law”.

Poor in Spirit

So what then does it mean to be “Poor in Spirit”?

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of explanations of this but the best understanding I can make of it has to do with the idea that the first step to turning your attention away from what’s “out there” is admitting that you don’t have it all figured out.  At the end of the day being poor is spirit is all about humility.

While David said in essence, blessed are the righteous, Jesus says blessed are the humble.  The Amplified Bible puts it this way;

Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous—with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions) are the poor in spirit (the humble, who rate themselves insignificant), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven! [Matthew 5:3]

That’s a mouthful, with all the explanations in parenthesis like that, but Jesus spoke in Aramaic so getting at the essence of what he said in English is a bit of a challenge, all that further clarification is useful though in getting at the meaning of the words he spoke.  A briefer paraphrased translation can be found in the Living Bible, it says it like this;

“Humble men are very fortunate!” he told them, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is given to them. [Matthew 5:3]

The Living Bible loses the connection to Psalm One by changing the translation of blessed to fortunate but the idea of humility comes through loud and clear.  In order to turn back to God, to reunite with him and then live ethically we must first humble ourselves before him and become “poor in spirit”.

Mourning

Jesus of course doesn’t stop there.  He then repeats the opening words of Psalm 1, perhaps allowing some of his listeners to relax again before hitting them with the next zinger, “Blessed are… those who mourn.”

Once you realize you have failed at something the next step in turning back to the right path is to take a minute and mourn your failure.  David said blessed are the good people, Jesus says once you realize you have missed the mark and fallen short of the standard David set, it is okay, even good, to be a little sad about it.

Mourning in this sense is really about recognizing what has been lost.  By living in David’s world of rules and regulations we have lost a connection to real community.  If you focus your time and effort on making sure you are always pure, especially in the way you interact with the people around you, you can miss out on something.  Diversity, especially diversity in community, is the spice of life.  If we are constantly concerning ourselves with keeping the law, staying clear of people who don’t do things exactly the way we do them, our community is damaged.

But it goes even deeper than that.  The whole reason we have the law in the first place is because we turned our backs on God.  When we humble ourselves, become poor in spirit, and turn around to face him the emotion of that moment can be overwhelming.  I don’t know about you but when I face God I can’t help but weep in the knowledge of my own failures.  I mourn my failing and inadequacy.

This mourning though is a necessary step in the turning around process.  Jesus tells us that we are blessed when we mourn and that in so doing we will be comforted.  It’s never fun to mourn but the promise here is that if we do it, it won’t last forever, and he will comfort us.

I’m reminded at this point of a song.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.[3]

Music teacher, Helen H. Lammel wrote those lyrics in 1922 while teaching at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.  She wrote them in response to the work of author, Lilias Trotter.  Trotter, another of Moody’s disciples was a painter and daughter of a wealthy London stock broker.  While Trotter’s art gained critical acclaim and her artist carrier was starting to take off she felt an inner conflict between art and missions.  After struggling in prayer for over two years she came to the conclusion that she must lay down her paint brush forever and focus her energy completely on the mission field.  She subsequently served as a missionary with Moody for 38 years and wrote several books and tracts.  It was the tract “Which Passion Will Prevail” that led Lammel to write her famous song.

It is easy to find out whether our lives are focused, and if so, where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Dare to have it out with God, and ask Him to show you whether or not all is focused on Christ and His Glory. Turn your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him. [Lilias Trotter; Which Passion Will Previal?][4]

The core of Christian Ethics is this; we find our identity in our relationship with God.   That is how mankind was originally intended to operate and in so doing all questions of right and wrong, good and evil melt away.  It is no longer a question of can I do good things on my own and is instead re-framed as a question of what is God’s will in this situation.  In this post-Christian world in which we live turning around to look at Jesus is a difficult process, one that will surely raise a few eyebrows but at the end of the day, if done correctly there is nothing truly negative anyone can say about it.

The apostle Paul eloquently laid out the requirements for an ethical life in his letter to the church in Galatia.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:19-23]

It’s that last part that is the key here.  “Against such things there is no law.”  There was nothing in the Jewish Torah that prevented any of these things in principle.  In practice however there were a number of customs that could make it difficult for someone act in this way toward their fellow man.  Most of those customs were centered on the idea of cleanliness and purity.  The parable of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10:25-37] is an example of the type of conflict that can arise in us when we are faced with the human reality of law versus ethics.  Paul rightly states that there is no law against being kind, but there was a law against entering the temple after having touched a dead body.  It was only the Samaritan, living outside the Jewish law, who could approach the dying man and offer assistance because he did not weigh compliance with the law against “doing the right thing” and yet even the Pharisees who heard the story agreed it was the Samaritan who had acted righteously.

And the same is true today.  The so called Fruit of the Spirit are viewed in today’s society with an air of nobility.  But when put into practice are viewed by the same people as a bit naive and impractical.  But ethics happen when life get’s hard.  Nobody said this was going to be easy.  But if you’ll join with me and at least turn around and face Jesus we can put the expectations of the world behind us and begin walking together in the right direction.


[1] Bonheoffer, Dietrich “Ethics”  Fontana, 1964

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich:  “Ethics” Fontana, 1964

[3] Lemmel, Helen H. “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, 1922

[4] Trotter, Lilias; “Which Passion Will Prevail?”, Moody, 1899

Answer the Call…


The “calling”, is, in the true New Testament sense, the fiercest attack and assault to be launched against the world since primitive Christianity.  Now a man takes up his position against the world in the world; the calling is the place in which the call of Christ is answered, the place at which the man lives responsibly.  – Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Ethics

There is a lot that has been said about living a “calling”.  Your calling is more than just a job, or vocation.  It goes way deeper than that.  When you take your calling seriously it can become more like a God given quest.

I can’t think of the idea of a quest without thinking of the old movie “Monty Python and The Holy Grail”.  That is what a sacred quest should look like in my opinion.  The scene with the shrivelled old man asking Sir Robin; “What is your name? What is your quest?  What is the capitol of Assyria?” gives me the giggles every time.  But the point here is that a scared quest, or a mission from God (that phrase reminds me of another movie; “Blues Brothers” with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, “We’re on a mission from God.”) even when taken on by a band of hapless knights or blues singing ex-cons is somehow bigger than anything you could define simply as a “job”.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly points out above that it is only when you take your calling seriously that you can really begin to make an impact in the world.  The Christ Follower is called to remain and live counter culturally; to love enemies, to defend the weak, to work for justice.  This is a position that is clearly against the world and the messages we receive from the media everyday; get ahead and look out for number one and don’t give a second thought to those who can’t hack it in the real world.  Part of our call then, is to learn to live our counter cultural vision of the Kingdom of Heaven in enemy occupied territory.

It’s also interesting that Bonhoeffer makes the distinction that it is through the calling that man lives responsibly.  You can ignore your calling, you can do what is “practical” instead of what God has placed on your heart to do, but that’s just irresponsible and at the end of the day you likely won’t be happy.

I’ve tried to ignore my calling.

Back in 2007 I was working, quite happily, for a small business.  By all accounts I was doing a good job and making a difference, my boss liked me and so did my co-workers and my clients, but I started to feel a slight pull from God in a new direction.  At first I ignored it.  But the pull got stronger, the industry we were working in tanked, I started to lose money, stress mounted and the strain on my marriage became almost too much to bear, (there is a whole series of posts in that by the way, God showed up through my poverty and desperation to save my life and my marriage, but that’s for another time).  Through it all the “still small voice” of God kept nudging me in a new direction.

Finally in the summer of 2011, on July 1 at about 10:30 pm to be exact, I made the leap.  For my Canadian readers you will recognize that as Canada Day, our national founding holiday.

My wife’s father had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and she had come to Ottawa for a visit.  It was becoming apparent that someone needed to be here to help take care of him as his condition continued to deteriorate.  We had been having a lot of heated discussions about that; it was hard for me to leave a career I had worked so long and hard to build, even if it wasn’t what it used to be.  Anyway, by July I had been home alone for about two weeks, the bills were mounting and we were behind on the rent.  After watching a movie on TV I decided to go for a walk, as I walked through the streets on a warm summer evening, fireworks booming off in the distance, I recommitted my life to the call of Christ.  When I got home I called my wife and told her “I’m in.”  But I had been resisting for so long that she didn’t believe me at first, after she came home and we continued to talk about it we began to make plans.  I quit my job in the first week of August and on October 1, 2011, we moved.

At 39, I changed everything about my life for the sake of my family and the call of Christ.  I started work as Financial Advisor on October 17, 2011 and have been fulfilling my new call; “to help people reconcile their relationship with God and money”, ever since.

For more on were my head was at during that time check out the post I wrote on my last day at my old job… Turning the Page.

So what’s your calling?  Don’t be afraid to go on a quest for God.  Who knows maybe he’ll even provide you with a few minstrels to serenade you on your way, just don’t eat them…

Because He Loves Me – The Foundation of Christian Ethics


“I’m everything I am Because You Loved Me” – Celine Dion

Back when we were dating my wife and I went to the movies a lot.  I think most couples do that, on any given Friday or Saturday night the movie theatres are filled with young couples out getting to know one another in a non-threatening environment.  And what could be more non-threatening than spending 2 or 3 hours in the dark not having a conversation?

One of the movies we saw during this formative time for our relationship was called “Up Close & Personalstarring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.  I won’t go into all the details of the plot, mostly because I don’t remember, but in a nutshell Redford and Pfeiffer are news reporters on assignment inside a maximum security prison when a riot breaks out.  Pfeiffer is trapped inside and has to rely on Redford, speaking to her through a radio to keep calm and guide her out safely.  Love and romance ensues.  This film is the very definition of a “chick-flick”.

I mention this because the movie’s theme song, “Because You Loved Me” by Celine Dion had a profound impact on my wife at the time.

I have mentioned before that my wife suffers from PTSD but this was early on in her treatment and before we got the diagnosis right.  At the time she was being treated as bipolar which kind of worked but didn’t address a lot of the anxiety she was forced to live with at the time.  In order to combat her anxiety she needed to cling to something real, something rock solid that would never let her down.  In a lot of ways I became a sort of touchstone for her.

Of course in the fullness of time, I let her down.  It was inevitable, I am human.

But before you get the wrong idea, this isn’t a post about my marriage or marriage counseling.

Recently my research has been focused on the subject of ethics, most specifically the origins of ethical thought from a Christian perspective.  Any study of Christian Ethics would be incomplete without a serious look at the Godfather of Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  As Bonhoeffer explains it is love that drives us to be ethical but not in the way you might think.  He puts it this way;

…love is something which happens to man, something passive, something over which he does not himself depose, simply because it lies beyond his existence in disunion.  Love means the undergoing of a transformation of one’s entire existence by God – Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Ethics

You see, it’s not through our choice to love that we are ethical.  Rather it stems from that fact that we are loved by God.  This then drives us to act in accordance with that love, ethically toward our fellow human beings.  At least that’s the way Bonhoeffer sees it and I tend to agree.

Put another way;

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. [1 John 4:19-21 emphasis mine]

So harkening back to Celine Dion, I am everything I am because God loved me.  And it is my duty as a human being to love my fellow humans with that same kind of unconditional brotherly love that God has shown me.  That is the basis of ethics.  The love of God is not earned, and neither should be the love of a brother or sister.

I have begun work on a second book, focusing on the ethics of economics and morality of money.  As a result I expect this to be a recurring theme in my writing for the foreseeable future.  More information to follow as the book takes shape, for now just keep your eyes on this space and feel free to comment on what you see.  Also, you can always purchase my first book “Meekonomics; Kingdom Economics from a Love Based Mentality” here or through Amazon.com

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Meekness


Every once in a while I feel compelled to explain why I use the word meek to describe the work I do and the movement I’m trying to start through this blog, my books and my public speaking.  As I say in the introduction to “Meekonomics; How to Inherit The Earth and Live Life to the Fullest in God’s Economy”; meek is one of those bible words we don’t use in regular conversation anymore and as a result it has lost much of its meaning.

This past week I finally started reading Dietrich Bonheoffer’s seminal work on the Christian life; “The Cost of Discipleship”.

Originally published in 1937, at the height of Nazi Germany, it’s a clarion call directed at German Christians to reject the godless politics of National Socialism and return to an uncompromisingly orthodox understanding of scripture.  It’s precisely this kind of writing and preaching that landed Bonhoeffer in a jail and saw him hanged by the Nazi’s just two weeks before the allied armies would have liberated him.  That, and the fact that he was implicated in a plot to murder Hitler could apparently get you killed in the 1940s, go figure.

Now, over seventy years after it was first published, and in a Christian culture dominated by right wing political ideology, the message of “The Cost of Discipleship” remains just as relevant as it was in Hitler’s Germany, and for a book written in a different era, it’s a surprisingly easy read.

Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Matthew 5:5, which I base most of my writing on, is perhaps the most clearly profound explanation of this biblical passage I’ve ever read.  I don’t poach the work of other authors very often but I’d like to take this opportunity to quote Bonhoeffer at length and allow his writing to speak for itself.

“Blessed are the meek:  for they shall inherit the earth.”  This community of strangers possesses no inherent right of its own to protect its members in the world, nor do they claim such rights, for they are meek, they renounce every right of their own and live for the sake of Jesus Christ.  When reproached, they hold their peace; when treated with violence they endure it patiently; when men drive them from their presence, they yield their ground.  They will not go to law to defend their rights, or make a scene when they suffer injustice, nor do they insist on their legal rights.  They are determined to leave their rights to God alone – non cupidi vindicate, as the ancient Church paraphrased in.  Their right is in the will of their Lord – that and no more.  They show by every word and gesture that they do not belong to the earth.  Leave heaven to them, says the world in its pity, that is where they belong.  But Jesus says; “They shall inherit the earth.”  To these, the powerless and the disenfranchised, the very earth belongs.  Those who now posses it by violence and injustice shall lose it, and those who here have utterly renounced it, who were meek to the point of the cross, shall rule the new earth.  – Dietrich Bonhoeffer; The Cost of Discipleship

I really have nothing to add.  Instead I challenge you to meditate on that for a bit and ask yourself; are you ready to inherit the earth?