Christianity and Economics, Part 4: What Does It Profit?

For other parts of this series on Christianity and Economics, click here.

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

Mark 8:36

The answer to Jesus’s question is obviously nothing. Even if a man were to gain the whole world, if he loses his soul in the process, he has made a terrible trade. In the end there is no profit at all. There is only tremendous loss.

What is “Profit”?

It’s not uncommon to hear “profit” treated like a bad thing. Just think about all the movies where the villain is some evil businessman that chooses “profits over people.” But profit is not a bad thing. The word “profit” simply means “benefit.”

Profit can certainly be measured in money if the “benefit” sought is money. If I buy something for $3, and I turn around and sell it for $5, I’ve earned a profit of $2. But in a more general sense, such as the sense in which Jesus used the word, profit simply refers to the reward for making good decisions. Giving away money to a charity can be “profitable” if advances a cause that I’m passionate about.

When discussing economics, however, “profit” often takes on the more precise meaning of monetary profit. When all goods can be traded for money, those goods develop market prices defined in amount of money. For this reason profit and loss can be discussed in terms of money. As long as revenue is greater than expenses, there is a profit. If expenses are greater than revenue, there is a loss.

But we must remember that as soon as we limit “profit” to a monetary value, we are no longer making a statement about an entrepreneur’s overall happiness, spiritual well-being, or subjective satisfaction. We are only talking about profit as it is appraised by other members of society, who ultimately determine monetary value through their demand for certain products in relation to their supply.

It’s easy to see how profit benefits an entrepreneur. But what often goes unrecognized is how profit benefits others. In order to explain how this is so we must first consider the problem of resource allocation.

The Complex Problem of Resource Allocation

God created the world with numerous resources, each of which could be used in any number of ways. For example, iron could be used to make all sorts of things – cars, refrigerators, medical devices, construction buildings, houses, power plants, tools, weapons, spoons, etc. The possibilities are endless. The same could be said for all natural resources.

With endless possibilities, mankind is faced with the complex task of deciding what resources, in what quantities, should be used in what ways. What needs are most important? How can we properly use the earth’s resources to help as many people as possible? Even if we are properly motivated impartial love for everyone, how can we know for certain that we are using the earth’s resources most effectively? How much iron should be used for refrigerators? For medical devices? For houses? For machines?

Even if we correctly prioritize the right needs, we still have a problem.  Perhaps we think housing is most important. Since resources are limited, at what point does our investment in housing begin to take away from the important need for medical devices? Or for tractors, which are used to harvest the food everyone needs? Even if our intentions are pure, it would be impossible to know for sure if we are using resources in the best possible way.

To illustrate the complexity of this problem, imagine a world where this problem is perfectly solved, where we know the optimal use of every resource. To simplify the illustration, imagine there are no changes to anyone’s subjective wants, changes in technology development, changes in the total population, or changes in resource availability. If this were the case, every person would do the same tasks every day. Producers would produce the same products, in the same quantity, every day. The prices of all consumer goods and factors of production would remain constant, as neither supply nor demand ever changed.

Consequently, there would be no uncertainty about the future. There would be no need for someone to risk combining resources in a new way. There would be no reason for a business owner to invest more in one line of production, or less in another, or for anyone to take any risks or seek greater profit. Everything would already be used towards its optimal end.

It’s not difficult to see why this can only be an imaginary scenario. James cautions us against assuming that things will continue in the future as they do today.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.

James 4:13-14

People’s subjective values change all the time. Technology changes. Population levels change. Resource availability changes. There’s always change going on. Tomorrow will not be like today. The future is uncertain.

For this reason, all entrepreneurs have the task of taking risks. No mater how successful an investment may have been in the past, or may appear today, the future will be different. An entrepreneur has no guarantee of future profitability, because prices are always changing to meet changes in supply and demand.

How Profit and Loss Solves The Problem of Resource Allocation

Since the future is uncertain, entrepreneurs must engage in the task of forecasting future prices for the factors of production and finished products. They must forecast future profitability.

For example, one farmer may forecast that there will be a beef shortage, beef prices will increase, and raising cattle will be profitable. As a result, he may raise more cows, build bigger barns, and dedicate more land towards cattle farming. On the other hand, a competing farmer may forecast that cattle prices will fall, and his time will be better spent growing fresh produce, such as corn, beans, and garden vegetables. Whichever farmer’s forecast proves to be more correct will enjoy a greater profit.

Suppose the first farmer is correct. Due to a beef shortage, prices were high, and he was able to enjoy a good profit. The following year, the other farmer may look to the first farmer’s success as a signal that he should raise cattle as well. Because of the first farmer’s profits, the beef shortage will move quickly towards a solution as more and more farmers move into cattle farming. This will continue until cattle production reaches a level where cattle farming is no longer as profitable as the next best use of the  land. As entrepreneurs seek to invest where there will be the greatest return on their investment, production shifts to meet consumer demand.

Just as important as profit is loss. By suffering a loss, the unsuccessful entrepreneur may be forced to make changes. Suppose the cattle farmer was wrong. Instead of a shortage, there was a surplus of cattle. As a result, he was not able to bring in enough revenue to cover the cost of his investment. If the farmer continues suffer loss, he will eventually have to make a change. Perhaps he will shift away from cattle farming to something more in line with consumer demand. Or perhaps he will sell the farm to another entrepreneur who will use the land more efficiently and more profitably. For instance, if there is a housing shortage, there may be a great demand to develop the land as a new neighborhood.

Profit and loss is a wonderful thing, because it communicates to entrepreneurs the most effective uses of resources allowing them to produce what people want and need. Regardless of whether the farmer is profitable, or suffers a loss, by following profit and loss signals, resources will continually be reallocated to meet consumer demand.

This process plays itself out every day, in every industry, in various ways. All over the world, entrepreneurs continually adapt to changes in people’s preferences, changes in technology, and changes in resource availability. When consumers are free to choose which products, they spend their money on, they are able to influence where entrepreneurs invest, what products are produced, and in what quantities.

Who Benefits from Profit?

Obviously, the entrepreneur who correctly forecasts future economic conditions will enjoy the reward of greater profits. But now we can see how others benefit from profit as well.

Consumers enjoy the benefit of enjoying new and better products. Because of profit, these products will become increasingly available and affordable until the market is saturated to the point where increased production is no longer profitable. As entrepreneurs seek to maximize production of profitable products, they will need to invest in the labors of others.  So not only to consumers benefit, but workers are able to earn a greater living as well. Profit and loss are signals which everyone to a greater standard of living.

A successful entrepreneur is able to earn a profit, not by cheating people, but by meeting the desires of his customers. He does this by anticipating what products they are most willing to spend money on. As they seek to earn a profit, they continually examine whether the resources at their disposal are being used in the most efficient way to meet the needs of the greatest number of people.

Obstacles to Meeting The Needs of Others

This process only works when consumers are free to choose what products they spend money on, and entrepreneurs are free to make whatever changes are necessary to earn a greater profit.

When profits are villainized, so that a portion of profits are taken through taxation, this is bad for everyone. It is bad for entrepreneurs, who receive a decreased return for their investments. As profits decrease, entrepreneurs will decrease investment in production. This hurts workers, who receive less investment for their labors. It is bad for consumers, who get less of the product that they desire.

When people call for the government to bail out industries that aren’t profitable, they prevent those resources from being recombined in more beneficial ways. When politicians protect certain jobs they like, they fail to recognize the more profitable, yet unseen jobs they destroy (see Part 2). Instead of responding to losses by making necessary changes, they will continue to waste scarce resources for products that people don’t want enough to buy.

We have the responsibility to use the limited resources as efficiently as possible to meet the needs of others. Making sure entrepreneurs are free to seek a profit, while also bearing the risk of an uncertain future, is the best way to make sure that the earth’s resources are being used in the best possible way.

Everything the New Testament Says about How Christians Should Treat Enemies

Here’s a list of everything the New Testament says about how Christians should treat and view their enemies. This list does not include how God commanded his people in the Old Testament to treat their enemies, nor does it include what the New Testament says about how governments and nations treat their enemies. But as far as I am aware, this is a complete list of everything the New Testament says about how Christians are to treat their enemies. Christians are to…

Love Them

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you… love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he his kind to the ungrateful and the evil.

Luke 6:27, 35

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Matthew 5:44

It should be noted that the New Testament defines love by pointing us to Jesus’s example of dying for us, his enemies (Rom. 5:10) on the cross.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

1 John 3:16

Be Willing to Suffer Unjustly at Their Hands

Christians are to follow Jesus’s example. Peter and Paul both specifically mention that Christians should follow Jesus’s example in his willingness to suffer unjustly at the hands of his enemies. He suffered for his enemies even though he had the power to destroy them (Mt. 26:53).

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly… But if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.

1 Peter 2:18-23; 3:14-16

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 5:1-2

Again, it should be remembered that we were enemies at the time that Christ gave himself up for us.

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

Romans 5:10

Do Good to Them

Lest we think we can somehow love our enemies while at the same time doing harm to them, it should be noted that we are specifically commanded to do good to them.

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you… And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.

Luke 6:27, 34-35

Bless Them Instead of Cursing Them

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Luke 6:28

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Romans 12:14

Pray For Them

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Matthew 5:44

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Luke 6:28

Forgive Them and Ask God to Forgive Them

Jesus taught us to pray for forgiveness on the basis of how we forgive those who sin against us.

Forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.

Luke 11:4

In the specific context Jesus’s teachings about enemies he said…

Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.

Luke 6:37

Jesus himself practiced what he preached by praying for the forgiveness of his enemies on the cross.

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Luke 23:34

Give to Them

We are to imitate the Father who loves his enemies by giving them blessings, regardless of whether or not they deserve them.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

Matthew 5:44-45

We are to give to our enemies, even in those times when we do not expect anything in return.

Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back…. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.

Luke 6:30, 34

Provide For Their Physical Necessities

If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.

Romans 12:20

Never Resist Their Evil in Kind

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Matthew 5:38-39

Treat Them As You Wish They Would Treat You

The “Golden Rule” was spoken in the specific context of how to treat enemies.

And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

Luke 6:31

Do Everything You Possibly Can to Be A Peace With Them

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12:18

Do Not Repay Evil For Evil, But Rather Overcome Their Evil With Good

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all… Do not by overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17, 21

See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.

1 Thessalonians 5:15

Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.

1 Peter 3:9

Never Take Vengeance Against Them

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

Romans 12:17-19

Note that the reason we do not have to take vengeance against enemies is because we can trust that God will do this instead.

Turn the Other Cheek When Struck

But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Matthew 5:39

To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either.

Luke 6:29

Seek Their Healing Instead of Seeking to Injure Them

And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his hear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?

Matthew 26:51-53

But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.

Luke 22:51

Humbly Serve Them

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him… “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”

John 13:1-5, 15

Answer Them With Gentleness and Respect

In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.

1 Peter 3:15

The Most Difficult Thing The New Testament Says About How Christians Should Treat Their Enemies

As far as I am aware, the above scriptures are a complete list of everything the New Testament says about how Christians should treat their enemies. But the most difficult thing the New Testament says about enemies is what it doesn’t say. That is, in all the New Testament, there is not a single “exception clause.” There is no verse I can quote that says “Love your enemies, unless you are facing the really scary life threatening kind”, or “Do good to your enemies unless common sense tells you that since innocent lives are being threatened it’s best to eliminate the threat first”, or “Put your sword in you place, unless you work in the military and your job requires that you use it against your enemies.” It’s always just “love your enemies” period. “Do good to them” period. “Overcome their evil with good” period.

It would be foolish ignore the obvious. It’s not difficult to think of hundreds of scenarios where taking these commandments as face value would be completely impractical (if not insane), would lead to the loss of life, and even feels completely immoral to us. To not respond to evil with whatever action is necessary to protect innocent life and loved ones feels just plain wrong. So when Christians read these commandments and conclude “Jesus couldn’t possibly have intended for us to rule out killing an enemy in those situations where killing them is completely justified to save innocent lives”, I get it. I share that emotional response myself. To take these commandments at face value completely violates every notion of common sense.

But at the same time, how common-sensical was it for the all powerful God to let himself be tortured and killed unjustly rather than using his power to kill his enemies? And yet this non-sensical response to evil is the specific example we are to follow.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:5-7

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 5:1-2

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly

1 Peter 2:21-23

Jesus himself was fully aware that his teachings did not fit into the box of “common-sense”. But instead of softening his teachings, he stressed that they were important for that very reason (Mt 5:44-47; Lk. 6:32-35). We are to love our enemies in a way that would seem like nonsense to the average tax collector or sinner.

It’s a lot to think about. It’s not easy. I don’t pass one ounce of judgment on those who draw different conclusions on some of the most difficult questions. The only way any of this makes any sense at all is when we fully trust in the cross, in the judgment of God against evil, the providence of God, the Lordship of Jesus, and confidently expect a resurrection. It’s not easy, but we have to think about it.

Guns, Swords, and Inspired Words

Whenever a random act of violence occurs, debates about the 2nd amendment and gun control are sure to follow. This isn’t surprising. People have different opinions about is best for the country. Some think that it would be in the best interest of American citizens if people had less access to guns. Others think it would be in the best interest of the citizens of this country if we had more guns in the hands of responsible citizens. As long as people have disagreements about the direction the country should go, debates are unavoidable. But despite all the arguing, the problem of violence continues, and often seems to grow worse.

As Christians, there are two ways to approach gun control debates. The first way is to ask what we, as American citizens, think would be best for our county. That is, we could join in the same debate that everybody else is having. The second way is to ask what we, as Christians and citizens of God’s kingdom, think would be best for advancing God’s kingdom. This second discussion receives far less attention, despite the fact that the kingdom of God offers real world solutions to the problem of violence.

Jesus had a lot to say about how his disciples should respond to evil. They are to love their enemies (Lk. 6:27, 35; Mt. 5:44). Love is defined in the New Testament by pointing us to Jesus dying for his enemies (1 Jn. 3:16). They are to do good to their enemies (Mt. 5:44; Lk. 6:28). They are to forgive them (Lk. 6:37; 11:4; 23:34). They are not to resist with the same kind of evil that their enemies use (Mt. 5:39; Lk. 6:29). They are to pray for them rather than seeking to injure them (Mt. 26:51-53). Since God loves and blesses others indiscriminately, we are expected to love and bless others indiscriminately (Mt. 5:45-47; Lk. 6:36-37)

Jesus’s apostles echoed these teachings. Peter wrote that we should follow Jesus’s example by being willing to suffer unjustly at the hands of our enemies, even when we have the power to defeat them (1 Pet. 2:18-23; 3:15-16). Paul wrote that we should never return evil with evil, or take vengeance against our enemies, but always return evil with good (Rom. 12:17-19). Instead of harming our enemies we should provide for their physical needs, and overcome their evil by doing good (Rom. 12:20-21).

To the best of my knowledge, this represents everything the New Testament has to say about how Christians should think about and treat their enemies. What’s more, there’s never an exception clause. The New Testament never says anything along the lines of “love and do good to your enemies, unless you run in to the really nasty, violent, life-threatening kind.” To a first century audience, it would have been clear who they talked about when they said “love your enemies.” First and foremost, they would have thought of the Romans, who enforced Pax Romana by fear. They were the kind of enemy who could crucify your friends and family just to flex their muscles. They were the nasty, violent, life-threatening kind of enemy.

The early Christians were not simply concerned about protecting their rights or fixing unjust Roman laws. In fact, they had a reputation of rejoicing when they were wrongfully beaten and imprisoned and plundered by their enemies (Heb. 10:32-34). That’s not to suggest that Christians should minimize the wrongfulness of denying other people their rights. It is right to be deeply concerned when we see the government passing wicked laws that cause more people to be harmed. These Christians responded to violence with joy, not because they didn’t care, but because of their confidence in God’s promises (Heb. 10:35-36). In the meantime, they actively showed compassion towards those whose freedom had be wrongfully taken away (Heb. 10:34).

Ultimately, the problem of violence will never be solved by endless debates about what the government should do about violence. Since rulers and authorities gain their power from the implied threat of death, they were left disarmed when death was defeated (Col. 2:15). As Christians, our relationship to earthly government is defined by an attitude of submission. We submit to them “for the Lord’s sake”, recognizing that “this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Pet 2:13-15). We submit, because we recognize that God uses government authorities as his ministers to execute wrath and vengeance on evildoers (Rom. 13:1-4).

It is our duty to solve the problem of violence, not by arguing about what Caesar should do about it, but by spreading the peaceful principles of the kingdom of God. As we spread the boarders of his kingdom, we recognized that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). Swords and guns are completely unnecessary to be a disciple of the prince of peace. Unlike earthly governments, which at best can argue about who should have the right to carry a gun, the kingdom of God provides a real solution to the problem of violence by pointing us to Jesus. Jesus defeated evil, not by carrying a sword or gun against his enemies, but by loving his enemies, dying for his enemies, and by rising from the dead to show just how powerless their violence really is.

Better Bible Study Tip #65: Do Not Force The Bible Conform To Your Denominational Preferences

If you want to understand what the Bible really teaches, it is absolutely crucial that you do not filter the Bible through your denominational preferences or your church’s interpretive tradition. Don’t try to force the Bible to be something it’s not. Don’t try to force to Bible to address modern denominational debates that were not being considered when the Bible was first written.

I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating: If we are going to rightly apply the Bible in our own cultural context, we first need to make sure we are understanding it correctly in it’s original cultural context (see Better Bible Study Tip #41: Context is King). Thousands of years separate us from the time when the Bible was written. They were not us. We are not them. We can understand the Bible like they did, but it requires that we put ourselves in their shoes and read scripture in light of their worldview.

To illustrate my point, consider the phrase “I sent you a text.” We all know what that sentence means. But what if someone said “I sent you a text” in the year 1990? The same phrase would obviously mean something different, because “texting” as we know it simply did not exist. If someone said that in 1990, we would conclude that someone was sending somebody a book, or a manuscript or something. The same phrase would mean something completely different simply based on when it was said.

So for example, when Paul wrote to the “bishops” in Philippi, we shouldn’t imagine that Paul thought of a bishop the same way a modern Catholic thinks of bishops. When Paul wrote “be filled with the spirit” (Eph. 5:18), he was writing as a first century Jew, not as a modern charismatic. When Joel say “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”, he wasn’t imagining that people would be saved by saying the “sinner’s prayer.” John the Baptist wasn’t a “Baptist” in the same way we use the word. He was simply a baptizer. When Paul said “the churches of Christ salute you” he wasn’t referring to the Ephesus Church of Christ or the Corinth Church of Christ as if they were a first century denomination as many use the phrase “Church of Christ” today. He was simply referring those first century churches that belonged to Christ.

This principle goes beyond simple phrases, and extends to doctrinal teachings as well. When Paul wrote about the relationship of “faith” and “works”, he wasn’t referring to 16th century Catholic/Protestant debates. I could keep going, but hopefully the point is clear. We need to be careful not to make the biblical authors say more or less than what they actually said and meant in their own context.

To filter the Bible through our own denominational preferences or church traditions that post date the time of the Bible means imposing a foreign historical context on scripture. It means changing the original meaning of scripture. It means altering what the biblical authors were trying to teach. The more we cling to our favorite denominational understandings, the more we put ourselves at risk of misunderstanding scripture. We need to respect the Bible for what it is and what it teaches, and not force it to be what we wish it was or teach what we wish it taught.

What I – A Christian – Would Say to President Biden About Ukraine

Does being a Christian mean that I am opposed to Russia invading Ukraine? Does it mean that I am opposed to the United States getting violently involved in the conflict to protect Ukraine? If I, as a Christian, am pro-life, what would I say if President Biden asked me for my opinion on how America should respond to recent events in Ukraine?

The first thing I would try to explain is that I don’t think that being a Christian means that one must take the position that the governments of this world must embrace pacifism. Of course Christians are commanded to love to their enemies, to do good to their enemies, and to seek peace and pursue it. This is based not only on the commands of our Lord and of his apostles, but also on a strong pro-life understanding that all humans are created to reflect the image of God. To take the life of another human is to destroy an image of the God we serve. Because of this, many assume that Christians should all call the governments of this world to “turn the other cheek”. That’s not actually my understanding of what the Bible teaches. I don’t believe that Jesus and Paul’s instructions for Christians to love their enemies and do good to their enemies was ever intended as instructions for how the governments of this world are to respond to evil.

To the contrary, in Romans 12 and 13, Paul explicitly contrasts the attitudes and actions of Jesus’s disciples with the attitudes and actions of the governments of this world. Paul instructs Christians to “bless those who curse you” (12:14), to “repay no one evil for evil” (12:17), and to “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (12:19). Rather than retaliating against enemies, Christians are commanded to overcome evil with good, by giving food and drink to their enemies when they are in need (12:20-21). Then Paul immediately proceeds to say that God “institutes” all the governing authorities as he sees fit (13:1), which is why they “do not bear the sword in vain” (13:4). God institutes these sword-bearing governing authorities as “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4).

The point I would try to stress to Mr. Biden is that Paul forbids disciples of Christ from ever engaging in the very activity that he says God uses governments to accomplish, namely the the taking of vengeance against evildoers. We as Christians are to leave vengeance to God, who has promised “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” (12:19). This doesn’t mean that God wants Russia or Ukraine or the United States to act violently, but God does institute (or “organizes”) them and their swords to bring about as much good as possible for his disciples. Part of the good he works to bring about is specifically the punishment of wrongdoers so as to keep evil in check.

I do believe this implies that there are certain “sword bearing” activities that governments take towards their enemies that Christians are forbidden from participating in. But I do think it’s a misunderstanding to think that Christians have a responsibility to try to get their governments to try to take a pacifist position. This is to act as if the New Testament gives instructions on how to reform the kingdoms of this world, when in reality, Jesus came to establish a kingdom that is not of this world.

So what do I think that President Biden should do about the crisis in Ukraine? The most important thing I would stress is that whatever my opinion is – as a Christian – should not be taken as a distinctly Biblical teaching about what Mr. Biden should do in Ukraine. The Bible just doesn’t speak to that directly. Mr. Biden’s kingdom, and the kingdom of which I am a citizen, operate under a completely different set of values. Mr. Putin’s kingdom, and the kingdom of which I am a citizen, operate under a completely different set of values. The kingdoms of this world fight for their self-interest, while we die to ours. Their primary concern is with whatever is most practical. Our primary concern is with what is most faithful. They rely on the power to threaten and take life if necessary, while our confidence is in the power of self-sacrificial love and the hope of resurrection.

In this light, my allegiance to the enemy-loving Jesus probably means that whatever foreign policy advice I might have to offer Mr. Biden might not be very “street smart” when it comes to the best way to lead the American military. Although most Christians, including myself, have plenty of different opinions about how the United States (or Russia or Ukraine for that matter) should handle this situation, the Bible doesn’t give any specifically “Christian” guidance for how to run the governments of this world.

So with that somewhat strange point being stressed, what would say if Mr. Biden asked me what I think he should do about Ukraine? First, I would encourage him to act slowly and think very carefully. There have been numerous examples over the years of the United States acting rashly and violently towards enemies, in what turns out in hindsight to be quite foolish.

I would also encourage Mr. Biden to consider the long-term consequences of his actions. Violence almost always looks like a solution in the short run, but in the long run, violence almost always leads to more violence. How would American intervention against Russia be used in Russia and other countries to harden more people against the United States and be used to recruit a stronger anti-US sentiment in the future? I would encourage Mr. Biden to think about just how little has been accomplished in the middle east after decades of involvement. And if Russia is repelled, and Ukraine regains their peace and sovereignty, how long will this last before they expect us to get involved again?

If Mr. Biden asked for my advice, I would ask him if all other avenues have been exhausted. Have all possible diplomatic solutions been tried? Have we exhausted all attempts to dialogue with Putin? I know the media tries to make him out to be a Hitler-type madman, but ever since the cold War, the US has been able to maintain mostly peaceful relations with Russia. What changed? Is there anything we can possibly do to reopen the door for dialogue and peaceful negotiations?

I also would ask Mr. Biden to consider the costs of getting involved. The Federal Reserve is already struggling as they try to control high inflation without crashing the economy. What kind of impact will it have on the poor if they are asked to finance war expenses on top of everything else?

I would also encourage Mr. Biden to take a position that is principled, and consistent. If he views Ukrainian lives as worth defending, why stop there? Why not defend other innocent life? A great place to start would be to start defending the innocent lives of unborn children at home. If Mr. Biden recognizes Ukrain’s secession and independence from Russia, would he be consistent in peacefully recognizing the independence and sovereignty of one of America’s own states if they were to secede from the United States?

Finally, after what has hopefully been a kind and respectful dialog with Mr. Biden, I would ask for permission to ask a more personal question. Mr. Biden, as a Catholic, claims to follow Jesus. I would ask, “Mr. Biden, how do your reconcile your position as Commander and Chief of the most powerful military in the world with your profession to follow Jesus? What difference would it make if your allegiance to the teachings of Jesus were to surpass your allegiance to the United States? What difference would it make if your allegiance to Jesus were even more important than your allegiance to the Catholic church? Is there a chance that you would be willing to forsake everything else, be immersed in baptism, and begin a new life as a disciple of Christ? Would you be willing to become a citizen of His kingdom, and place your hope in the way of the cross and resurrection? Will you become a part of His church? Until Jesus comes back, there will always be plenty of violent men and women who will happily fill the role you currently fill. But in the long run, what hope does this way offer? When Jesus returns, and his enemies are defeated, don’t you want to make sure you are on his side?”

And finally, I would assure Mr. Biden that I am praying for him, and for Ukraine, and for Mr. Putin and for Russia. Because at the end of the day, I am confident that the prayers of faithful Christians will accomplish much more than violence ever will.

Better Bible Study Tip #61: Don’t Use a Study Bible as Your Primary Bible

I’m a big fan of study Bibles. Not only do they include the biblical text, but they also include all kinds of other helpful tools, such as maps, charts, introductions and outlines for each book, cross references, footnotes, as well as essays and articles that help explain difficult passages or concepts. However, even good resources can be misused, and of all the good resources out there, the study Bible is one of the most frequently misused.

The study notes and resources provided in study Bibles should be approached the same way we approach commentaries (see Bible Study Tip #60). Although teachers play an important role in the church (Eph. 4:11), we should always strive to follow the example of the Bereans who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). There is a difference between the inspired word of God and the non-inspired words of teachers who write about the word of God. It is important that we spend more time focusing on the text of the Bible more than on the words of teachers who are seeking to explain the Bible.

For better Bible study, don’t use a study Bible as your primary Bible. Using a regular Bible without study notes will eliminate the temptation to look away from what God has said. I’m not suggesting you should throw out your study Bible. But before you pull your study Bible off the shelf, force yourself to do the hard work of thinking about the text itself. When you struggle to figure out what a text means, meditate on it a little while first. Only by chewing on the text for awhile will you be in a good position to think through the strengths and weaknesses of the essays and explanations provided in your study Bible.

Who is a more reliable teacher? A biblical scholar, or God? When we are overly dependent on study notes, a subtle shift takes place from living by “every word that comes from the mouth of God” to living by “every word that comes from the mouth of our favorite Bible teachers.”

There is no doubt that there are some excellent study Bibles out there produced by wonderful Christian scholars. There is no doubt that a good study Bible can bless your study tremendously. But we must also be aware: if we use them in the wrong way, they may actually distract us from the text they seek to illuminate.

Better Bible Study Tip #53: The Bible is Always True, but the Bible is Not Always Literal

In Amos 9:11-12, Amos prophesies of a day in the future.

In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name.

If we take Amos’s words literally, we might expect that one day some sort of physical structure that once belonged to David will literally be rebuilt. The rebuilding of this physical structure will be connected to Israel possessing the remnant of the Edomites, as well as all other nations called by God’s name.

But the apostle James didn’t read it that way. In Acts 15, when the apostles and the elders met in Jerusalem to hear how Peter had taken the gospel to the Gentiles, James responded by opening to the book of Amos.

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name.”

Acts 15:13-17

James didn’t hesitate to read Amos non-literally. He understood that Amos’s “booth of David” was a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to David’s dynasty (compare this with 2 Samuel 8, where God promised David that he would build him a “house”). James recognized that “Edom” could be understood as a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to all of mankind (the Hebrew word “Edom” is very close to the Hebrew word “Adam” or “mankind”. The book of Obadiah uses “Edom” in this same way).

This doesn’t imply that Amos’s prophecy was untrue simply because it wasn’t literal. “Not literal” doesn’t mean “not true”. It just means that biblical authors were open to using poetic, symbolic, or metaphorical forms of language to communicate truth. If we want to truthfully understand what Amos wrote, we have to recognize that the text was never intended to be taken literally.

This doesn’t mean that we can come up with any sort of weird interpretations of scripture we want. James didn’t just reinterpret Amos to say whatever he wanted it to say. He was reading the text responsibly, by paying attention to how the Old Testament develops certain images. By so doing, he was able to follow how the prophesy was intended to be understood.

For better Bible study, remember that scripture is always true, but scripture does not always have to be read literally.

Better Bible Study Tip #46: Try Hard Not to Filter the Bible Through Your Own Beliefs

There is no such thing as a purely objective bible student. We all have different experiences that shape the way our brain processes information. We all have a tendency to analyze information in such a way that reaffirms our preexisting ideas and convictions. When we study an idea that we already disagree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is wrong. When we study something we already agree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is right.

For this reason, we all need to own up to the fact that we might believe certain ideas only because a belief was handed down to us. We might believe something is true simply because we’ve filtered the Bible through our beliefs.

So what do we do about it? We shouldn’t pretend that we’re immune from being biased towards certain beliefs. The honest thing to do is to acknowledge our own beliefs, and be aware of the tendency towards confirmation bias. Humility is the best friend of objectiveness. It doesn’t take humility to admit when we are right. It takes humility to admit when we are wrong.

In other words, the best way to avoid filtering the bible through our own beliefs is to develop the humility necessary to filter our own beliefs through the bible. We need to be self aware of the need to examine our own ideas just as critically as we would examine the ideas of others.

Better Bible Study – Introduction

I’ve written a series of short articles filled with practical advice for better Bible study. The purpose of these articles is not to teach a particular Bible study method, nor to develop a hermeneutical system, but simply to offer several “tips” that hopefully will help others grow in their ability to study the Bible.

The truth is, I find myself frustrated with the shallowness of Bible discussions I’ve often encountered in churches. Often my frustration isn’t that churches are teaching error. In nearly every church I’ve been associated with, teaching the truth is of upmost importance, and for that I am thankful. But even still, it seems that Bible knowledge seems to be lacking in many congregations. When Christians don’t have their mind filled with Scripture, their minds become filled with the values of the culture they live in. That concerns me. Although there are certainly many notable exceptions, many Christians just don’t study their Bible on a regular basis.

The reason is simple. The Bible is a strange book, and at first glance, Bible study can be really boring. When we’re studying the parts of the Bible we are familiar with, we think “this is good, but I already know what this says.” For the parts of the Bible we aren’t as familiar with, we think “why am I wasting my time reading about Levitical purity laws or long genealogies?” We’re all busy people. It’s hard to continually invest time in something we’re easily bored with.

But I am a firm believer that Bible study isn’t supposed to be boring. The key to exciting and worthwhile Bible study is to learn to think carefully about what you are reading. Learning to think more deeply about the Bible is a skill that can be developed. We have to learn how to ask better questions. We have to learn how to detect and avoid flawed ideas. We can’t simply settle for explanations that aren’t comprehensive enough to satisfy a critical thinker. Learning to think deeply about the Bible is far more exciting and rewarding than simply trying to restart the habit of daily Bible reading. Careful thinking is what allows us to responsibly apply Scripture (even the obscure and strange Scriptures) to whatever circumstances we may be facing in our churches today, rather than simply giving the same prepackaged answers over and over.

These are simply Bible study tips. They are suggestions for things to try. They are words of caution for mistakes to avoid. If another Christian were to ask me for advice on how to become a better Bible student, these are the things I would say. Some tips will be more obvious than others. I hope that you will find at least some of these suggestions helpful as you try to get more out of your Bible study.

Better Bible Study Tip #34: Read or Watch Book Introductions

One helpful thing you can do before reading any book of the Bible is to try to form a tentative but informed idea about the content and historical context of the book. What was going on that caused the author to write the book? What was the author’s goal in writing the book? What is the attitude of the author? What are the main ideas he wants to communicate? Is there a flow or a structure for the material in the book? Finding the answers to these sort of questions can make it easier to track with the main themes and storyline of each book.

This is why I recommend reading (or watching) Bible book introductions. Many Bibles will contain short introductory essays before good books. These are often very short, yet they contain good information. It can also be helpful to consult the introduction section of a commentary. One of my favorite resources is the Bible Project book overview videos. These short videos provide a helpful visual of the books’ structure and main themes.

Always remember the information you learn from book introductions should be viewed as “tentative” until you are able to verify their information with your own study. So while book introductions are helpful, make sure to jot down your own brief notes as you study the book for yourself. What does the text itself reveal about the recipients? The author’s attitude? The specific occasion of the book? Never stop studying for your own answers. But when you are just getting started, book introductions can be very helpful.