Biblical terms we usually misunderstand

Does “saving justice” sound right to you? How about “holy love”? What about “gracious judgment” or “avenging mercy”? They should, but I suspect that for many, or most, of us at least some of these don’t really make sense.

Sadly, I’ve gotten the impression that over time our theological technicalities have led us to miss the actual meanings of many biblical terms. But these are important terms, and when we misunderstand them we misread the Bible and end up with confused theology. So without further ado, I want to list a few terms we tend to misunderstand:

Justice
Often, we think of justice as “punishment for wrongdoing,” but this is overly narrow. In Scripture, especially in the Psalms and the prophets, God’s justice is also connected with salvation, love, and faithfulness to the covenant (see Psalm 98, for example). Biblically, God’s justice is better described as His commitment to “rightness,” to putting things right in creation. This includes both salvation for His people and judgment for the wicked, healing for the hurting and destruction for the evildoers. This also connects with God’s righteousness and faithfulness. In Scripture, God’s justice includes a strong note of faithfully exercising His covenant responsibilities.
Mercy
The most common definition I’ve heard of biblical “mercy” is “not getting the bad you deserve.” Again, this isn’t necessarily wrong to say what it says, but Scripture treats mercy as a larger topic. Mercy in the broader sense is simply to alleviate suffering. If someone is suffering and you help them, it is mercy. This can, and in Scripture often does, apply to people who don’t deserve the suffering they are experiencing, like the exploited poor. But it does apply especially to us who are suffering deservedly under our sin, when God freely rescues us anyone.
Grace
In parallel to the definition of “mercy,” people tend to define grace as “getting the good you don’t deserve.” Again, though, this seems slightly off, although closer to the biblical usage. It seems closer to the biblical use to say that grace essentially means “gift.” The point of the gift isn’t specifically that someone doesn’t deserve what they’re getting, but that dessert has nothing to do with it at all. Gifts are regardless of merit or demerit, and are not specifically about what you don’t deserve (or what you do deserve).

I thought of trying to add some other ones, but these are the bigguns I’ve been thinking about lately, so I’ll leave it at that. Try these alternative definitions out for a test drive in your Bible reading.

Every Lucid Moment

[This is a repost from The Nicene Nerd to help fill the new blog with some content.]

Hazy. That’s  the best word I could think of to describe many of the hours in my average day. I’m not sure what all I did or how much I enjoyed it. During the day I tend to slip into a mode: doing what I do. And at the end of the day I find myself wondering: what have I even been doing?

See, when I think about it, there is quite a bit I’d like to change about my life. I’d like to spend less time on the computer doing mostly nothing and more time enjoying the family God has entrusted to me. I’d like to pray more, and spend more time reading Scripture. While I read lots of random articles and blog posts online, I know I would benefit from reading more real books.

Beyond habits and time management, I have character issues and virtues to work on. I want to become less self-centered and more aware of others. In my relationships I want to be more genuinely interested in what other people say, do, and care about. I’m too arrogant in my knowledge and could use some humility. Perhaps my most practically difficult flaw is my grand introspection, where I inflate my every last mistake into a life-scale issue by tracing out all the flaws in my heart and worrying about my ability to fix them into the future.

All of this deserves my effort and careful attention as I live out my day. I can only make progress if I actually try to. But alas, I don’t usually think about these things until the hour that they become painful problems. After that’s over, I remember my lesson for a while and then forget as I get back into the groove of everyday life. Next thing I know I’m making the same mistakes again. And so the circle goes on.

What I have come to realize is how very necessary it is that I capitalize on the moments when I am thinking and genuinely concerned. During the times in which I am aware of my flaws, I have to make what progress I can before life sweeps away my focus. This is what I usually fear to do, sometimes out of the fear of what might happen if I do change, and sometimes out of the fear that I won’t be able to keep up whatever I wish to accomplish. I find myself too often paralyzed by the awareness of my impending forgetfulness. So then I lose the moment, and the pain which brought me clarify becomes vain.

Obviously, what I ought to do is very different. The lucidity which fills me with fear for my future ability to do right ought to take one more step. When I think even more clearly, I see that any progress I hope to make must start with the moments that I can see that I need it. This means taking the first act, doing whatever I can to grow, instead of doing like I normally will and waste the time fretting over my lack of willpower. I have to capitalize on the times God opens my eyes before they fall shut again.

The best way to do this is to pray. While other actions are also necessary, I must take every lucid moment to pray. After all, there is no way for me to grow apart from the Holy Spirit. My flesh can only do so much, and its fruits are always full of worms. So when I know I am nothing and in need, my immediate response must be to call on the Lord, who gives to all generously and without criticizing. He promises to be my healer, the one who sanctified me and will sanctify me. If I don’t do this, if I wait or let my apprehension keep me from moving, what hope will I have? If I don’t take the opportunity to ask, seek, and knock before I forget what I am looking for, I will only come away empty-handed.

Father, you are my only hope. In Jesus you have created the perfect human life that I so desperately need. So by your Spirit living inside me, uniting me with your holy Son, let me become the man you call me to be. Every time you open my eyes, let me make the move I must make, and pray so you can continue to move me. Then when I am back in the normal course of life, I can trust you to work behind the scenes. In the name of my only Lord Jesus, Amen.

So I find that this law is at work: when I want to do what is good, what is evil is the only choice I have. My inner being delights in the law of God. But I see a different law at work in my body—a law that fights against the law which my mind approves of. It makes me a prisoner to the law of sin which is at work in my body. What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death? Thanks be to God, who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Romans 7:21-25a