Friday, January 29, 2010


In the prologue to the play J.B. by Archibald MacLeish, two aged characters, Mr. Zuss and Nickles, discuss a play about Job and who would play the main character.
Mr. Zuss: “Oh, there’s always someone playing Job.”
“All we have to do is start.
Job will join us … Job will be there.”
Nickles: “I know. I know. I know. I’ve seen him.
Job is everywhere we go.
His children dead, his work for nothing,
Counting his losses, scraping his boils,
Discussing himself with his friends and physicians,
Questioning everything – the times, the stars,
His own soul, God’s providence …”

At the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, TX, I taught an evening class entitled, Job: The problem of faith, suffering and evil. I taught it a number of times and in every class, most of the students were middle-aged or older. One of the optional topics for the term paper was, “Have you, or has someone you know, ‘played the part of Job’?” The students were to tell the story, including not only the suffering part, but the resolution – how God was perceived, etc.

This was a favorite topic; every paper was about the student’s personal experiences. I read about physical, mental and emotional problems, about physical, mental and emotional abuse, about the loss of loved ones, whether through death or alienation. One theme I found in some (though not all) was that there seemed to be no resolution. I suspect that may have been why those folks were taking the class.

The book of Job is very much like those papers. Though many of our questions are answered in the book, many are not. And even more questions are raised by the book. We’d like to think of the Bible as just containing neat little answers to all of life’s questions, but it doesn’t always do that. It does, however, provide guidelines, though we often have to dig hard to find them.

Job’s speeches throughout the dialog with his friends appear random when we first read them, but as he listens to their harangues, his own concepts seem to take form. He cannot simply attempt to refute their bad theology and interpretation of his problems; he is forced to develop a theology of his own, which he does. However, he does not lay his thoughts out in clear logical fashion; rather he moves back and forth, sometimes even contradicting previous statements. But he does make progress.

Job, like his three friends, is ignorant of the heavenly wager. He also buys into their “prosperity theology” – at least at first – and would even buy into their syllogism, except for one fact: he knows that he has not sinned. He agrees with his friends that God punishes sinners, but believes that God is punishing him and he’s not a sinner. Therefore God is either acting unjustly or unknowingly, though it’s not clear whether the first alternative ever occurred to Job. So then, while God is all powerful He is not (in Job’s thinking) all knowing.

The following is my brief attempt to systematize Job’s thoughts:

1. He feels he is innocent and longs for release through death.
“Oh, that my request would be granted
And that God would grant my desire
And that God would be willing to crush me
And let go His hand and cut me off!
Then this would be my consolation
As I writhe in unsparing pain
That I didn’t deny the words of the Holy One” (6:8-10).

2. God is punishing Him unjustly. Frequently he turns from his friends and speaks directly to God.
“Have I sinned? What have I done to You
Watcher of men?
Why do You make me Your target,
So I am a burden to myself?
Why don’t You pardon my transgression
And pardon my iniquity?
For now I’ll lie down in dust;
You’ll seek me but I won’t be!” (7:20, 21).

3. Perhaps if God had all the facts, He’d quit punishing Job, so Job demands a hearing before Him, even though he knows he’d probably lose. But there’s a glimmer of hope.
“If one wanted a trial with Him,
He wouldn’t answer one charge in a thousand” (9.3)
“How then can I answer Him,
And choose my words before Him?
For though I am right, I could not speak out;
I would have to plead for mercy from my Judge” (9:14, 15).
“But I would speak to the Almighty,
I want to argue my case with God” (13:3).
“Though He slay me,
I’ll still trust Him –
But I’ll argue my case before Him!” (13:15).

4. Job feels he needs an Arbitrator between himself and God. He uses five different Hebrew words.
“There is no umpire (MOKEYAH) between us,
To lay his hand on us both” (9:33).
“Surely now my witness (‘EDI) is in heaven,
And my advocate (SAHADI) is on high.
My friend is my intercessor (MELISAY)
My eye weeps to God,
Let him arbitrate (YAKAH) between a man and God,
As between a man and his neighbor” (16:19-21).

5. Yet Job fears dying before he can present his case.
“For a few years will pass
And I will go the way of no return!” (16:22).

6. Then Job wrestles with the possibility of life beyond the grave and comes to an amazing conclusion. There is! And not only that, Job has a Redeemer, a Vindicator, one who can rescue him from his helpless condition.
“For there is hope for a tree
If it is cut down it will renew itself
Its shoots will not fail” (14:7).
“But man dies and lies prostrate;
Man expires and where is he?” (14:10).
“So man lies down and does not rise.
Until the heavens are no more,
He will not awake or arouse from his sleep” (14:12).
“If a man dies will he live again?
All the days of my struggle I will wait
Until my change comes.
You will call and I will answer …” (14:14, 15).
“Where then is my hope?
And who will see hope for me?
Will it go down to Sheol?
Shall we go down together to the dust?” (17:15, 16).
“But I know that my Redeemer lives.
In the end He will arise from the dust!
Even after my skin is destroyed
I will behold God while in my flesh.
Whom I myself will behold,
And my eyes will see, and not another!” (19:25-27).

Job has wrestled through and come to a resolution. He knows he does have an Advocate and that he will be vindicated in the afterlife. We’re not told how he reaches this conclusion. Is it through direct revelation? Or is it that his sense of God and justice forces him to it? I believe it is the latter. If he believes that God is a just God, if he believes that life is full of injustices, he is forced to see justice as being dealt in the afterlife.

Job continues ranting after this. He doesn’t wrap it all up neatly for us. The book continues in a messy fashion. But the concepts Job develops find clearer expression in the New Testament. There is an Advocate! There is a Redeemer! He is One who can “lay His hand on us both,” One who is both God and Man, One who has died to redeem us: Jesus!

“There is one God, one Mediator also between God and men, himself Man: Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all …” (1Timothy 2:5, 6).

Bill Ball

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


How to be a Miserable Comforter

What do we do when confronted with grief? When a friend or acquaintance or a total stranger lets go with apparently uncontrollable outbursts of tears, screams, complaints, rage, sometimes even tirades against God?

Don’t you feel you’ve just got to say something?
“It’s God’s will.”
“The Lord moves in mysterious ways.”
“There’s a reason.”
“Whom the Lord loves, He chastens.”
“You’ve got to be strong.”
“Don’t cry.”
Or perhaps quote some Bible verse that has the answer.

Here are a few things that I have actually been told, when I was going through “the slough of despond:
“You’re too negative. You’ve got to change your attitude!”
“When are you going to learn what God is trying to teach you, so that He can let up?”
“Perhaps you could tell us what you did wrong so that we can learn from your failures.”

Job’s friends were like that, it seems. They sat quietly with him until he spilled his guts. Then they felt they had to speak! The greater part of the material in the book of Job is in the form of a dialog of sorts – perhaps it could be called a debate – between Job and his three friends. It’s not clear whether the speeches were totally extemporaneous; some think they may have been previously prepared, even written down. The speakers often seem to ignore things previously said by the others, thought sometimes they do respond, even quoting (or misquoting). Perhaps we could say that each speaker had an idea of what he wanted to say before he arrived, then modified his speech as he perceived the need.

It seems reasonable to assume that whatever amount of previous preparation went into the friends’ speeches, they had some agenda agreed on before they arrived. They knew before they arrived what the problem was. Job’s rant in chapter 3 only confirmed their views. Job had sinned! That’s all there was to it! There could be no other explanation for his horrible sufferings. At least none that meshed with their theology. Perhaps we could state the views of Eliphaz and the other two in the form of a syllogism:
God only punishes sinners.
God is punishing Job.
Therefore: Job is a sinner.

Of course, we the readers, who have been let in on the heavenly bet, know better. We know that the minor premise is false, which leads to a false conclusion. However, we may attempt to explain Job’s suffering, God is not punishing Job.

Eliphaz, probably the oldest and apparently the wisest of the three, was the principle speaker, with three long (winded) speeches. Bildad also had three, Zophar only two. Between each of the friends’ speeches was Job’s reply.

Eliphaz tears into Job first. He says a few kind words, then dives into his thesis (4:7, 8).
“Remember now, what innocent man ever perished?
Or where were the upright destroyed?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
And those who sow evil, harvest it!”

He continues by telling Job that man can’t be right with God (4:17), that the fool and his family are cursed (5:2-4). This must have been extremely painful to a man who had just lost 10 children. Then he advises Job to submit to God.

The irony is that Job is right with God, that he has been in submission to Him – at least till these three came along!

In his second and third speeches, after Job has made some radically audacious statements, Eliphaz directly accuses Job of all sorts of sins, none of which he has any evidence for.
“Is not your wickedness great?
And is there no end to your iniquities?
You take pledges from your brothers with no reason
And take clothes from the naked.
You’ve refused water to the thirsty
And deny bread to the hungry
You’ve sent widows away empty
And broken the arms of orphans” (22:5-7, 9).

Though the whole book is filled with irony, probably the greatest irony is in Eliphaz’ third speech where he barrages Job with a series of sarcastic rhetorical questions, each of which in Eliphaz’ mind, would have a negative answer (22:2-4).
“Can a man be of use to God?
Or a wise man benefit Him?
Is there pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous?
Or does He profit if your way is blameless?
Is it because of your piety (fear) that He arraigns you?
That He enters into judgment with you?”

We, the readers, know that the answer to all of the above is yes; God does take pleasure in Job’s righteousness. It is because of Job’s piety that he is suffering. Job’s blamelessness is a benefit to God (God wins the bet!). Eliphaz, of course, could never concede, even comprehend this because his view of God is too small. Is Job beginning to understand?

There is, of course, some truth in Eliphaz’ speeches: sometimes suffering is due to a simple cause/effect sequence which is recognizable to all. Most times it is not! And usually we can’t tell the difference. We’d like to. We like to categorize matters – put them in little boxes or baby food jars so that they are easily located. But human experiences and emotions are not like that.

In John 9:1, 2, Jesus and His disciples see a man who was blind from birth. They ask Jesus what appear to be valid questions, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

But Jesus’ answer in verse 3 throws a wrench into all speculations – theirs and ours-- “Neither this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him!”

We just don’t know. But Jesus does. And He cares. The requirement for us is to “weep with those who weep” whatever the cause of their sufferings.

Bill Ball

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


C. S. Lewis wrote two books on suffering. The first, The Problem of Pain was written when he was a younger man, a bachelor. “The purpose of the book,” he tells us, “is to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering.” It is probably the best book ever written on this subject, and has been both an eye-opener and a comfort to many readers, myself included.

Twenty years later Lewis wrote a second book, A Grief Observed after the death of his wife of only four years, Joy Davidman. In this book, more like a journal, he pours forth his grief, his anger and his doubts.

I had been a C. S. Lewis fan for a long time before I picked this one up. It had been years since I’d read The Problem of Pain. I was shocked. No two books could be more different. Here was not a cool, clear, well-reasoned treatise, but a torrent of emotions. My first impression as I began reading was that this book could not have been written by the same C. S. Lewis I knew. But it was!

We have a similar situation in the book of Job. His outpouring of grief, even anger in chapter 3, does not seem to fit with his previous statements of faith (see preceding post). So much so that critics have used the apparent discrepancy as an argument against the unity of the book. But Job, like C. S. Lewis, like anyone who is suffering, has to be allowed to speak in his pain, things that may not seem to harmonize.

Job had apparently been sitting on his ash heap, scraping his sores for months (cf. 7:3), when his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar came to call. The text says that they came “to sympathize (the Hebrew word has the idea of “shake” or “be disturbed”) with him and to comfort him.” We’re told that when they saw him they displayed the signs of grief and sat with him silently for a week, day and night, “for they saw that his pain was great” (2:11-13). Good counselors: they didn’t open their mouths. They were “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19).

Then Job opened his mouth, after his long silence. And the first thing out was a curse. He “cursed his day” – the day of his birth and the night of his conception in a tirade that takes up the first ten verses of the chapter.

Then came the “why” questions: four times the word “why” comes up (3:11, 12 (twice), 20). “Why didn’t I die at birth?” like a hidden stillbirth. Job sees the alternative as a sort of misty afterlife, where both wicked and good, both rich and poor are at rest, a sort of great equalizer (verses 11-19). (More on Job’s concept of the afterlife later.)

Essentially the question is “why be born only to suffer?” (20-23). He feels that death would be preferable to life. God has hedged him in. Interestingly this is very similar to Satan’s complaint that Job prospers because God has “fenced” Job in (1:10).

In 3:25 Job states, “What I feared has come upon me, and what I dreaded has befallen me.” Many have debated what Job’s fear was, but it appears to me that he was not speaking of his personal sufferings, his loss of his family or his loss of prosperity, as much as what these appeared to signify: a loss of the favor of God. He had lost his closest friend!

Perhaps that is what makes suffering so much worse for the person of faith. It is not only the physical pain and loss, even the loss of loved ones. It’s that feeling deep inside that somehow God has turned His back, that He, the great Lover, has ceased to love and is acting in a cruel sadistic fashion toward the former object of His love.

Is life then worth living? Probably Job, at least as we hear him in chapter 3, would say “no.” And why not? Because life isn’t fair. Because the God I had trusted has let me down. He’s dealt me a bad hand and I feel like folding.

But God didn’t make life the way it is. As the Bible teaches elsewhere, sin brought death and suffering into the world. And though God is in control of both death and suffering, He is not their originator.

Life isn’t fair. But Job didn’t have the whole picture. Even at the end of the book we still have questions. But though we – you and I -- still don’t have all of the details, we do have an answer. Life isn’t fair: evil and suffering and death – “the king of terrors,” strike seemingly at random. Yet Jesus has conquered death by suffering it on the cross and by His resurrection. God the Son has entered into this unfair life and borne its unfairness, borne suffering, not just the seemingly random, senseless sufferings of this life, but the sufferings of the next. He has felt, as Job did the anguish of being forsaken by God. From the cross He cried for all to hear: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?”

While you and I may as Job still long at times for death, it’s not a vague somewhere that lies beyond that we expect, it’s eternal life forever with Jesus, where every tear will be wiped away.

Still more to come.

Bill Ball

Sunday, January 24, 2010


I believe that the book of Job was written with the knowledge in mind that its first readers held to what today we would refer to as “prosperity theology,” the idea that God wants us to be rich, that if one lives a godly life he will prosper and if one doesn’t live a godly life he will suffer. Job and his three friends seem to agree on this philosophy.

If we put ourselves in the place of those who were reading the book for the first time, we would assume from the first few verses, that this is the author’s stance. We are told that Job was “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” (1:1). Then we are told that he had seven sons, three daughters, a plethora of sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys and servants and that he was “greater than all the sons of the east” (1:2, 3).

Of course, we would expect a man of Job’s character to be wealthy; after all, isn’t this what was promised in the Bible?
 “How happy is the man who fears the LORD …
His descendants will be mighty in the land …”
Wealth and riches are in his house …” (Psalm 112:1-3).
 “How happy are all those who fear the LORD,
Who walk in His ways” (Psalm 128:1).

The story seems to be going the way we would expect. Job is an example of that “happy” man, of the truth of God’s promise. But then we get a glimpse into heaven, into the workings of God, and we find out that these “promises” don’t always come (or at least, continue) true. We see a meeting between the LORD and Satan, the Adversary, an angelic being opposed to the LORD and Job. The LORD brags on Job, using the same words that we see in verse 1.

Satan argues with the LORD that it’s not the way we might think. It’s not that God blesses Job because Job fears Him; it’s rather, he asserts, the other way around! Job fears God because God blesses Him! That’s a big difference. God has purchased Job’s loyalty. This is an attack on the character of God, rather than the character of Job. Take away the blessings, says Satan, and instead of fearing God, Job will curse Him. The LORD takes the challenge and gives Satan free reign to put his hypothesis to the test. A cosmic bet!

But Job has no idea of the heavenly events, of the workings of God; he hasn’t a clue. There follows a series of horrid events, occurring in rapid succession, in which all of Job’s possessions, even his children, are taken away. Prosperity theology has failed him!

So what does Job do? He goes through the rituals of mourning – tears his clothes, shaves his head and falls to the ground in grief. We can picture him lying there before the rubble in his agony. But then we are told that he “worshipped.” We can almost hear his words (1:21):

“I came naked from my mother’s womb,
And naked I shall return.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.
Blessed is the Name of the LORD!”
We might have reacted differently, but we’re told that “Job didn’t sin nor put the blame on God” (at least not yet).

Then a second heavenly bet – same dialog – only this time Satan is permitted to “touch” Job with anything short of taking his life. Satan hits Job with a horrible skin disease (much greater then “boils” as it’s called in the King James Version). We get descriptions of the symptoms throughout the book: loss of appetite (3:24); worm-eaten, hardened and oozing skin (7:5); breathing problems (9:18); decaying, putrid flesh (13:28); pain, exhaustion, weight loss (16:6-8) and more (16:13; 18:13; 19:17, 20; 30:17, 18, 30; 33:19-22). The sight of Job would be repulsive to us.

Again, Job reacts in faith. Mrs. Job begs him to “curse God and die!” (I believe this was a cry of loving despair; in modern terms, “pull the plug.”) But Job answers her with words of faith: “You’re talking like a fool! Should we accept good from God and not accept evil?”

We are assured again that Job still “didn’t sin with his lips.”

Contrary to our way of thinking, it is not Job’s suffering that calls into question the character of God, it is Job’s blessings – his “prosperity”! Satan accuses God of being a sort of doting old grandfather who has to buy his grandchildren’s love. The “bet” seems concerned more with who God is, than with who Job is.

And even though Job has no idea of the events in heaven, he appears to have some understanding that what is happening is more about God than him.

We’ve seen similar scenes of Haiti on our TV screens. People are pulled bruised and bleeding from beneath rubble after days of suffering and they burst into song, praising God.

We modern Americans have a hard time with this. It offends our concept of justice. It offends our view of God. We like to think of God as that doting gramps that Satan accuses Him of being. But He’s not!

He’s so much more!

And apparently Satan realizes he’s lost this bet. We never read of him again after the first two chapters.

Still more to come.

Bill Ball

Saturday, January 23, 2010


The recent earthquake in Haiti has raised afresh certain questions that lay simmering in the backs of our minds. Even though the response to the disaster worldwide has been tremendous, the questions still seem not to be clearly answered.

 What, if anything did the people of this land do to deserve this/
 Why such horrible destruction?
 Why did some escape, while others were killed or suffered horribly?
 Where is God in all this?

It seems that we all have a desire to make some connection between this disaster and the behavior of those on whom it fell. We seek a sort of cause/effect relationship. We try to tie it together with our sense of justice and a just God. But the pieces don’t seem to fit. On our TV screens we are barraged with images of suffering children, of total chaos, of a city flattened, of 2 million people living in makeshift tents or sleeping on streets, without adequate food or water or medical care. It makes no sense!

One religious leader on TV tells us this should have been anticipated, because 200 years ago Haiti’s leaders made a pact with the Devil and brought a curse. Is that why these children suffer? Are the sins of the fathers being visited on the children? Or is this guy just sticking his foot in his mouth?

Of course these thoughts and questions are not new. They have been the topics of literature, philosophy and religion, I suppose, ever since humankind began.

One early writing on these subjects, although certainly not the oldest, is the biblical book of Job, a book dated by scholars anywhere from 2000 BC to 500 BC, though the late date is improbable. Despite the argument of some that the book is a patchwork pasted together over a number of years, its unity of theme argues otherwise. It is a beautifully written piece of literature, with a narrative beginning and conclusion and poetic discourses sandwiched in between. Its specific genre has been argued: is it a book of philosophy, a drama, a lawsuit or what? It has been called a theodicy. Some have even called it a seminar on suffering.

Whenever it was written, Job seems a very modern book. It deals with the questions on suffering and evil mentioned above. It deals with questions of faith. It also contributes to our knowledge of God, of man, and of Satan – the Adversary. There are lessons to be learned on reacting to suffering and how (not) to counsel the suffering and on whether we are justified in questioning God.

But there is another question that is stated over and over by the various characters in the story:

By Eliphaz (4:17):
 “Can a man be right before God?”
 “Can a man be clear before his Maker?”
By Job (9:2b):
 But how can a man be right with God?”
Eliphaz again (15:14):
 “What is man that he should be pure?”
 “Or one born of woman that he should be right?”
Bildad (25:4):
 “How can a man be right with God?”
 “And how can one be pure who is born of woman?”

It appears that the whole question of suffering is somehow related by the characters in the story to the question of how one can be right with God. Perhaps this is because they, like many of us today, can’t escape the feeling that a person’s suffering calls into question his relationship with God. Or worse, it calls into question the character of God.

More later.

Bill Ball

Monday, January 18, 2010


Quite often, books written by non-Christians (or at least by those who make no claims one way or other) have a way of putting their fingers on ethical problems that Christians seem to totally ignore. One such book is: ON RUMORS: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done by Cass R. Sunstein. Sunstein is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, presently on leave serving as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for the current administration. Though this sounds pretty impressive, he writes in an easy-to-read style. And though the book has only 100 pages, it’s packed with more info than most books four times its size!

The author is clear on his purpose: “This small book has two goals. The first is to answer these questions: Why do ordinary human beings accept rumors, even false, destructive, and bizarre ones? Why do some groups, and even nations, accept rumors that other groups and nations deem preposterous? The second is to answer this question: What can we do to protect ourselves against the harmful effects of false rumors?” (pages 4, 5) The book does an excellent job of answering the first question, though I believe it comes up short of answering the second.

Sunstein gives as his working definition of rumors: “ … the term refer(s) roughly to claims of fact … that have not been shown to be true, but that move from one person to another, and hence have credibility not because direct evidence is known to support them, but because other people seem to believe them.” (page 6)

What to me makes the argument(s) of this book easy to follow is the author’s use of various clear descriptive phrases:
 “social cascades” (we rely on what other people think and do)
 “group polarization” (when like-minded people talk to each other, their thinking gets more extreme)
 “biased assimilation” (“my mind is made up – don’t confuse me with the facts”)
Much of the book is devoted to dealing with the above.

When dealing with how rumors start, he describes the various motivations of propagators: Some are simply self-interested while others are downright malicious. The propagators may be (among other things) involved in investments or in politics, and rumors are begun in order to promote the interests of investors or political candidates.

Political rumors are often propagated to attack an opponent and destroy his/her credibility. We saw plenty of these in the 2008 presidential campaign, and many are still going around.

One matter of curiosity for me was who these propagators are. I receive plenty of e-mails with all sorts of wild rumors, but I don’t think any of my friends actually started them. The book doesn’t seem to have a clear answer to this.

Basically the rumors we accept and pass on are those that reinforce our previously held opinions, whether political, religious, or even “scientific.” We are slow to accept any information that contradicts those hard held beliefs. “We seek out and believe information that we find pleasant to learn, and we avoid and dismiss information that we find disturbing.”

The author points out the distinction between “dread rumors, those driven by fear, and wish rumors, those driven by hope.” Unfortunately these often overlap. We may even be outraged by rumors of a certain person’s behavior (a senator, the President), but they also bring us pleasure, and we are overjoyed if the rumor is confirmed. Depending on one’s political affiliation, many were delighted to hear of Bill Clinton’s or Newt Gingrich’s affairs.

The very traits which make rumors so acceptable are the ones which make them hard to deny. The motives of the denier are often called into question, as anyone who has attempted to deny a rumor can probably testify. Or a thought is expressed something like: “It must be true or he wouldn’t be trying so hard to deny it.”

The problem of rumors is multiplied in our present age of instant electronic communication. Even as we are barraged with more information than we can absorb, so also we are barraged with misinformation. If we like the rumor all we need do is click the “forward” button. No need to think. No need to ask questions. No need for skepticism.

The weakness of the book is its attempts to answer the second question. There are clearly no legal means to deal with rumors as the author seems to admit, and other “chilling effects” can only be hoped for.

We are told we can imagine two different futures: “a dystopian future in which propagators … are rewarded,” or “a future in which those who spread false rumors are categorized as such, discounted, and marginalized.” “The choice between these futures is our own.” Or is it?

If we have a biblical worldview, if we understand original sin, then the “dystopian future” is the more likely. Yet we as Christians do have the option of not giving in to the temptation to become just like the rest of the rumor lovers.

To me the book’s greatest weakness is that it lacks a sense of moral indignation. Rumors are simply a problem. They don’t seem to be considered the evils that they really are.

The spreading of rumors is sin. And not just some personal sin that only involves the person passing them on. Rumors are destructive. They can destroy a person’s reputation. They can distort our understanding of ethical or political issues. They can destroy a company, or a church, or our nation’s economy.

It seems that we Christians can get extremely indignant about certain evils or perceived evils in our nation, but don’t seem too stirred by this evil. Perhaps that is because it is an “acceptable” sin among us.

I have written on this subject before. See: GOSSIP and DO NOT PASS IT ON). I believe I did not speak strongly enough there. I basically recommended not passing on rumors. But I believe we need to do more. We need to be skeptical. We need to check them out thoroughly. We need to confront the rumor monger and challenge him or her to find out the truth. We need to let them know that gossip is sin.

Perhaps this sounds judgmental, but aren’t we being judgmental whenever we pass on rumors?

Anyway, I highly recommend the book. If I were still teaching a course on ethics, this book would be on my bibliography, probably even on a required reading list.

Bill Ball

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


The holiday season is over, so we won’t hear about the above phrase for nearly another year. Perhaps now is the time to say some things.

Many of my friends get upset every year that the word “Christmas” is not used as often as it should be. Apparently our President sent out a generic “Holiday” greeting card, as did his predecessor. (I don’t know for sure, as I didn’t receive a card from either.)

The complaint used to be about “keeping Christ in Christmas”; now it seems to be a fear that the very word “Christmas” is being eliminated. This is perceived as a threat to our “values,” and it would seem, to Christ Himself

But is it really?

During the season, I have usually said, “Merry Christmas” to people, whether I know them well or not. Often I’ve said, “Have a good Christmas,” or something like that. (I can’t see where the use of the word “Merry” has any value.)

But I also often say, “Have a good holiday season” or something similar. After all, there is a pile-up of holidays at that time of the year. I’ve also said “Happy Hanukkah” to Jewish people I know. I don’t say “Merry Christmas” to my Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or even Atheist acquaintances unless they say it to me first, though they usually do. I don’t feel that just a few words with the word Christ in them is that much of a witness (if any).

So my attitude has generally been what difference does it make, if any? Or does God really care what words we use?

But then I got to thinking about the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11). There has been much debate over the exact meaning of this command, especially the Hebrew word translated “in vain” (shaw’). The word has the meaning of “emptiness,” “vanity”, even “falsehood.” One dictionary says “the evidence points to the fact that taking the Lord’s name (i.e. his reputation) ‘in vain’ will surely cover profanity, as the term is understood today, or swearing falsely in the Lord’s name. But it will also include using the Lord’s name lightly, unthinkingly or by rote” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.). Jews today do not pronounce the name YHWH, but instead substitute Adonai.

If we believe that Jesus’ title, “Christ” is the title of Deity, are we possibly using His name in vain when we lightly throw around the word “Christmas”?
Our songs:
 “Have a holly jolly Christmas”
 “Then one foggy Christmas eve, Santa came to say, ‘Rudolph with your nose so bright …’”
 “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you.”
 “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”
Our signs:
 “Christmas Sale”
 “Christmas Special”

Anyway, even if we’re not taking Christ’s name in vain by these usages, I still fail to see how the above uses of His name are in any way honoring Him. Perhaps we would do better to simply say, “Happy Holidays.”

Just a thought!

Bill Ball