Cardboard People (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

"homeless - please help" signIt’s almost an American cliche now: A long-faced, disheveled person standing on a street corner with a “PLEASE HELP” cardboard sign. In Martinsville, IN (where I live and preach), most of the “cardboard people” (for lack of a better term) line up on the street corners outside of the hub of civilized society: Wal-Mart. They’ll line up with cardboard signs like “WILL WORK FOR FOOD,” “HOMELESS” or “HOPE FOR CHANGE” and knock on your car windows while the stoplight turns red. I’m noticing that an increasing number of these people are women with small children. You’ll mutter under your breath, hoping that the light quickly turns green while trying to avoid eye contact. When your small child in the backseat annoyingly asks why that person is begging outside in the cold, you insist that your child just ignore them. Drive on in a cloud of dust and a flash of taillights.

Recently, I had the following awkward conversation with another Christian about a “cardboard person” while idling in my car:

Other Person: “That person has too many words on their sign.”

Me: “Hunh … So what?”

Other Person: “That means that they’re far too educated to be standing on a street corner begging. It’s probably a scam. I judge whether a person is genuinely poor by the number of words on their sign and whether the words are spelled correctly.”

Wow.

I’ve discovered that the usual Christian response to the “cardboard people” is to tell some fantastical over-embellished fish tale of how their friend’s neighbor’s hairdresser’s minister one time brought a beggar food or bought them a meal instead of giving them cash. Or complain about how that beggar will probably want to buy cigarettes, hard liquor and copious amounts of Columbian cocaine instead of food. And then quickly peel out like the Delorian from Back To The Future without offering that “cardboard person” any assistance at all.

Increasingly, I’ve also noticed Christians have started quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10 in relationship to the poor: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” And it’s used as a nice, semi-polite way of saying: “Get a job. God told you so.” So here’s the question: Is it correct to apply 2 Thessalonians 3:10 as a general rule to the poor? Let’s back up and explore the context of this verse.

In both of the letters to the Thessalonian church, the apostle Paul addresses a group of open “idlers” (read: lazy people) in the church body that are capable of working but refuse to work. The reason why the “idlers” refuse to work remains unstated. Many commentators will argue that the “idlers” refuse to work because they feel that the return of Christ is imminent, but there is no solid textual evidence to fully support that claim. Maybe they just decided it was easier to play PlayStation all day in their mom’s basement. We simply don’t know. In 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, Paul first commands all capable church members to engage in work:

Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. – 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 (ESV)

In the ensuing time between Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, the problem with the “idlers” must have festered within the church, since Paul’s second address to the problem in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 is far harsher:

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. – 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 ESV

In both passages, the principal reason why Paul desires to restrict the “idlers” is a “brotherly” concern. The “idlers” were eating the bread that others had earned and were becoming a unnecessary financial burden upon the working believers in the church (2 Thessalonians 3:8, 12). And the burden of the “idlers” hurting the entire group. Essentially, the “idlers” were created a disorder within the church by placing their needs above the needs of the entire church body. Paul and his crew worked for their food while in Thessalonica, and he expected that the entire church would imitate that example. In addition, the “idlers” were becoming “busybodies” instead of being legitimately “busy,” getting overly obsessed with the household affairs of other believers. In his first letter, Paul expected that the functioning community where everyone supported each other would earn the respect of non-believers (1 Thessalonians 4:12). Their work ethic and mutual concern for one another was a witness to the testimony of Christ. To Paul, the problem with the “idlers” is no small matter. The problem is so serious that Paul considers the matter to warrant church discipline, calling for the “idlers” to be expelled from the community (2 Thessalonians 3:14).

So how do we apply that passage to the modern church? Essentially, believers should not be an unnecessary burden on their church. When a believer is able to work but sponges off the church, that decision impacts the resources of the entire church. Funds and resources should not be used to help the unwilling while forsaking the unable. Paul isn’t talking about communalism or forsaking private property here … He’s establishing that “love your neighbor as yourself” has real financial consequences. If you truly love your neighbor, you will not become an unwanted, uninvited houseguest for an unlimited timeframe … You will work and provide for one another. Be a hard-working Clark Griswold … Not a freeloading Cousin Eddie. Unfortunately, the church leadership may be put in a position to discipline members that are unwilling to work. Again, the reason for this discipline is ensure that all able believers are working and – therefore – able to financially support one another.

On the other hand, there is a presumption within the passage – as well as throughout Scripture – that God’s people will care for those that are legitimately poor, hurting or marginalized. The Old Testament Law is filled with commandments regarding how the Israelites must care for the poor. God commands His people to freely give to the poor and considers failure to give to the poor as a sin (Deuteronomy 15:7-11). God commands a portion of each harvest be left for the poor, which Ruth and Naomi will later take advantage (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22). Special provisions were provided for sojourners, orphans and widows (Deuteronomy 24:17-22). God commands that anyone enslaved due to poverty be treated like a hired hand (Leviticus 25:39-43). One of the reasons that God brought judgment upon Judah and Israel was their ill treatment of the poor – particularly orphans and widows (Amos 2:6-8, 4:1-3, 5:10-13, 8:4-5; Ezekiel 16:46-50; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:28; Micah 2:9; Malachi 3:9). Similarly, the early church was well known for systematically caring for its widows and orphans. Deacons were established to ensure equitable treatment of all widows, whose care was carried out throughout all the early churches (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Timothy 5:3-16). And James states that the measure of true religion is care for orphans and widows (James 1:27). Repeatedly, Scripture presents an image of God as caretaker of the poor and His followers will imitate that gracious character.

The main problem with the modern Christian’s use of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is not interpretation … It is the way that many Christians stereotype all of the poor with a broad brush as a bunch of lazy scam artists. You hear that tone in the way that many Christians condescendingly presume that every “cardboard person” will go out and buy hard liquor with any financial donation. The horrible thought process runs that the poor are just lazy and the lazy just need to drop their cardboard signs and enter the Wal-Mart to fill out a job application. The problem is the assumption that most of the poor simply refuse to work.

In my many interactions with Martinsville’s homeless population, I have anecdotally found that most of the people that I meet don’t fit the “lazy” stereotype:

  • The young mother whose husband walked out on the entire family for another woman and refuses to pay child support, leaving them financially destitute.
  • The family who was illegally evicted because the landlord didn’t want to fix the rental property where they used to live.
  • The couple who husband lost his job in the last recession and seems to be under- or over-qualified for every job position.
  • The family whose medical bills crippled them into spiraling debt and homelessness.
  • The reformed older man who spent hard time in jail but few legitimate workplaces will offer viable long-term employment to someone with a felony record.

In addition, there are the “working poor,” who work entry-level minimum wage jobs that are struggling to meet the rent and are just one large medical bill away from losing everything. And let’s not forget some of our seniors whose budgets are so tight they practically squeak louder than their hip replacements. Many of our seniors are so poor that they’ll turn down the household heat to dangerously cold levels in the winter just to avoid high electric bills. And so many people are without any savings whatsoever and are one emergency situation or one high utility bill away from being out of the street.

Yes, it should go without saying, but there are a myriad of reasons why people are poor. Duh. When we encounter someone in need, the first thought that pops into our head should not be “lazy,” “scam artist” or any number of awful stereotypes. I have met a few impoverished people whose full time profession seems to be playing Wii, shoplifting, partying with Oxycontin and making babies. I’ve also met families that are Einstein-level brilliant at finding new methods of stealing their children’s government assistance and minimizing their work hours to keep their food stamps. I have met wacked-out pill-heads so perpetually high that they can’t remember the last lie they told you or the last thing they stole from you. But not every poor person is lazy or a scam artist. Not even close. We are far to quick to presume that the poor are unwilling to work and – therefore – they should not eat.

Instead, our first thought should be to imitate Christ and have compassion upon the lost and the broken. In most cases of lack of generosity, the issue is not the person in need … It is the crooked heart of the person clinging to his cash. Lack of generosity is a heart condition. The apostle Paul states in 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Unfortunately, many will give only out of a sense of obligation or acclimation, which is not the type of giving that God desires. Gimmicks of adulation abound in our churches, where givers get their names engraved on everything from the pews to the front doors. Many Christians find it more important to advance their own legacy at the expense of Christ’s mission. In addition, Deuteronomy 15:9-10 states that God’s people must not be “grudging” or “show ill” in their giving to the poor. Our giving to the poor must also be removed from a sense of condescension or ill will towards the poor. The beauty of the Gospel must penetrate the believer’s heart and compels us to give richly as Christ has given richly to us. The believer’s motivation for giving must be an unquenchable desire to be gracious that comes from a radical change of our heart by Christ.

And as we give greatly, God lavishly gives to us. In 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, the apostle Paul tells somewhat of a parable regarding a farmer. If a farmer plants a couple of kernels of seed, then the harvest will be small. If the same farmer scatters a large amount of seed across an entire field, then the harvest will be far greater. So the same principle applies to our giving: Those that give much will be rewarded much. 2 Corinthians 9:11 states: “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” What a principle! God generously provides to believers so that believers can generously provide to others, and – in the end – God will glorified. In an age saturated with prosperity-centered drivel, the modern church is probably most out-of-touch with this truth from Scripture. Wealth, surplus income and social status are not signs of the blessing of God. We must not become like the dragon Smaug from The Hobbit, unswervingly hoarding over our treasure and labeling all guests as thieves. When the believer gives cheerfully and willingly, then God will continue to provide for them so that they can continue to do give.

Here’s what we should do when we encounter a “cardboard person”: Give them some money. Or – at minimum – give them something to help. And here’s where the protests begin: What if they buy cigarettes and porn? What if they buy liquor and weed? What if they buy non-nutritious Cheetos instead of broccoli (yes … I have heard this argument)? What if they hire a terrorist Marxist prostitute on acid? What if they buy a Red Rider BB gun and shoot their eye out? What if … What if … What if? And here’s my big, fat response to your protest: So what? (Add giant raspberry sound effect here.) My heart is to be generous as Christ was generous with me. And for that matter, why not pray with them? Why not actually bother to give them food or buy them lunch? Why not invite them to your church … And offer them a ride to boot? Why tell the fish tale of that one time that pastor bought food for a “cardboard person” if you’re perfectly unwilling to do the same? Call me naive but I’d rather be labeled as a sheep than a goat by my Father in Heaven (Matthew 25:31-45). We may not be able to earn or give our way into Heaven, but generosity should be the mark of person who has been given riches in Christ.

My prayer is that Christians would give so generously, lavishly and extravagantly that the world would call it complete foolishness. As John Bunyan once said: “A man there was and they called him mad; the more he gave, the more he had.”

St. Augustine and the Naughty Nuns (Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin)

SmokingNuns

Back in 2010, Eminem, who is no stranger to controversy, stirred up yet another controversy with his duet with Rihanna: “Love The Way You Lie.” The song explores a highly combustible, abusive relationship, which is compared to a volcano meeting a tornado. While the characters’ passion for one another fuels the fire of the relationship, the couple frequently descends into fits of knife-fighting rage, complete with hair pulling, cursing, punching out drywall and punching out each other. The cycle of warm fuzzy feelings transforming into fist fighting plays daily like a broken record. After the woman finally escapes the relationship, the man earnestly apologizes and begs for her return … Then pronounces that if she ever leaves again, he’ll tie her to the bed and set the house on fire. Sounds like the guy you want to bring home to meet your mom and dad, right?

Throughout the years, one of the difficulties for Christians is how to reconcile the seemingly competing views of the God who sent His only Son to die for us and the God who wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah in a hail of fire and brimstone. How do you adequately explain how God is simultaneously wrathful and loving? Many ham-handedly describe God in terms similar to the abusive relationship from “Love The Way You Lie”: “God loves us with a great, combustible passion … But is prone to fits of wrath.” How do we avoid describing God as a bi-polar monster that loves you one moment but ties you to the bed and sets the house on fire in the next moment? Many modern Christians suggest the cliche “love the sinner, hate the sin” as the correct alternative. But is this cliche really any better description of the wrath and love of God?

The phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” is most commonly attributed to St. Augustine, who turned the phrase in his Letter 211 in 424 AD. The letter rebukes the nuns of a monastery where Augustine’s sister had been prioress (meaning head honcho nun-in-charge). The quote comes from a portion of the letter where Augustine warns the nuns against making “wanton looks” at men or being the subject of men’s wanton desires. Augustine then explains how the church discipline process (from Matthew 18) would apply to a “naughty nun.” In the midst of this discussion, Augustine describes the merciful attitude that believers should have when the church rebukes and corrects another believer’s sinful behavior:

When convicted of the fault, it is her duty to submit to the corrective discipline which may be appointed by the prioress or the prior. If she refuse to submit to this, and does not go away from you of her own accord, let her be expelled from your society. For this is not done cruelly but mercifully, to protect very many from perishing through infection of the plague with which one has been stricken. Moreover, what I have now said in regard to abstaining from wanton looks should be carefully observed, with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin, in observing, forbidding, reporting, proving, and punishing of all other faults (St. Augustine’s Letter 211).

Let’s establish this point from the outset: St. Augustine more or less coined the phrase “love the sinner but hate the sin” as a description of how Christians should behave in the church discipline process. He’s (apparently) talking about about those man-chasing “cougar” nuns that like to flirt with men and can’t keep their naughty bits covered. It’s hard to believe that this was a serious problem in 424AD, but – in respect of his sainthood and all that – we’ll give St. Augustine the benefit of the doubt.

In an attempt to better describe the love and wrath of God, the modern Christian cliche “love the sinner, hate the sin” has emerged in an attempt to capture the often-perplexing paradox of how God can simultaneously demonstrate wrath and love for mankind. There are hints of Biblical truth within the cliche. In His perfect holiness and justice, God is opposed to the open rebellion of sin (Romans 1:18-32). Yet, God loved us while we were still sinners and the enemies of God, and sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the price for our sin (John 3:16; 1 John 4:7-21).

On the other hand, the Bible really does speak of God’s wrath against sinners – not just their actions. Consider the following verses:

  • Psalm 5:4-6: For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
  • Psalm 11:5-6: The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.

And there are plenty of other verses in the Psalms about the God’s wrath resting on the sinner. Similarly, the New Testament also speaks God’s wrath being against both the sin (Romans 1:18) and the sinner (John 3:36). If we do believe that the Bible is the inspired truth of God, we cannot overlook or ignore these passages. These perspectives must be fully integrated into our theology.

In close conjunction to the passages about God’s wrath resting upon sinners, God also metes out some severe punishment in response to sin. Shortly after the Fall and the entrance of sin into the world, God states that He “regretted that He had made the man on the earth, and was grieved in His heart” (Genesis 6:6). Then God proceeds to wipe out all of mankind with the exception of Noah and his family, whom He send the ultimate cosmic escape clause in the form of the ark. Then, God permanently erases Sodom and Gomorrah off the map in a rain of fire and brimstone … And then turns a woman into a pillar of salt just for turning back and witnessing the destruction. Hundreds of years later, God states in the Law how the Israelites must relate to the idolatrous people currently residing within the promised land: “You must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:2). When Joshua and the Israelites assault Jericho, they adhere to this command from the Lord to exterminate their conquered foes (with the notable exception of Israelite-sympathizer Rahab the prostitute). The prophets speak of the Exile as the wrath of God being poured out on disobedient Israel. Even in the New Testament, mention of the wrath of God appears twenty-five times. And the final image that we have of Jesus in the Bible is of a warrior king wielding a sword and robe dipped in the blood of His slaughtered enemies (Revelation 19). Again, these examples of the wrath of God cannot be ignored … It must be integrated into our theology.

Confronted with the dual imagery of wrath and love directly in Scripture, there are only a few options of how to deal with these seemingly competing images. You can argue like the first church heretic, Marcion, that there are two different gods: The Old Testament god of wrath and the New Testament god of love. Similarly, you can argue that God took some time to mellow out and pop a Xanax between the Old and New Testaments, taking on a more grandfatherly, sweeter disposition. You can argue that God is like a bi-polar incredible Hulk, unable to control His violent mood swings. Or you can declare that God is still justifiably wrathful about our sin with bullhorns and homemade picket signs while standing on a soapbox on the sidewalk.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” seeks another option: To argue that God isn’t really mad at you … He’s mad at your sin. In certain instances, this cliche seems to make some legitimate sense. In our modern therapeutic culture, we have recast many sins into afflictions and additions that can be permanently remedied given proper time laying on the counselor’s leather couch and pharmaceutical assistance. Vices of gambling, sex, pornography, pedophilia and thievery are commonly cast as complex additions that can be exorcised through loving ones self, higher self-esteem and 12-step meetings. Within this context, a woman could legitimately say to her adulterous husband: “I love you but I don’t like it when you stay out all night, tell me lies, go to extraordinary lengths to deceive me and have sex with multiple different partners.” The spigot of that unfortunate behavior just needs to be shut off. In this manner, a person should not be defined by their sins, mistakes or failures, because that person can always just stop that behavior.

Here’s the problem: “Love the sinner, hate the sin” fails because you can’t really draw a distinction between a person and their sins. The cliche boils sin down to merely an action or – at most – an addiction. That’s not what the Bible states about sin. Sin is an impurity that infects us (Isaiah 64:6). Sin is an inherited depravity that is part of our fallen human nature (Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12). Sin means an willful and open hostility to God (Romans 8:7). Sin is an open rebellion against the worship and rule of God (Isaiah 1:2). Sin means resistance and fighting against God (Acts 5:39, 7:51). In sin, there is no one that seeks God or desires God (Romans 3:10-11). Sin is not just what we do … Sin encompasses everything that we are. We cannot shut the spigot of sin off. Perhaps D.A. Carson describes sin best in Christ and Culture Revisited:

The heart of this evil is idolatry itself. It is the de-godding of God. It is the creature swinging his puny fist in the face of his Maker and saying, in effect, “If you do not see things my way, I’ll make my own gods! I’ll be my own god!” Small wonder that the sin most frequently said to arouse God’s wrath is not murder, say, or pillage, or any other “horizontal” barbarism, but idolatry – that which dethrones God. That is also why, in every sin, it is God who is the most offended party, as David himself well understood: “Against you, only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge” (Psalm 51:4).

Interestingly, that’s why the cliche simply fails in the context of those who believe their thoughts and actions are ingrained as a part of their personal identity. For the LGBT community, their sexual identity is a celebrated part of who they are, and it simply cannot be turned on or off like a spigot. In this context, people wind up hearing “love the sinner, hate the sin,” and translate that cliche into a confusing message of how God loves and hates them simultaneously. And the Gospel message should not be clear as mud. For this reason, the LGBT community is actually correct in pointing out the simplistically bankrupt nature of this Christian cliche. Apart from Christ, our sins are our identity.

Fortunately, there’s another alternative to the cliche. God’s love is far different and greater than our limited understanding. God doesn’t love us but hate our sin – as if the two things could be reasonably separated. God loved us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). We were enemies of God (Romans 5:10). We were objects of wrath (Acts 17:11). We were dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1). We were children of disobedience following our own passions and desires (Ephesians 2:2-3). We deserved death for our rebellion against God (Romans 6:23). But God knew (and knows) about our sins, hangups, problems, rebellions and innermost evils but loved us anyway (1 John 4:9-10). Like Gomer in Hosea, we have prostituted ourselves out to lesser gods but the true love of Jesus Christ has purchased us back and reconciled us to God. In this light, “love the sinner, hate the sin” is not only a complete cosmic cop-out … It unjustifiably diminishes the majesty and the might of the great love of God. God’s love is greater than all of our sin.

There is also much to be said about God taking the initiative to restore our broken relationship. There’s a big fat theological word called “propitiation,” which means to appease the wrath of an authority. In the Old Testament, the Israelites propitiated the wrath of God through various sacrifices offered at the Temple. In the New Testament, the wrath of God has been propitiated through the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23-25; Romans 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). In Classic Christianity, theologian Thomas Oden describes this propitiation:

It is not that human beings conciliate God, but that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19). God does not passively wait to be reconciled but actively goes out and humbly suffers for sinner to reconcile them. God does not wait for humanity to approach but approaches humanity. The saving event is not about God receiving our gifts, but God giving His own gift, His Son, in order to offer us the benefit of salvation. The Word tabernacled in our nature. Our humanity is enriched by his coming to dwell with us. 

God has made the first move to restore our relationship … And it’s up to us to respond. To paraphrase Mark Driscoll: Jesus shed His own blood instead of demanding our blood. For those that trust in Jesus, the wrath of God has been fully satisfied in the beauty of the cross, where mercy and justice kiss. For those that don’t trust in Jesus, His invitation remains extended during this lifetime.

Which brings us all the way back to St. Augustine and his naughty nuns. Lost in the popular debate regarding God’s unconditional love is the notion of God’s transformational love. The love of Christ radically transforms us into new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), changing our hearts and renewing our minds (Romans 12:1-2). Believers hate the lingering slavery to sin within us that hinders us from fulfilling Christ’s desire for lives (Romans 7:21-25). Whenever a believer gives a “wonton look” like a naughty nun, it occurs because the bondage of sin still lies within us. It occurs because – as Paul ineloquently states in Romans 7 – we do what we don’t want to do. The lingering bondage of sin should drive us – like Paul – crying out for more cleansing from our Savior: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25). And we must trust that Christ is actively washing His beloved bride clean (Ephesians 5:25-27) and that God is actively disciplining the children that He loves (Hebrews 12:3-11). And the role of the church is encourage and hold believers accountable in their ongoing transformation from a naughty nun to the image of Christ.

It’s well past time to stop casting stones at believers who long for Christ’s deliverance from sin and the pursuit for holiness. God’s love is transformational and we should long for that transformation. To remain content in the bondage of sin is antithetical to the transformational love of God. God demonstrates His love by changing us and turning our hearts away from sin.

In short, God does not “love the sinner, hate the sin.” God simply loves sinners. And the way that He demonstrates that love is by setting sinners free from the bondage of sin.