Volume Two: Studies in Contrast
Studies in Contrast
To a follower of any big religion today, this truth may sound like blasphemy: God is not inclusive, broad-minded, or universalist in His outlook. On the contrary, He’s all about division, separation, and contrast. His path is exclusive, narrow-minded, uncompromising. God’s way is set in sharp contrast with—it excludes—every conceivable alternative.
Don’t take this the wrong way. The Kingdom of God is accessible to anyone who really wants to be a citizen. But there’s a catch, of sorts. Think of it like taking a trip “home” on an airplane. The ticket for your flight is really expensive, much more than you can afford. But your Father has already paid the fare, and He’s eagerly awaiting your arrival. But there’s still something between you and the airplane. You can’t get anywhere near it unless you go through a security check. This is where “exclusive” enters the picture. Getting on the airplane is the exclusive privilege of those who choose to submit to the airport rules—the baggage check, the metal detector, whatever. No one will force you to go through the security procedure—it’s your privilege to refuse to submit to it. But even with a valid ticket in your possession, you can’t get on the airplane if you do refuse. A contrast is thus drawn between those who choose to keep the rules and those who choose not to. But it’s neither your Father nor the aviation authorities who place you in one group or another—it’s you yourself.
Or think of heaven as a big party at God’s house, and the whole world is invited. Although the invitation is universal and inclusive, admission to the party is not: you’re only welcome if you enter His house through the front door, because that’s where the Host is passing out a “garment of righteousness” to everyone who attends: it’s a costume party. So sneaking in through the garage butt naked will get you thrown out, and it won’t even work to put on a disguise and use the servants’ entrance. Yahweh draws a clear line of division, contrasting those who’ve entered legitimately from those who try to crash the party. But since everyone is invited, the only possible reason someone would want to sneak in is that they don’t want to “put on” the imputed righteousness—virtue the guest didn’t actually earn—that the Host is providing. Again, it’s completely your choice—God won’t compel your attendance or force you to wear this “garment of light.” But the fact remains: you can’t get into the party without it.
A third example of exclusivity in an ostensibly inclusive environment: America has an extensive system of Interstate Highways that are freely available to “everyone.” But even here there are restrictions and caveats. You must be in a properly registered vehicle of the correct type (so leave your bicycle or roller skates at home). The operator of this vehicle must have been granted a license to drive it. He must enter and exit the highway only at authorized on- and off-ramps—he may not simply crash through the bushes and get on wherever he pleases. And once on the highway, he must comply with any number of traffic laws. Again, a division—a contrast—is implied, separating those who choose to use the road properly from those who do not. Although the highway is meant for everyone’s benefit, it is, in fact, restricted by law to those who elect to abide by the rules of the road.
So although Yahweh has provided redemption and reconciliation for all mankind, we should not be shocked or dismayed to discover that He won’t force us to accept it, nor will He give it to everybody without any conditions whatsoever. His offer of salvation is indeed inclusive, but its acceptance is exclusive to those who choose to “play by His rules” by honoring His word. That’s why Yahshua declared, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14) There it is again: separation. On the one hand, destruction awaits; on the other, life. And the choice is ours to make between these two paths.
There is therefore something fundamentally wrong with a religious organization calling itself “Catholic,” a word the dictionary defines as “broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broad-minded; liberal; universal in extent; involving all; of interest to all.” That’s actually a perfect description of the “wide gate” and “easy way” that Yahshua warned us to avoid—the way that leads to destruction.
Likewise, the Protestant Christian who espouses an “Onward Christian Soldiers” mentality has missed the point: Yahweh is opposed to forcing anyone into His kingdom. (It can’t be done, in point of fact.) Rather, He made us as creatures of free will: He invites us all to join Him, but He compels no one. Free will, then, separates those who choose Yahweh’s path from those who decline to do so. This separation is a condition known as “holiness”—being voluntarily set apart to Yahweh, set apart from the world that rejects Him.
When Yahshua advised us to “Enter by the narrow gate,” He was emphasizing that the choice of the matter is ours to make. So there is also something fatally flawed about a faith whose supreme goal is to suppress choice—to forcibly subjugate all of mankind under its banner. That was Muhammad’s aspiration: Islam’s very name means “submission.” Its scripture states, “Fight them till all opposition ends and the only religion is Islam.” (Qur’an 8:39) It’s founder said, “I have been ordered to fight the people till they say, ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah’” (The Hadith of al-Bukhari).
The Hindu religion is therefore just as misguided as the others when it insists that God is in everything, and vice versa, for that would tend to make our choices concerning Him—whether for or against—rather pointless. But the Hindu Purana declares (somewhat illogically), “It should be the assiduous endeavour of wise men to attain unto God. He dwelleth eternally in all beings and all things dwell in him…. He is universal soul; all the interstices of the universe are filled up by him; he is one with all good qualities, and all created beings are endowed with a small portion of his individuality.” This universal, inclusive view of God’s nature is actually the antithesis of His holiness—the concept of Yahweh being separate and distinct from His own creation.
I find it significant that God’s process of division and separation goes all the way back to the very beginning, to the creation account. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day. Then God said, ‘Let there be a firmament [or expanse] in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’ Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day. Then God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear’; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:3-10) However He actually did it, God describes the process of making our world habitable as one of repeated division, of creating a series of contrasts between one thing and another—of light from darkness, water vapor from its liquid state, and the sea from the dry land. In the following verses, He would go on to extract life from inert matter, divide day from night, contrast light sources from those that merely reflect it, distinguish animal life from plants, make animal kinds different from one another, and finally, separate man from the animals by “breathing into his nostrils the breath of life”—which is, we’re told, tantamount to “making him in the image and likeness of God.”
Time after time in the creation account, then, we see division, separation, contrasts established by the hand of God. Moreover, every time we see a major partition achieved, God declares it “good.” In fact, when everything was finally split up to His satisfaction, He called it all “very good.” So why do the purveyors of popular religion these days reason that a “God of love” must necessarily be inclusive, with one-size-fits-all principles, shades-of-gray values, and a nebulous or non-existent moral code? Why do they think we’re all equally acceptable, no matter what we do or say? It’s because they insist that a loving God would reject no one, accommodate every belief, and welcome every lifestyle into the fold, ’cause that’s what love is, right?
No! That’s not love—it’s neglect. It’s the way lazy, self-absorbed, careless parents might raise their children: let them live on Skittles and Mountain Dew, because they prefer the taste of those “foods” to meat, vegetables, fruit, milk, and grain. Let them stay up all night watching television, because they like it and it keeps them occupied. Let them ignore their chores, schoolwork, and personal hygiene, ’cause they’d rather play. Don’t take them to the dentist, because it might hurt. Indulge every whim. Hold no principles. Offer no direction. Never say no. There’s a word for a parent who operates like this: unfit. It’s child abuse, pure and simple. And it’s the antithesis of love.
The God of the Bible, on the other hand, has standards. He issues instructions. He rewards compliance and chastises rebellion. These standards, by definition, are divisive: they separate us into two groups—those who adhere to them (that is, those who recognize God’s authority and therefore comply as best they can) and those who do not. It’s not that Yahweh likes the exclusion that our sin brings into the world. I’m sure He’d prefer it if we were all on the same side of the equation: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) “The Lord is…patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (II Peter 3:9) But division is what naturally happens when free will is bestowed upon fallen men: the privilege of choice presupposes the possibility of choosing poorly.
Freedom, as we have seen, isn’t a free-for-all. We need to get a handle on the difference between liberty and license. Liberty—free will, the privilege of choice—is bestowed upon us by God because He cares about our welfare. He wants us to grow, “increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” He wants us to experience the consequences of our actions (both positive and negative), so we can learn from our mistakes. License springs from precisely the opposite motivation: it is granted (or advocated) by one who doesn’t give a flying fig about you or the outcome of your choice one way or another.
But both license and liberty are perceived to be the opposite of force; they’re the converse of compulsion. Satan’s first instinct is to try to exercise control over us—to dominate us, oppress us, and force us to submit. But he knows he’s more likely to fool some people with a well crafted counterfeit than with a blatant fraud, and let’s face it: license looks far more like liberty than it does top-down control, so people have a tendency to confuse the two things. Liberty, however, leads to abundant life, confidence, and the prospect of prosperity—while license leads to anarchy, dissipation, and low self-esteem. The bottom line: an all-inclusive god, a god without standards, values, or even opinions, would be a purveyor of license, not of liberty. This hypothetical one-size-fits-all god is the invention of someone whose only agenda is to obfuscate Yahweh’s concern for the ultimate welfare of mankind. In short, a god without standards is a myth.
A loving God, then, provides liberty, but not license. So theoretically, the only way a loving God could have saved everyone—the only way He could have achieved perfect inclusion—is for Him to have withheld the privilege of choice. With no free will, He could have forced everyone to “dwell in unity.” But this approach is fundamentally flawed because love requires choice: “love” that’s forced isn’t love at all, but something else. Real love is fundamentally different from obedience, compliance, or loyalty. It can’t be compelled, bought, stolen, held for ransom, or even manufactured; it can only be earned. Love can’t be sold or bartered; it can only be given away. Force might manifest itself in peaceful coexistence, good behavior, or societal restraint, but none of that is love. Love is shown when I help my neighbor because I perceive a need and spontaneously reach out to him. But if someone forces me to help him, I have not shown him love; I’ve merely bowed to external pressure. The victim of a mugging has not shown love to his assailant, no matter how badly the thief needed the money. Likewise, the taxpayer has not shown love to the welfare recipient (nor to the bureaucrat who took his cut off the top). Why? Because there was no choice involved. Whether robbed violently on the street, or “nicely” through polite, legal means, the “giver” hasn’t shown love to the taker. He has only bowed to coercion. In fact, he couldn’t show love under these circumstances even if he wanted to. The “robber” has taken not only his money and his security, he has also stolen (in some measure) the victim’s ability to tangibly show his love to others.
In the same way, neither a god who forced our compliance nor one who made compliance impossible by asking nothing of us (i.e., the all-inclusive god of popular religious myth) could be a God of love. As I said, love requires choice. Think about it: the capacity to love implies the capacity not to love. If the object of God’s affection cannot reject Him, then accepting Him is a meaningless concept. Refusing to believe in an all-inclusive god is like refusing to believe in the tooth fairy. There are no consequences. Such a god must by definition suffer fools and wise men alike. He must reward (or at least tolerate) even those who despise and attack him. That’s the most immoral, unjust situation I can imagine.
Enough of this nonsense. Let us consider what Yahweh, through the pen of John, revealed about Himself: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (I John 4:7-8) If God is love, and love requires choice, then God is asking us to make a choice: to love Him or not—that is, to either reciprocate His love or choose not to. But how can we show love to a God who is not physically, corporeally present among us? While you ponder that, consider this: Yahweh is said to be perfect and complete within Himself, which implies that He has no “needs” that we can unilaterally reach out to meet. But does He? Think about it. If His character is love, then it is in His nature to reach out to us—to mankind. Therefore, in order to stay in character, God “needs” to meet our needs. So John observes, “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another…. If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (I John 4:11-12) We can thus show our love to God by meeting the needs of our fellow man—whether physical, emotional, or spiritual.
Doing so, however, requires conscious choice on our part. It is contrary to our fallen nature to love others as we do ourselves. Our natural inclination is to look out for number one—defined in ever widening circles of personal experience: first me, then my family, then my social group, then my nation, and so forth. We defend to the bitter end that which we perceive to be ours, not understanding that it isn’t ours, not really. In truth, everything we are and everything we have are byproducts of Yahweh’s love. So if we were thinking clearly, we would defend Yahweh’s Kingdom and pursue Yahweh’s agenda, not our own, because in the end, that’s where our interests really lie. But make no mistake: choosing such a course of action is a divisive act. It will separate us from those who have not made this choice, or worse, have proactively chosen to serve another god.
Yahshua spoke of this division and His own role in causing it: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter.” (Luke 12:49-53) A parallel passage in Matthew states: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39) Yahshua not only states that there will be division, He declares that He Himself will be its cause. This isn’t the wishy-washy all-inclusive Christ of popular myth. He is, rather, the point of controversy, the bone of contention. The issue is His identity: is He, or is He not, the Messiah, God’s anointed—the one and only Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?
Most of the world contends that He is not, not really. Depending on who you’re talking to, they’ll tell you that Yahshua (they’ll call Him Jesus, of course) was the founder of a new religion, a great moral teacher, or a charismatic spiritual innovator who got Himself executed for his trouble. Muslims are taught that He was a prophet second only to Muhammad (odd, considering they disagreed about everything). Jews (expecting a conquering King) contend that His crucifixion (at their hands) proves He was a false Messiah. Hindus tend to see Him only as a supreme model of humankind—one to be imitated and referred to (again, odd, because He was executed as a common criminal). Buddhists have toyed with the idea that He could have been a bodhisattva, one of those rare beings committed to the redemption of all life. The Baha’i Faith considers Jesus to have been a manifestation of God—one of several. But Sikhs opine that He could not have been God because He had a human body. Catholics insist He was God, but they have trouble with the concept that His death could completely atone for one’s sins—His sacrifice is deemed insufficient: it needs a little help in the form of alms and penance and intervention from saints. Many Protestants, despite their denominations’ official doctrinal positions, act as if Jesus is more or less irrelevant—preferring to pursue a “social gospel” of charitable works and political correctness. And atheists, unwilling to admit the possibility of God’s existence, think everybody else is deluded and naïve. (Oh, and by the way, if there is no God, there is no such thing as sin, either. Convenient, no? That means that for them, there is only one real rule in life: don’t get caught.)
But some of us (comparatively few, it appears) believe, accept, and rely upon the premise that Yahshua (a.k.a. Jesus) was Yahweh’s sole solution to the problem of mankind’s estrangement from Him. At the very least, we believe the historical record of the Gospels—that Yahshua was God who came in the form of a man, that He lived a sinless life, that He died voluntarily to atone for our sins, and that He rose from the dead under His own power on the third day, proving His deity. Most of us never really get very far beyond this baseline faith—I know I didn’t for the first quarter century or so of my Christian walk. The Spirit dwelling within me gave me no reason to doubt that the relationship I enjoyed with my God was real, although I was hard pressed to enumerate the “how” or “why” of it to people outside of my comfortable cultural circle. In short, I was the product of my religious upbringing. I believed the tenets of my faith pretty much the same way a Muslim believes in his, or a Hindu, or a Jew, or even an atheist. I had no reason to challenge it.
It was a sobering epiphany for me, then, to realize that my Christianity was largely the result of having been born to Christian parents in Los Angeles, rather than to Muslim parents in Baghdad, Hindu parents in Delhi, or atheist parents in Moscow. What would I have believed if I had been raised in a different culture? I never really began to doubt my faith, you understand, but as I pondered this, I came to the conclusion that if my beliefs were based on something real, then the deeper I dug, the more solid the foundation would prove to be—and vice versa.
The “house” in which I had been living was the New Testament, but if Yahshua was right (see Matthew 7:24-27) this house would prove to be only as good as its foundation—the Hebrew scriptures: the Torah, Psalms, and Prophets. So I dug. I dug deep. I studied prophecy, and discovered that the correlation between what Yahweh had predicted and what actually happened was astonishingly accurate—far beyond the possibility of coincidence or conspiracy—especially in regard to the Messiah’s advent. But the real treasure trove of evidence (to my mind, anyway) was found in the Torah, the Law of Moses.
On the surface, the Torah looks like a compendium of rules, regulations, and rituals, many of which couldn’t be kept today even if we wanted to. And if we’re honest with ourselves, they appear at first to be the demands of a micro-managing control freak of a God. It’s no surprise that the Torah is studiously ignored by most Christians and twisted beyond recognition by our Jewish brothers. But when I began to look at what it all meant—when I looked at it not as a compendium of religious rules but as a presentation of prophetic symbolism—the whole thing began to make sense. In imagery that was as detailed as it was stunningly beautiful, Yahweh was explaining through His instructions to the newly liberated nation of Israel precisely what His plan for the redemption of mankind would entail. In terms that could still be clearly understood thousands of years later, He asked His chosen people to act out, as if on a stage, the most poignant drama one could possibly imagine. The Torah revealed the process through which He, the Creator of the universe, would redeem, reclaim, and reconcile to Himself the lost and dying object of His affection: us.
It may seem to you that I’m rambling. I’m not. I’m merely trying to explain how I finally came to realize what this separation under God’s plan—the counterintuitive division and lack of peace with the world’s system that Yahshua predicted—is all about. It can all be boiled down to one word: holiness. The Hebrew noun is qodesh, meaning apartness, sacredness, separateness, the state of being consecrated. It’s based on the verb qadash, which means to consecrate, sanctify, dedicate, to separate or be separate—set apart in honor. Because Yahweh is holy—separate from His creation, outside and beyond it—we who follow Him are to be holy as well: we are to keep ourselves set apart from the world, dedicated instead to Yahweh and His kingdom. Like oil on water, we who love Him cannot be assimilated by the world’s godless agenda; rather, nature demands that we rise above it, for we are in fact different, separate, disconnected from and incompatible with the world.
Let us then celebrate the contrasts God has revealed in His word. They can teach us something we all tend to forget: understanding the journey is necessary if we wish to appreciate the destination.
(First published 2013)