Cover Story

Listening and learning

Issue: "All in the family," March 2, 2002

Let's start with an acknowledgment that Christians have much to learn from Judaism, starting with its emphasis on every-hour thanksgiving as a key to worship. Carrying out the injunction, "Thank the Lord for His goodness" (Deuteronomy 8:10), rabbis traditionally have emphasized training in short prayers that punctuate the day, with thanks to be offered on hearing news, eating food, drinking wine, or taking in fragrant smells or violent weather. Some 100 berakhot (blessings) are standard. The Babylonian Talmud even includes a prayer upon urinating: "Blessed is He who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and many cavities."

Many Christians have tried to develop the same consistency in spiritual consciousness; Stonewall Jackson trained himself to thank God every time he took a drink of water. That type of emunah (faithfulness, steadfastness) is a mark of belief. In our churches we sing about God, "Great Is Your Faithfulness," yet we sometimes forget that faithfulness is a communicable attribute of God, which means that those with faith in Him can be expected to show faithfulness as well. (For example, Psalm 119:86 and Lamentations 3:23 refer to God's emunah, Exodus 17:12 and Psalm 119:30 to man's.)

Christian testimonies have often emphasized conversion and sometimes ignored emunah, even though that is the greater test. (Billy Graham has observed that three of four new converts at his crusades do not stick.) Rabbis have traditionally and rightly noted that emunah is not the faith of a moment but the faith of a lifetime, and that inevitably shows itself in the way we live. That bridge is lost when we talk only about the "moment of decision." A new emphasis on emunah in Christianity could, through God's grace, revitalize churches.

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Rabbis have also emphasized that this world is important, and that the satisfactions of marriage, family, and lawful entertainment are part of God's tender mercies. The Westminster Confession's famous catechism question is, "What is the chief end of man?" The answer is, "To glorify God and enjoy Him forever." But a Christian tendency toward otherworldliness has led many to forget that "forever" begins right now. Enjoying God now is a mark of trust.

This becomes clearer when we really know the Bible-which means the Old as well as the New Testament. Christ met with Moses and Elijah; often Christians do not. Many churches emphasize so much the preaching and teaching of one-fourth of the Bible, the New Testament, that the Old Testament's import is minimized. That practice unconsciously mimics the heresy of Marcion, who argued in A.D. 138 that Christians should not treat the Old Testament as authoritative, in part because God in the Old Testament seemed to him too strict in His law-giving and backing of battles.

Marcion was excommunicated in A.D. 144, and his belief declared heresy, but that heresy keeps marching on among those who prefer the supposedly kinder and gentler God of the New Testament. Judaism of course does not recognize the New Testament as coming from God, and we'll see that traditional Judaism often pays more attention to the Talmud than to the part of Scripture that it does recognize. Still, Christians who cannot identify Jepthah and Josiah do not fully understand the import of Jesus.

Learning from the whole Bible is the key to life, and learning history is a key to worship. Contemporary evangelicalism is at times ahistorical, with sayings or songs more than 20 years old considered part of ancient history. That sensibility not only tosses away the treasures of the past but leads us to treasure less the present, because we do not understand how God providentially has rooted out evil kings and terrorists throughout the generations. An overemphasis on history can lead people to live in the matrix of the past, but Christians can learn much from the way those called by God have helped to transform the surrounding world.


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