Where is God in Esther?

The book of Esther is famous for being the only book of the Bible that does not mention God. Where is God in Esther? Is He just working “behind the scenes”, inferred and “providential”, rather than explicit? And is the God of Esther the God of the gospel that we believe in as Christians?

book-of-esther

I was reading the story again today, and I saw Queen Esther approaching the throne of King Ahasuerus without being summoned. The law of the land was clear about such an action: “…if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law — to be put to death…” (Esther 4:11).

This called to mind Exodus 33:20 where God tells Moses: “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

In fact, under the Old Testament law, only the selected High Priest could step into the inner court (the holy of holies) in the tabernacle (and later, temple). He would have a rope tied to his ankle because in the event that he had overlooked a cleansing ritual and stepped in while unclean, he would drop dead and had to be dragged out.

But then Jesus comes into the world, and He is our clean and perfect High Priest. He has never sinned and does not therefore need cleansing. He does not run the risk of dying when he steps into the inner court and looks at God’s face. He himself in John 1:8 says: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

Only Jesus can see God and live.

So what does this have to do with Esther and her God? The law of the land at the time had a caveat: “…if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law — to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live.” (Esther 4:11)

In other words, when you stepped into the king’s presence, the only reason you would continue breathing is if the king chose to be merciful to you. Otherwise, the only guarantee you had is that you were walking to your death. The throne of king Ahasuerus was a throne of wrath and death for those who approached it uninvited. So was the inner court of the God of the Jews.

Then in steps Jesus, one who has never sinned. This means that Jesus as our High Priest could walk into God’s presence with full confidence that He will live to talk about it! But it gets better! God says that if we believe in Jesus, and look to Him as our High priest, we move into Him and He moves into us. He lives and reigns in us and through us!

This means that we can boldly approach the throne of God because we have confidence that when God looks at us He sees His son. Instead of extending a condemning finger, He extends the golden scepter of grace. He lets us live.

But it gets even better! In the story of Esther, only those who entered the king’s court without being summoned deserved to die. But now, through Christ, God is actually summoning us! telling us to come! We know we can approach Him with confidence of life. And even when we doubt whether we have been called, we know we can still approach Him with confidence that Christ has paid the price of death for us.

“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

(Hebrews 4:15-16)

For the fame of His name,

Cornell

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In Defense of Self Esteem and Other Self-Help Needs

I am currently reading one of those books that people read in secret. You know, those books that would make us look bad and weak and inadequate if people saw them on our shelves? The title of the book does little to help my ego: How to Win Friends and Influence People. You are probably already drawing inferences about why I could be reading such a book — and that, right there, is my point.

I have often sat with among friends and spoke ill of self-help books and the people who read them. It is already tempting to start justifying why I am reading and agreeing with Dale Carnegie in How to Win friends and Influence People. I feel that I should at least explain why I am reading a book with such a “self-helpish” title, but I will not do it, because to do that would be to go against the point of this post. So I put my reputation at your mercy.

Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid - Maslow's Theory IllustratedWell, I said that in order to say this: I think the whole notion of “self-esteem” has received an unfairly bad rap from Christians who want to remain faithful to the Bible. Numerous articles and blog posts and even books have been written to explain why “self-esteem” is an unbiblical concept and an unholy pursuit. I, too, have written my share of tweets and Facebook status updates in the past to that effect. But allow me to play the devil’s advocate and tease out something that I think is important about the idea of “self-esteem”. Allow me to defend self-esteem and, hopefully, still remain faithful to God’s Word.

Why would anyone want to read a book about improving your self-esteem and feeling better about yourself? Why would Joel Osteen sell millions of copies for titles such as Your Best Life Now and Become a Better You? Well, the easy answer is that Osteen and other writers like Myles Munroe or Rhonda Byrne (of The Secret ) are responding to a real need in the world.

People are searching for significance, we want to know and feel and believe that we matter. We crave recognition and we cringe at the notion of being forgettable or dispensable. We yearn to know that we count, and we will do anything and go to any length to attain this significance, and that is why for many of us, the first and easiest step would be to bury our faces in a How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (also by Carnegie).

I hear someone like Victoria Osteen advising people to worship God “for yourself”, and I have to admit that I get her. I can see where she is coming from and what she is trying to get at. I don’t know where her heart is, but my best guess is that she genuinely wants to help people. Many of the people who write self-help books also want to help people — and they do it the best way they know how.

Whether or not they also want to make money and become rich is another matter altogether.Just because I want to make money and be rich through journalism doesn’t make my other motives in pursuing this career (e.g. to speak truth to power and keep the government accountable) any less noble.

So, to the extent that there is a real need for personal edification and validation in the world, to the extent that there is a real need to succeed and win and avoid failure in life, to the extent that we are hardwired to want to be respected and “esteemed”, I fully support the notion of self-esteem. You see, the problem is not self-esteem, or our longing for it, the crux of the matter is HOW we go about satisfying this goal.

What’s even more disturbing is when we begin to speak as if the need does not exist, or worse, as if it should not exist. It is one thing to say that self-esteem should not be our ultimate goal or even a primary objective in life. But it is an entirely different thing to say that it doesn’t matter or that it is a wrong goal. There are many things we yearn and long for in this life, and most of these things cannot be attained by directly pursuing them. Things like contentment, or peace.

There are people who pursue contentment by acquiring things, because they think when they have enough things and enough relationships, they will finally be content. I believe the psychological term for this ultimate end is self-actualisation. They will finally be self-satisfied. Such people are pursuing a noble goal, but they are pursuing a misunderstood goal using the wrong means. To help such people, we should not disparage their goals and longings, instead, we should re-route and re-wire how they think about such longings.

I-can-do-this

This is where and how the Word of God helps us. The Bible does not just provide us with principles to apply when we want to achieve our personal goals. The Bible is more radical, it gives us new goals and new ways to think about old goals. The Word of God sets us right by renewing our thinking, and eventually our lives, to God’s will (His means and ends).

So, is self-esteem evil and is it wrong for a Christian to want self-esteem? I would respond by saying those are wrong questions. The questions assume that we are settled on who a Christian is in the first place. We may discover that if we stepped back from the question and explored what it means to be a Christian, we will discover a message that renders the question of self-esteem moot or irrelevant.

That message is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and this is the message that should define our posture as we explore all subjects regarding human needs and wants and longings in this world. The Word of God is a good place to begin. In fact, it is the only place to begin. And if we trust in the God who authored this word and revealed it to us, we may also discover that this Word is also a good place to stop. Because it is the only place worth staying in.

For the fame of His name

Cornell

PS: This will be among my last posts on Alien Citizens. No, I will not quit blogging, but I am planning to take a slightly different road, which begins by closing shop over here. I will update you all on the great migration. Have a blessed day, friends.

Is the Bible a Work of Plagiarism?

I came across this interesting comic on the web (below). A teacher gave her students the following assignment: What is the “Golden Rule” and its source? The answers she got from her students are quite telling. In fact, many atheists use this example to illustrate why they think the Bible is not the Word of God but a mere fabrication of pre-existing (pagan) traditions.

thegoldenrule

Now, what is fascinating is that all the answers given by the students were correct, and factual. The problem is that some of the people quoted lived centuries before Jesus was born, and yet we often attribute the Golden Rule to Jesus (Matthew 7:12). But Confucius (551–479 BC) and Buddha (480-400 BC) said and taught the same thing and yet they lived hundreds of years before Jesus was born.

Similar examples have been cited as arguments against the validity of the Bible stories. Such as Noah’s flood. Many argue that the story was merely a Jewish adaptation of the Neo-Assyrian Gilgamesh flood myth found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The myth, according to historians, is very similar to the Biblical stories and yet it existed centuries before the supposed period of Noah.

Do these examples disqualify the Bible? Many people believe so. Yet what such arguments against the Bible reveal is the arguers’ ignorance of what the Bible is and what the Bible does. The Bible is not God’s Word because it contains novel (new and unique) ideas about God. In fact, the reverse is the case, all true ideas about God that exist outside the Bible only prove that God is the author and owner of all truth. It is the reason R.C. Sproul has popularized the phrase: “all truth is God’s truth.”

Truth is truth, wherever you find it. To argue that only the Bible contains truth is to actually speak against the Bible, because the even the Bible claims that there is truth about God outside itself. Romans 1:19 actually says whatever may be known about God is available to even those who have never read the Bible. Psalms 19 talks about how nature teaches us about various attributes of God. Even Paul often  quoted pagan sages in the Bible (1 Cor 10:23).

The availability of truth apart from the Bible is actually an argument for God, not against Him. It is proof of His sovereignty — that  God is God over all people and all things, not just the Jews and the Christians. It is proof that those who will never encounter Christianity will not be judged unfairly, because “what may be known about God is “plain” to them (Rom 1:19).

No, the Bible is not a work of plagiarism. But it is a work that seriously needs to be plagiarized by you and me.

For the fame of His name.

Cornell

When ‘good’ professors fail ‘good’ students and how it relates to Christianity.

[By Julie Wang’ombe]

Imagine its exam day at a university. Anyone who’s ever been a student, as I currently am, knows that in any class, there’s a ‘colorful’ range of students. The serious; the cavalier; the ‘brilliant without much effort” the “must work twice as hard to do half as well as the average person” the “school is really not my thing” people etc.

I want to focus on one of these students. The procrastinator. She isn’t stupid, except in so far as procrastinating is stupid. She has known for 10 weeks that the exam is coming and only picked up her notes two days ago (:-/). But when she looked through her notes and the syllabus, she realized that there was far too much content for her to go through in two days. So, what does she do? In an attempt to do her best in the time she has while retaining her sanity, she decides to try and make some informed guesses about what would come in the exam. She decides to take a gamble. Perhaps there were ten topics to be studied, and she chose four thinking “after all only one topic will come in the exam.”

Unfortunately, what she studied for doesn’t come in the test. Instead she finds herself sitting in class, on exam day, staring at a question for which she has absolutely no answer. Panic hits as she begins to envision the big fat ‘F’ that will be her due at the end of the semester. Panic gives way to the self-assurance that worry won’t change things: “You’re here now so think: what’s the best you can do?”. Smart. The student decides to make the best of the situation: she decides to write what she knows, what she studied, not what is needed in the exam paper. She takes a gamble. Maybe the professor, seeing that she at least understands something in the course, will be kinder to her even though she will not answer the questions asked but the questions she had hoped would be asked. She writes her paper, hands it in and hopes for the best.

Have you ever seen this happen?

What do you think a professor should do when faced with such a case? Reading the students exam paper, the professor may adjudge that this student is capable, literate, smarter than average and has a way of reasoning distinctly higher than the rest of the class. But, holding that paper to the exam’s marking scheme, the professor cannot reconcile the answer the student has given with the answer that is required. While the professor may want to be lenient and show mercy it would be, ethically speaking, unfair. What’s the point of a marking scheme if your going to throw it out for one student? Besides, it would be unfair to treat this student different from all other students some of whom have prepared really long, and worked really hard for a good grade. Even giving the student a chance to resit the paper would be, in a way, unfair to the rest of the class.

It would seem that a ‘good’ professor, a just professor, has no option but to fail this student albeit begrudgingly. In this situation, however, the F will (or may not) not be an indicator of the student’s ability (or lack thereof) but will rather be a reflection of the student’s unpreparedness. (both of which, by the way, are  important (perhaps equally important. After all, a future employer of this student would be as wary of a the fact that he/she is a known and persistent procrastinator (read unreliable) as they are of a person who simply won’t be able to do the job. So either way the F helps weed out ‘undesirables’)

But what does this have to do with Christianity?

I’ve just finished reading the book “The Reason for God by Tim Keller in which he tackles some of the questions that skeptics have about the existence of God, the goodness of God and the legitimacy of Christ’s claims. (It’s a helpful read, by the way you should get a copy!)

One of the ‘issues that people have with God, which the book tries to deal with, arises from the issue of evil and suffering especially. You’ve probably heard the question: “why do bad things happen to good people?”. Stretching this question, one should of course wonder why Hell (which is perhaps the worst place and most painful suffering there is) happens, even to the best and brightest of humanity.

How can God send good people to hell? How will he punish even  those who give their lives for the sake of ideals: freedom, justice, equality, human rights?  Those who are working hard to make the world a better place whether in obscurity or on a recognized platform. Doesn’t he see that their good? Their not perfect, but they’re trying! Can’t he just let them into heaven?

There’s one main problem with these questions. Whose definition of good (bad) are we talking about?

According to Christianity, God has his standards which he is faithful to and will use to judge men.

Most of us, however, decide on our own definition of good and expect God to judge us in accordance with that. The Professor is continually asked to change His scheme to accommodate our blatantly ‘wrong answers’. Imagine the aforementioned student going back to his professor and forthrightly saying, “Listen, I’m sure you pretty much made a mistake in you’re setting of this question. It’s really not what you meant to do but I went ahead and took the liberty to write a response to the question I’m sure you wanted to ask; the question I really felt you should ask and the question I prepared for. I also developed a marking scheme too just to help you in the grading.”

Sounds Ridiculous? It should! But isn’t that just like us? Believing that if we think we are good, then God must (and is obligated to also) think we are good and if God thinks we are good, he would be unjust to throw us into Hell.

Truthfully, God would be unjust to throw innocent people to Hell. But who, pray tell, are these innocents who live in such danger?

God’s standards of good are so high that what He thinks the best human being is, is wicked. Because God‘s standard of God is…. Him. Being good is not about doing good deeds outside of God’s standards, its about being like God: perfectly loving, perfectly humble, perfectly merciful, perfectly holy.

Indeed:

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

God loves justice. He loves mercy and kindness. He loves giving to the poor. He loves freeing people. And loves people who recognize their need for God. If you pursue the justice/mercy apart from God, you fail. Miserably and on all three counts in the verse. Because only God can help you to seek true justice and practice proper kindness. That’s God scheme of things. The true scheme of things.

Most of us think we are good in comparison with other people. All of us will know we are bad when we truly see ourselves in light of a Holy, loving, merciful God who judges (fails us) not only on the basis of action, but also on the basis of inaction and ill-intention and any really any single act, thought or desire that is not in conformity with His law. The simple truth is this:

‘There is no-one good, not even one’.

When we truly realize that, it shifts our paradigm and our question invariably changes from why God sends good people to hell, to a cry of desperation: “is there any way  a good and just God might allow bad people into heaven?”  and finding the answer to this question, becomes the matter of life and death it actually is.

The Powerful Weakness of Stories

Stories are powerful.

storiesUnfortunately, that is not a logical conclusion. That’s just how stories are. Like music, we don’t have to understand the physiology of stories on our brains to declare their power. Stories don’t try to convince you, argue with you, reason with you. Good stories don’t tell you, they simply show you. They invade your reservations, assault your convictions and barge into your conscience like a bandit. Stories are just that, powerful.

The most compelling way to teach something is to tell a story about it. Want to teach about patience? Just tell a story about a patient person. Want to explain love? Illustrate it in story. That’s why the fables we heard as children still linger in our memories.

Bedtime stories were not just entertainment, they were life-lessons.

Yet, this overwhelming power is also what makes stories so dangerous. A false story is powerfully destructive. Stories of proud men winning, and selfish women ruling are powerful tools. You see, since the power of stories is irrational, you cannot argue against a story.

You may present a thousand arguments against miracles, but one story about one miracle topples them all.

Stories are sacred.

The Bible is a story, a book of stories, but it is more than a story. Within the story are timeless teachings and commands and aims and purposes. But the reality of those commands is not found in the stories of the Bible. Abraham is not a consistent picture of faith. David is not a consistent illustration of a man after God’s heart. Neither is Peter an inspiring illustration of what it means to be a true disciple. Continue reading The Powerful Weakness of Stories

Thus Says the LORD!

thus-sayeth-the-lordThere are many reasons to applaud expository preaching. But one reason speaks the loudest to me: The person of God is more important than the personality of the preacher. We are living in the age of sensationalism. There are simply too many competing voices and Christian teachers feel the need to be relevant, creative, catchy and interesting. This is because what attracts us is how eloquently and creatively a certain preacher presents his message. Little is said about the content of his message or its fidelity to biblical truth. I experienced this effect in much of the reaction I got after my review of a sermon series preached at Mavuno Church, last year. Those who stood to speak in defense of the message mainly appealed to the personality of the preacher rather than the Biblical text.

Some of the common defenses included:

“That’s just how this pastor likes preaching,”

“That’s his approach, every Pastor at the church has their unique style” or

“You may find his approach unorthodox, but trust me, it is quite effective.” Continue reading Thus Says the LORD!

The Truth! Do You Know Him?

He stumbles into my courtyard. His hands tightly bound at the wrists in leather straps. His hair is an entangled mess of blood and sweat, yet there seems to be no scratch or cut on his face. I wonder wonder whose blood that is, or where it came from. His knees are buckling with exhaustion. His eyelids are heavy…, yet somehow, he manages to keep his footing. He stands before me.

The voices behind him scream for his blood. “Crucify him!” They want him dead. Dead on a cross. Common sense and my political advisers tell me I should just let the crowd have its way; that they must be justified in their unanimous verdict. But the eyes of the accused man catch mine… and I begin to study this captive.

His looks are haggard, those of a drifter, a wanderer. His frame outlines the features of an outcast. His sandals spell the poverty of a pauper. Everything about his form and appearance screams suspicion and guilt, everything… but his eyes! Continue reading The Truth! Do You Know Him?