No other gods

God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

Salvageable adds: Should Christians fear God? Not just Luther, but the Bible itself calls all people to fear God. But the fear of a Christian for God is not the kind of fear that causes us to want to run away and hide from God. Sinners without faith in Christ will respond to the appearance of Jesus on the Day of the Lord in that way, for they will see a righteous Judge and not a loving Savior.

Our fear is different. First, it is respect for God, wanting to do what he commands because he is always right. Second, it is awe for God, realizing that he is far greater than even we have comprehended. Third, it is placing God first in our lives. When we fear God more than anything else, no threat or danger will push us into sin. Because we fear God more, we stand up to those enemies that would separate us from God, and we overcome because of Christ’s victory.

Obviously we should also love God above all things. In the Large Catechism, Luther points out that if we loved God sincerely and continuously, we would not break any of the rest of his commandments either. Whenever we sin, we love something else more than we love God. In that case, something else becomes our god—whether it is a husband or wife, parent or child, job or hobby, political cause or moral crusade, money or property, sports team or entertainer, or any other idol. Most of all, we sin because we love ourselves more than we love God.

Christians say that they trust God, but sometimes we trust something else more than we trust God. Moralists trust their own good deeds and their obedience to the commandments. They fail to trust Jesus to be their Savior. Rationalists trust their own thinking more than the Word of God. Emotionalists trust their own feelings more than the Word of God. Egoists of both kinds ignore the parts of the Bible they do not like or somehow change them to match their own thoughts and feelings.

Every day we catch ourselves fearing something more than we fear God, or loving something more than we love God, or trusting something more than we trust God. Whenever this happens, we repent—admitting to God that we have done wrong and asking for his forgiveness. We ask, knowing that his forgiveness is given to us because of the perfect life of Christ and because of his sacrifice on the cross. Relying on his righteousness and his redemption, we find power to fear and trust and love God even more. J.

Fear not

When God says, “Fear not,” are those words a command or a promise? I would like to answer, “Both,” or, “It depends upon the context,” or, “Why do you want to know?” This question is not easily answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

“Fear not” as a command from God relates to the first commandment—have no other gods—and the greatest commandment—love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength and soul and mind. We are to fear the Lord above all else. When something frightens us, we are to turn to the Lord for strength. When we remain in fear and do not draw strength from the Lord, we are allowing an obstacle to stand between us and God, and any such obstacle is sin.

Yet God gave us the emotion of fear for a reason. The surge of energy that accompanies fear gives us power to run away from danger or power to stand and fight danger. Courage does not mean a lack of fear; courage means doing the right thing in spite of fear. Many people enjoy the feeling of fear, which is why they ride roller coasters or watch horror movies. Other people are plagued by ongoing feelings of fear and anxiety, prompting them to take medicines and undergo therapy to escape those feelings. Telling either group of people that fear is a sin against God would be misguided and inappropriate.

“Fear not” as a promise from God relates to his love, his mercy, and his power. When God tells us not to fear, he is promising us that we have no reason to fear. God is stronger than all our enemies. He has already defeated all our enemies. The devil, the sinful world, the sinful nature we still possess, and death which results from sin: they have all lost to Christ, and he shares his victory with us.

A person who uses fear as an excuse not to obey God should be told that God commands us not to fear. We should love God more than anything else, we should trust God more than anything else, and we should fear God more than anything else. Fear of danger is no reason to disobey God. God says, “Take courage and do not fear, for I will never leave you or forsake you.”

A person who suffers from phobias or from generalized anxiety should not be told that God commands us not to fear. Adding guilt to that person’s troubles will not help that person—adding guilt is likely to move that person toward despair. That person instead needs to be told that “fear not” is a promise. He or she will not be punished for being fearful, but God will provide a way to endure the fear and to cling to God’s victory in spite of the fear. Fear itself can be frightening, and that creates a vicious spiral that only worsens when guilt is added to fear. The remedy for fear is faith, and faith comes only from the comforting promises of God’s Word. We have a reason not to fear, but that reason is not the command of God. Our reason not to fear encompasses the grace of God, the love of God, and the victory of God. J.

War and migration

Citizens of the United States might assume that, when the wealthy and powerful people of the world gather to talk about important issues, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are high on the agenda. The rest of the world has some interest in the result of this year’s presidential election, but many other items are of far greater interest, even to Americans.

War and migration is probably the greatest preoccupation for those concerned about contemporary events. Violence in north Africa and west Asia—and the many thousands of people fleeing that violence—affects lives and businesses all over the world. No one who is involved in politics or in economic decisions can afford to ignore what is happening.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus noted that “wars and rumors of war” would continue until the Day of his return. One hundred years ago President Woodrow Wilson promised that the Great War would be the last war in history. Instead, it has been labeled “World War I.” Jesus was right; Wilson was wrong. Migration has also been a constant theme of history. People move to escape violence. They move to find jobs or to locate food. They move to enjoy better weather. They move to escape oppressive governments and to find greater freedom. Sometimes they move simply because they are bored.

In some cases governments encourage immigration. Russia once invited German families to relocate into Russia and farm land that was empty. American businesses (such as the railroads) used to advertise in Europe for workers, promising a better life in the New World. The Statue of Liberty in New York welcomes “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” Just as often, governments try to limit immigration. Ancient China and ancient Rome built walls to keep the “barbarians” out of their land. Rome even paid some “barbarians” to live on the border and defend it from the next wave of immigrants. Tourists still visit Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China, but those walls were not very effective barriers against the Xiongnu, the Mongols, the Goths, or the Huns.

The United States once set the standard for an effective modern method of welcoming refugees. When thousands of people fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States found homes for many of those people. When 125,000 Cubans escaped to Florida in 1980, the United States again found homes for them. Both times, the refugee families originally were housed on government property, such as underused military bases. Sponsors were sought and found for these families: relatives of the refugees, other families from the same land, church groups, charitable organizations, and anyone else who was willing and able to help. Refugees were documented and observed; they did not disappear into the general population. Sponsors cared for them and helped them to find homes and jobs and to adjust to life in a new and different culture.

The change was not always easy. American citizens were uneasy about these refugees from another part of the world. In 1980, rumors traveled quickly that the Cuban refugees contained many criminals, mentally ill persons, and other undesirables. In retrospect, the number of such people among the Cuban refugees was proportionally less than in the general population of the United States. Acts of violence did occur among the refugees in their camps while they waited for sponsors. Some of the refugees were displeased with the quality of life in the camps and with the length of time it took to find sponsors for all of them. Their protests over their condition were not always peaceful. Eventually, the United States was able to absorb these many refugees. They are part of the mosaic of cultures that compose the United States today.

Patterns of migration in the twentieth century actually affirm the values of American government. People fled the totalitarian socialist governments that called themselves Communist, seeking the freedom of societies that were democratic and capitalist. The Berlin wall was a powerful symbol of the difference; it was built, not to keep immigrants out, but to keep East Germans from leaving for the west. When Vietnam was divided into a Communist north and a non-Communist south, a few Vietnamese families moved north, but a million Vietnamese moved south. The escape from Cuba in 1980 is another reminder of the difference: that one vast migration alone dwarfs the number of people who have tried to enter Cuba during the decades that the Castro brothers have been in charge there.

The system that worked in 1975 and 1980 can work again today. International cooperation can shelter refugees from north Africa and west Asia for a short time while sponsors are found to integrate these people into a new culture. They can be documented and observed. The risk that terrorists lurk among these refugees is no greater than the risk of home-grown terrorists. Sponsors can be trained and equipped to watch for warning signs and report their suspicions to the proper authorities. That would make these refugees likely to be less dangerous than the boy next door.

Compassion for human beings requires more than walls and guards on the border. Today’s needy refugees can become the hard-working foundation of American and European enterprise tomorrow. Fear of people who are different is a common human trait. Refugees probably will be more frightened of their new neighbors (who outnumber them) than the neighbors are of them. Genuine compassion and sincere curiosity about those who are different can overcome such fear. While compassionate people deplore the violence that makes migration necessary, a touch of kindness can change a terrible situation into a blessing, both for the refugees and for those who welcome them. J.

The Grand Conspiracy of All Evil

From time to time, I cross paths with people who believe in a Grand Conspiracy of All Evil. They sincerely believe that a network of sinister organizations is behind everything wrong with society today, from the assassination of President Kennedy to the latest viral epidemic in Africa or South America.

Candidates for members of this conspiracy include (but are not limited to) the following: the Illuminati, the Masonic Lodge, the Roman Catholic Church, the Tri-Lateral Commission, the Girl Scouts of America, Donald Trump, Jews, Communists, Hollywood, big business (or some select corporations), Mormons, Satanists, the liberal media, certain federal agencies (particularly the CIA), and organized crime. Often selections from the list include pairings that are unlikely bedfellows—Jews and Communists, for example. (Jewish people did not fare well under the Soviet government.)The response to any suggestion that two such groups would never work together is that the two groups only pretend to be enemies; they want to throw the rest of us off the scent of their cooperation in the service of evil.

A few powerful people are thought to make all the decisions that guide the modern world. Elections are a fraud; they only produce predetermined results of the powerful ones. News and entertainment exist only to distract people from the truth, or perhaps even to brainwash people into believing lies. Those in power want the citizens of the world to be oblivious to their existence, and they want the few who discover their existence to be too frightened to resist them. They want a world of sheep, people blindly following one another without asking questions, without searching for truth, and without challenging the way things are being done.

In much fantasy literature, a group of good characters must gather to resist and overthrow a powerful evil foe. The good guys generally win after great struggle and mighty adventures. Often their victory is assured by the nature of evil—the bad guys are too selfish and chaotic to work together, so the cooperation of the good characters is stronger than the massed but ineffective evil. I believe there is truth in this theme. I believe that evil conspiracies are unlikely, if not impossible, because those who are evil will be too selfish to share their power and their wealth with peers.

Powerful people want more power, but they fight other powerful people to get it. Corporations, including the news industry and the entertainment industries, want to make money, so they offer the public what the public appears to want. Each group of people that gathers with a common interest pursues that interest, whether it is religious, charitable, educational, or political. They do not lie to the public about their interest, though, because they want to draw more people into their group.

One current issue which concerns many people is the trend of Satanist groups to demand the right to place statues depicting their beliefs alongside other artwork on public property that reflects a Christian view. If the Capitol grounds or courthouse has a manger scene at Christmas or a monument containing the Ten Commandments, the Satanist group wants equal representation. While I understand why this trend concerns people, I cannot consider it part of a conspiracy. Those who call themselves Satanists do not take their religion seriously. Like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Church of the Sub-Genius, Satanists practice a parody religion. Their intention is not to claim supernatural power; their intention is to bother people who take religion seriously.

Since the 1970s, groups of young people have dabbled in the occult without taking it seriously. Although a few continued to study ancient pagan teachings, the majority merely played at being partners with evil. They conducted secret ceremonies to frighten their parents and their neighbors, and they were delighted when local authorities took note of their actions and feared what they were doing. Books and movies—all works of fiction—enhanced their reputation. The truth is that they have no magical power. They consider what they are doing to be a joke, and they are increasingly amused when other people take them seriously.

The government of the United States endorses no religion. Many places in the United States have allowed religious displays on government property because those displays represented the beliefs of most citizens in that area. Other groups have sought and received permission to have their symbols added to the religious displays. Now, groups that mock and scorn religion are demanding equal representation. In my opinion, the best response would be to follow the intent of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution and remove all religious displays from government property. In response to this action, every church and every Christian should show signs of their faith on their own property. When the city of Zion, Illinois, painted over the cross on its water tower, hundreds of Christians began displaying the cross on their homes. The loss of one cross led to the appearance of many crosses.

Satanists mock religion; they do not practice it seriously. I consider religion a very serious matter. Satanists do not regard evil as powerful. I do regard evil as powerful, but I see evil in greed, selfishness, cold-heartedness, envy, hatred, and crime. A statue that portrays Satan may be ugly and disturbing, but it is not the tool or symbol of some vast evil conspiracy. It is nothing more than a macabre joke. Rather than fighting the joke—which only reinforces the point of the joke—Christians can best respond to such mockery with kindness, compassion, helpfulness to others, and respect for others. When we succeed in a vast conspiracy to imitate Jesus, we can be sure that we will prevail against the enemies of Jesus. After all, Jesus has already won the war against evil. We are secure in his victory, today and always. J.