Archives For Moralism

Moralism controls our reading of Scripture, especially the Old Testament. When we dust off the first 2/3 of the Bible and seek to find some spiritual wisdom, we often scurry to find examples of morally upright people. We want to be like Abraham, be like Jacob, and follow in the footsteps of Joshua, Gideon, Daniel, and Moses. And when we get to the book of Esther, the same moralistic lens remains plastered to our faces and we therefore see in this Persian queen an example of what we should do to be a good person.

However, the Bible isn’t primarily about what we should do, but about what God has done. God—not humanity—is the main character in the Old Testament, and he is always the hero. Sometimes he uses good people to do good things; but since there are hardly any good people, he ends up using messed up people to accomplish his will. And so he uses liars like Abraham, thieves like Jacob, and porn stars like Judah and Samson to accomplish his will. Because the Bible is not about God responding to our goodness, but about God using humanity to accomplish his will on earth DESPITE our moral bankruptcy.

And the same is true of Esther. The book of Esther is NOT about a morally upright girl whom God uses because she’s righteous. It’s about God using someone, who—like Judah (Gen 38)—is morally suspect. Here’s why:

First, Esther does not resist being taken into Xerxes’s (a pagan king) harem and participating in his beauty contest (2:8).

Second, Esther not only spent the night with the king before they were married, but of all the virgins that did the same, Esther “pleased him the most” (2:9, 16-17). I’ll let you do the exegesis on what went on that night, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t playing cards.

Third, after spending the night, Esther marries Xerxes—a pagan king—in blatant violation of Mosaic law.

Fourth, she wines and dines with the king (chs. 6-7), something that Daniel and his three friends explicitly chose not to do.

“But she didn’t have a choice,” you say. “She would have been killed if she resisted king Xerxes!” Yes, this is probably true. But does the Bible encourage obedience even if it costs you your life? Of course it does. In fact, Daniel and his three friends also lived under foreign rule and yet they resisted all sorts of pagan demands, even though it cost them their lives (or so they thought; Dan 1, 2, 3).

In the Hebrew Canon, the book of Esther is interestingly placed right next to the book of Daniel. And the two stories could not be more different. Daniel contains examples of some Jews who long for the land of Israel and stick to Mosaic law even if it costs them their life, while Esther contains examples of Jews who couldn’t care less about the land (why are they still in Persia when God has paved the way for them to return, Ezra 1:1-4?) or about Mosaic law. The two books are mirror opposites.

Ok, so maybe “harlot” is too strong. Esther wasn’t taking money for her services. But “heroine” is too strong as well, and certainly there is little about Esther that could be considered morally upright, according to the standards of Mosaic law. I certainly wouldn’t want my daughters to follow in the footsteps of Esther. But I would want my daughters to embrace the God of the book of Esther, who uses those who are morally inadequate to accomplish his will.

And that’s the point of the story. In fact, it’s the point of most stories in the Bible. That we have a God who is so powerful, so gracious, that our sin will not prevent him from fulfilling his promises to Adam (Gen 3:15), Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), and David (2 Sam 7:10-16), to redeem his good creation by using unusable people.

The beautiful point of the book of Esther—for you ladies out there—is that despite your sexual failures, your past (or present) addictions, the cuts on your arm, the slew of abusive guys that you’ve been with, God desires to use you. Because God delights in using sinful, messed up people to accomplish his will. There’s nothing you have done that disqualifies you from being a conduit for God’s sovereign rule over his earth.

So don’t try to clean up your act in order to earn God’s favor. Submit to Jesus. He loves you with a stubborn delight in spite of your failures. He not only loves you, but finds you to be precious, beautiful, and a perfect candidate for his favor. He—and only He—can clean you up, in spite of how unclean you are.

Jonathan Edwards wearing a mini-scarf

Christians love their heroes. We always have. Whether it’s Moses, Paul, Athanasius, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, Francis Chan, or Preston Sprinkle (one of my personal favorites)—we love hearing about these heroes of the faith and being challenged by their zeal, knowledge, and unbreakable faith.

I’m not sure how big of a business Christian biography really is, but I’ve gone through a few biography stages in the last decade, and I know many others have as well. There is so much that is good and helpful about examining the lives of the godly men and women who have gone before us, but I don’t think I need to sell any of you on the validity of Christian biographies (If I’m way off on that, by the way, leave a comment and I’ll write a post to that effect). What I want to do here is offer a few cautions about reading biographies.

 

Don’t forget that even heroes are human. Some biographies are excellent at presenting heroes of the faith realistically. In other words, they present a hero’s weaknesses along with his strengths. This is incredibly healthy. Some biographies read more like hagiographies (writings about saints). They show all of the hero’s strengths and make him seem perfect. St. Francis of Assisi was worthy of imitation in many ways, but he wasn’t perfect. Neither is John Piper. So while we should look up to these great Christians, it is unhelpful and inaccurate to view them as superhuman. Nothing is gained by viewing a historical figure as better than he or she really was.

 

Don’t read biographies moralistically. There are moral lessons to be learned by reading Christian biographies, but we still shouldn’t approach biographies moralistically. I have often heard the sentiment (whether expressed explicitly or implicitly) that if we could only be as disciplined as Jonathan Edwards, if we could only be as bold as Martin Luther, if we could only be as prayerful as Hudson Taylor, then we would see revival.

Let’s imitate the discipline, boldness, and prayerfulness of such Christians, but we would be foolish to suppose that adopting a few character traits moralistically is going to change anything. True change comes through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us. Don’t assume that you can discipline yourself into being the next Apostle Paul.

Hebrews 11 is commonly referred to as the “Hall of Faith.” Here the author of Hebrews holds up a number of faithful figures from the Old Testament for our consideration. But we must be careful to notice that it’s not the moral perfection of these men and women that is being praised as worthy of imitation—it’s their faith. Hebrews 11 is a call to faith, it isn’t a call to moral discipline.

 

Don’t forget that these heroes are dead. Okay, not all of the heroes I listed above are dead. But my point is that these men and women have all been used by God at unique times and in unique settings. You shouldn’t do exactly what St. Francis of Assisi did, because God called him to a specific type of ministry in the midst of a specific historical context. The same is true for all of the others, from Jonathan Edwards to Francis Chan. The value of Christian biography is lost if we merely imitate what our heroes did. Our task is to pursue the same God that our heroes pursued with the same passion and faith with which our heroes pursued him, and then to let the Spirit direct us and empower us for exactly what He wants to do in and through us in our unique historical and cultural setting.