I took this photo of Mount Rushmore a few weeks ago. I got several shots with various zoom distances, including an extreme closeup of George Washington’s nose. This photo, however, is the one I chose to post on social media. (I didn’t pick George Washington’s nose. Eww.)

I picked this one because it is unlike most photos of the monument that I’ve seen—and because it shows the sculpture in more context. At first glance, you might not even realize that it’s Mount Rushmore. It’s sort of like, “That’s a nice picture of a mountain ridg…Oh—Hello, guys!”

My friend Gayle has never been to Rushmore, and she’s never seen it photographed from this perspective. She commented that it “helps give a better grasp of proportions.“ I had hoped that my photo would help people see the bigger picture and understand the sculture in its context.

It’s a fun reminder that, when we step back, we can get a fresh perspective that gives us a better understanding of what we’re seeing.

Of course, George Washington’s nose reminds us that a closer look can do the same. The bottom line? Looking at something from various angles and distances can help us see things we might miss otherwise. It can get us closer to truth.

When I was a kid, I watched Little House on the Prairie. I still can hear the theme song in my head and visualize the Ingalls girls running (or stumbling) down the grassy hill in their calico dresses. I remember what the Ingalls family farm and the town of Walnut Grove looked like. I can see the schoolhouse in my mind’s eye.

When I moved from Washington to Wisconsin a few weeks ago, I made a point to stop in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, on the way. Of course, the town doesn’t look like it did when the Ingalls family was around. I wish they had recreated the set from the TV show. I wanted to buy some stick candy and a sack of flour at Oleson’s Mercantile.

The museum was closed for the season. We went to the gift shop (always open), where I bought stick candy. In the middle of a neighborhood, we saw the spot where the Union Congressional Church had stood. In 1874, Charles Ingalls donated $3 to help buy a new church bell, which now rings a few blocks away at the English Lutheran Church.

A couple of miles north of town is the site of the family’s dugout home, on the banks of Plum Creek. The home is no longer there; there’s merely a depression in the side of the hill that rises up from the creekbank.

Here I stood, where the real Ingalls family lived nearly 150 years ago. It seemed foreign to my imagination. In my mind, the fake Walnut Grove (a television set in California) was the real Walnut Grove. Throughout my life, my picture of reality was a visual fiction. When I finally was immersed in the real thing, I didn’t recognize it.

The Fictions in My Mind

It made me think about how often I do this with realities that truly matter. I have ideas in my head that are well established. How accurate are they? If I encountered the reality of those ideas, would I recognize it?

Years ago, I worked as an intelligence analyst in drug enforcement investigations. Part of my job was figuring out the full identity of certain traffickers. Often, they had multiple aliases and nicknames. I put all of the pieces together for one particular trafficker and came up with an identity: Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto*. Eventually, he was arrested. He was officially identified as Pedro Antonio Marquez-Carrasco*.

Who?! That could not possibly be my trafficker, whom I had gotten to “know” over the previous year or two. My trafficker was Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto. I don’t know this Pedro Antonio Marquez-Carrasco. There had to be a mistake somewhere.

Of course, the mistake was mine. I made an incorrect identification. When the true ID was made, it was completely foreign to me, and I have trouble accepting it to this day! I had been so sure. For months, this person was Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto, as far as I was concerned. The “fiction” became a reality in my mind. When the true reality confronted me, I was disoriented.

We all do it. Sometimes we become so sure of something, we let momentum establish it as a fact in our mind. When we encounter the actual fact, we don’t recognize it. Too often, we dismiss it because it doesn’t fit in our box.

It’s difficult not to make boxes. But, we will do well if we remember that they are our boxes and not necessarily fact or reality. We should never close the door to new evidence, and we must always desire the truth above all else.

*The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Today I walked through the woods along Otter Creek, and I saw something I’ve never seen before: a white squirrel. I’ve seen billions of squirrels, but I’ve never spotted one that looked like this. In fact, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first. I moved in for a closer look and a photo. Having recently seen a rare white bison, I figured I must have stumbled through the wardrobe and entered Narnia.

Back at home, I did some research and determined that it’s most likely a white morph of the Eastern grey squirrel. According to the White and Albino Squirrel Research Initiative, these squirrels are “very, very rare.”

Eastern grey squirrel - white morph / White squirrel

I posted the photo on my Facebook page, along with a note about the uncommonness of these cuties. My friend Lori commented that white squirrels aren’t all that rare, as she has seen them frequently. I shared the link to the research initiative, which includes a map that indicates where white squirrels have been observed. Lori replied that she spends most of her time in three of the areas highlighted on the map. Apparently, Lori lives in a “white squirrel world”!

It’s a great reminder that we each come to the table with a perspective based on our own experience and knowledge. We should strive to be aware of our paradigms and stay open to alternative points of view. And we should take more walks in the woods.

Have you seen a white squirrel or other uncommon creature? Leave a reply below!

I took this picture on one of my nature outings. Nearly every day I take pictures in the woods and wetlands behind my house in the Pacific Northwest. I’m certainly no John James Audubon or Bindi the Jungle Girl, but I am slowly learning to identify flora and fauna that I see on a regular basis.

Of great help to me are a couple of apps: Merlin Bird ID and PictureThis. Google Lens also can be helpful, except for that time when it identified a blurry raccoon as a New Guinean long-nosed bandicoot.

When I saw this bird, I didn’t know what it was. It looked a bit like the juvenile European starlings I’d seen. In other words, brown. That’s pretty much all I could tell. When I got home, I uploaded the picture to the Merlin Bird ID app, and the result came back: American robin.

Say what? Robins are orange! That was my initial reaction, and that’s why I missed the identification on my own. I’ve seen a million robins, but I was off track in thinking that robins are orange. More accurately, robins’ breasts are orange and their heads and backs are brown. All I could see of this bird was its head and back. All I could see was brown. As soon as the app identified the bird as a robin, I noticed the tiny bit of orange breast that can be seen in the photo. I also noticed (yet again) that my critical thinking skills have room to grow.

I love it when this sort of thing happens. It reminds me that my thinking can be distorted by perspective and a bias for familiarity. I missed the ID because of my perspective; I could see only brown. I missed the ID because it looked a bit like another bird in my miniscule bird repertoire.

Too bad this distorted thinking isn’t limited to wildlife identification (although even then it can be lamentable if we mistake a grizzly for a Great Dane). We do it more often than we realize. The good news is that we can train our brains to think more effectively, to sharpen our critical thinking skills. Being aware of our perspectives and biases moves us in the right direction. Listening to the perspectives of others takes us even further.

Let’s train ourselves to think more effectively. Let’s remember that the robin isn’t just orange.

Your last letter was a beauty as far as its length but it was vilely spelt.
I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many mistakes in so few lines.
Howe wood you lick it if I rote you a leter al ful of mispeld wurds?
I no yu know kwite well howe to spel onli yu wonte taik the trubble to thinck!

If you had Rudyard Kipling as a father, this is the kind of thing you could expect, along with well-told stories and frequent exhortations to restraint and stiff upper lipism. This passage is reportedly taken from a letter that Kipling wrote to his son John in 1908, when the boy was ten and away at boarding school.

Rudyard’s reply hits the nail on the head. John has both knowledge and the ability to think. So, why so many mispeld wurds? He ‘wonte taik the trubble to thinck’. Making a proper cup of tea requires time and effort that ends up being totally worth it. Same with thinking.

What good is our knowledge if our failure to think renders that knowledge useless?

In honor of Rudyard and John, I’ll sip some Darjeeling and thinck about those wurds.

Yesterday morning I saw what I believed was a bald eagle in my pajamas. (I know what you’re thinking: What was a bald eagle doing in my pajamas?)

After calculating the laziness factor of birdwatching from bed, I sprung into action, grabbed my camera, and got a few shots. Then I strapped on my snowshoes and headed toward the tree where I saw the bird. (I know what you’re thinking: What was I doing in a tree?)

When I got close, I was excited to see that the bird was still there. It was a bit like what Francis Scott Key must have felt when he saw that the flag was still there. (Okay, it wasn’t anywhere near that exciting much less meaningful, but you get my drift.)

I took more photos. The bird appeared to be dark all over, so I dismissed the bald eagle hypothesis (always something I’m loathe to do).

I trudged back home and took a look at the pictures I had taken. This is a photo I took from my bedroom window:

Keep in mind that the bird was a looooong way off, my camera has its limitations, and my window could use a wash. Still, it looks like a bald eagle, right? Huge. White head and tail. Bright yellow beak. “America the Beautiful” playing in the background. Why did I see an all-dark bird when I got closer to the tree?

Then I got to the second set of bird photos (separated by a few shots of snow and then more snow).

Excusez-moi? Who are you, and what did you do with my bald eagle? Apparently I missed the changing of the guard.

I entered the photos into my Merlin Bird ID app to get some insight into what was going on. I was especially looking for confirmation of the bald eagle ID! I uploaded that photo to the app. Drum roll, please …

American crow. Or black-backed woodpecker. Or great horned owl.

Huh? I uploaded it a second time.

Brown-headed cowbird. Or dark-eyed junco.

I know it’s a crummy photo, but please try harder.

American crow. Or green heron.

I give up. Let’s try the photo of the second bird.

Red-tailed hawk. Or red-shouldered hawk.

That’s more like it. I’ll buy that.

So, what am I to think about the first bird? According to the app, it’s a woodpecker or an owl or a heron or a walrus or a sheep or one of the Backstreet Boys. What should we do when we are trying to determine the truth and our go-to authority seems off?

First of all, we keep in mind that it’s possible that our go-to authority is off. Blind trust is risky. Humans and their inventions are fallible. Secondly, we look at the evidence.

Building evidence-based beliefs means that we consider all of the evidence and figure out the best explanation for that evidence. What is the evidence about this bird’s identification?

  • My app is fairly reliable, but it has been wrong before, especially when the photo is poor quality.
  • The bird is huge and appears to have a dark body, white head, white tail, and yellow beak. This description fits a bald eagle and no other bird that I’m aware of, at least in this area. Caveats: I am not familiar with all types of birds, and the image quality is so poor, I might not have an accurate description of it.
  • I shared the photo on Facebook and asked people what they thought it was. Six out of six people identified it as an eagle.
  • The Merlin Bird ID app includes bald eagles on the list of likely birds in Vancouver, Washington, today.
  • At least two bald eagles have been spotted in this immediate area in recent days.
  • I really want it to be a bald eagle.

Okay, okay. That last one isn’t evidence. We often allow our desires to influence our beliefs, but we’ve really got to stop that. So, let’s throw that one out. What are we left with? When we can’t be certain, we settle for possibilities and probabilities. Based on the evidence, I am comfortable at this point with believing that it is probably a bald eagle.

Notice that, above, I didn’t ask for the evidence that this is a bald eagle; I asked for evidence about the bird’s identification. On Facebook, I didn’t ask others whether they thought it was a bald eagle; I asked them what they thought it was. Starting out with a presumption or bias can steer us in the wrong direction.

I want to know the truth, whatever it is. So, I leave the door open for more evidence if it should ever come. In this case, I can invite more evidence by asking what y’all think. I’m interested to know what you think of the first photo, especially if you have experience with bird identification. Let me know in the comments below!

“Put it on the ground!”

The woman ahead of me on the hiking trail mildly admonished her small son, who was lagging behind her. I thought the child must have picked up a worm, or doggie doo, or a bad habit. As I got closer, though, I saw that the boy was holding a huge leaf. He was valiantly defying her order. Brave little soldier.

The boy ambled about, reluctant to shed himself of this forest treasure — and perhaps loath to get within range of a parent with confiscation on her mind. I totally empathized with the child. When I was a kid, I asked my dad to stop the car on the side of the road so I could collect giant pinecones that I spied as we drove along winding mountain roads.

The mother repeated the instruction: “Drop the leaf, Louie.” (The name has been changed to protect the innocent.) I passed the boy and then the mother and continued along the trail. I don’t know how it all turned out, but I hope that giant leaf made it home with Louie.

Now, I admit that I don’t know the whole story. Maybe there was a good reason why the mother didn’t want the boy to continue carrying the leaf. I’m quite sure it wasn’t poison oak or cannabis. Perhaps the leaf distracted the boy so that he wasn’t keeping up with the mother’s desired pace.

Undoubtedly, the child was in awe. The enormous leaf monopolized his attention. At least for this moment, it was his. He could twist it around in his little hands and marvel at its immensity and beauty. Maybe he was dreaming up what he might do with the leaf or what he could fashion it into. Perhaps he wondered what kind of tree could produce such a leaf and how big the tree could grow.

Live like Louie

As children, our natural instincts include awe, curiosity, imagination, and connection to nature. Too often, those instincts eventually get beaten out of us to a large degree. Many of us spend too much of our lives indoors, busy, distracted, and moving at a fast pace.

I admire Louie. He reminded me to be childlike, embracing traits that are vital to thoughtful living: awe, curiosity, imagination, and connection to nature. Let’s join Louie by getting outside more, slowing our pace, and finding things that render us awestruck and make our imaginations run wild.

Let’s hold on to that leaf.

We’ve all done it. We’ve inspired a facepalm with a thinking malfunction. But there are ways to minimize facepalms (and worse). Follow these tips to keep your brain out of autopilot, and you’ll see improvement in every area of life. Because thinking is kinda important.

THINKING TIP 1

Make the effort. Arguably, the number one reason why people skip the thinking step is because they don’t want to take the time to slow down and deliberately think … before speaking, before acting, before solving a problem, before making a decision.

Don’t let your brain be a couch potato. Making the effort now will save you from grief later. If you stop to think, you might decide not to buy that velvet painting of Dennis Rodman because you realize that you wouldn’t have money left over for a Maui vacation.

“Our minds are lazier than our bodies.”
— François de La Rochefoucauld —

THINKING TIP 2

Check your biases. Is your prejudice against clowns the reason why you blame them every time you can’t find your keys? There’s a possibility that you left them in the pocket of your seersucker jacket. Also, just because you love Betty White — I will break this to you gently — it doesn’t mean that she’s right about absolutely everything.

“A great many people think they are thinking
when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
— William James —

THINKING TIP 3

Remember your paradigms. If you’re a middle-aged neo-Druid male from Bavaria, realize that you see the world through that lens and that other people don’t. Try to think outside of your box. You’ll better understand the issues, others, and yourself.

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”
— Anais Nin —

THINKING TIP 4

Realize what you’re doing instead of thinking, and make the switch. Here are a few common substitutes for thinking:

  • Reactions • Snapping turtles are capable of these. You’re not a snapping turtle.
  • Emotions • Emotions are swell, but they should be chaperoned by thoughts, and vice versa.
  • Assumptions • Fill in the blanks with facts, not assumptions. If facts are not available, consider probabilities and possibilities, but be cautious about drawing conclusions. This is especially important when it’s about people.

“Assumptions are unopened windows that foolish birds fly into,
and their broken bodies are evidence gathered too late.”
— Bryan Davis —

THINKING TIP 5

Develop the skill of accurately identifying a statement as a fact, an error, a thesis, a belief, or an opinion. You’ll get way off course if you think that fortune cookies are Chinese or that the Bible teaches eternal suffering in hell. You’ll be frustrated if you demand proof for matters of faith. You’ll be considered obnoxious if you assert that your opinion about the Norwegian curling team’s trousers is correct.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to
entertain a thought without accepting it.”
— Aristotle —

Each time you practice one of these thinking skills, it’s easier to do it the next time, and it eventually becomes natural. You’ll increasingly see how thinking and thoughtfulness can help keep you out of trouble, increase your influence, maximize your success, and make more people like you. I kid you not, because thinking affects absolutely everything.

“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.”
— Marcus Aurelius —

I just browsed through the stories in my Facebook News feed. I found something in common with these headlines:

Pastor Who Told Congregation They Didn’t Have to Wear Masks Hospitalized in ICU with COVID-19

Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton Are Feeling “Stretched to Their Limit”

The worst coronavirus outbreaks are happening in these 15 cities

911 call from Falwell house reveals ex-Liberty president was drinking, fell down, lost ‘a lot of blood’ after resigning

Christina and Ant Anstead Split After Less Than 2 Years of Marriage

U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Near 200,000

Can you think of what they have in common? Since this is a blog, and we don’t have an efficient way to play a guessing game, I’ll just tell you. In reaction to each of these stories, people laughed.

Precisely, what they did was click on the laugh reaction emoji under the headline. I can understand shock, sadness, and even anger for some of these stories. But, laughter? A marriage is over, relationships are strained, a man is struggling with addiction and gets hurt, people are sick, and people are dying.

Perhaps even worse than these tragedies in the news is the cruelty in the hearts of people who make light — and even fun — of other people’s suffering. We need healed relationships and healed bodies. Most of all, though, we need healed hearts. We need the Spirit of love. The good news? It’s possible:

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.
Ezekiel 36:26

Let’s say that you have a brother named Clive, and people claim that he’s perfect. I mean, he has never done anything wrong. You would know better, right? You know for a fact that he cheated on his sixth grade history exam as well as his first girlfriend, and he is a jerk on Twitter.

Clive’s friends start talking about him being faultless, and they implore people to hang on his every word and trust him completely. You would speak up, right? You would caution people and let them know that Clive is not the infallible saint they think he is. He’s a good guy, sure — but let’s not get all culty, okay?

This was similar to the situation that James was in. People claimed that his brother Jesus was sinless. James did not believe all of the claims about Jesus — he was not on board with this “Messiah” thing — but he couldn’t dispute this claim. James knew that Jesus was, in fact, without sin. That’s why James (an unbeliever in general) never spoke up and said, “You’re wrong. At least twice, he lied to Mom about why he came home late. He beat up the neighbor, and — although he denies it — I know that he stole my butterfly collection. It took me six years to build that collection, and he never admitted it!”

Fast forward several years. Jesus had died and risen from the dead. The movement of Christ was gaining momentum. The Jewish leaders came to James for help in shutting it down. According to Hegesippus:

They came, therefore, in a body to James, and said: “We entreat thee, restrain the people: for they have gone astray in their opinions about Jesus, as if he were the Christ. … Persuade the people not to entertain erroneous opinions concerning Jesus. … Take thy stand, then, upon the summit of the temple, that from that elevated spot thou mayest be clearly seen, and thy words may be plainly audible to all the people. For, in order to attend the passover, all the tribes have congregated hither, and some of the Gentiles also.” To the scribes’ and Pharisees’ dismay, James boldly testified that “Christ himself sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven”. The scribes and pharisees then said to themselves, “We have not done well in procuring this testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, that they may be afraid, and not believe him.” Accordingly, the scribes and Pharisees … threw down the just man… [and] began to stone him: for he was not killed by the fall. And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot, and the pillar erected to his memory still remains, close by the temple. This man was a true witness to both Jews and Greeks that Jesus is the Christ.*

In his younger days, James did not buy into the claim that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Something changed between that time and this moment of amazing confidence. Likely, it was the moment when James saw Jesus alive after He was dead. Understandably, that tipped the scale for many people.

In his unbelieving days, James was in a position to know whether or not Jesus was sinless. If that claim had been false, James likely would have blown the whistle. After the resurrection, James was in a position to know whether or not Jesus died and rose again. He was there. He knew the truth. If it had been false, he would have stayed an unbeliever. If it had been false, he would not have stood up and confidently declared that Jesus was the Christ. He probably would have stood up and said, “Y’all have this all wrong!”

James wasn’t a blind believer in Jesus. He wasn’t an in-the-bag follower, just because He was his brother or a nice guy. James believed only when he was presented with compelling evidence. He knew for a fact that Jesus was dead and then alive, just as He said would happen.

I don’t share James’s experience, but his experience translates into compelling evidence for me. Jesus rising from the dead and being the Christ is the explanation of the evidence that makes the most sense to me. If Jesus had been a less-than-perfect liar or lunatic, James would have known that, and he probably would have nipped that cult right in the bud. Instead, he used his last breath to pray for those who were killing him for his now-unshakable faith in his brother.

*From Book 5 of Fragments from the Acts of the Church; Concerning the Martyrdom of James, the Brother of the Lord

The image above is a depiction of souls burning in the flames of Purgatory as displayed on the facade of the Church of Ánimas (Capilla de Ánimas) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Source/License

“The practice of praying for the dead is, I think, the fundamental origin of the doctrine of purgatory. … We often want to pray for those we love who die. It’s actually fairly hard in certain Protestant services I’ve been at … where you don’t pray for the dead. My heart wants to pray for the dead that I love. That means that I’m one of those Protestants who thinks that there might be something to the doctrine of purgatory.”

This was said by Phillip S. Cary, an American philosopher who serves as a professor at Eastern University. I heard it in a course he teaches: The History of Christian Theology.

Purgatory is said to be a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are atoning for their sins before going to heaven.

Let me provide the context for the first sentence in the quote by Dr. Cary: “The practice of praying for the dead is, I think, the fundamental origin of the doctrine of purgatory.” Earlier in the lecture, Dr. Cary mentioned that Augustine of Hippo, in his autobigraphical narrative, asked readers to pray for his mother, who was dead. Dr. Cary believes that the doctrine of purgatory developed from this request. The reasoning goes like this: It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone in hell, because it won’t do any good. It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone in heaven, because they don’t need it. Therefore, there must be a third place where the soul of a dead person can be, where prayers could be beneficial.

The reasons for believing

Dr. Cary teaches that the doctrine of purgatory is not from the Bible but that it was developed during the Middle Ages, likely based on a personal request made by Augustine — a theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries. The doctrine of purgatory relies on the soul being eternal (or, at least, existing after death). Dr. Cary’s course contains a lecture about the state of the soul after death, and he makes it clear that the idea of an eternal soul is from Plato, not the Bible. He contends that the Bible teaches that, after death, the soul sleeps until resurrection. (I, too, find this in my own study of the Bible.) It is relevant here to note that Augustine was greatly influenced by Plato.

Despite all of this, Dr. Cary “thinks that there might be something to the doctrine of purgatory”. Why? His own words: “My heart wants to pray for the dead that I love.”

What was the reason that the medieval mainstream church created the doctrine of purgatory? According to Dr. Cary, it seems that they wanted to provide an explanation for Augustine’s request for prayers for his dead mother.

These are self-described Christian scholars and theologians. Their reason for believing (or wanting to believe) is not “because it is what the Bible teaches” or “because it is consistent with Bible teaching”. This particular belief is not in the Bible, nor is it consistent with Bible teaching about death or salvation. That does not seem to be a concern of these scholars and theologians.

The source of authority

I understand that not everyone shares my view of sola scriptura, that the Bible is the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice. I believe that because I believe this:

The Bible is a reliable collection of historical documents written by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses. It contains falsifiable claims that would have shut down the Christian movement at its start if the claims had been untrue. Although the documents were written by about 40 authors over a period of about 2,000 years, they are coherent in message. The Bible reports events that were the fulfillment of specific prophecies, and it contains prophecies that have been fulfilled in post-biblical times. Much of the Bible is confirmed by the writings of contemporaries and by archaeological findings. The Bible is by far the best attested writing from antiquity.

In other words, I trust the Bible as sole authority because I believe there is strong evidence that supports it as the word of God.

The basis for belief

Many doctrines of the mainstream church come, not from the Bible, but from pagan philosophy or non-biblical, non-apostolic tradition. Do you know which ones? This post isn’t really about the specific doctrine of purgatory. It’s about ideas and where they come from. It’s about our reasons for believing. The doctrine of purgatory is just one example.

It is important that we know where ideas come from, especially the ideas we embrace or reject. It matters why we believe what we believe. We would be wise to base our beliefs — not on desires or hopes or an attempted explanation of one person’s notion — but on evidence. Only then can we build a thoughtful faith that is less likely to be shaken — and more likely to be true.

You might remember a couple of years ago when then Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked the Bible to defend the Trump administration’s enforcement of immigration law.

What exactly did Sessions say in a speech to law enforcement officers on June 14, 2018? I checked four sources and came up with two different versions. (That should remind us to check multiple sources and realize that errors are made.)

Version 1:

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” (USA Today and The Independent)

Version 2:

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” (New York Times and Washington Post)

Romans 13:1 says this:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are appointed by God.”

WHAT ROMANS 13:1 MEANS (MAYBE)

What did Paul mean? We can make some reasoned guesses. Some say that Paul was being sarcastic or appeasing authorities he knew would intercept his mail. The Greek word he used to describe authorities in Romans 13:1 is a word he used at other times to mean “morally superior” or “excellent”, so it could be argued that he meant that people should submit only to morally superior authorities. We get some insight by considering what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Follow me as I follow Christ.” In other words, we should follow those who follow Christ.

WHAT ROMANS 13:1 DOES NOT MEAN (DEFINITELY)

We are unlikely to determine Paul’s exact meaning simply by looking at one or two texts. What we can do, however, is know for sure what Paul did not mean, and that is incredibly important.

Let’s leave Paul for a moment. Remember Daniel in the lions’ den? Daniel said something similar to what Paul wrote:

“The Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and … He appoints over it whomever He wills” (Daniel 5:21).

Does that mean that Daniel always obeyed earthly rulers? Nope. In the very next chapter, Daniel learned of a new law in the kingdom and immediately broke that law in front of open windows for all the world to see. Cue the lions. After God rescued him, Daniel claimed, “I have committed no crime.” He had zero regard for an earthly law that was in violation of God’s law.

Back to Paul. He wrote Romans 13:1, and he lived a life of civil disobedience. He was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately executed by order of Nero.

Perhaps we can’t know for sure what Paul and Daniel meant by their similar statements, but we can know for sure that they did not mean that people should obey civil authorities no matter what. Check out Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a more recent example of Godly civil disobedience.

This being said, it is important to note that Daniel, Paul, and Bonhoeffer didn’t confront all civil authority with impertinence. They broke human laws only when those laws were in conflict with God’s laws.

WHAT WE SHOULD DO ABOUT IT

How important it is for us to discern whether laws and authorities are right and good! The best way to make that determination is to be clear what is right and good, and there’s no better source for that than the Bible — properly understood and applied. We must not pluck passages out of context. Above all, we must seek to know and reflect the heart of God. Again, Bible study is the best way to undertake that endeavor.

At least Jeff Sessions got us talking, studying, and (I hope) thinking. Some have the task of governing. The rest of us have the task of discerning whether that governance is to be respected or rejected. May we choose well.