Last night I attended the Old Testament Survey class at Christ Chapel Bible Church here in FW. It’s a tour through the Old Testament, and Dr. Bill Egner, the church’s Executive Pastor, taught last night’s lesson on the book of Deuteronomy. The theme of the book is recommitment. The Israelites had made it out of Egypt during the Exodus and had wondered around the wilderness as described in the book of Numbers, so they found themselves on the verge of entering the promised land, and this was the appropriate time for Moses to call the people to recommit themselves to God. In particular, God offers the Israelites a new covenant to express His commitment to Israel and Israel’s commitment to Him.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. [Graphic of blessings…green dots.] Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, in chapter 28, God promised to bless Israel. Imagine that those green dots represent blessings, and here are some of those blessings from the first 6 versus of Deut. chapter 28. “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. 2 And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. 3 Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. 4 Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 5 Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 6 Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.”
But those blessings aren’t without strings attached. The whole passage starts with, “And IF you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God.” That conditional “if” is repeated many times. So, let’s add some green boxes to represent obedience in all the IF situations. If we wanted to take this to the next level, we could create a precise list of blessings mentioned by Moses and a precise list of the conditions of obedience. But just for this, let’s say the conditions for obedience—represented by those green boxes—are obedience to the 10 commandments, which Moses reviewed for the people, and 4 other conditions, just for the sake of this illustration.
Here’s the big picture: God promises all of those circles of blessing in exchange for those boxes of obedience. I didn’t include arrows, but we could draw an arrow leading from the boxes to the circles, from obedience to blessing. This is presented as being a strong cause and effect relationship…the type that could be measured with statistical correlation, a tool that measures the strength of relationships between 2 variables. Just because 2 things are correlated doesn’t mean that one causes the other…fast melting ice cream doesn’t cause 100 degree days…but in the case of Deuteronomy, Moses pitches obedience as the cause of blessing, and the wording of the text implies a perfect positive correlation.
But wait, there’s more. There’s another side to the coin. If Israel disobeys…the red boxes…then then they get the opposite of blessings…the red circles. As with blessings, the curses are presented as the effect of the cause…disobedience, and this too is presented as a perfectly positive correlation. Or to put it another way, the curses are a perfectly negative correlation with obedience. IF you obey, then these bad things will not happen to you. And by extension, if you disobey, then the blessings will not “chase after you” as the text states.
So, anyway, that was Israel…in 1406 BC…on the plains of Moab. And you can study the narratives in the rest of the Old Testament to get a feel for the relationships between obedience and blessings, between disobedience and cursings.
Let’s get back to the present. At the end of the lesson, Dr. Egner called on the members of the class to recommit themselves to God. Although he didn’t go into great detail, mainly because it was understood by the class, this recommitment implied obedience to God in all the ways that apply to believers on this side of the New Testament, and that still includes the 10 commandments. It would also include studying the Bible, praying, fellowshipping with other believers, loving God with all your heart, loving your neighbor as yourself, growing in the fruit of the Spirit, etc. And all those things are represented by the green boxes shown here. Now, he didn’t claim that being obedience in these areas will result in all the blessings mentioned in Deut. 28. He did not make the claim that if you obey the 10 commandments, then your bank account will grow, etc. (And I will resist the temptation to talk at length about the so called health and wealth gospel that I had a front row ticket to in the mid-80s and beyond. Maybe another time.)
I got to thinking, though, what would happen if people obey what God wanted us to do today? Would they see blessings in their lives? Put another way, would there be a positive correlation between obedience and blessings? And when I say “blessings,” I don’t mean just internal and subjective joy and peace…but phenomena that can be measured…like the balance in your bank account or your net worth? I mean, Deut. 28 lists some very tangible blessings that could have been measured empirically by social scientists in 1406 BC. And even though Dr. Egner didn’t state it, many preachers and teachers have stated indirectly and sometimes directly that obedience will lead to economic prosperity. So, whether one accepts or doesn’t accept the claim that obedience WILL lead to financial prosperity, what would the data say if both obedience and bank account balances were measured…while using a large number of people…over time?
Let’s enter into a researcher’s fantasy land, and let’s imagine that we had the resources to conduct a 10-year study of 10,000 people here in Fort Worth. Let’s say these 10,000 people included people from every group in the city. All 9 city council districts are well represented. Both genders. All races. All ages. All genders and gender identifications. All skill levels. All education levels. All income brackets. The beautiful and the facially challenged. The lamborghini drivers and the bus riders. Those squatting on the sidewalks of East Lancaster and those dining at Sundance Square.
Now, let’s imagine…our ultimate researcher’s fantasy land…that we also had a perfectly reliable and valid research instrument that could accurately measure a set of variables that represent obedience to God. Some items lend themselves to measures that are more clear, though still not perfect. “Thou shall not murder.” If someone has been convicted of murder, then we could mark the obedience response to the murder command with a “no.” Theft would be harder to measure, though you could also consider misdemeanor and felony theft charges, but what about pilfering office supplies, etc? Nonetheless, we’ll pretend that we have developed a reliable and valid instrument to measure obedience to the command, “Do not steal.” Then we get to “Thou shall not covet.” We could do our best to develop a survey scale that hopefully does a good job of measuring the extent to which someone covets. So, in our perfect fantasy world of research, let’s assume that we have a great way to measure obedience to what God wants us to do today.
Next, let’s also assume that we have found a way to measure key indicators of blessing. Let’s say we measure things like one’s net worth, the square footage of the home you own, what year your car was made, how much your car cost, the quality of the school you were able to get into (or get your kids into if that applies), the number of times you eat at fine restaurants in Fort Worth, the length and quality of your vacations, the amount of money you give away to charity, the quality of your wardrobe, etc. Let’s also toss in some measures of peace, joy, fulfillment in life, etc.
A draft of our first hypothesis would be that that data we collect on obedience would correlate positively with the data we collect on blessings. The theory undergirding this is the divine covenant between God and Israel as stated in Deuteronomy. In a sense, we’d be testing the extent to which there is a relationship between measurable obedience and observable blessings in 2016.
A draft of our second hypothesis would be that disobedience results in lack of blessings, or curses.
Simple enough. We could crunch the numbers and make some conclusions.
BUT, there are some other factors I’d like to throw into the mix. And when I say “mix,” what I have in mind is a statistical procedure called a factor analysis. Long story short, you dump all of these variables into a big pile, and then see which ones stick together. It’s almost as if some variables are pulled together by a common magnet.
What we might expect, based on our hypothesis that obedience leads to blessing and disobedience leads to curses, is that obedience and blessings cluster together. We could draw a circle around all of those clustered variables and label that cluster as “Living the Blessed Life that Comes from Obedience.” Same thing for the other side of the coin. All of the reds could be “Living the Cursed Life that Comes from Disobedience.”
But let’s add some more variables to our factor analysis mix. These are observable variables that aren’t on the obedience slash disobedience list. Nor are they in the list of blessing that come from obedience or curses that come from disobedience.
Let’s take physical looks. You could be gorgeous. Or you could be grotesque. Or, likely, somewhere in the middle. Let’s say we submit your portrait to Hot or Not, and we get a score out of 10 for you. That’s a measurable variable.
Now, in theory, the lives of the gorgeous should manifest the indications of blessing IF they are measure high on obedience to God. On the flip side, the gorgeous should manifest the indications of cursing if they measure low on obedience to God. Let’s go the other way, the ugly should prosper if obedience, and see life go downhill if disobedient.
What I’m really trying to do is see whether obedience leads to blessing or disobedience leads to cursing regardless of physical attractiveness. Because in theory, if you follow the sermon of Moses, it’s obedience that leads to blessing, not secondary factors like how good you look.
Let’s add some more of these secondary factors (INCLUDE FULL LIST OF FACTORS). Let’s also account for net worth. We’ve all heard that it takes money to make money. Would the amount of $ one has at the start of the 10 years study be a more reliable predictor of future blessings than measures of obedience? Hmm. Let’s also add level of education. And social status. And the strength of one’s professional network.
And how about the value the market assigns to your profession and skill set? And the level of one’s ability to gain social compliance through persuasive strategies including negotiation techniques. And your interpersonal communication skills. And charisma. And specific leadership skills such as ability to communicate a vision. And your zip code. And a few other things…including Positive Mental Attitudes, which can bring about positive self fulfilling prophecies that mimic divine blessings. We can also toss in people’s perceptions of the quality of your message, your credibility as a speaker, and your passion as a communicator…Aristotle’s classic three qualities of a good communicator. Let’s also add not just IQ, but EQ…the emotional quotient, since some have claimed that emotional intelligence is a greater predictor of success than just IQ. So, high measures on all of these things are represented by the green pentagons. Low measures are indicated in red.
Now, let’s imagine that we collect data on these 10,000 people every month for the next 10 years. What an absolutely amazing data set that would be!!!
If this were a research publication, we’d begin by doing an overview of the existing literature and establishing that this proposed research fills a meaningful gap in scholarship. Then we’d explain the theoretical background for the study, including covenant in Deuteronomy and its relationship to people living today. Then we’d go into the methodology and discuss the instruments used to collect the data and why those instruments are valid and reliable. Then we’d present the data which would be an overload of tables and statistical explanations. And then…we’d get to the fun part…the discussion section. After all of this number crunching, what did we find???
Now, here’s what we would expect to find…based on the assumption that obedience is the primary driving force behind blessings. We would expect to see that all of the blessings would clump together with all of the obedience indicators. And vice versa. But we would ALSO expect to see that the secondary factors…such as natural communication ability, IQ, level of physical attractiveness, what zip code you live in, etc., are equally distributed between the obedient and disobedient because they should not be significant factors that drive one to prosperity or hardship.
What do you think we’d find?
- Do you think the 15 people who were measured as being obedient to God and who also recently graduated with poetry majors would show more indications of prosperity than the 15 disobedient recent graduates with degrees in a hot fields like computer systems analysis or nursing?
- Do you think the sales people, who are obedient to God, and who rate at 7 or below on the Hot or Not scale would be more prosperous than the disobedient who score 9.0 and above?
- Do you think that those living in the homeless shelters in East Fort Worth, and who are obedient, would show higher measures of peace, joy, and contentment than the disobedient who live in the Omni or Tower condominiums downtown?
Personally, I don’t think the data would yield a perfect positive correlation between obedience and indicators of prosperity. Just look around. In our capitalist economy, there are many, quite obviously, who have become fabulously wealthy through methods that could be described as disobedient to divine commands, including the commands to not steal, not covet, not murder, etc. Just look at the depth of breadth of the international black market. And, my common sense tells me that some of these secondary factors that are prized by our culture, such as looks and wealth and social standing…will be more strongly correlated with indicators of blessing or prosperity than measures of obedience.
In short, I think I already know that high measures of factors such as looks and social standing will correlate strongly with prosperity. What I don’t know, and what would be interesting to find, is the strength of the relationship between obedience and prosperity today. The irony is sometimes, when people are most obedient to God, they find themselves stripped of outward prosperity. Taking a stand today can result in losing your job. Or getting thrown in jail. Or getting murdered in many parts of the world. Just read through the book of Acts in the New Testament or see what is going on with Christians in countries like Syria or Sudan.
Anyway, the data would make for a most fascinating section that discusses the results of the research.
Next, research publications end with a “critical conclusions” section. After seeing all of the data, where do we go from here? How should we best interpret the promises of God as stated in the Old Testament? Should obedience to God be taught in the TCU MBA program as a proven strategy to personal and organizational effectiveness?
One last thing…since we are dealing in a research fantasy land…it would be insightful to conduct this survey also in other cultures. How do obedient Christians in Fort Worth experience blessings compared to Christians in Nigeria? Or, what if we adapted the survey instrument for Hinduism? Are those who follow Hinduism (good luck measuring that one) more likely to experience what we have defined as blessing. Same for Islam. And Judaism.
Anyway, those are some of the thoughts I found myself thinking during last night’s class on Deuteronomy.
And now, it’s time for me to quit playing around with this fantasy project, and get back to the real work of finding a job, but that, of course, makes me wonder, what is the best strategy for finding the best job? Is it focusing on being obedient to God, or is it focusing more on having a good resume and quality interview skills…those secondary factors I mentioned earlier? Of course, it could be both. But from a job gaining perspective, what factors most strongly correlate with finding a job…obedience to God, or those secondary factors like physical attractiveness, appropriate skills, having the required work experience, having solid job references, etc.? Making sense of this relationship between God providing me with the right job via His providence as a primary force…and me scratching and clawing my way to a job as I attempt to leverage these secondary factors to my advantage…is beyond my understanding. I’ve taught Western Philosophy multiple times on the university level, and one of the discussion points under epistemology, or how we know what we know, is the limits of knowledge. There are some things we just can’t know, and I think this relationship between the work of God as a primary cause and the work of other factors as secondary causes can’t be explained fully. In some ways, it mirrors the relationship between predestination and free will, or between God choosing us and us choosing Him. Cornelius Van Til, the late Christian apologist from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia framed this seeming paradox as parallel truths that are reconcilable only in the God’s mind. They are like chains on a playground swing. Attempts to tie the chains of truth together, do injustice to the truths themselves, and result in the toddler on the swing being plunged into the abyss of oblivion…that’s Van Til’s wording. So in the spirit of Socrates, I could see myself conducting my fantasy empirical analysis only to arrive at another question mark. I can’t fully know, because full knowledge of this issue is beyond me. But drawing on Hegel, then maybe, just maybe, the position I could arrive at through this fantasy research project might be one step closer to arriving at a better understanding of the real-world relationships between living a life in line with the Bible and measurements of blessing and prosperity.