Problem Management — examples

The following is religious in nature, but doesn't require any Biblical beliefs and can perhaps even be best understood in an intellectual scholarly way by someone without such beliefs.

It illustrates how one must look at things from a proper perspective, suppressing any knowledge of current views of the subject. Many people that analyze biblical passages tend to interpret them in the context of their current beliefs (eisegesis), many of which are traditions that are significantly different from what was believed and practised by the original authors.

Our preconceptions can greatly influence the understanding of biblical text, so it is important to have the right attitude and frame of mind before attempting any biblical study.

Many people use their existing faith and knowledge as a foundation, and work from there to determine how various parts of the scriptures lead to or support those ideas. This is a very dangerous approach, one that in part explains the existence of hundreds of Christian denominations, almost all of which claim to be founded upon biblical truths and not upon human traditions.

An excellent example of this is Paul's epistle to the Colossians, only four chapters long, but full of very important ideas that are almost always misunderstood. Far too many people read it, only to skim over the parts they find too hard to understand, seizing on a few key verses that seem to support their particular beliefs.

People can prove almost any idea, no matter how wrong, by using this technique, and in most cases they are quite sincere, and totally unaware of the process by which they are fooling themselves and possibly others.

Colossians 2:14, for instance, is frequently used as proof that we are no longer bound by God's commandments or other teachings of the Old Testament since they were nailed to the cross. Only a couple of verses later is proof that we may eat any kind of food and celebrate any day we wish as the sabbath day.

But for proper study, we must try to ignore our existing ideas and be prepared to have those ideas changed. After all, if we aren't prepared to change our ideas, what is the point of studying, other than perhaps in order to congratulate ourselves for being right all along?

All good reporters know they should start their newspaper articles by answering the five Ws: when, where, who, why, and what. Before we can attempt to understand any biblical passage, we must determine the answers to these same questions. In particular, knowing when something was written, and who and where both the author and the intended audience are, allows us to know something about the context in which things were written. These first three questions can often easily be answered by consulting an encyclopedia, biblical dictionary, or similar reference work. This knowledge in turn makes it easier to understand why the scripture was written. And only after we have learned all of this should we attempt to understand what the author really meant to say.

Let's consider the epistle to the Colossians.

When: likely between AD 60 and AD 62, about 30 years after the crucifixion at a time when Christianity was spreading rapidly to the Gentile world.

Where: from prison in Rome, to the church in Colossae, a small city in what is now western Turkey.

Who: Paul, a former Pharisee (morality police) and persecutor of Christians, who had been dramatically converted to Christianity decades before and who has been a major force in its spread throughout the Roman empire, is writing to a group of recent converts, almost all of whom are not Jews, but formerly pagan Gentiles. There were many forms of paganism at the time, but one fairly common element of Roman and Greek philosophy was Dualism, the belief in each person's having an immortal soul that was quite separate from their mortal bodies. The soul was mankind's spiritual good side, while the body was the physical evil side. Each person's purpose in life was to enhance the goodness of their souls by overcoming the evil of their bodies. Some groups, such as the Ascetics, believed that one's spirit can be improved only by the physical suffering of our bodies: abstention from food, drink, sex, and other physical pleasures, often accompanied by self-inflicted pain. Other groups, such as the Gnostics, believed in a hierarchy of heavenly beings (angels, archangels, principalities, etc.) each existing at different levels of perfection ranging from God, the ultimate good spirit, to carnal mankind. These levels separate the various groups and therefore prevent mankind for ever having direct contact with, or even knowledge of, the ultimate god. The being that created the world was lower down on the scale, having less of God's perfection and more of man's inherent evil (why else would he have created such an awful world?).

Why: Groups such as the Colossian church are isolated from the rest of Christianity, both by their geographical location, and by their Gentile upbringing. The practices and lifestyles of the church are quite different from the practices of the pagans among whom they must live and work, and many members are finding it difficult not to revert back to their former ways. Paul wants to remind them of the right path, and to warn them of the influences of the environment in which they find themselves.

What: Finally, using the above context as a reference, we can read the epistle and have a chance of seeing exactly what it was that Paul was trying to say. I'll use the RSV translation, since it seems to express this particular book more clearly than some other versions.

Colossians 1:1-13 are an introduction from Paul saying how wonderful it is that Christianity has spread to such remote places as Colossae, and how hopeful he is that they might continue in the path they have chosen.

1:14-20 remind them that Jesus was the God of the old testament, that it was he that created the world, and that even though he temporarily lowered himself to human status, he is also at the highest possible level of godhood. This is in opposition to the Gnostic belief that the world and mankind were created by a lesser being. Mankind is not separated from God by levels of other beings: through Jesus we can have direct contact with him.

1:21-23 remind them that through Jesus their past sins can be forgiven and forgotten, and that they can be presented to God as blameless provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard. Paul obviously fears that they might backslide into their former pagan beliefs and lifestyles, and wants to caution them against it.

Paul concludes the first chapter by saying how wonderful he feels, despite his personal suffering, that he has been able to spread Christianity to as many Gentiles as he has.

Chapter 2 continues on the same pep-talk theme: the great dedication and effort that Paul and others are putting to the cause, and how much he wants them to continue in love and faith. Since they have never actually met him, he fears that with his not being there with them, the physical presence of others might be powerful enough to weaken their faith.

I say this in order that no one may delude you with beguiling speech. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.

2:6,7 summarize the point he is trying to make: that they should continue living according to the faith as they were originally taught when they first received Christ:

As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

2:8-12 continues with the warning against being tricked away from the true faith by the pagan philosophies to which they will constantly be exposed.

See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe [Gnosticism], and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily …

To a Gnostic, the whole fullness of the deity and bodily would be extremely contradictory terms.

2:13-15 further explains why the Gnostic beliefs must be untrue:

And you, … God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

Here the principalities and powers are examples of the spirit levels that the Gnostics believed separated man from God. But Christ's sacrifice has enabled man to have direct contact with God himself, thereby destroying the Gnostic's theories (not to imply that they had been true).

Note especially the statement about nailing the bond to the cross. Far too many people think this refers to the ten commandments, the Old Testament, or other similar thing. But it most certainly does not. The word translated here as bond is the Greek word cheirographon, not any of the words that are used elsewhere to refer to the scriptures, commandments, etc., and the word appears nowhere else in the Bible. But other contemporary writings make use of the word, and in all cases it means a certificate of indebtedness, an IOU or a page in a money-lender's book. This bond which stood against us with its legal demands was in fact our debt or obligation to pay with our lives for our sins (The wages of sin is death — Rom 6:23). Jesus paid that debt for us when he himself was nailed to the cross, but he definitely didn't remove any of our obligation to continue obeying the commandments or scriptures by doing so:

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. — Matt 5:17-19

2:16-17 resumes the warning about being influenced by the opinions of others:

Therefore let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow [prophetic symbolism] of what is to come; but the substance [what casts the shadow, the eventual kingdom of God on earth] belongs to Christ.

The original Greek did not use punctuation, but relied more on sentence structure. This structure is sometimes lost in translation into English (e.g. the original word order is no therefore man you let-judge in meat …, the single Greek word being translated into let and judge with other words intervening). Punctuation was supplied by the translators, who also supplied additional words to make the English read more smoothly or clearly. These added words are marked in italics in the King James version, which translation (with supplied words and punctuation omitted) perhaps provides an even better interpretation of this passage:

no man
judge you
in meat
or in drink
or in respect
of an holyday
or of the new moon
or of the sabbath
which are a shadow
of things to come
but the body of Christ

A much more obvious meaning immediately becomes apparent: let no one but the body of Christ judge you (the body of Christ being the Church). We should not feel bad about being condemned by non-Christians for our Christian practices such as honouring the symbols of God's promises.

The food and drink, festivals, new moons (monthly sabbaths), and (weekly) sabbaths refer to things that the Christian community is expected to practice, and not, as some suppose, to unclean foods and pagan festivals. The Ascetics were opposed to any form of physical pleasure (often including eating meat of any kind), and such holy feasts and celebrations (which, except possibly for the Day of Atonement, are a time of joy and pleasure to Christians) were a direct insult to their beliefs. But these sabbaths and holy festivals are symbols to Christians of God's plan for mankind, and must be commemorated despite the objections of non-Christians.

In keeping God's sabbaths and festivals, a Christian will be subject to criticism from others, and in particular that criticism may often be of a very morally superior tone, possibly making the Christian feel that he himself might be the one in the wrong.

2:18-23 continues this theme of sticking to the true Christian faith and not being influenced by others:

Let no one disqualify you [from salvation], insisting on self-abasement [Asceticism] and worship of angels [Gnosticism], taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head [Christ], from whom the whole body [Church], nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God [holy spirit]. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [those worshiped by the Gnostics], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of of wisdom in promoting rigour of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh.

That is, there are practices that might seem to be good, and those that preach them might seem to be morally superior to you, but these ideas are simply inventions of man, and not given by God to man. A Christian must continue to live according to God's commandments, not according to what seems right to man.

Chapter 3 goes on to talk about how a Christian should live and what his lifestyle goals should be:

If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above … Put to death therefore what is earthly in you … [various sins] … In these you once walked, when you lived in them. But now put them all away. … seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here [within the Christian community] there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.

That is, not only should one reject one's past lifestyle of sin, one should live a life that matches those of all other Christians, independent of one's race, nationality, or social status. Any personal attitudes we have that depend upon such statuses are not Christian.

3:12-17 continues giving examples of the proper positive loving attitude towards others, and of the spirit in which a Christian should live.

3:18-4:1 cautions about feeling self righteous about oneself though. Just because one is a Christian, and has dedicated one's life to being this new person, one should not have a superior attitude. One must continue in one's position in life, not condemning others.

Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.

4:2-5 summarizes the message of praying for and continuing steadfastly in the faith, while being courteous to non-Christians.

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving … . Conduct yourself wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious … .

The rest of the chapter concludes with various greetings from Rome and introductions to the people that are delivering the letter.

One might now notice how much of the Dualism, Gnosticism, and Asceticism eventually made its way into Roman Catholicism, and how such beliefs could bias one's views and make it difficult to understand Paul's intended meaning.