God doesn’t play favorites

by Kristin on February 28, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by fradaveccs

On Saturday, I was surprised to see that pastor and author Rob Bell was trending on Twitter. In the rush of a busy day, packed with taxiing kids and entertaining an house guest, I didn’t have time to dig into it, but I got the gist: Some prominent Christian thinkers were condemning Bell for his next book, about heaven and hell (Love Wins). The book, by the way, hasn’t even come out yet. (Here’s an overview of the issue.)

I was furious. It was a perfect Christians Against Christians moment for me (that’s a catch phrase I was playing with a while back and then decided to move away from but can’t quite let go of). Why so much in-fighting and pride and hatred? Why are people who love the same God and supposedly want the same thing for the world tearing each other down? And why on earth are intelligent people like Justin Taylor and John Piper condemning a man for a book he wrote that they haven’t even read?

Several angles for a post filtered through my mind for the next 24 hours. I couldn’t wait to dig into the issue more and write my own ranty piece. So many possibilities! So much to be angry about! Reading Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis in 2006 had marked a turning point in my faith. I was on his side, feeling protective and ready to defend.

Time to listen, not rant

Then I went to church on Sunday, and do you know what God told me? “I don’t play favorites. I don’t take sides.”

Well, God told Pastor Jim and Pastor Jim told the rest of us. I’m pretty sure Pastor Jim hadn’t even heard about the Rob Bell hubbub—his grandchildren were visiting, and somehow he was also preparing his teaching and organizing one of our church’s big annual events, an auction that supports our Habitat for Humanity work in Mississippi and other service-oriented trips and conferences. In fact, Pastor Jim’s teaching was all about service—the importance of leaving our tribe to have meaningful encounters with others—but the text also spoke powerfully to me on this whole Rob Bell issue. It told my heart to open up and my rant to take a seat.

The text was from Acts 10, when Peter, a strict observant Jew, has an encounter with Cornelius, a Roman centurion. First Peter is all worried about clean and unclean foods—he’s been having dreams about them because he seems to have missed much of what Jesus was teaching him during their time together. As if that’s not upsetting enough, then the Spirit tells Peter he’s supposed to go see Cornelius, a “righteous and God-fearing man,” but completely unclean from Peter’s perspective. As Peter enters Cornelius’ house, where a whole crowd of Gentiles have gathered, he says this (Acts 10:28):

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.

One thing we can know about God: Love

When Cornelius asks Peter to tell them all what God has sent him there to say, what does Peter do? Try to convert them to his ways? Show off his knowledge of the scriptures, or brag about the years he spent with Jesus? Peter had the knowledge and the stature to convince them that he was right and they were surely going to hell if they didn’t change their ways. But this is what God sent Peter to say—this is where he begins (Acts 10:34-35):

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

Especially not when it comes to all the little doctrinal details and beliefs, whether nit-picky or central to our faith.

And this is where the story ends (Acts 10:44-45):

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.

Even on the Gentiles? <gasp> Even on the Rob Bell’s and all the others who love God and seek to do what’s right, even if it doesn’t look exactly like John Piper’s “right”? Yep. I’m pretty sure God has plenty of Holy Spirit to go around. He doesn’t need to rank believers and ration it out.

So when will we stop comparing ourselves to others, and thinking in a right vs. wrong paradigm? When will we stop choosing sides and creating tribes and sub-tribes that seek to tear one another apart? When will will start focusing on God in such a way that his love burns it’s imprint onto each individual heart, allowing us to do what is right and not worry about what “right” looks like to someone else?

From what I can tell in the Bible, our only job, in regards to others, is Love. And Love will win, whether we want to help it or not.

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  • http://aaronreddin.com Aaron Reddin

    Damn that was good. That’s all I can say.

  • http://hollyhousestudio.blogspot.com Jennifer

    I don’t know when WE will start to do this, but it sure has to happen. I guess each of us has to stop the madness. To hold up our hand to the panty twisting and refuse to go down that road. Because you are right. There is more than enough grace to go around. You go on, girl.

  • @gerberrob

    Well said……nothing like a Christian feeding frenzy to take our minds off, child trafficking, Governments toppling in the middle east, the poor etc. I’m not sure if there are Sides in the kingdom, but what I see of Christians, there must be.

  • Brian

    I agree with you that love should be our response to other people, but we also need to reconcile this with Jesus and his teaching about wolves (or false teachers). We also need to look at your pastors statement. God does have favorites. He hated Esau before Esau was even born, but loved Jacob. But I guess Romans 9 and Genesis are pretty easy to sweep under a rug. But then you have to deal with Jesus. Jesus picked 12 out of possibly hundreds who followed him. Why didn’t he pick others? John was also the disciple that Jesus loved. He wept over Lazarus, but not John the Baptist. These are things that have to be reconciled with the title of this article.

  • http://soullibertyfaith.com Sisterlisa

    I’m right here with you sister!

  • http://www.cocktailbanter.com Jana CG

    Well said! It seems to me there’s a lot to discuss on this front. Maybe this will evolve into a series of posts? :)

  • karen

    Dear Brian,

    Your comment of course piqued my interest, had my mind wandering through scripture while I am taking a break at the office. Your reference to Romans 9 is correct – and this refers back to the original OT statement in Malachi 1:3. God is indeed sovereign.

    However, I do not think God created Esau to hate him [God], or to be hated by God. I also strongly believe love/hate in these references is for comparative purposes. For God had fellowship with Jacob, who loved and believed God; and God had no fellowship with Esau because Esau remained in abject unbelief. This was Esau’s choosing, not God’s. (I’m not even going into Jacob the “nation” Israel – God will use individuals to portray a type or example of a later nation. There are usually much deeper meanings, as I am sure you know.)

    Like with Cain and Abel — God had respect for Abel, who believed God and acted accordingly, but Cain rationalized and remained in unbelief. God had no respect for Cain.

    God absolutely did not hate Esau as we define hate in our present day vernacular. God loved Esau. Just as God pursued Cain, giving him chance after chance, even providing Cain’s sin offering since Cain disobeyed God and brought a bloodless offering, things grown from the ground. This is not what God asked. Esau also did not return God’s love nor see any virtue in spiritual things – Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of bean soup, if you recall.

    Some other references I ask that you consider:
    Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11 for example clearly state that God is no respecter of persons.

    God loves us all: John 3:16 For God so loved the world [...]. 1 John 4:10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

    John the Baptist held a very special role, and is held in unique esteem by God: Matthew 11:11 [...] hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist

    Keep in mind as well that God is the Alpha and the Omega, He knows the end from the beginning. He knew before he created anything who would believe him. He can harden hearts, such as Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh had a choice just as the rest of us do, but he repeatedly said no, and God hardened his heart each time. That is God’s prerogative. And what God does not explain to us, I accept in faith that his ways are higher than mine. He knows what he’s doing – I have complete trust in him.

    This is a long reply and not worded exactly as I would like. I hope it helps you see things perhaps in a different light. God’s unfolding plan is amazing, isn’t it?

    In His Love,


  • http://www.creativeguidetolife.com Susan


    This is largely the problem I have with being spiritual in NYC. I don’t hide it, but I find people are near-hostile about the topic. Or quietly avoid it around me. Apparently if I’m a Christian, then I’m also a gay-basher, believe everyone is going to hell, and think sinners are vile. I really don’t get it. Even if you’re not religious, most people have some concept that Jesus Christ is about grace, love, and acceptance. I really don’t make it my job to go around judging and condemning everyone else.

    I also think the Bible is incredibly complex. To try to marginalize its meaning by insisting we know the real truth and fighting over it is just… kind of sad. We could do so much more with our time here and in serving each other.

  • Jana CG

    I appreciated your reading your thoughts. I’m a New Yorker living in the Midwest for a bit. This weekend I listened to a sermon online from the church I attended in NYC (Redeemer Presbyterian) that hit on many of the points you mentioned.

    The sermon (“The Gospel and the Outsider” re John 4:1-26) emphasized Jesus’ model of “evangelism” to the woman at the well. His approach was personal and relational. Following his model, we should love the people around us and also be transparent about how much Jesus means to us.

    It was helpful to me to think about sometimes-divisive questions of faith in these terms, with an emphasis on the importance on showing Christ’s love on a one-on-one basis. (Since leaving NYC, I’ve encountered a version of Christianity that I hadn’t seen for for years. At times, I’ve been taken aback by evangelism efforts that seem hostile to non-believers.)

    Kristin, thanks for starting the dialogue!

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    Well thought out and said, good reminder for all of us to stop looking at the specks in other peoples eyes when we have planks in our own. I daily remind myself of that.

  • http://www.creativeguidetolife.com Susan

    Jana – I use to go to Redeemer until I found a place closer to us! I still listen to Tim’s sermons from time to time, he’s one of the most brilliant preachers I’ve heard and really knows how to break down the Bible in historical, societal, spiritual, and religious context.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Thanks for your honesty and for sharing your process. I really had to stop myself and make sure I made a constructive response. I still struggle with whether my response was constructive enough.

    However, I think you’re really hitting that point in the middle where we need to be where God doesn’t play favorites. That’s such a profound thing to sit and think about for a bit. Whenever stuff like this happens, I’m always struck by how much middle ground there is. Yes, we may disagree over important things, but we don’t have to chuck everything else out the window if we disagree on something, even if it’s what some consider an important doctrine. You know?

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Aaron, thank you! I have to say, I love it when I think I’m going to take a post in one direction and then this other, much clearer direction presents itself. (And I certainly can’t take any credit for that. :)

    Jennifer, I am so inclined to get overly worked up about things, but I’m gradually learning to take a step back—to wait and see what washes over me when I put the fury cycle on hold. You’re right, “each of us has to stop the madness.” We have to decide to, commit to.

    @gerberrob, that’s always been one of the things that makes me most frustrated about Christian in-fighting—the fact that it sucks our time and energy, and distracts us from things that *really* matter in the big picture.

    Brian, you’re right—one chapter of the Bible can’t be looked at alone in debates of this nature. I respect where you’re coming from. But I have to say, I feel like you didn’t read my post very carefully.
    - First of all, I think we don’t have to reconcile what Acts 10 says about God not showing favoritism with what Jesus says about false teachers. Acts 10 is referring to people who love God and are doing what is right. Among *those* people, God doesn’t show favoritism, regardless of their little quirks, habits and confusion.
    - You also mention “We…need to look at your pastors statement.” I think I’m pretty clear in the post about my pastor’s influence on this post: He only read from Acts 10, then made a different point, entirely.
    - Regarding Esau, Karen did a great job responding, so I won’t take the time to go there. But your argument about Jesus’ disciples makes little sense to me. Are you suggesting that Jesus didn’t love all the people that were not his 12 chosen disciples? Or do you think he could have realistically traveled around and worked closely with several hundred people, just to prove he doesn’t show favoritism? When it comes to the disciples he chose, Jesus knew God’s big narrative—he knew what he had to do and he picked a team of people that could help him do it. And when you look at the disciples as a group, do you know what stands out the most? All 12 of the men were very DIFFERENT. They came from different religious traditions, different classes, different cultures. That’s what Jesus knew was necessary to get the job done. It seems pretty clear to me that if Jesus were putting together a team today, he’d probably take both Bell and Piper, he’d love them both immensely, and they’d have no choice but to work out their differences (and teach us all something amazingly important in the process).

    Sisterlisa, thanks for stopping by and letting me know!

    Jana CG, you may be right. Maybe I should start a guest post series. It seems like many of my commenters would have something to say. :) Do you want to pick the first sub-topic?

    karen, I am grateful for your knowledge and the time you took to share it. My hope is always that this blog will be a community—a discussion. You have not only built those things up, but you’ve done it with much grace and wisdom and love. Thank you.

  • suzi w.

    Great post. Acts 10 is one of the most powerful chapters in the New Testament as far as I’m concerned. Thanks for this post.

    There have been many times in my life when Acts 10 has been incredibly important to me. To have the reminder right now…well, it’s a good time.

  • http://www.cocktailbanter.com Jana CG

    Susan, I’m always glad to meet a fellow Redeemerite! :) I look forward to reading more of your thoughts – your site looks great.

    Kristin, re fodder for future posts…one thing I’ve been mulling over (in the context of what I wrote to Susan previously) is the “what then” question. I know it’s incredibly basic, but I’m intrigued by what love looks like when the rubber meets the road.

    I look forward to reading more in the days ahead!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Susan, the typical response to your faith that you described sort of demonstrates how far the Christian faith has strayed from the life and characteristics of Jesus. I’m sure that’s true in terms of people’s image/perception of Christianity, which means it must also be somewhat true when it comes to Christians’ hearts/actions. It’s really sad. I think you got to the heart of it when you suggested how much more we could be doing to serve others if we didn’t waste our time tearing down others.

    Jana, I think this one-on-one approach that you mention is SO critical: “It was helpful to me to think about sometimes-divisive questions of faith in these terms, with an emphasis on the importance on showing Christ’s love on a one-on-one basis.” It helps move us away from statistics and stereotypes toward the type of true individuals Jesus saw when he met people. (I’d love to see you write a post on the topic!)

    Elaine, yes, I need those reminders, too. I was so ready to take sides and write off Piper, which is in essence what he did to Rob Bell. Irony, eh? It really helps to move the dialogue away from an us-them framework.

    ed, sometimes, as bloggers, it’s best to let it out, and other times it’s best to sleep on it. :) You’re right—there is a lot of middle ground. Maybe we should think of all these perspectives in terms of Venn Diagrams, with several different ideas/directions, but lots of overlap. The other thing I often find myself doing is moving outside of the issue at the heart of the debate, to focus on the thing that really matters in my heart. Maybe that seems like a diversion, but I simply don’t want to sit around arguing about whether there is a hell or if my version of hell looks like your version of hell (and if that’s anything like Jonathan Edward’s version of hell). I’d rather talk about why we find it so hard to have love and compassion for those who are different from us.

    suzi w., Acts 10 is SUCH a powerful chapter, isn’t it? And Peter is such a complex character—so earnest and dense, and trying so hard to be faithful. I’m glad we both had an opportunity to revisit that story this week.

  • Brian

    Thanks for the conversation. To kind of respond to both Kristin and Karen, I will start with what Karen said about Esau (and yes God’s unfolding plan is utterly amazing :) ) . I’d be interested in hearing your definition for God’s “hate” toward Esau and how you think ours is different. If we are going by the context of Romans 9, Esau was created as a object of wrath. I’m not sure what all that entails, but it certainly doesn’t sound good. If you go back to the original context (Mal 1:2-3) then you will see that God laid waste to “Esau’s” homecountry (meaning is descendents). Either way, it doesn’t sound promising.

    Kristin – I was refering to the twelve in relation to your comment “He doesn’t need to rank believers…” On that basis, I think he did. He obviously chose those particular people rather than others. Remember he could have chosen anyone. The Bible also teaches that they are the entire foundation of the church, along with prophets. Paul argues many times from his letters that he is an apostle (basically pulling rank).

    But, all that aside, my main point was this and this is what I was trying to infer: While I agree that we should love and work with other Christians, even if we don’t agree with all of their little petty doctrines, when it comes to the fundamentals of the faith, we must remain firm in our beliefs. I don’t know what Rob will say in his new book (I’ve read most of his books and I love “Jesus wants to Save the Christians {even though I don’t agree with some of his theology}). Here’s what I know, if what he says disagrees with what Jesus says (i.e. there is a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, he will seperate the sheep from the goats and the goats will be thrown into eternal punishment (Mt 25).) then he’s just simply not a Christian. He may like the idea of Jesus, he may identify himself as Christian, but if you are contradicting Jesus own teaching on the subject, you are just not a Christian. I hope and pray that Rob doesn’t do that. He seems like a really cool guy.

    Again thanks for the comments and great dialogue. Much love to you all.

  • http://www.twitter.com/castingcrumbs karen

    I have been pondering for 2 days how to concisely present what I want to say, in a meaningful, honest, loving manner. Kristin, I fear that I am the one who did not read your beautiful post carefully. I know next to nothing about Rob Bell. What prompted my response was the “hate” issue. However, I still think I have a place in this wonderful community you’ve nurtured. I learn something everytime I visit.

    I fail at being concise no matter how hard I try. This subject is too important for me to walk away. Forgive me. Lunch hours are short and I could be a tad short on sanity. Here goes:

    The Acts verses referred to above are so incredibly paramount to the Age of Grace — the transition from the Gospel of the Kingdom (Acts 2:38) to the Gospel of the Resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-4) — that I couldn’t adequately cover the subject in this comment. As God planned before he created anything, there was now a new program in place. God took into account man’s failings – we see the many different programs and covenants as we walk up through scripture, from Adam/Eve to the present, don’t we? Now, in Acts, the Jewish timeline, the Jewish economy, was being interrupted – with the Age of Grace. God was indeed moving forward to take the Gospel to the gentiles and he wanted to show this to Peter. His beloved, priestly Jewish nation stumbled and God already knew this would happen. So God pulled aside one man, pious Paul (as he had taken one man, Abraham, and again later, one man Noah, as examples – this is not an unusual move for God), to take salvation to the Gentiles.

    Brian, please see 2 Peter 3:15 for Peter’s loving support and seal of approval if you will for Paul’s Apostleship, gospel, and teachings.

    God will finish his allotted 490 years (see Daniel 9:24 onward) with Israel – 483 years have been fulfilled and 7 are yet to come when the Age of Grace concludes, and the final 7 years of tribulation occur, according to scripture. (Israel will also later regain her esteemed position and priestly role to the nations, have no doubt.)

    Regarding scripture’s mentions of God as no respecter of persons – this means in respect to salvation, to eternal fellowship with him, that he doesn’t consider our wealth, our poverty, our good works. He has no respect for any of that – in our unbelief. God asks us in the Age of Grace to believe the Gospel of the Resurrection. When we lock onto that profound act and all it entails in heartfelt belief, we understand that Christ paid our sin debt and we are made right with God. We don’t deserve it, but those of us on this side of the Cross are imputed righteousness through our belief in the Gospel of the Resurrection.

    I think much of the strife within the body of Christ is out of love. It’s like a parent admonishing a child, inflicting even severe consequence, to stay away from a hot stove or something that will harm the innocent child. True believers suffer and react when they see good hearted believers and unbelievers alike led astray by false doctrine. (Please don’t infer this to include those who picket funerals, etc. – these are seriously misled, confused souls.)

    Brian, quickly, Romans 9. I have drawn in parentheses around Romans 9 – 11 in my old bible. Paul yearned and suffered over his fellow Jews. Here, he takes a marked departure and devotes these chapters entirely to Israel, its past. God hated or was “separated” from Esau because Esau was destitute of faith. Again, Esau’s choosing. Esau led his descendants (nations) astray. How this must have hurt God. Can you imagine? And without God, the heart is overcome by Satan, the curse, sin, the Adamic nature. Nothing short of “hell on earth.”

    This is unpopular, but I respect and love all enough to share what I believe to be true: Scripture couldn’t be more clear that Sheol, Hades, the Bottomless Pit, the Lake of Fire, Tartarus, etc. exist. Too much of scripture is devoted to these places, and nothing indicates that God has removed our options from the scene.

    In His Tender Love,

    @castingcrumbs on Twitter

  • karen

    .. I reversed Abraham and Noah in my comment above. Noah of course came on the scene before Abraham. Ok, I’m really going this time. I love this blog. Hope I can hang around … I’ll sit in the corner and be quiet. :)

  • Ron Simkins

    Thanks Kristin. You are right that Christians beating one another up over things they haven’t even read yet is a major reason people give for not even wanting to hear us talk about God. A recent Barna research survey found that of younger people who want nothing to do with churches 87% think Chrisitans are very judgmental and 70% think that we are insensitive. Wonder why?

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    Great post. Whenever I have the urge to disagree with another Christian (or really anyone) to the point that it gets me riled up, I remind myself that it’s not my job to pass judgment on anyone. My job is to love God and to love my neighbor as myself.

  • PythonGuy

    God most certainly does play favorites and this is why I no longer serve him. He’s been nothing but a giant disappointment since I became a christian, and I can no longer devote my life to such a biased, partial creator. If he wants to send me to hell, so be it. I won’t be manipulated by god-imposed fear.

    It makes sense how atheists don’t believe in a creator. But what is it when you believe in a creator and you believe in his sacrifice, but you just think god sucks and is a hypocrite? What “sovereign” god sits there and lets innocent children starve and perish, then sits there and blames a “fallen world” and “bad people” and “best interests” for his inaction and unwillingness to help those who cannot help themselves? This is a god I can neither respect nor worship.

    Best of luck.