The Spirit of Jephthah Lives On
Moral repugnance in the name of virtue
Today in my Bible reading, I come across Judges 11, and the tragically stupid story of Jephthah, and his vow. To sum it up: he goes to war against an invading army, vowing to the Lord that, if the Lord would give him success, whatever he sees upon his return he will give to the Lord as a burnt offering. He wins; that first thing he sees happens to be his only daughter. And two months later, he fufills his vow. Interestingly, just before this, the text says that he was “filled with the Spirit”. Just because one is blessed by God in some way does not prevent abject stupidity in another. Jephthah should have seen the moral repugnance of his act before God. It would have been better to commit the sin of breaking his vow, and repent of it and seek forgiveness, rather than fulfill it, in the interest of keeping his “virtue” of one who did not break his vow.
That much is clear. The people of God can do this – far too often. We prize virtue over the desires of the living God. We elevate virtue over everything else. And in doing so, virtue becomes disconnected from God. Yes – even virtue can become an idol, a false god, that replaces the living God. And when that happens – as someone else has said, when a good thing becomes a god-thing, we do incredibly immoral, stupid stuff. That good thing becomes a very bad thing. The people of God, one minute filled with the Holy Spirit, can fall into grievous immorality.
So can – so does – the world. We human beings are seemingly “programmed” to desire virtue. To be seen as virtuous; to live in virtue; to be justified, by possessing virtue. It’s “as if” we’re designed this way, and when we don’t have it, we hunger for it; we grasp for virtue. It’s a mistake to say that only Christians pursue virtue. Everyone does. The real question is, is our virtue attained by the wisdom of God – by faith in the living God, through Jesus Christ – or through the wisdom of man, through faith in man? That is the question that divides the earth, into only two groups.
You see this working itself out today, in the protestor-rioter, who claims she’s acting on the virtue of enlightened wisdom about race and class, but then acts in a way that is completely unloving to the person right next to her, her neighbor, the first person she meets, as she protests. That first person she meets is a shop-owner, on her block, in whose window she throws a Molotov Cocktail. The wisdom and moral repugnance of Jephthah lives, on the streets of Portland, Minneapolis, and across our nation. At its core is a virtue that’s disconnected from the wisdom of the living God.
Or take conversations about mask-wearing. Recently a teacher friend of ours recounted a conversation she had with a fellow teacher. Their school district gave them the choice of either wearing a mask or a face shield. When our friend divulged she was going to wear the shield, the other teacher castigated her, accusing her of not caring for people. But what about the children around her, who are helped in their education by seeing their teacher’s face? And what about that second teacher’s other neighbor, residing in the womb of the teacher across the hall? Something tells me it’s more likely than not that she would give full assent to that teacher killing that baby, in the name of the virtue of choice. The spirit and moral stupidity of Jephthah is as old as dirt, and yet so very modern, so western, so American. So us.
The only solution is three-fold. It requires first seeing and believing an old, old message: that Jesus Christ came into the world, to give us the virtue that we all long for. He was that virtue, in himself; he lived that virtue, in his perfect life; and he surrendered that virtue, so that we could have it, by taking upon himself all our moral repugnance and stupidity on his cross. For those who believe on Him, God counts all His righteousness, His virtue, to them. And then, over time, we become more and more actually virtuous. Not some sham virtue, that only results in real destruction, but virtue that gives – gives life, gives freedom, gives grace, gives love.
So the first step of the solution is to hear the gospel of the grace that is found only in Jesus Christ. We are all Jephthah; we all need so much grace. And we have it, in him. And then we must turn – the biblical word is repent – we must turn from relying on our own insane brand of virtue. And thirdly, we must therefore turn to him, and trust in him, in Jesus. There is no other way. Cities burn because the gospel does not. Friend, turn from yourself – turn from trying to craft a virtue of your own making. It will only end in destruction – especially for those closest to you. The only virtue there actually is is found in Jesus Christ.