What’s in a Name?

From the naming of the animals, to the Name above all names, the Bible emphasizes the importance of names. When God calls someone into their purpose, he often gives them a new name: Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Saul to Paul. What is important about these transitions? Why does a name matter? “A rose would be a rose by any other name…” 

Let’s remember the creation of the universe: God spoke and the heavens and the earth came into existence out of nothing. So when God is naming these people, he is creating in them an identity that was not there before. Abram was childless until the moment God named him “Abraham,” which means “father of a multitude.” He did not see the multitude at that time, but it was his identity nevertheless. Jacob (meaning liar) had had to struggle and fight and lie to get everything in life until God named him “Israel,” which means “may God prevail.” From that moment, his identity was a symbol of God’s faithfulness to him and his people. It was a promise that Israel would not be saved by their own holiness and strength but by the salvation of God. Perhaps most relevant, Saul became “Paul,” which means “little, or humble.” This was the pharisee of pharisees, the master of the Law, the wielder of the righteous sword to cut down the enemies of God. Now, God named him “Paul” and we get such words as:

 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a] 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Here is a man who has been humbled by the power of God and the realization of his own weakness. The name caused the reality. 

So what does this matter? God hasn’t renamed me like that? Well, maybe he has. What does God call you? Righteous, beloved, sons and daughters, etc. There are hundreds of proclamations in the New Testament about  Christians. More specifically, what has he called you in your life? He has called me a speaker of truth that sets people free. That is a promise he has made me. That is a reality he has called forth. It’s not because I am so smart or eloquent or amazing (ask my wife she’ll let you know it can’t be that), it’s because God has called that part of my identity. So now, I have the opportunity to claim that identity and live from that place. Sometimes I still speak lies, sometimes I say the thing that is hurtful and not  helpful, but my identity lies in what God has called me.

God has called each one of us into our identity. Now, we have to listen and believe, which will lead to acting out of our identity in Christ instead of the hyper-flawed identity we create for ourselves through pride and iinsecurity.

He was Tempted in Every Way as We are

One of the most remarkable stories in the Bible is the story of Jesus’ temptation. It is written, “[He] was tempted in every way as we are, yet he did not sin.” (Heb 4:15) And yet, we only have one instance of temptation recorded, and we have that same instance recorded in three of the four gospels. I am not saying that Jesus wasn’t tempted elsewhere in his life, but it seems that this was a very important example of temptation. In fact, I would venture to say that the story of Jesus’ temptation is one of the most important stories in the gospel for Christians. In it are the principles for how we navigate temptation and challenges in our life. 

Before we look at his temptation, it is important to to think through the implications of the theological concept of “Kenosis.” This is a Greek word that means to self-empty. It is used in Phil 2:6-7,

“[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” 

The crucial idea within Kenosis is that Jesus came to earth as a human without access to his Godly powers. “He made himself nothing…” This is the emptying of all God-qualities. Jesus was not a super-baby. All the iconography of Jesus blessing people as a baby is misleading. He did not have some sort of supernatural intelligence or power as a man. Rather, he lived his life as we lived, learning and growing as a young Jewish male in the first century AD. This means that he could actually experience temptation. If he were God, with the knowledge of all that is and was and is to come, how could he be truly tempted? If he had the unlimited power, knowledge and communion of the Trinity, how could he be tempted by anything?

Instead, he had to learn of his identity as we do. He searched the Scriptures, he learned of God from his parents, he was brought up in the way of the Lord by his local community. I am sure that he grew up hearing the stories of his miraculous birth. He had promises spoken over him. He grew in “wisdom and stature and favor with God and man.” So when we get to Jesus’ baptism, we can imagine that he was working from his relationship to God at that point. He seems to have had some idea of his identity. When he was eleven he replies to his mother and father after going missing for three days, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) So when he turns thirty, God tells him to go get baptized in the Jordan. This perfect man gets baptized as a representation of all of the new creation. John tries to turn him away, but Jesus knows enough by now to know that this is for the “fulfillment of all righteousness.” And then he gets the clear call of his identity as the dove decends upon him and the voice of God speaks, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” 

The firstborn of the New Creation gets baptized into his true identity as the Son of God. He has been reading about the Messiah his whole life. His knowledge of the Torah is shown throughout his ministry. He knows the prophecies about Messiah and now he has been confirmed and commissioned in his call. Throughout the Bible, as people are called into their identity and given promises about their life, they enter into a period of testing. Joseph was promised to be a ruler with the stars of heaven and sheaves of wheat bowing down to him then he was sold into slavery by his own brothers, then he was falsely accused and thrown in prison. It says in Psalms 105:19, “the world of the Lord tested him.” So now, Jesus is tested by the word of the Lord. 

He is led by the Spirit into the wilderness and after forty days of fasting he is hungry (ya think??). So in his weakest moment, the devil comes and tests him. The fascinating part of this dialogue is the nature of the temptations. There is no obfuscation here, the entirety of his temptation is about the identity and the promises God has spoken over Jesus. Jesus, the presumptuous Jewish man who has the audacity to believe that God has called him “Son” and to promise him the salvation of the world. 

Satan begins, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

Hold up. This isn’t even a sin! The tempter is merely asking him to perform a miracle of provision in confirmation of the word God spoke to him. But we know better. This about whether Jesus trust the identity God spoke over him and his answer shows how tightly he is holding to God’s word.

He answers, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

All of our temptation to doubt the word of God, to be anxious for provision, to want proof of God’s favor, and Jesus clings to the Word of Truth. 
Again, Satan tries a different tact. He takes him to the Jerusalem and sets him on the pinnacle of the temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you trike your foot against a stone.'”

Satan throws Scripture in Jesus face. You can imagine him thinking, “Two can play at this game…” Now Jesus has a promise and Satan is only asking him to test the promises of Scripture. 

Jesus answers, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

Not only is he choosing to believe God’s word of identity over him, he is choosing to believe in the promises God has made about him without any proof, without seeing their fulfillment. “Blessed is the one who believes without seeing…”

Lastly, the devil goes after the destiny of Jesus. Ok, maybe you know who you are, but now you have to decide whether you can trust God’s calling on your life. Jesus has an impossible task before him. The Devil takes him to a very high mountain and shows him the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Now, remember, Jesus knows that, “Kingdoms shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Isaiah 60:3) So Jesus is seeing the smallness of himself in the light of what God said he would do. Satan offers him a shortcut. “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 

Ok, so we all know not to sell our soul to the devil, but how often do we make small compromises to get what we want? God promised to provide, but I don’t see the provision so I am going to go apply for a credit card. God promised to fulfill me, but I feel unfulfilled so I will enter into a relationship without consulting him to see if the relationship is one that God wants for me. These are broad examples, but every day we are confronted with choices of priorities. Are we going to worship God or _____? 

Jesus shows us once more the power of the Word: 

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”

One more note about this last temptation. Idolatry is the most confronted sin in the Old Testament, and we often think that we have not struggles with that. We would never worship a statue, but the nature of idolatry is far more insidious than that. The pastor of my church is always saying, “Idolatry is when we say, ‘I will be happy if I have God and ____.'” Whatever is in that blank–romance, money, a career, security, children, etc.–is the idol that we are serving.

How many of us have know our identity in Christ? How many of us know the promises and prophecies that have been spoken over us? We should hold fast to these words and not give in to fear when the words test us, when we don’t yet see their fulfillment. Jesus was unwilling to shortcut God’s process even though it led through suffering and death. Because he held to the promises of God over his life and the specific words God had spoken to him about his identity (both through prophecies directly to him and through the Scripture), Jesus was able to walk in the power of God and not stumble. We should do the same. When confronted with our various challenges and temptations, let us focus on the promises and the identity God has given us and cast our mountains into the sea. 

 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:24-25) 

Life and Death are in the Power of the Tongue

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God.”

It’s hard to overemphasize the attention the Bible gives to the power of our words. Jesus is the Word. God created the world through words. Our world is still being created through words. The most valuable resource in the world is intellectual property which is communicated through words. Books from Nietzsche to Plato to Malcolm Gladwell to Ray Bradbury change the way that we see the world and what we envision as right or good or possible. Blogs and newspapers serve as our window into the world around us. There is no end to literature on the power of words to shape our internal and external realities.

And yet, we think that venting and complaining is a healthy part of life. We will say things like, “My life sucks, this sucks, everyone has it better than me, I hate this.” Well if that is the narrative you tell yourself every day from the moment you get out of bed until the moment you go to sleep, then that will become your reality. I recently heard a preacher say, “We will recreate externally our internal environment.” So if you are negative internally, you will create negativity around you. Our brains are shaped by what we consume, but they are transformed by what comes out of our mouths. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” We can actually choose the abundance of our hearts by picking our words carefully.

When we encounter a situation that is challenging, we can speak life and not death. To give a seemingly mundane example, we can look at two responses to car troubles. My car has only been owned by me for a year. It is two years old and has 45,000 miles on it and the engine light is on and it has difficulty shifting gears even though it is an automatic. One response, “I just got this car a year ago and it’s already having issues! This sucks. It’s probably a poorly made car. What if it’s not covered under the powertrain warranty? I am sure that there will be more and more problems as it gets older. This is just my luck!” or “Hmm. I should take this in and get it looked at. Good thing I am noticing this now before the power train warranty is up! That’s totally God’s favor because if I had noticed it in a few months I may have been over the 50,000-mile limit. If it’s not covered, then I will just have to trust God to provide like he always has.”

OK, I know, that’s a cheesy example, but it illustrates the big difference between people who have been transformed by God’s truth that you are accepted, provided for abundantly, and equipped for good works and people who are stuck in the world mindset that says prepare for the worst and give up hope because if you don’t you are just pretending and lying to yourself. The cynical spirit is more pervasive and destructive to God’s transforming work in our life than any other attitude, and you regularly encounter it in the Church.

Instead of complaining and prophesying destruction over our situation, we need to speak life and prophesy the promises of God over every situation. This is no hopeless optimism or prosperity Gospel. Paul learned to praise God and be content in all circumstances: whether being beaten for the faith, imprisoned, feasting with friends, or doing the work of ministry. Prosperity Gospel says that you will be happy because your circumstances will be what you want them to be. Paul was joyful and content and worshipful in spite of his circumstances. And this is no naive optimism, it is faith in the promises we have received that God will work all things for our good (whether we think it is our good or not) and that we have been created to love Him and enjoy Him forever. So, today why don’t you evaluate your inner monologue. Is it based on convincing yourself of your difficulties and your right to be upset? Or is it encouraging your soul to praise God in all circumstances and reminding yourself of His truth and promises?

Inspired by my Dad

In the beginning, God made man and woman to be the first expression of his likeness. The center of God’s purposes for humanity begins and ends with the love of a man and a woman for each other and the raising of children out of that love. God himself relates to us as a Father and Jesus is his son. This relationship of love and unity forms the foundation for the cosmos. 
Before you can be a good father or husband, you must first have been fathered well. This is only partially fulfilled by your earthly father. As one of my favorite scenes in all of literature points out so vividly, “We have never known our true Mothers and Fathers.” This from Perelandra by C.S. Lewis as Ransom weeps before the revelation of a true and unblemished Adam and Eve. God’s intent for the perfect manifestation of fatherhood and motherhood was marred by the Fall and we are only partially able to represent that heavenly perfection through the grace of God. This does not mean parenting is hopeless, God fills all things, restores all things, and makes all things good. This does mean that we need to be fathered by the one Good Father. “We love because we were first loved.” If your dad was amazing, or absent, or abusive, or average, then you must turn to God and experience the true love of the Father. It was always meant to be that we would be fathered by an earthly representative and also by the true Father of all. In no way does this diminish our earthly fathers, they are the first expression of fatherhood most of us experience and that can either push us from the fullest expression found in God or draw us close. This can make all the difference. 

Once you have been fathered by God and shown the amazing love of the true bridegroom, the first key to being a good father is found in the relationship between husband and wife. It is out of that relationship that sons and daughters are created and the reflection of that relationship will be manifested in the children. In order to be a good father, one must first love his wife and even give himself up for her as Christ gave himself up for the Church. Love begets love, and being committed to your wife will form the most sure foundation for your children. This should be abundantly evident in our culture that is filled with fatherless people. 

A prevailing opinion among women these days is that the children must always come first. This is not true. First, you must love each other as husband and wife, it is only out of that love that your children will feel stable and safe. Out of the strength of your relationship as husband and wife, one flesh, you will be able to love and provide for your children in a way that you could never have accomplished by yourself. There is a Divine plan and intelligence in the design of the family. One person can never fulfill the role of both parents. Of course, God is faithful to widows and orphans and they are his special care. So if there is a single parent, God is quick to fill the role of the absent father or mother. 

The mother/father unit is the single most powerful force for change in the world. When raising children, the most important concept is to listen. First, listen to God, then listen to each other, and then listen to your children. If you humble yourself and listen, you will love in your action and inaction. God is the true Father and he will lead you in all that you need. Your wife is your mirror, partner, helper and she will give you strength and discernment or give you the opportunity to encourage her (which will grow your strength and discernment as well). Your children are often more in tune with their needs than you might think. And even if they are not, they will give you Windows into themselves if they know you are listening and your discernment will sift the wheat from the chaff. If you are receiving direction from above, insight from your wife, and the identity of your children, then you will be able to act in accordance with love. You will make mistakes, but you will always come back to listening and loving. By this you will lead. 

There is a special anointing on husbands to pray for and lead their family. God empowers us to accomplish our purposes and the purpose of a husband to love his wife and children starts in a place of prayer. This is listening prayer as we learn to pray the heart of God into all situations. Our first place of praying with God allows God’s heart to flow down into all aspects of our family.

Ultimately, there are a thousand more things to say about fatherhood, but these are the keys that I have seen in my dad. 

While these principles are listed in order of importance, they can often happen out of order and that is okay. We are living redemptive stories and God is always bringing us from brokenness to healing. Wherever you are at, come to Jesus. He will transform your relationships from the top down. He will restore your relationship with him, he will redeem your relationship with your wife, he will renew your relationship with your children. 

The Discipline of God

 

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2)

The opening verse of Hebrews chapter 12 give a vision and a context for the writer’s discussion of God’s discipline. First, we must see that sin is the weight that keeps us from running the race to the fullest of our ability. Sin here is not addressed as shame to be hidden or fearful of. You can hear the heart of the writing: “put away your sin, it’s weighing you down, it’s holding you back from what God has for you.” Our call against sin is only Godly and effective if it is an invitation into God’s best and not a condemnation into God’s worst. This is mandated because, “There is now, therefore, no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)

The second highlight in the verses above is the communal aspect of our life in Christ. We are never alone, but are “surround by so great a cloud of witnesses” and “looking to Jesus” we are able to run this race. Not only are we called to be a part of the body of Christ on earth which practices the gifts of the spirit for the building up of the faithful, but we are also surrounded by a heavenly witness. I am reminded of the powerful story in the Old Testament when Elisha and his servant are surround by a great army who has come out against them. Elisha is as calm as Jesus sleeping in the bottom of the storm tossed boat, but his servant cries out, “What’re we gonna do?” with the echo of the same desperation from Jesus’ disciple, “Don’t you care that we are gonna die?” Elisha simply prays that God will open the servants eyes to see that, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (1 Kings 2:16) Do we really live our lives like this? Do we confront our personal mountains with confidence and faith that we are surrounded by a powerful heavenly host?

It’s in this context that God’s discipline is addressed. It is not addressed in a spirit of condemnation and it is in no way addressed as God punishing a lone individual who is expected to overcome sin on their own. The last major point I want to address in this verse is the image of Christ going to the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” Now here I find it necessary to make one very important distinction that will help us to understand God’s discipline in our own lives. I do not believe that the cross was God’s divine will in the sense that God orchestrated and caused the cross to occur so that we might be saved and Jesus might, “learn obedience through the things he suffered.” Rather, I believe that it was God’s divine will to allow our free choice of the rejection and crucifixion of his son. God sent Jesus to preach the way of peace, knowing full well that we would reject him and his teaching and crucify him by our own sin. “He took on him the sins of us all,” is more literal in this image as our sin literally condemned him to the cross. So we see the distinction here is that God can use our sin and the results of that sin to save the world and teach obedience in Christ. Now, Christ was perfect, and yet he was learning obedience. This is the mystery of incarnation and it is so good for us because we do not have a high priest who does not know our suffering and temptations. Jesus can teach us obedience in suffering because he learned the same way. The important point to remember throughout is that Jesus did all these things for the “joy that was set before him.” The key to growth through God’s discipline is to remember that it is for the joy that God has set before us. Discipline’s purpose is to remove that which keeps us from joy and fulfillment in Christ.

One last note on this seeming paradox about enduring suffering and giving up sin in exchange for joy… There is a parable Jesus tells that seems to sum up what is meant by these things: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44) This is what the discipline of God calls us into: joyful surrender of all that we have. “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.’” (Heb. 12:5-6)
This is so powerful. God is using the trials and tribulations in our life to train us in the way we should go as a father would for his children.

So what does this Godly discipline look like? It looks like bringing everything that we experience before God in humble submission to him. Are you experiencing financial difficulties? Bring it before God, get counsel from a wise brother in Christ. Maybe God desires to teach you to trust him, to steward your finances well, to rejoice in all things. Are you experiencing relational difficulties with your spouse? Bring it before God, get counsel from a wise father in the church. Maybe God is teaching you how to prefer others before yourself, maybe God is teaching you to build your house on the Rock instead of on your own ability to maintain yourself. Are you struggling with a sin pattern in your life? Bring it to the Lord, submit yourself to a leader in your church. Maybe God desires to teach you grace and humility and the life-saving power of the Holy Spirit.

God’s discipline is not an act of punishment that seeks to cause pain, rather, it is the transformation of the tribulations in this life into the life changing lessons of how to be like Jesus. God takes our earthly suffering and uses it like fire to forge us into people who can enjoy perfect freedom and communion with him. Simplest definition of the discipline of God is this: God’s miraculous ability to transform the suffering resultant in the effects of sin (our own sin and that of others) into the lessons that shape us into who he has called us to be. Even the effects of sin and a broken world are used by God to meet us and heal us and change us. Does this mean that you must look for sin whenever you experience tribulation? No, instead look for God and what he has provided you in this time for your benefit and sustenance. The ultimate result is the kingdom of God in your heart, a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The result of God’s discipline is “the removal of things that are shaken… in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:27-29) What then remains? “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)

The Problem of Evil

To conclude my series of blog posts with an apologetic theme, this post will wrestle with one of the classic objections to the Christian faith, the Problem of Evil. It can be stated as follows:

If God is all-powerful and all-good, there would not be evil and suffering in the world.

There is evil and suffering in the world; therefore, God is either not all-powerful, not all-good, or non-existent.

This argument is probably the most compelling argument I have heard and most people I have engaged with seem to find their biggest issues with Christianity here. I think this is because we are hurting and something in us knows that the world is not how it ought to be. Even if you believe in Christianity, you must answer this objection. First, I will layout the philosophical answer to the problem of evil and then I will give the uniquely Christian answer to this problem.

Imagine a perfect world where no-one ever does anything wrong… Did you come up with an image? If you did, it was probably grey, sterile or even boring and oddly futuristic. Maybe that’s not what you thought of, but because of our over-saturation of dystopian films and literature, we are often given a view of the issue that occurs when someone in power tries to eliminate all evil and suffering from the world. Equilibrium, Divergent, 1984, and even Avengers: Age of Ultron or Captain America: Winter Soldier are wrestling with the trade off between eliminating suffering and eliminating freedom. The focus of the debate on the problem of evil has always been whether God could, in His infinite power, create a world where evil did not exist but freedom of choice did exist. It truly seems impossible for such a world to exist. It seems that in order for human beings to have the ability to choose to live by love, they have to have the ability to reject the same. If God were to have created the world without that freedom, then we would be robots following our programming and functioning well, but we would not be humans loving well and creating community. While this is a much-repeated response, it seems to solve the philosophical dilemma. God is all-powerful and all-good. In his goodness and power, he created humans with an ability to choose freely (thus choosing to limit his power by his goodness) and God is constantly drawing humanity towards himself and towards love. This may seem like a sterile philosophical answer that does not go into the depths of suffering, but the next section of the blog will explore the uniquely Christian response that does not shy away from this tension.

Every worldview wrestles with the problem of evil. Some Buddhists claim that suffering is illusion, Hinduism claims that suffering is the result of Kharma, Muslims claim that God is ineffable and unquestionable in his absolute power but also balances his own scales of justice, Secular Humanists claim that innovation and progress will free us from incorrect thinking or the imbalance of power, Naturalists really have no grounding for what evil is but tend to cry out against injustice all the same. Amidst thousands of answers, Christianity tells the most compelling story in response to evil in the world.

God created the world and it was beautiful and good. He created humans and they were very good. Humans, in their freedom, chose pride and control over relationship with God. Since that point, God has been pursuing humanity throughout the ages. First he spoke to a small backwards tribe, the Hebrews, and constantly met them in their evolving understanding of God and the world. His message was communicated in poetry and power, in beauty and story and it was always an invitation to return to God. Instead, they chose to kill the prophets he sent and worship other gods (gods of power, money, and debauchery). The Hebrews were a microcosm of the problem with humanity in the entire world. We all needed healing from the cultural, systemic sin that demanded sacrifice and violence. Rene Girard spoke of the mimetic desire that describes human tribe’s need to find a scapegoat for their own guilt and difficulties in life. There is a famine, sacrifice a virgin. There is a murder, kill the murderer. A woman will not have you, take her anyways. There is a land dispute, go to war. Always moving towards violence instead of relationship with the Creator and the Created. Throughout all of this, God kept calling the Hebrews towards the beautiful and the good. He still saw the beauty that humanity could be and create. The world was broken but good and man would occasionally respond to challenges with singular acts of love and beauty. Yet still the cycle of violence and hatred remained.

Finally, at the time when his message could be heard and spread, Jesus came and entered into our suffering. God, the God of the universe, did not shun the world that was marked by suffering and evil. He dined with sinners and healed lepers. He lost loved ones to death and he experienced betrayal. God-as-man was tempted in every way as we are, but Jesus resisted and learned obedience through what he suffered. The uniquely Christian answer, and the one answer that truly gets to the core of the problem, is that God took upon himself the pain and suffering of us all. We demanded sacrifice, He provided the Lamb. All of our brokenness and systemic sin took Love personified and nailed him to the cross. God did not demand Jesus’ death, we did. God did not fear our darkness, he entered into it and the light overcame that darkness. Jesus entered into the depths of Hades and returned victorious over death.

He then returned to the close friends he had invested in (because it’s always a relational transformation) and empowered them with the knowledge and peace of the risen Christ. God’s answer to evil was submission to the effects of evil and victory through that submission. He then began with a small group of Hebrew fisherman and transformed the world by their lived message. Many of them were persecuted and killed, again conquering evil by giving themselves up in love. “Greater love has no man then he that lays down his life for his friends.” So when we consider the philosophical problem of evil and are faced with the reality of evil and suffering in our lives, God has an answer and it is Jesus. Because of Him we can be transformed into people who are free from systemic sin and healed from brokenness. A people transformed conquering the world through love and not violence. A people who do not have to fear injustice or even death, but can embrace all men through the power of the resurrection. The problem of evil has been answered, the challenge for Christians is to be a part of the solution.

The Moral Argument for the Existence of God

This week, I am giving a summary of the Moral Argument. This is a difficult thing to do because the permutations and forms of this argument are vast and varied. I will attempt to stick to the core and address the most popular objections. The basic structure of the moral argument is as follows:

1. There is an objective moral law

2. There cannot be an objective moral law without an objective moral standard

3. The Judeo-Christian God is the best explanation for the objective moral law

Each of these points can be debated at length. The first and most hotly contested premise can be argued mainly from our experience and the way that we live in the world. Subjective or relative morality can sound convincing and, in an atheistic or materialist worldview, it is the only option available. However, when applied to how we actually live, we find that this view is untenable. If there is no objective standard, then there is no basis for condemning behavior. Anyone can commit atrocious crimes with impunity. We may have laws or rules that govern behavior and consequences for the dissenters, but something in us cries injustice when these dissenters are able to get away with their actions. The sex trade shows this. In some places, the sex trade is perfectly legal, but we all know there is something deeply wrong with the practice of selling human beings for sexual use. Someone will argue that the problem with the sex trade is that it causes others harm. Relative morality is the key as long as you don’t hurt anybody else. To that I say, what objective standard are you using to judge that hurting someone else is wrong?  They may argue for a cultural understanding of morality. In this view, the morality of a culture should govern all behavior within that culture and is generally developed in order that that culture may flourish. This is problematic because who decides what a cultural morality is and what a flourishing culture is? Also, who is contained within your culture and how do you condemn the practices of other cultures? These are particularly relevant questions in our current day and age. According to one particular society today, the destruction of the Western world and the submission of all people to Sharia Law is the ultimate goal. Terrorist attacks and economic sabotage and everything perpetuated by Isis is fueled by a cultural understanding of morality. According to a relative understanding of morality, there is no basis for condemning Isis.

Something in us, from the earliest age, knows that somethings are wrong and some things are right. This does not deny that there is a moral grey area, nor does it mean that anybody knows the full extent of the objective moral standard. In no way am I arguing that everything that has been justified by using the Judeo-Christian God has been good. The argument is only that there is an objective moral standard and that we all live and judge assuming that there is such a standard. Any cry for justice is an assertion of a moral standard. Why do Black Lives Matter? Because there is an objective moral standard that maintains the moral value of all humans.

If you have ever had a conversation with a child, you have probably experienced some of the difficulty that arises when we cannot ground our objective morality in anything. “James, you shouldn’t hit your sister.” “Why not?” “Because that hurts her.” “Why is that bad?” “Because the atoms in the universe colliding randomly have created humans by the power of random mutations guided by natural selection and we humans have somehow developed a conscious mind and cultures that have determined over time that hurting people is contrary to the flourishing of our communities.” The holes in this explanation are myriad. Matter and energy have no moral value, if all we are is matter and energy driven by random dance and chemical firings in our brain, then nothing we are and nothing we do can have moral weight. The alternate story is much more compelling and has the greater explanatory  power when we observe and experience the world: “You should not hurt your sister because there is a God who is love and created all people to be a reflection of that love. You should love your sister because she is valuable and hitting her does not honor her objective value.” Now, that may be a little difficult to explain to a four year old, so we instead say things like, “Because it is wrong to hurt people, and it is especially wrong to hurt those who are smaller than you.”

So if we have come to the point where we believe there is an objective moral standard that takes us from a “can or cannot” to a “should or should not,” then the question follows about where this moral standard comes from? I have been arguing that it is found in the Judeo-Christian God and the following story explains some part of why I think this is the best answer: Plato writes of a dialogue between Socrates and a man named Euthyphro. Socrates asked the man whether the moral law was given by the gods or whether it was above the gods. On the one hand, the moral law is subjective because the gods did not exemplify the laws they gave and there were many gods who gave different laws or commands that were contrary. One the other hand, if the law is above the gods, then the gods are not ultimate beings and we now need to figure out what this objective law is and where it comes from. The Judeo-Christian answer escapes both of these problems as it grounds objective moral law in the character of God. God is the standard against which we judge all of our actions. His commands come directly from His character. God is love and the standard for morality is God’s love.

One objection may be called the problem of evil. While I will address that objection in a future post, one basic element of this objection should be explored here. The basic idea is that if God is all-good and all-powerful then the world He created should be all-good. The list of terrible atrocities in the world lend power to this argument and it is the magnitude of the issues addressed that compels me to save a full engagement for a separate post. The one thing I will say is that the problem of evil assumes an objective standard of good and evil which is best explained by the Judeo-Christian God. Our cries of injustice find their fullest voice when they are fueled by an understanding of the immense value God has placed upon human life and human flourishing.

So why not an ephemeral standard that is apart from God and just exists in the universe? Because there is nothing to ground that standard. There is no reason we should know it and there is no support for following it. And what precisely would that standard be? A profound rightness and wrongness that is an abstract concept has very little weight in objective reality, but a standard that is grounded in the Creator of the universe is much more compelling. The narrative, “Love created the world and everything that is wrong in the world is a rejection of Love,” explains the world in a compelling and powerful way. Now, are all compelling narratives true? Not necessarily. The argument here is merely that a Judeo-Christian God is the “best” explanation for morality. This is one piece of the puzzle and, hopefully, combined with my previous posts on the beginning of the universe and the appearance of design in the universe add further depth to this image. We begin to see a God that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian God. In the next posts, I will be addressing the specifically “Judeo-Christian” elements of this God.

The Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

This post marks the beginning of a new series of posts about some of the more convincing evidences for the existence of God. Not all of the arguments lead directly to a Judeo-Christian God, but they will each support each other and paint a picture of what a “God” might be like. The principle of Occam’s Razor claims that the simplest explanation that has the most explanatory power is the best explanation. These posts will show that the Judeo-Christian God seems to have the most explanatory power for what we know of reality. These posts point to God, they do not prove God. I do not cover the breadth of philosophical thought about these arguments, but hope to give an introduction to the basic tenets of these arguments.

The cosmological argument has been articulated many ways for many years. My articulation in this post is meant to be an accessible summary of the argument as I understand it. None of these thoughts are wholly original, but I want to present this argument to you as it has encouraged my faith in a God who is the Logos, the grounding of logic and existence.

In the cosmological argument, you have a series of simple premises that lead you to some of the characteristics that may be attributed to a God. Aristotle’s “Immovable Mover” is a direct result of the cosmological argument in one of its earlier shapes. The first premise is that the physical universe (everything that physically exists) had a beginning. Scientists and philosophers have believed for a long time that the universe had a beginning. There are many, many reasons to believe that this is true. Below I will explore a few of these reasons very briefly.

First, if the universe is eternal, then we would never have arrived at what we call the “present.” If time did not have a finite beginning, then it would take an infinite amount of time to get to this point. The problem with an infinite universe is that you cannot have a real infinite in the time-matter-space bound universe. There is no possible way to traverse an infinite number of days. However, we can have a potential infinite. In the Christian worldview, the soul will continue to exist for eternity. That means that the soul has the potential to live from the point of its creation until infinity days. It will never “arrive” at infinity, because the very concept of infinity is endless. All of this suggests that time must have had a beginning. Now, in standard models of physics, you cannot have space without time, matter without space, or time without matter. There cannot be a material existence without the presence of these three things. Therefore, if time had a beginning, it seems to follow that space and matter also had a beginning.

Second, because the universe is expanding in all directions and there is only ever a fixed amount of matter and energy in the material universe, the universe had to have a beginning where time, matter, and space began to exist. This is a little more difficult to explain, but the basic ideas (as I understand them) are that there is only so much matter and energy in the universe. If the physical universe were eternal, then at some point in the infinite past we would have run out of energy. Because matter is neither created nor destroyed, there is no possibility of an ever-expanding or an ever-expanding and contracting universe. If you were to rewind time and watch the entire universe, it would all begin to shrink back into a single point where all the matter and energy in the universe began and exploded outward. This is the Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang is an unexplainable (scientifically speaking) event where all matter and energy began as a single point and exploded into existence. There are many ways of describing how this may have happened and theoretical physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene have a myriad of fascinating explanations, but none of them account for the necessity of a beginning. Each theory attempting to account for the beginning of our universe merely pushes the problem back to an early point at which their theoretical “mutli-world generators” must have begun. I will address that again later. So, while there may be objections to this first premise, “the universe had a beginning,” I cannot address them all here.

The next premise is, “Everything that had a beginning had a cause outside of itself.” This is more of a simple logical argument, if a thing had a time where it did not exist, it could not cause anything during its state of non-existence. If a thing came into existence, it could not have caused its own existence due to the fact that it did not exist before. This does not say that something that exist can cause itself to change into a new thing. So if matter, time, space, and physical energy had a beginning, then before that beginning (excuse the time-bound language here) there must have been a Beginner that was outside of matter, time, space, and physical energy. Here is where we find our Immovable Mover. This thing has to have certain characteristics. It is possible that numbers exist outside of matter, time, space, and energy (henceforth referred to as MTSE), but numbers cannot cause anything. I know that the existence of numbers as a thing outside of our social constructs is challenged, but that is unimportant to this point. The point that is being made is that a Thing outside of MTSE must have existed and that Thing must also be a causal force. This Thing must have the ability to cause something to exist, and it must also have the power (some non spacial-temporal energy) to generate MTSE. So if we are accepting the steps so far, there must be a Thing, an Immovable Mover, that can cause MTSE to exist while being separate from MTSE.

The Universe began.

Everything that has begun had a cause outside of itself.

The Universe was begun by something outside of itself.

This is the basic formula for the Cosmological argument. As you can see, we have not gone very far in describing this “Immovable Mover,” but we can draw some indirect descriptions from what we have so far. Whatever caused everything to exist is timeless, creative (having the ability to create something different from itself), powerful, and willful (having the ability to act as opposed to numbers or raw energy). Here I exclude raw energy, because impersonal energy would have no ability to create unless directed into creation.

The multi-world hypotheses presented by theoretical physicists as a way to explain the energy in this world and complex quantum phenomena can seem to explain away the beginning of the universe, but, in fact, they just push the beginning of the universe back to a point beyond our physical reality’s Big Bang. There are explanations for physical generators of the Big Bang,  but they are subjected to the same dilemmas listed above. They still cannot have existed for infinity and they still cannot have an infinite amount of energy. The multiplicity of dimensions does not seem to solve any of these issues, but just continue to push back the problem to some origin of everything.

Overall, this is just the first evidence for a “God” and it is really a very small step, but it should at least get us from a materialist worldview to a worldview that accepts some thing that exists outside of MTSE. This is not to say that these arguments are fool-proof, but that they are evidence for certain worldviews and against other worldviews. That is a crucial first step in the journey.

Children of the Promise

More than any other thing, the past 5 years since I left home for college has been a journey of learning about the promises of God. Our whole faith is based on the promises of God. The Bible is framed in the context of covenant (can be read as promise). God’s interaction with His people in the Bible is always framed in promises. If you look at our world, you will see that in our very nature is a need to worship. Bob Dylan sings, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody…” What is the basis for our worship? Our subservience? The basis is in promise. Money promises security, power, and freedom. Religion promises redemption, self-worth, and community. Sensuality promises escape, connection, or significance. Self-help gurus promise impact, effective change, a banishment of insecurity. Really, anything that we worship finds, at its root, a promise to fulfill something we seek. This is because we were made to be a people who live by promises. The ultimate promise, of course, is love. All of these things we seek are rooted in our desire to be known and loved by our Father.  This desire can often be twisted and is linked to our desire for significance, impact, security, etc. The problem comes when we are “looking for love in all the wrong places…”

In the first part of the Bible, which is titled “the Old Testament” (also translated Old Covenant), we see Israel attempting to obtain God’s promises through the Law. This leads to a truth that we are all very aware of: none of us are perfect. The promise is unattainable through the law. Throughout this Old Covenant, God is constantly promising a Messiah who will fulfill His promises towards the people of Israel. We see the out working of this in the life of Jesus and the theological out working in the writings of Paul. Paul begins with the story of Abraham, the original father of promise. He uses the story of Israel’s journey from Abraham to Jesus to show that all along God’s focus was on clinging to the promise and not on the power of the Law. “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” Galatians 3:18, 22 Paul has shifted the focus from the Law to the promise and shows that our inheritance is by faith in the promise of Jesus.  “This means that it is not the children of the flesh (or children of the Law) who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” ‭‭Romans‬ ‭9:8‬ ‭ “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.”‭‭Galatians‬ ‭4:28‬ ‭So we see that we are called to be children of the promise; the promise of God to Abraham, the promise of God through Jesus. In fact, when we face opposition or tribulation in our life, we are to come running to the promises of God. It is by the promise that mankind receives salvation.

To bring this concept to bear on our own life, the question arises, “How then shall we live?” How do we live as children of the promise? First, ask yourself, “What has God promised me?” If nothing comes to mind, then think on these promises made to all of His people. He has promised abundant life, adoption as His sons and daughters, eternal life, all the fruits of the spirit, power to fulfill every good work, power to perform miracles in His name, a provision for every need in your life. If any of these promises seem to big for you or too impossible for God, then there is room for growth. They are all found as promises in Scripture. How do we begin to believe these promises? First, knowing the promises of God is important and we have a whole book based on the promises of God and the story of His fulfillment of those promises: the Bible. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17 Further, God has specific promises for us. Ask him. Take a pen and some paper and write, “Father, what promises do you have for me?” Then write, “[Your name] I have promised you _______” and just let God speak to your life. Do not be afraid of Him not speaking, because we see throughout Scripture His longing to communicate with His sons and daughters. And do not be afraid of hearing Him wrong; if what you write comes from a place of love and encouragement and aligns with God’s heart in Scriptures, then it is probably God.

Next, have faith that the promise will be fulfilled. “And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.” Hebrews 6:15 God’s promises in Scripture are doubly guaranteed by the fact that anything God speaks is true and He swears by Himself (the greatest thing on which to swear). This is found in the following Scripture although Paul’s wording can be difficult to understand on the first reading, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain…” The key to holding on in the midst of difficulties in our life is to “hold fast to the hope set before us,” which is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” This is the key to Christian living. This is how the great saints and martyrs who have gone before us faced their trials and were “more than conquerors.” They held onto the promise and, as Jesus, “for the joy that was set before [them]  endured the cross despising shame…” And so we pray,  “Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise.” ‭‭Psalm‬ ‭119:41‬ ‭And, “Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” Psalm‬ ‭119:49-50‬ ‭

So, whoever you are, wherever you are at, remember that our faith is a faith of promise. It is not by our works (thank God) that we receive the salvation and joy of the Lord but by holding fast to the effective promise of God. This extends even to our identity as perfected coheirs with Christ. Read the word, journal with God and get the promises inside of you. Then let them change you as you cling to them in spite of all that you see and experience. By the power of God’s promise, we can participate in the redemption of the world as His kingdom comes on earth as it is in Heaven (the realm of the promise fulfilled).

“And all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well when the tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned knot of fire and the fire and the rose are one.” T.S. Eliot