Oh, How I Love Your Law!

Daily Office Meditation: 6th Week of Easter – Wednesday

(97) Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. (112) I have inclined my heart to perform Your statutes Forever, to the very end. (114) You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in Your word.
Psalm 119:97; 112; 114

(13) Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. (14) Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. (15) And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (16) Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
James 5:13-16

(22) “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. (23) “Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. (24) “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? (29) “And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. (30) …Your Father knows that you need these things. (31) “But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.
Luke 12:22-24; 29-31

OK, so this Psalm always perplexed me. As a child, I had a lot of issues with the rules… so the idea of loving the law seemed anathema to me. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize more and more that this principle is at the center of the Christian life. As Romans 12:1-2 tells us, the core of Christian transformation is in the renewing of our mind. The key is in verse 112 of the Psalm: “I have inclined my heart to perform your statutes…” This inclining of the heart is the active pursuit of the renewal of your mind in Christ Jesus.

As we encounter Him, read and meditate on His word, and declare/practice His truth, we begin to love what He commands. We find that in His service is perfect freedom. This was the contradiction I wrestled with as a child. I wanted everything my way, but in submitting to God (or His authority in my life at the time) I found deeper joy and peace. This was by no means an easy transformation, but gradually my parents said they began to feel like I was on their side.

As we align our will with the Father’s (mostly through a revelation of the goodness of God in our life), we begin to have powerful and fervent prayer. As our hope is found in His word to us, our prayer becomes participation with God instead of a plea to God. We begin to see the problems in our lives through God’s eyes and our faith is raised to pray for the sick and suffering. We press into God’s plan on earth, the Church, and we experience the kingdom of God through obedience. It becomes a positive feedback loop. We pray for God’s plan, we obey God’s plan, experience God’s peace, ask Him for His plan, obey His plan and so forth.

Therefore, Jesus says to us, “Do not be anxious… But seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.” God knows what you need, He has incorporated them into His plan. Seek His plan, and all that you need shall be added unto you. C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” All our anxiety is answered in this: “Your Father knows that you need these things.”

This is no prosperity Gospel, God may know that you need a crucifixion. Jesus invitation is summed up by Bonhoeffer, “Come and die.” God will transform your desires through your personal cross so that your will becomes aligned with His. And, while God absolutely does desire prosperity in all aspects of our lives, He cares for more for our soul than for our bellies. (bellies symbolically representing our craving for fleshly things)
Trust God, die to yourself, fall in love with His law, and ALL these things shall be added unto you.

Many are the Troubles of the Righteous

I recently sat down to do devotions. I had skipped a few days and had been tempted to fall into the mindset, “it’s not that helpful to read the Bible every day.” Note that this generally happens when I haven’t done devotions in a few days. Well that morning, every passage was speaking to me. 

First, Psalms 34:19, 22: “Many are the troubles of the righteous but the Lord will deliver him out of them all. The Lord ransoms the life of his servants and none will be punished who trust in Him.”

Hold up. I thought only wicked people had troubles, or people with not enough faith. If you listened to my recent podcast with Fr. Ken Tanner, then you heard us discuss this troubling tendency in our minds as Western Christians. Calamity is too often treated as a matter of punishment. Just last night, my wife and I were talking about our own tendency to look for a reason in our own life when times are difficult. The question, which is also dealt with extensively in the soon-to-be film-adapted Silence by Shusaka Endo, is “what have I done to deserve this?” 

But the scripture says, “many are the troubles of the righteous…” and “…none will be punished who trust in him.” and, elsewhere, “There is now, therefore, no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” So why do we think that difficulties or tragedies in life are somehow punishments? Is God the impartial judge handing out cruel and unusual punishments to those he supposedly loves? Well maybe a misunderstanding of the Cross has distorted our view of God.

We often use judicial or economic language to metaphorize the cross: “It’s like if you were going to be condemned to death for your crimes, but the son of the judge jumped up and said, ‘I will die for him.’ And the judge said, ‘oh perfect, let me take out my wrath on you. As long as I have someone to kill for this crime, I will be satisfied'” Wait what? That’s kind of terrible. How should we feel about a God like that? 

Instead, we should look at the cross like this: We turned from God. God never gave up on us, but sent prophets and eventually his son to turn us back to him. Except that we could not accept God’s redeeming work but had to take out our guilt and anger on those who came to reconcile us. We continually persecuted and killed his prophets in our attempt to alleviate our own guilt and have our own way. So, Jesus took on himself all of our anger and hate and fear(the iniquities of us all) and gave himself up for us in perfect union with the Father. So the Father watched and wept as we put all of our sin onto him who knew no sin. It was not the Father’s wrath that was appeased that day, but our own wrath was absorbed by love and forgiven by grace. The Father somehow thought it was worth the sacrifice of his son to gain us. We were the pearl of great price and he went and sold all he had and bought that pearl. 

Yet we think that God is doling out punishment on us for our sin or our lack of faith. We think that our negative circumstances are due to our failures to live up to the impossible standard of perfection. In a similar mistake of ego, we think that our success is due to our great faith and works. Again, scripture says, “Many are the troubles of the righteous but the Lord will deliver him out of them all.” 

That’s the story of redemption. So when we fall, when times are hard, when we think that God has forsaken us, we can turn to the cross and know that God loves us, God is not mad at us, and God will never leave us or forsake us.

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. 

Episode 2 – Pastor Brian Carlson

Hello! This week I spoke with my current pastor, Brian Carlson. It was a great conversation and in it Brian recommended the book, The Longest Bridge Across Water, which is about developing friendship with Jesus. Check it out at: https://www.amazon.com/Longest-Bridge-Across-Water-Encounters-ebook/dp/B00HKN18HO

Enjoy the show and subscribe to my podcast on Itunes or Stitcher:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-unfamiliar-name/id1118467057

http://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=91391&refid=stpr

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.