100 Answers in 100 Days

More questions answered on this blog:

Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Significance of the Resurrection

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:14)

This verse tells us that the resurrection of Christ is so important to Christianity, that if it were not true there should be no Christian religion at all. It implies also, on an individual level, that if you don’t believe that the resurrection of Christ is a fact, then you ought not even call yourself a Christian; your faith is in vain and you are not saved. All of Christ’s teachings and all that the Apostles did and taught would be worthless if the resurrection were not true. Their teachings would all be a lie, in fact, and Christianity would be a false religion.

Having said all that, it’s not entirely clear why the resurrection of Christ is so important. In the previous verse of this Corinthians passage Paul gives a reason...

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:13-14)

Paul is speaking to some who did not believe that all people would be raised from the dead. He basically argues that if Christ was raised, then all can be raised. I think the resurrection of Christ is something they did accept, and there was no need to convince them that Christ was in fact raised. But I suppose that Paul could have made this point by demonstrating, for example, that Lazarus was raised. It doesn’t really get at the heart of why the resurrection of Christ is so significant.

I think the significance of Christ’s resurrection has everything to do with the atonement. On the cross, Christ bore the punishment for our sins. If He had not risen from the dead, we would not know that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient. It’s probably not enough that He rose from the dead either, but also that He ascended into heaven to be with the Father. After all, if He had risen and then died again, He may have gone to hell for all we knew. And so we read of His ascension, and the Bible stresses that Christ is now with the Father. His atonement for our sins was sufficient, and we know this because of Christ’s resurrection and ascension. Paul reiterates the importance of Christ’s resurrection a few verses later. He says:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:17)

Though Paul doesn’t refer to the atonement explicitly, I think this verse alludes to the impact Christ’s resurrection has on the atonement. If Christ were not raised, the atonement would have been ineffective and we would be “still in our sins”.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I'm really pleased to have reached my goal of answering 100 questions in 100 days. The whole intention of this blog was for a regular Christian to be sort of "put on the spot", to respond to questions about their faith. This blog ought to give the reader a sense of how a Christian really thinks, rather than how he might respond given time to Google many pastors and Seminary professors, and then give the answer he’s learned rather than the answer he honestly believes himself. While pastors and so forth have influenced my theology, I really think that for the most part the answers I have given are conclusions I’ve made through my own devotional reading of the Bible. They have been honest answers.

I’m not now giving up on this blog. I am always pondering the questions people ask of me, and posing questions for myself. From time to time I’ll continue to share my thoughts on various questions of faith. I think that the Christian faith really starts to make sense after you’ve read the Bible a few times and have a sense of the “big picture”, or have a sense of the over-arching framework of God’s plan. Something that I’ve realized through doing this blog is that the same could be said of this blog. That over-arching framework would probably start to come through if you read all of my posts, and things would then start to fit together. Of course, rather than read all of my posts it would be far better to read the Bible. If anyone is genuinely seeking answers to questions, then this would be my “catch all” answer... read the whole Bible. It’s what made me a Christian.

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63)

#100: What is the meaning of life?

This question of the meaning of life is of great importance to all people. We are all born into this world without a say in the matter; we simply find ourselves in this thing called “life”. We discover that life consists of going to school, getting along with others, being taught the religion of our parents. You must leave home at a certain age and get a job, and then maybe get married and have kids. You didn’t make these things up; this is just what life is and always has been, and it’s what everybody does. But at some point in our lives we question it all. Are these things I really must do, or even want to do? Which of these things will give my life purpose and fulfilment? What will keep me content?

Actually, I don’t think we really begin to ask this question while we are content, but it’s when we find discontent that we begin to wonder what it’s all for. Speaking with a friend of mine the other day, he told me that he’s sick of his job and he can’t stand the company any more. Of course, years ago this friend of mine invested time to study his profession, and was sure that he would be happy in this line of work for the rest of his life. But work for him now is not the least bit fulfilling. Another friend is recently divorced and very bitter towards marriage and romance. But of course, there was a time when she gladly walked down the aisle, sure that she would never want to be apart from her husband for the rest of her life. Well, these people have other things going on which they are content with, but as for work... “What’s the point?” And as for marriage... “I’ve wasted years of my life!” The question is, what is there that won’t grow tiresome? What is there that is worth pursuing in this short life-span we have? When we die we won’t care what happens to our possessions, and so the only reason to have possessions is to keep us content in the present. And if we are altruistic, caring for the needs of others, this may give us some satisfaction; but of course those people we’ve cared for will eventually die, and who’ll care about the kindness we’ve shown then? And if we spend our lives working on something that will benefit all of mankind; it’s only in the present while we’re alive that we are pleased to receive praise and know that our name will be in the history books. In fact, if there is no life after death, then there really is nothing more than our satisfaction in the present. And since we only have one short life, we ought to ensure our satisfaction in the present at any cost; for even if the whole human race should die out, what is that to me when I am dead?

People have said to me that “Heaven sounds boring.” And when I tell them that God’s plan involves a new haven and new earth, and that we’ll live forever in this physical world in relationship with one another and with God, they still say “Who wants to live forever? Eventually you’ll have done everything that there is to do.” Well, these people understand exactly what I’m talking about; that there is nothing in this life that, if we were able to explore it fully, would not ultimately dissatisfy. But we are a fallen people and our hearts are corrupt. Through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, we begin to understand that God is the source of all satisfaction. The author of Psalm 43 writes “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy.” God is my “exceeding joy”. It is only through a relationship with God that we can find satisfaction.

This friend of mine who is dissatisfied with his job; what is his plan to remedy that? It’s to get a new job. And the woman who’s divorced? She, too, wants to start anew; to play out what might have been if she had not been married. And so she’s going off to university. But apart from God, all things will eventually dissatisfy. God, however, makes all things new. (That’s what regeneration is.) I consider my career before I submitted my life to Christ. I write software for a living. I had what seemed to be the perfect job; the stuff I was doing should have been challenging enough. But my heart wasn’t right. In my heart I was too good for this work; I was too talented and the work was beneath me. So I would reluctantly bang out some sufficient lines of code and spend the rest of the day surfing the Internet. Then I would resent the fact that nobody appreciated my talent. Well, eventually that company went out of business and I lost my job. I had given my life to Christ only a year earlier, and since that time I had been struggling with my attitude at work. I saw this event as a sovereign act of God. I was out of work and totally dependent on God. But God gave me a new job after just one month. And when I started this new job, it was with a renewed mind and a humble heart. I gladly accepted the tasks I was given no matter how trivial, simply thankful that I had a job at all. I began to pray at the start of each work day, trusting not in my own ability but in God who gives us the power to get wealth at all. After several months there I happened to run into my old boss. He asked me what I was doing, and when I described the work he said, “That sounds mind numbingly boring!” Well, that was when the realisation hit me... what I was doing at work probably should have been boring and uninteresting, yet I was happier than I’d ever been! Instead of trying to please myself at work, I was trying only to please God; to work for my new boss “as unto Christ” (Ephesians 6:5, KJV). God had taught me in a very real way that He is my exceeding joy.

The Bible says that creation was subjected to futility (Romans 8:20). Death and decay cause all things to be futile. We build up wealth only for it to be destroyed by “moth and rust”. Whatever we achieve will be left to others who may not share our passion for those achievements. The cemetery is full of people who have all been replaced. Popular culture acknowledges the truth of this in that saying “Life is a bitch and then you die.” King Solomon wrote at length on this theme in the Book of Ecclesiastes, but perhaps now we can understand the conclusion he came to...

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

To keep God’s commandments and to serve God will give life meaning. It is that future hope of going to be with God that makes life in the present meaningful; knowing how, at that time, God will rightly judge the things that we do in this life. Paul says to those who deny this future hope that “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19). He says in another place “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24). Living for ourselves will ultimately dissatisfy because eventually we will die and have to give everything up for others. But when all that we do is for God, we trust that God has a purpose and that our labour is not in vain.

Well, this is the 100th day! I hope that something I’ve said over these 100 days has been of benefit to someone. As I typically do, I will leave you with a Bible verse to meditate on...

All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

#99: Can a Christian listen to secular music or watch commercial television?

When we consider the content of so much of our music and television, a Christian might certainly wonder whether it is appropriate to watch any of it. It often depicts sexually explicit scenes or violence, and pop music lyrics glorify promiscuity and rebellion and various other things that a Christian would not delight in. So some Christians go so far as to only listen to Christian music artists and watch only Christian television. I, on the other hand, am one who believes that God has given gifts of talent to all people, and that we should enjoy those talents in so far as they do glorify God. And so this is precisely where I would draw the line; not so much between what is labelled “Christian” or “secular”, but rather, I would be discerning about everything I listen to and watch.

My daughter goes to dance classes which are run by a local Christian school. It’s not the school my daughter goes to; she goes to a government run public school. But a newsletter came home from the dance class which stated that one of its aims was to “glorify God [through dance]”. Someone asked me “how can that glorify God when they never discuss God or even dance to Christian music?” Well, God created mankind to enjoy music and to enjoy dancing. We glorify God when we enjoy this gift that He has given us, and demonstrate our God-given talent for dancing. This remains true whether the dancer believes in God or not. We can listen to a beautiful singing voice, or watch the graceful moves of a dancer, and say “Praise God! Look at the marvellous gift He’s given to this person.” Whether they see their talent as God-given or not doesn’t change the fact that it is, in fact, a wonderful gift from God.

So when we listen to “secular” music, we can enjoy the talents of others and praise God for them. But like any gift from God, whether given to an unbeliever or to a Christian, it can be abused. When a singer uses her talent to promote promiscuity, perhaps not realising the enormous influence she has on those who admire her talent, she does a great wrong. But a Christian can abuse their gifts also. James speaks to those Christians who consider themselves to have a gift or talent for teaching, telling them to be very careful what they teach because of the enormous influence their words can have (James 3).

In Romans the Apostle Paul says:

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (Romans 6:13)

When we listen to secular music or watch television programs, we need to be continually thinking about how this is shaping our lives and the way we think. Every individual in our culture is influenced by Platonic philosophy though they’ve never read Plato. And every individual is influenced by Postmodernism though they’ve never read Nietzsche. These philosophical ideas are present in the arts and we don’t recognize it. This is why we need to be careful to view all things through the lens of Scripture. The things we listen to and watch influence our values and morals. To give one solid example, there was a certain TV show about vampires which contained a strong theme about “vampire rights”. I commented that this is really trying to say something about gay rights. Well, the people I said this to didn’t agree. They said, “But it’s about vampires!?” Nevertheless, I happened to catch one scene in which a minister was discussing whether “vampire marriage” should be allowed! Though we don’t recognize the influence of a scene like that, it is quietly shaping the way we think so that when it comes to gay marriage, we have an opinion that has been shaped by this kind of thing. I don’t think we should avoid watching television or listening to music lest it influence us in a non-Biblical direction. Rather, we need to be discerning about what we listen to, including the Christian media we enjoy.

Where do we draw the line? Obviously watching pornography is going to be a sin; there is really no excuse for viewing it. But what if there were a documentary about people’s attitudes towards sex which also happened to depict nudity? This is really going to be up to the individual and an honest evaluation of one’s own motive for watching such a program. I, personally, might watch a program like that because I want to know what society’s attitudes towards sex are. I do this because I’m quite interested in thinking about the Biblical answer to some of the un-Biblical attitudes that people have. On the other hand, I have turned my eyes away from certain music videos which really only show women in bikinis. But this is all based on a fair estimation of my own weaknesses. (And I’m not saying I always get that right, either.) Some may have a weakness for pornography and even watching a serious program which depicts nudity would not be wise for them.

Another thing I’d like to comment on is my own experience with reading materials written by atheists. I suppose I was first interested in hearing what atheists have to say after a discussion with an atheist friend of mine. I really wanted to know how to answer his objections to Christianity. I was a little worried because of the things I was told in Church growing up, and even the things that my current pastor has said. They gave me the impression that if I listened to arguments against the existence of God, I’d end up believing them. But that’s not what the Bible says. Faith is not something we blindly believe; it is a supernatural gift of knowing the truth. The Bible says that I cannot lose my faith; I believe because that’s the kind of person God has made me to be - a believer. So I began to look into various atheist websites, and I visited an atheist forum to talk to the people there. The more I did, the more confident I became that my faith was a sure and steadfast thing. The arguments I heard were very thought provoking, but as I read my Bible and thought about them, I saw time and time again that they were really quite weak. Now, we can be influenced and fall into error; I don’t take reading atheist material lightly, or without prayer. But if we are to minister to the lost, we need to know what their view of the world is! Knowing that Christ will keep me from falling, I have confidence to expose myself to the world-view of atheists and such so that I can, in love, show them the truth.

Until tomorrow:

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Ephesians 4:25)

Friday, April 8, 2011

#98: How can a Christian keep themselves from sin?

One of the marks of a true Christian is their hate for sin. We know that sin is contrary to what mankind was made to do. We were made to glorify God, but to sin is to do something we were not designed to do. However, the Christian is faced with a dilemma. In a fallen world, how do we escape sin? It seems that the closer we get to God, the more we realize just how sinful we are. How can we keep ourselves from sin?

Since we blame the world for the various temptations we face, some people think that the solution is to essentially escape from the world. To become a monk, for example, and live in a remote part of the world away from the sinfulness of society is one way in which people try to flee the corruption of the world. But there’s a problem with this. Apart from the fact that they’re still in the world, it’s not actually the world that’s the problem! We, ourselves, are the problem. Jesus said...

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19)

You cannot escape your own heart, or mind. Sinfulness is our very nature. Sin always begins with our own internal thoughts. External temptations would not cause us to sin if we were able to control our thoughts towards them. When a man commits adultery, for example, he cannot blame the woman for being beautiful. Rather, he is to blame because one thought led to another in his own mind, and eventually the physical act was committed as a result of what the man had thought to do in his mind. James echoes this thought as follows...

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:14-15)

So escaping from the world is not the answer. We really need to escape our own minds. What the Bible teaches is that through Christ (who is God and therefore creator of all), we can receive a new heart. Christ promises to give us a heart that desires to be obedient to Christ, which is why Christians do hate sin.

But if we were able to receive a new heart, surely we would no longer be ourselves? Well, this is essentially correct in a sense. When a person becomes a Christian we ought to see a difference. It’s most often the case that when a person comes to Christ they will rapidly cease all manner of things that were once characteristic of them... speaking profanity and telling dirty jokes, losing their temper at people, belittling people, dishonesty, greed and selfishness. And people will say “It’s like they’re a different person!” This very thing was said of me when I became a Christian, for example. But there is also a sense in which I am the same person... my experiences throughout my whole life still influence the way I think and behave. But whether those experiences affect my thoughts so that my thoughts and actions are sinful... well, I consider this to be much like any external influence upon us. As we discussed earlier, we are responsible for the thoughts we have towards what we see and experience in the present. I think it’s quite similar as we reflect on the things we’ve seen and experienced in the past. Our present thoughts towards those things can be “renewed”. If, for example, someone was once unkind to me and I had thoughts of revenge towards them, I can now reflect on that experience and think, in the present, that revenge is wrong and “turning the other cheek” is right.

The Apostle Paul writes:

We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)

When Paul refers to “arguments and every lofty opinion...”, he essentially refers to whole philosophies and world views; the very foundations of our thought life. We “take every thought captive to obey Christ”. Not only should we align every individual thought to the will of God, but we need to critically examine the sort of “philosophies of life” that have become a central part of our personality. We need to replace what may be a wrong way of thinking altogether with Biblical principles. This happens through daily reading of God’s Word. But we need to realize that we do require that Spiritual transformation; a “new heart” given to us by the Holy Spirit which hungers for righteousness and hates sin. Ultimately it is the Holy Spirit working in us through His Word.

So keeping from sin is a matter of controlling my own thought life, and this is done through the renewal of my mind by the Holy Spirit though His Word. Trying to escape from the world is not the answer. Not many Christians become monks, but Christians can tend to try to escape the world nonetheless by involving themselves exclusively with the Church. They only have Church friends, they work for a man who only hires Christians, they send their children to a Christian school and so the only contacts they have through their child’s school is with Christian children and Christian parents and Christian teachers. Believe it or not, I do know of some people who’s lives are just like this. Whether this is a conscious effort to escape from the world I don’t know, but more likely it is part of that “life philosophy” which needs to be considered carefully in light of Scripture. We are supposed to be “the light of the world”! As Christ said...

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

It’s wonderful news that we cannot escape sin ourselves by fleeing the world! The fact that Christ is renewing our minds in the very midst of the world we live in means that we can remain in the midst of the world we live in and be a “light to the world”, demonstrating our good works which testify of the work of Christ in our hearts.

Now some people will object saying “No, we should be separate from the world! We cannot live like the world does!” Well, this is a misunderstanding of what I’ve been saying, but I might need to make this point clear... Prohibitions against certain things are right. “Do not watch pornography” would be a valid prohibition for Christians. The idea of fleeing the world is to avoid living in a world where I might have to walk down the same street as a woman and potentially be tempted to lust after her. I’ve been saying that we should not flee from that, but rather we should “renew” the way our minds think through devotion to God and His Word. But being tempted to think lustful thoughts towards a woman walking down the street is quite different from watching pornography. Sure, in the latter case you can’t help but think lustful thoughts; but I think that more generally, the former is a temptation to sin, whilst the latter is a sin.

The whole point of being a light to the world is to be an example of righteousness for sinners. Jesus doesn’t want us to hide ourselves away.

Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. (Luke 10:3)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

#97: Why did Judah fail against the chariots of iron?

A few years ago I was having a discussion with a certain fellow. He said “Your own Bible casts doubt on the idea that God is all powerful...” And then he read Judges 1:19.

And the LORD was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron. (Judges 1:19)

It's amazing to me how God prepares us for the situations we find ourselves in. A few months earlier this very passage had caught my attention during my devotional reading, and I already knew exactly how to answer this fellow. Superficially, there is a simple answer. The “he” does not refer to God, but to Judah. That is to say, “And the LORD was with Judah, and he [Judah] took possession of the hill country, but he [Judah] could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain...” Chariots of iron are not a problem for God, who drowned all of Pharaoh's army when He parted the Red Sea, chariots and all. Or we could even keep within the very same book, turning to Judges chapter 4...

Sisera called out all his chariots, 900 chariots of iron... And the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword... not a man was left. (Judges 4:13-16)

But this just begs the next question. Why, if God was with Judah, did He not give them victory over the iron chariots?

Whenever a passage of Scripture puzzles us, the answer is usually found in the context of the passage. If you continue to read the remainder of Judges chapter 1, we find that the rest of the chapter lists many failings by all of the various tribes of Israel to overcome their enemies. This document of failures leads us right up to chapter 2...

And he [God] said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars. But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” (Judges 2:1-3)

God is speaking of a covenant that the people had made with the inhabitants of the land. This, I believe, would be referring to the covenant made in Joshua chapter 9, in which Joshua makes a covenant with the Gibeonites, swearing not to make war with them. Now they were deceived into making this covenant, but this was no excuse. After all, the Devil will deceive us and cause us to sin, but the Bible admonishes us to therefore be all the more diligent and careful. It does not excuse us.

Now if we turn to the book of Numbers, we read this...

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them. (Numbers 33:55-56)

We see here the passage of Scripture to which God was surely alluding to when He said in Judges 2:3 that “they shall become thorns in your sides”. Why would God do this? I don't think it's a matter of coincidence that the Apostle Paul uses the term “thorn in the flesh” in the following passage...

So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. (2 Corinthians 12:7)

We don't know the exact nature of Paul's “thorn in the flesh”, but in the context of the passage, Paul says “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

So I think we're beginning to see why God allowed Israel to fail somewhat in their conquest. The whole history of Israel is like a metaphor of the Christian life. I see the enemies of Israel as the various trials and temptations we face. They tempted Israel time and again to commit idolatry; their gods were a snare to Israel. But we are in the same situation. The temptations of the world are all around us; God does not hide us from them. Sex and drugs and money and all manner of other things that can corrupt us. For Paul, he sensed a weakness of his own that he was becoming proud of the revelations that God had given him. He was one of the most privileged people who has ever lived. But through some trial that he went through he was reminded of God's grace, and that he had nothing to boast of.

What does Paul mean when he says “When I am weak, then I am strong”? I think he means this... that when we are weak, people can see that the strength we do have to endure is not our own but from Christ. We are “strong” in our witnessing and our ministry. Unfortunately, Israel would often give in to those temptations to worship foreign gods. But imagine how it could have been if Israel would have resisted the temptation to worship those idols, (whose worship involved such tempting practices as orgies and the like). What if, in spite of such temptations, they had stood by the God of all Creation, Yahweh? Imagine the impact that would have had on those nations? I think that God allowed those nations to survive the conquest of Israel because God had mercy on them, and so that Israel might have had an opportunity to witness to them and to demonstrate the power of God. Again, this can be seen as a metaphor for our own lives. How often do we find opportunity to demonstrate the power of God in our own struggles?

Until tomorrow...

He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40:2-3)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

#96: What is the purpose of suffering?

I was having a discussion with a man once who had asked me about the "problem of evil". He asked me to explain why God allows suffering if He is a benevolent God. And then he added, "I suppose you're going to tell me about the 'secret will of God'?" Well, what he meant by that phrase was that God always has a purpose for everything, even suffering, and we just don't always know what it is. Well, this 'secret will of God' idea is an answer that I personally find satisfying. Why should I presume to know, or to have the right to know, why God allows the suffering which He does allow? For this fellow, the idea that God would do something that we're not privy to, or are not able to understand, seemed to be a sufficient argument that God can't even exist. Yet the Bible says "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." God has revealed much to us in His Word; without it we could not know Him. It is sufficient for us. But God hasn't revealed all things to us, and there's no reason to suppose that He should. The essential thing that God asks of us is to trust Him. That's what faith is. If we knew why God was allowing the various trials and tribulations in our lives, where would be the faith? But James says "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." (James 1:2-3). This verse itself hints at a purpose for suffering; that through it our faith might be strengthened. James is not saying that no matter how much we're suffering we should just put on a happy face. He's saying that we can at least take comfort in the fact that God is working in our lives to build our faith. The suffering is not good and we don't need to pretend it is; but the outcome is good - our faith is made stronger. Or as Romans 8:28-29 says; all things (including suffering) work together for good so that we might become like Christ, or be "moulded" into the image of Christ. Often we only understand how this process is working when we are able to look back and see it in perspective. But I dare say that we won't really have the clearest perspective until we're in eternity.

So much for suffering in the lives of those who have a faith to strengthen. But what about the faithless? Why do they suffer? Again, I'm not denying that God may have a purpose in it which He has not revealed, but even here I think we can generally see that through suffering people without Christ can be brought to Christ. Jesus said "Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:23). Why? Because they are self sufficient and don't feel their need for God. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses warns the people that when they come to possess the land and everything they have has been given to them by God, not to forget God. It is human nature to want independence and autonomy. But God wants us to be dependent on Him, and to make Him the Lord, or Master, of our lives. Suffering poverty or illness can be what makes us dependant on God, and this is that "ultimate good" of God's purpose. But you know, we could spin it in such a way that we bring into question God's purpose in allowing anyone to become rich! The truth is, we don't understand all that God is up to. We don't understand God's purposes for suffering any more than we understand the Biblical doctrine of election. We don't understand what God is doing, just as young children don't understand why their parents won't allow them to do certain things; like drink Coke before bed, or visit the neighbours by themselves, or watch certain movies; or why they are made to do certain things like tidy their rooms and brush their teeth. To them, Mummy and Daddy are just horrible because there's no possible reason they can see as to why they have to suffer these things.

Now this fellow I had been speaking to asked me this... Apparently citing William Rowe, he said "when a fawn dies in a bushfire and no human ever so much as sees the bushfire, there is no ultimate good for any man. Explain that..." Well, I think that we live in a fallen world, and such a thing as innocent fawns dying is just the sort of thing that happens in a fallen world. God cursed this world because of our sins. If innocent fawns dying in a bushfire bothers us, we ought not to be angry at God about it; we ought to be sorry for the sinfulness of mankind. We ought to long for God to redeem all of Creation and restore the right order of things. We long to live in a world prophecied by Isaiah where the "wolf shall dwell with the lamb ... and a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11:6). Why doesn't God bring this new world now? As Peter says:

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

That is, if God brought about this new world without sin, it would mean that many sinners would have to face their judgment. God waits, rather, for you to turn to Christ. And He even suffers the loss of many innocent fawns for your sake...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

#95: Can Jesus truly identify with our temptations?

In Hebrews 4 it reads:

For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Jesus can sympathize with our struggles; even our struggles with sin. And because of that, (the verse implies), Jesus has compassion on us and helps us “in time of need”. But how can Jesus really identify with us? He is God, and God doesn’t struggle as we do. How can He?

In Luke 4, Jesus is in the wilderness without food for 40 days. Here the Devil tries to tempt Jesus to sin. The way he does it is very cunning. The first temptation to turn stones into bread is as if to say, “Prove that you are divine.” We would think there should be nothing wrong with this; Jesus took many opportunities to prove His divinity through such signs. But Jesus replies, quoting Scripture, that “Man shall not live by bread alone,” which is an allusion to Deuteronomy 8. In Deuteronomy 8, Moses is explaining the reason why God has put Israel through this trial of wandering in the wilderness. It was so that Israel might learn to rely on God. Jesus is answering the Devil that during His life on Earth, He is relying on God alone. Jesus is not going to use His divine attributes apart from the will of God the Father, but take His entire direction from God the Father. The sense in which it would have been sinful for Jesus to turn the stones into bread is that He would have done it apart from the will and purpose of God the Father. In John 5, Jesus said “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19).

The second temptation was that the Devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, if He would only worship him, the Devil. Jesus replies, again quoting Scripture, that man should worship God alone. Again, Jesus puts Himself in the position, or perspective, of man. As God, all the kingdoms of the world ultimately belong to Him anyway. But it’s at some future time, the Bible teaches, we will see the Kingdom of God in its fullness. What the Devil is offering falls short of that. There is a temptation here for Jesus to settle for less by doing things "the easy way". That is, by avoiding the suffering of the cross. If Jesus had sinned, He could not have atoned for our sins on the cross, and we would all be condemned. Later in Luke, the night before He is crucified, we see just how tempting this must have been have been for Jesus. In the garden of Gesthemene, Jesus was in mental anguish and prayed "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done." (Luke 22:42). While He was praying, the Bible says that He sweat drops of blood. This is how distressed Jesus was over what was about to happen to Him. We are offered an “inheritance” in the kingdom of God if we remain faithful to God. Like Jesus, we need to obtain that inheritance the “legitimate” way, or “God’s way”.

Finally, the Devil tempts Jesus by telling Him to throw Himself off the temple, and to “trust God” to save His life. But Jesus quoted the Scripture “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” This Scripture citation is from Deuteronomy 6:16, which also alludes to Exodus 17. There it speaks of a time when Israel tested God by saying “Is the Lord among us or not?” We saw how Jesus was distressed about going to the cross, and how He prayed that He would nevertheless do it because it was the Father’s will. At the cross, many called out (according to Luke 23:35) “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” These people are essentially saying also, “Is the Lord among us or not?” But Jesus did the Father’s will rather than ask for deliverance from painful death.

So if we stand back and consider the temptations of Christ, we learn that Jesus’ life was all about doing God’s will above all else, even when it means suffering, or forsaking certain opportunities, or perhaps going hungry. He is our example. He was tempted to satisfy His biological needs (His need for bread) outside of God’s will. When He was offered the kingdoms of the world, we might say that He was tempted to satisfy all manner of human desires for power and wealth, outside of God’s will. But there was also a spiritual need that all people have, which He could have satisfied in worshiping the Devil. But this too was outside of God’s will. And He could have satisfied that need for “self-preservation” outside of God’s will. So when Hebrews says that Jesus was tempted “in every respect”, we can begin to see how this was so. It’s not merely temptation to sin, but it’s ultimately about going through the trials of life... going hungry, suffering pain, suffering the conflict of our desires. The Bible says that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). What really counts is that Jesus knows what it’s like to be human, and to have this conflict between God’s will and our own will. This conflict between wills is really what is behind all of our trials and temptations.

Perhaps it’s not so easy to understand, but Jesus could not have become something other than a man to die for us. He became a man so that He could die; but it had to be a man so that He could be the perfect man that we are not; doing God’s will in spite of our humanity. The fact that Jesus could not have failed at this is a point that we might make too much of. It’s not really the point at all. To borrow from C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”, Lewis says “If I am drowning in a rapid river, a man who still has one foot on the bank may give me a hand which saves my life. Ought I to shout back (between my gasps) "No, it's not fair! You have an advantage! You're keeping one foot on the bank"? That advantage—call it "unfair" if you like—is the only reason why he can be of any use to me. To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?” Looking back to that Hebrews passage, this is really the very point of it...

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

He was tempted, but was “yet without sin”. Like the man with the foot on the bank of the river, He is of help to us precisely because He did not fail and give in to temptation.

Until tomorrow...

Then I said, Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book. (Hebrews 10:7)

Monday, April 4, 2011

#94: Why didn't Jesus teach the gospel as we know it?

The gospel, as we know it, is essentially this; that through Christ's death and resurrection we have salvation from sins. And this is so because Jesus Christ was both God and man; He is the incarnation of God Himself. So when we come to the gospels, we can begin to wonder why Jesus didn't appear to teach precisely these things adamantly. Now, I believe that Jesus did teach these things; but even I must confess that these things are not as overt as we might have expected. The evidence that these things are not terribly overt in Jesus’ teaching is the significant number of people who seriously think that Jesus taught a different gospel than Paul (that He taught a "gospel of works") and the number of people who think that Jesus never claimed to be the incarnation of God Himself.

In Matthew 16 we read this:

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 16:165-17)

So here we have it; Jesus clearly teaches, by affirming Peter's answer, that He is the "Christ", and Peter understands this to mean that He is "the Son of the living God." Now what did these terms "Christ" and "Son of the living God" mean to Peter and the people of that time? This term "Son of God" certainly did seem to mean to them that Jesus was claiming to be God Himself. In John we read: "This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God." (John 5:18). But what about this term "Christ"? What did that mean to them back then?

In those days, the Jews were awaiting the "Messiah", of which the Old Testament prophets had prophesied that God would send. The word "Christ" is the Greek word for "Messiah". They are the exact same word in two different languages; Hebrew and Greek. Now in the Old Testament, King David was called a "Messiah". It means "anointed", but what it meant to people was a King who was sent by God and who would deliver them from their enemies. In the time of Christ, Israel's enemy was Rome. Israel was in Roman hands and the Jews wanted independence from Rome. So they were waiting for this new King to rise up in Israel, who would lead a rebellion to free them from Roman occupation. This is what the term "Christ" meant to people. Now if you ask people today what the term "Christ" means to them, they will probably tell you about Jesus... how He is the Son of God, and how He died and rose again to save us from our sins. We have a very different meaning for the term "Christ". But Jesus was the Christ because, whilst King David was a king who delivered Israel from their foreign enemies, Jesus is the "Spiritual King" of the "Kingdom of God", who delivers us from our Spiritual enemies; namely sin and death.

So going back to that Matthew 16 passage, where Peter had acknowledged that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God, it says in verse 20, "Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ." This is precisely the kind of verse that bothers many people. They call it the "Messianic Secret". Why would Jesus not want the very essence of the gospel taught to people? Some say He feared being killed by the Pharisees before His ministry was complete, but I doubt this is true. Earlier, at the very beginning of His ministry, they had tried to kill Him but He simply “passed through their midst” (Luke 4:28-30). Nothing would happen to Jesus before God’s appointed time; God is sovereign over all. But perhaps, since we now understand what that term Christ meant to people back then, we can see why Jesus forbade His disciples from teaching that He was the Christ. Jesus did not come to deliver Israel from the Romans; He was not that kind of Messiah. People were too stuck in that expectation that only after Jesus’ death and resurrection would they understand what kind of “Christ” He was. It's doubtful that Peter himself understood, but it was certain that the general public would have misunderstood. Until Christ had died and risen again, a proper understanding of His message and purpose would have been impossible. In verse 21, the very next verse after Jesus had told them not to tell anyone He was the Christ, we read: "From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." See there that phrase “From that time...”. In other words, Jesus had not taught His death and resurrection to His disciples at all up until now. Yet this is another of those central points of the gospel. And we see Peter's first reaction to this teaching...

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man." (Matthew 16:22-23)

Peter did not understand. Perhaps he's still thinking in terms of a deliverer who would set Israel free from Roman rule. How could such a deliverer be killed? Thinking this way, Peter's mind was on "the things of man", rather than seeing Jesus as a Spiritual deliverer; a “Spiritual Christ”. If Jesus was not able to teach His disciples about His death and resurrection, even after they had just acknowledged Him as the "Son of God", how much more difficult would it have been to make this part of His teaching focus to the masses? Perhaps we can now see why Jesus' message of the gospel, as we see it throughout the four gospels, was not as overt as we might expect. Living on "this side of the cross", we are able to understand who Jesus was and what His purpose was. It's only in light of the cross that we get the right perspective. Jesus had to "ease" His disciples into this understanding only after this point in His ministry. But we cannot deny that Jesus did teach these essential points of the gospel. We understand, for example, what Jesus means when He says “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54). When Jesus said these words, many did leave Him because they didn’t understand. But it’s one thing for Jesus to say these hard-to-understand things of Himself, it’s a different thing for His disciples to have said them at a time when they themselves did not understand. Later those disciples would explain Jesus’ ministry. But prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, they were not to teach but to learn. Now, at Jesus' trial, when it is the final hour, Jesus is absolutely explicit. They ask Him if He's the Messiah, and He tells them "I am", but further goes on to explain what kind of Messiah He is; not the kind they expected, but the kind referred to in the Old Testament book of Daniel...

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

#93: Will I go to hell if I commit suicide?

I remember, as a child, my parents explaining to me the Christian faith; about heaven and hell, and that there is a better life after death in heaven for those who believe in Christ. Well, even my innocent child-mind thought what most of us probably have... that surely this is some kind of loop-hole in the whole scheme. Surely if life after death is better, then we should all commit suicide now and go to that better place. In fact, some might even argue that because Christians don't all commit suicide, it shows that they don't genuinely believe what they profess to. But to answer my questions, someone (I'm not sure who; I don't think it was my parents) told me that if you commit suicide you will go to hell, regardless of whether you believe in Christ or not. Well, this is what my child-mind would be satisfied with while it was still a child-mind. But actually, this answer isn't quite Biblical.

The problem with the statement that “If you commit suicide you will go to hell, regardless of whether you believe in Christ or not” is that it denies fundamental Biblical teaching. If you have faith in Christ (that is, a belief that causes you to completely trust Christ for salvation), you will be saved and you will go to heaven. You cannot say that suicide makes that promise null and void. You can say, however, that suicide might demonstrate a lack of genuine faith. Let's consider an example of suicide from the movie Shawshank Redemption, where the warden had been embezzling money and the police have come to arrest him. Knowing that there's no escaping the consequences, he shoots himself. In this case, we could probably assume that this man was not a believer in Christ at all, even though he had touted the Bible a few times throughout the movie. A person who embezzles money is not likely to be a genuine Christian. It is probably very unlikely indeed. In fact, anyone who is apt to commit suicide itself is probably not likely to be a genuine Christian. But while it’s not likely, I don’t believe we can be absolutely certain.

Probably the most common reason for suicide is depression. But even for such a person as this, some will say it's not likely that they are genuine Christians because Christ said “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). And we read in the Bible how we are renewed in mind, and how the Spirit of God is a Spirit of love, joy and peace (Galatians 5:22). For someone to become depressed, it may demonstrate that the Spirit of God is not active in their lives, as it would be if they were genuinely saved. So the naive child who thinks “Why don't we all commit suicide so that we can go to heaven?” is missing the crucial factor; that as Christians our very nature is changed so that we don't desire death. It's similar to the question “If God forgives us, why don't we just sin all we like and keep asking for forgiveness?” Again, we can't miss the crucial detail that as Christians we are given a new nature; a nature that doesn't want to sin. Rather, we’re given a new nature which enables us to love others because of the fact that God loves them; but also to properly love ourselves for the same reason. We don’t murder others because we have a genuine love for them, and similarly we wouldn’t murder ourselves for the same reason.

So the desire to commit suicide ought not to be there for a genuine Christian. That is, the depression or the heavy weight of sin which might drive us to it should not be there. Nevertheless, all of Creation is corrupted by the fall. Part of the mechanics of our bodies is that it uses chemicals to pass messages between organs, including our brains. Drugs affect our minds because that's how we work, and drugs will affect our minds whether we're Christians or not. Sometimes, “chemical imbalances” occur through drug abuse, but they can also occur naturally. These imbalances can often account for depression, and it's not as though such imbalances will not affect Christians. This is the fallen world we live in; the world we long for Christ to repair. All of our imperfections are really no different; we are all potentially susceptible to all manner of problems, from dandruff to some debilitating disease like multiple sclerosis. Likewise, our minds are susceptible to all manner of problems, whether the cause is chemical or otherwise.

Now, if a genuine Christian were to commit suicide (and I have heard of at least one case where this appears to be true), then I do not believe that they would go to hell. But does this give the suicidal Christian the “go ahead”? It ought not to. We need to recognize that we are suffering from something, or through something, that we need to ask God to deliver us from, rather than trying to escape it in our own way. Years ago I did some counselling for a Christian telephone counselling service. A large proportion of the people who called were sufferers of some mental disorder. One lad suffered depression to the point that he would attempt suicide at least once a week. Obviously, with so many failed attempts, he seemed to be able to control the behaviour somewhat. But whenever he would call, he was in anguish; and typically all he wanted to talk about was how he has been coping, or ought to be coping, as a Christian. His faith was always central to dealing with his condition. Why does God allow us to suffer these things? There is no simple answer to that question; we just don't know the mind of God in such detail. But perhaps it is precisely so that we can live by faith. So that a teenager like this particular lad can show the world that despite what he's going through, God is his hope and his strength and his refuge. Many would like to say that his suffering is evidence that there is no loving God caring for him, but as a Christian he sees quite the opposite; that without God he should have been dead long ago.

Until tomorrow...

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

#92: Why is King David “a man after God's own heart”?

In Acts 13:22, Paul speaks in the synagogue and explains “And when he [God] had removed him [King Saul], he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, 'I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.'” So the contrast between Saul and David seems to be that Saul did not do God's will, but David sincerely desired to, and in fact would do God's will. This phrase “a man after my heart” is a reference to 1 Samuel 13:14. In that 1 Samuel 13 passage, Saul had been instructed to wait in a certain place for Samuel to come and make a sacrifice to God before going into battle. But while Samuel seemed to be taking too long, Saul got impatient and offered the sacrifice himself. When Samuel showed up, he told Saul these words; that as a result of this sin, “your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” (1 Samuel 13:14). In offering the sacrifice himself, Saul demonstrated that he had no respect for the divine order for the nation. The king was to be under God, and prophets like Samuel spoke the word of God to the kings. Samuel had essentially put himself above God. If we think this seems like a fairly minor offense for which the punishment is too harsh, we need to understand that this was Israel’s first king. God had to demonstrate the right order of things before all Israel. If the king would undermine God's order for the nation, then nobody should take it seriously. Saul's disregard for God's law before the people showed that he was not a suitable king for Israel.

Now David, on the other hand, respected and upheld God's law. David applied God's law to all that he did. When he fought Goliath, the giant, he was confident because he knew that it was God's will for Israel to conquer their enemies. When Saul was seeking to kill him, David would not, himself, take Saul's life because (he said) “The Lord rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness, for the Lord gave you into my hand today, and I would not put out my hand against the Lord's anointed.” (1 Samuel 26:23). David was a righteous example for the people, and he did God's will in obeying His law and conquering the enemies of Israel.

Now the problem we typically have with David being described as “a man after God's own heart” is that, in a most serious manner, he didn't obey God's law. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband. How can this man be regarded as a man after God's own heart? And why wasn't the kingdom taken from David for this sin, whilst it was taken from Saul for his sin in making a sacrifice to God when he had been instructed to wait for Samuel? Well, let's consider what it means to be “after God's own heart”. That word “after” seems, to me, to be in that same sense as when we talk about “chasing after something.” It's the case that David, and we also, do not have the heart of God, but are “chasing after” it. When we keep this in mind, we can see how David and Saul differed. David wanted always to be God-like (that is, to have the heart of God). When David sinned he recognized his sin and, turning his mind back to “the chase for God's heart”, repented. He realized that what he had done was not at all God-like and he turned away from it, back towards a Godly attitude. His very attitude towards his own sin was God-like. Having committed adultery with Bathsheba, he writes a Psalm of repentance to God; Psalm 51. He writes, there, for example:

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:9-10)

Here, David is clearly recognizing that his heart has not been the heart of God, and he is praying for God to restore in him that “clean heart” and a “right spirit”.
Back in 1 Samuel 13, when Saul had committed the sin of the sacrifice, Samuel confronts him. Saul, rather than having this repentant heart, makes excuses for himself saying, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, ... I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” (1 Samuel 13:11-12). He is not repentant but defensive. Now Saul's sin was disregard for God's “cultic laws”. David, too, erred in the cultic laws of God. When moving the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, he had loaded the Ark onto a cart. But the law of God said that the Ark should be carried, by hand, by the priests. Again, why wasn't the kingdom taken from David, even for a “similar” sin? It is because, in as much as David was a bad example to the people, he quickly made himself a good example of repentance. He said “Because you [the priests] did not carry it the first time, the LORD our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule.” (1 Chronicles 15:13). He recognized his error, and in 1 Chronicles 15 we read about David's second preparation to bring the Ark in which he has the priesthood consecrate themselves for the task.

Whenever David missed the mark of God-likeness, his sins did not go unpunished. For the sin with Bathsheba, for example, God took the life of his son which he had with Bathsheba. In fact, for just about every sin of David we can find a consequence. But the reason Saul lost the kingdom but David didn't is because Saul was never a godly person, seeking God's will and “chasing after the heart of God”. He would never be a good example for the people, or a good leader. David, on the other hand, would continually return to God in repentance over his sins, precisely because he was continually chasing after God's own heart. He remains, to this day, one of the greatest exemplars of faith in the Bible, and was the “benchmark” for all of the kings of Judah throughout the historical-narrative books of the Bible.

Until tomorrow...

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)

Friday, April 1, 2011

#91: Is divorce always wrong?

Yesterday I wrote about forgiveness, and how important it is to always have a forgiving heart, ready to forgive even when those who have offended us are unrepentant and don't want our forgiveness. To have a forgiving heart is to have a loving heart, always desiring for relationships to be repaired. The same can be said for a repentant heart. But forgiveness isn't always easy, and sometimes it seems just plain impossible. And I suppose that the stronger the relationship, the more damage is done when sin enters into it, and so the harder it is to forgive. And what stronger relationship is there than marriage, which is why repairing a marriage, or finding forgiveness in marriage, is probably one of the hardest things. But should we never seek for a divorce, conceding that we've given up all hope of restoring the relationship?

In the book of Matthew, Jesus handles this very question:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3-6)

This term “one flesh” is something we could discuss at great length. But we get the general idea here; that there is a unity between a husband and wife so that they can be considered, in some sense, to be “one”. And there is also some sense in which it is God who has joined them together. And so Jesus' final comment seems to answer our question; “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” We get the sense here that to get divorced is to defy God Himself. Well, in those days, I am led to believe that divorce was even more common than it is today. It's often remarked, in order to illustrate just how flippant people were towards marriage, that it was written into Jewish Law that a woman could be divorced for burning the meal she'd prepared for her husband's dinner. So those Pharisees opposed Jesus, citing that even Moses permitted divorce. But Jesus points out something important about the Law in general... that it was written to fallen people to curtail their sin. After all, it may be better for a couple to be divorced if the man, sinful as he is, is going to just cheat on her continually. So Jesus says, “from the beginning it was not so.” That is, it was never God's intention for married couples to divorce. He continues, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” So we do seem to have an exception to the rule; sexual immorality (ie infidelity.) But in such a case; if your wife has been sinful enough to cheat on you, then she’s really divorced you already in that very act.

Paul also writes about divorce in 1 Corinthians, and he isn't the least bit contradictory with Jesus' words here. He writes...

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)

Again we see this idea that marriage should not end in divorce. However, just as the Mosaic Law recognized that we are sinful people, there is a provision made; (“but if she does...”). And if she does, the two should not remarry. After all, though we may find that we need to separate because the corruption of sin leads us to that place; as Christians we ought still to be working towards reconciliation and forgiveness. If we marry another, then we're essentially committing adultery (as Christ said) because we ought to see our former marriage not really as “former” at all, but a relationship that still needs to be repaired.

The whole point of marriage, Biblically, is to illustrate to us what God's love is like. This idea of an inseparable unity in which the bond consists of unconditional love and commitment is supposed to show us what Christ's love and commitment are for the Church. He will never leave us nor forsake us. It also shows us what our love and commitment for Christ ought to be as well. But Paul goes on to speak about somewhat different rules when it comes to a Christian married to a non-Christian. Here, he says:

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. … But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. (1 Corinthians 7:12-13,15)

Again, this is illustrative of how Christ relates to unbelievers. He will not cast them away, but they are still free, if they choose, to leave Him. This is like a person who comes to Church and sort of “investigates” or “entertains” Christianity for a while but doesn't make any commitment of the heart, and later leaves. A Christian, on the other hand, cannot leave. They may go through times when their sin causes them to break fellowship with God, but if they are in fact truly Christians, they will repent and return.

So this teaching, or doctrine, will possibly be sad news for some – those who are considering divorce but who are also Bible-believing Christians are now torn between what they want to do and what they ought to do as Christians. What they ought to do as Christians is not to simply stay together “because God says so”. What they ought to do is to exercise the love and forgiveness that Christ has given to us. In doing that, they may find the need for divorce will disappear as the relationship is restored. It's not easy, and I'm sure I don't know the half of it! We’re not Christ, we’re fallen people. But without Christ, reconciliation may be absolutely impossible.

Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)