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, December 30, 2012

What Is God Doing About The World's Evil?

Chatting with some friends yesterday about my faith, it seems that the old “Problem of Evil” is still the biggest issue people have against God. Why is there evil in the world if God has the power to stop it? Several times in the Bible, men asked this same question in one sense or another. And often when they asked “Why is this evil happening to us? Why isn't God doing anything about it?” God responded with something like, “Ok, here I am and here's what I'm about to do... I'm going to destroy those evil doers!” And so we have wars, or these massive invasions like when Babylon conquered Israel, and like when so many hundreds of years earlier, Israel conquered Canaan. And of course, we all know of the end-of-the-world apocalyptic scenario where God finally comes to destroy all evil once and for all. But this is not the answer to evil that we want because 1) evil runs rampant for a long time until such judgement occurs, and 2) the judgement would most likely destroy us too! And so we continue to complain about God and question God. Surely the all-wise and all-powerful God can come up with a better solution!? Well, maybe He has...

But we need some back-story. We'll start in Egypt, and please bear with me. The Egyptians did not worship Yahweh, and they kept the Israelites as slaves. For this sin, God waited some 400 years (during which time I'm sure the Israelites cried out “Why does God allow this?”) and then He judged Egypt with the famous 10 plagues. And God said “on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments” (Exodus 12:12). These plagues were specifically targeted at the gods which the Egyptians worshipped, demonstrating that Yahweh was superior to those gods. For example, He covered Egypt in darkness, showing Himself to have power over the sun, and showing Himself to have power over “Ra” their god of the sun, (and while they were surely praying to Ra during that time.)

Next, God showed that He was God of all in every land on Earth as He led Israel to the land of Canaan in order to judge Canaan for their sins also (Genesis 15:16, Deuteronomy 9:4). But He commanded them...

You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place.  (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)

And to Israel He had said...

You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)

So God was dealing with evil with that first “method” we spoke of in my initial paragraph, where He would destroy the evil-doers. But we should realize that He was really trying to deal with evil by striking at the root cause of it... the false gods that people worship. Deuteronomy 12 tells us explicitly what was wrong with those false gods...

You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31)

Eliminating evil is the name of the game, and God, dealing with the root cause of evil, wants to turn us away from the false gods we worship, and in this case He is doing it by force. But He instructed Israel otherwise...

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  (Deuteronomy 6:5)

The Bible teaches that we tend to become like what we worship. God's “second method”, (His and our preferred method) of eradicating evil is to have us become like Him, who is without sin. Rather than destroying sinners, God would rather that we would become like Him and live a sinless life.

Gandhi is quoted as saying “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This is a good mindset. If you say “Wouldn't it be great if we lived in a world where nobody hated anyone else, and nobody cheated anyone else...”, then you yourself shouldn't hate or cheat. It may not be that you will change anyone else's behaviour, but if you do good, then that's one less hater and cheater in the world, and the world has ever so slightly moved toward that ideal. This is probably what Gandhi meant. But just about anyone who has been inspired by Gandhi's words to live a more moral life will quickly come to the conclusion of “Easier said than done, Mr Gandhi!” Even if we understand that the key to overcoming our own sin is to worship the right God, we find that we cannot do that either. But this is what God has begun to do in eliminating evil from the world... He has sent His Holy Spirit into the lives of those who desire to worship Him, and this gives us the power to actually overcome the sin and temptation in our lives.

Paul wrote...
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.  (Romans 6:16-18)

This sums up what we have been talking about. We become like the god we serve. If we serve God, who is sinless, we become like Him. But it was necessary that God change our hearts (that is, who we really are on the inside) so that we could, in fact, become “obedient from the heart.” This is what God spoke of in the Old Testament where He said...

...from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

Peter writes about the fulfilment of this, telling us that we have all it takes to "become partakers of the divine nature"...

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

So in conclusion... there is evil in the world and all people expect God to do something about it. But what it is that God should do about it no one seems to be quite sure. Take 9/11, for example. Should God have diverted the aeroplanes moments before they crashed? But why do that... why not prevent those pilots from becoming pilots in the first place? But why do that... wasn't Osama Bin Laden's ideology the root cause? Why not prevent Osama from developing his ideology? But why start there? Why not prevent the Muslim religion from taking off, which formed the basis of his ideology? And of course, this is an interesting point to get to because, after all, we can look at what God did do. He demonstrated to mankind His supremacy over all other gods when He sent plagues over Egypt, and He commanded us “You shall have no other gods before me.”

And it's not as though He remained silent after that... Israel continued to proclaim this command to the world, and then Christ came and re-established this commandment with great signs to prove His authority. And now Christians everywhere proclaim this same commandment to all people. And not only that, but God has given us the Holy Spirit, if we desire Him, who will give us actual power to overcome the sinfulness in our own hearts, wherein we can theoretically eliminate the evil from our own lives and actually be part of that new, sin-free world we all desire. In my view God is very pro-active in eliminating evil, and in the non-destructive sense where sinners are saved from destruction. But we know from the Bible that that day will come, and final judgement will come upon all mankind, and in which all evil will be purged from the Earth.

But all in all you cannot say that God is not doing anything about the evil in the world, you can only say that He is not doing what you would do if you were God. And unfortunately, people thinking they're smarter or wiser than God actually only tends towards more evil. Instead, listen to God's Word to us all...

Seek the LORD while he may be found;
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
(Isaiah 55:6-8)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Derren Brown Has a Point, But...

Derren Brown is a renown hypnotist/illusionist and atheist skeptic. I’m only reasonably familiar with his work, but it’s clear that the former description of him is a very big part of why the latter description also applies to him. Quite often in his television programs he is trying to demonstrate the power of suggestion, and then to show that much of religious experience can be explained by this same phenomenon. And though I’m a Christian, you may be surprised to find that I actually appreciate his work and what he’s saying. He made a documentary called “Miracles for Sale” in which he set out to show that many so-called “faith healings” are really just blatant illusions, or due to the power of suggestion. And I think that’s absolutely true. On the program he spoke to a man named Mark Haville. Mark is a former “faith healer” having seen first hand the psychological manipulation in the ministry, but nevertheless remains a steadfast Christian. Though there are a lot of false experiences of God, it doesn’t mean that there is no God or true experiences of Him. And when we refer to “false experiences”, we can speak of those in which people have deliberately fooled us, or also of those times when we can fool ourselves.

In Derren Brown’s latest program, “Fear and Faith”, Derren “induces” a staunch atheist, Natalie, to have a religious experience using the power of suggestion. And once again, this is not something that Christians are oblivious to. In my own Church the theme often comes up in sermons; that we need to be very careful to discern the difference between a true experience of God and a false one. Our pastor, for example, is very much against the practice in many Churches known as “altar calls”. This is where the speaker will, at the end of a sermon, ask people who want to be saved to come forward to the altar to commit their lives to Christ. But these altar calls always follow a very emotion packed message, and there is a very real danger that these commitments are really just based on the mood created in the meeting, and actually have no “divine basis”.

So how do we tell the difference between, say, our emotions and a true experience of God? Of course, a true experience of God will engage our emotions, so what is it that people like my pastor are looking for in order to say “That’s just an emotional experience” versus “You’re truly born again!” Well, I think that in one sense, the pastor’s concern is valid, and we would generally say that you shouldn’t count yourself saved until you’ve seen a lifestyle change in the direction of true repentance of sin as a result of your commitment to Christ. But to say that God was not in the altar call experience of one who doesn’t truly commit is, I think, a mistake, and I want to look at the case of Natalie in Derren Brown’s program to illustrate my point...

In the program, Derren very deliberately used psychological techniques to elicit an emotional response from Natalie. Sat in a Church, he spoke to her about her father in order to evoke in her the emotion of fatherly love like we find between God and Man; and then he spoke to her about things in life having “purpose”, which naturally implies the guiding hand of the Divine since nature or life itself has no mind with which to purpose anything. After the skillful illusionist had set up these emotions, he left Natalie on her own. Once alone, she began to weep, and later described her experience as something like feeling the love of her family and friends magnified a thousand times. At this, Derren clearly feels as though he’s succeeded in creating a false religious experience; and of course we all saw how it was conjured up. Nevertheless, I’d like to suggest otherwise.

God created Mankind with a range of emotions. We all feel love for others, and the need to feel loved. And I think that these emotions can be how God reveals Himself to us all. I don’t think it really matters what pretense Derren Brown had for stimulating these emotions, I think that right there and then, as Natalie was pondering the majesty of God and the magnitude of God’s love, God was reaching out to Natalie. It doesn’t make sense for the skeptic to say “but it was just emotions” as though that explains away God. Neither do I think it’s right for my own pastor to imply that an altar call is worthless if it’s “just emotions”. I would agree with him in the sense that we don’t want to be misled into thinking we’re saved when we’re not, but God draws us to Himself little by little in life. I probably responded to at least five altar calls in my life before I was saved, and when I truly committed to Christ I was alone, sitting at a desk. But surely those altar call experiences were still times in my life when God had made an appeal to me. I certainly wouldn’t say that Natalie is now converted, but I would say that she may well have had a true religious experience. We don’t know what really went on in Natalie’s mind at that moment, the program doesn’t reveal much, but I did notice that as she stood there weeping in the Church, she said aloud the words “Sorry. I’m so sorry.” So it’s clear that “feeling love” is not the whole story of what Natalie was thinking at that moment; and if you ask me, the most clear sign of a genuine experience with God is to be thoroughly convicted of our sins, and something like “sorry” would be the first thing to come out of anyone’s mouth.

Derren Brown evoked an emotional response in Natalie by reminding her of the love of her father, for example. And the Bible can evoke these emotions in us also. This is why, after all, God is spoken of as “Father”. God knows how to communicate with His own Creation; we should expect Him to appeal to our emotions as well as our intellect. Just as we can look at the world around us and reason that it must have been Created, we can read a story like the Prodigal Son and understand emotionally, in our hearts, what God is like. But even Jesus spoke parables about those who would experience the revelation of God and even respond to it, and yet for one reason or another, later fall away (see Matthew 13). We may all have experiences like Natalie’s... the question is, what are we going to do with them? Are we going to say “Ah, it’s just my emotions playing tricks on me.” Or are we going to realize that when the God of the universe reaches out to you personally, it’s quite reasonable to be touched and moved by it!

   “You will indeed hear but never understand,
       and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
   For this people's heart has grown dull,
       and with their ears they can barely hear,
       and their eyes they have closed,
   lest they should see with their eyes
       and hear with their ears
   and understand with their heart
       and turn, and I would heal them.’
   But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
(Matthew 13:14-16)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A 9 Year Old's Crisis of Faith

Recently I spoke to a friend of mine who told me that her nine year old niece no longer believes in God. Apparently this young girl, when asked why, launched into a long and emotional speech which left her in tears. She spoke quite emphatically, demanding to know “Why, if God is so powerful, are there people dying in hurricanes, and why are there kids with only a Mum and no Dad!?” And this is the point at which she began to cry. To me it seems that she’s been influenced by some atheist adult, possibly a teacher or family friend, who has put this “problem of evil” reasoning into her mind. But she’s meditated on what she’s been taught and understood it and applied it to her own situation... people dying in hurricanes is one thing, and she’s very disassociated from that; but her father left them, and for that she’s now found someone to blame other than her mother, whom she loves, or her father, whom she loves. Just like any adult who speaks about the “problem of evil”, she’s really just expressing how upset she is with the state of the world, and because God is ultimately to blame she is expressing hatred for God.

What I find interesting is that many in the Bible expressed their grief and hatred for the state of the world, including Jesus, and including God in Heaven! When Lazarus died, Jesus grieved and wept over that. And when Jesus saw the corruption of the priesthood and the faithlessness of Israel, He wept over that, and it made Him angry and upset. When God in Heaven saw the idolatry of Israel and the terrible sins they were doing, He pleaded with them as a concerned and loving Father saying “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 18:31). When the Psalmists expressed their grief over the state of the world, they didn’t come to the conclusion that there is no God of Love, or of Justice. Rather, they said...

Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
(Psalm 90:13-15)

In other words, “life sucks, but God can make our bitterness sweet.” And this is how any Christian views the world... nobody denies that the world is corrupt and evil, but we look to God for joy in the midst of this world. The question is, why has God “afflicted us”, as the Psalm above makes clear? Let’s put the above passage in context by citing the verses which precede it...

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
(Psalm 90:9-12)

See here, “All our days pass away under your wrath.” The reason there is hardship and death at all is because of our sins. This is precisely the curse pronounced upon Mankind in Genesis 3 as a result of Man’s sin in the garden of Eden. But this is a hard truth to receive for a self-righteous people. The real argument behind the “problem of evil” is “Why does God allow all this suffering on mankind though we don’t deserve it.” There is a false assumption made here that we don’t deserve our suffering; but the men of the Bible didn’t make this assumption. And so, for example, in the midst of Jeremiah’s grieving over the suffering God has brought upon His people, Jeremiah said “Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?” (Lamentations 3:39) This is the righteous prophet Jeremiah speaking, who also suffered much along with the rest of Israel. No one is innocent before God. The only reason, I think, that the “problem of evil” should make sense to us is when we are unaware of our own sinfulness and how serious our offenses are against God. But that, readers, describes just about everybody!

When Jesus was on the Earth He spoke of the “mission of the Holy Spirit” saying “And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). The Bible teaches that God opens people’s hearts and minds to receive the gospel and to put their faith in Christ. This only happens when we begin to understand, through the Holy Spirit's influence, our sinfulness before God. We begin to see that we’re deserving of death. And when understand our sin and we come to Christ, can you imagine how our bitterness is turned to joy? We were “children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:3-7) God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, but came to seek and to save the lost... to rescue us from the consequences of our sins; from this life and from death itself!

So this nine year old girl is upset with God because of the hardships in life she’s suffered. That’s understandable, but instead of hating God and denying God, acknowledging that her parents are sinners, and that she herself is a sinner would, I believe, better help her to cope with and understand what she’s going through. At the moment she wants to blame God because she doesn’t want to find fault in either of her parents, whom she loves. But if she could acknowledge her parents’ sin, she could begin to forgive them. And imagine if the hope of their whole family could be in God, to save them from their own sinfulness which led to the family breakdown in the first place! Christ isn’t about destroying families... being able to forgive will bring reconciliation! But you cannot begin to forgive if you deny that anyone is at fault. And so as the Psalmist wrote...

Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days

that we may get a heart of wisdom.
(Psalm 90:11-12)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Was Turning The Other Cheek An Insult?

I've been watching the new television series "The New Normal", about a homosexual couple who hire a surrogate in order to have a baby. In the most recent episode, "The Godparent Trap", one of the main characters goes to speak with a Catholic Priest. During their conversation, the Priest says the following... "(Turning the other cheek) didn't mean 'Lay down and take it'. In those days, turning the other cheek was an act of defiance! It meant 'I will see your insult and raise you a 'Suck It!'" Now, this show has plenty to say about homosexuality and the Church, (the Priest also says earlier that homosexuality is not a sin), but I feel like I've already written so much on homosexuality in the past that I'd just be repeating myself. But I did want to comment on a few things from this episode, and we'll start with this interpretation of what it means to "turn the other cheek."

It's a cunning approach here because we have someone who is portrayed as an authority on the Bible, but also they're professing some deeper knowledge of the historical and cultural context of the Bible, and saying "Look, you just don't understand the cultural difference." And so we believe what he says because few of us have an education in the historical and cultural setting to know any better. However, if we look at the passage in question, we don't even need an education in history and culture. It is fairly clear from the Textual context alone that to "turn the other cheek" is by no means to return an insult...

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-4) 

Jesus is clearly saying that we are not to pay-back evil for evil, or insult for insult. He had also said earlier, "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth." We can also see that other passages of Scripture would oppose the "insult for insult" interpretation quite explicitly. Consider the Epistle of Peter...

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23)

Jesus taught by His example, and His example was not to pay-back evil for evil, or insult for insult.

The program dialog continues...
Priest: "(Jesus) saw hypocrisy and injustice, and he said 'Seriously, you guys are idiots! This has got to change!'"
Bryan: "So you're saying the Church can change?"
Priest: "Well, it would. I've seen gay people battle discrimination and march for marriage equality. They demanded the right to fight for their countries, but for their souls...? Nope! They just give up and walk away. Jesus was a fighter, son. How about you?"

Now, I said earlier that I wasn't going to get side tracked into talking about homosexuality and the Church, so don't misunderstand me... the point I'm about to make is more general than that, but homosexuality in the Church will be our "working example." Despite the Priest's comment, homosexuality is a sin according the Bible. In this last extract of dialog which I transcribed, the Priest is arguing that the Church needs to change, and the character Bryan asks "So the Church can change?" as if to ask "Is that even possible?" And of course, Martin Luther was one who saw change in the Church as necessary, and also showed it to be possible. But what kind of change was Luther seeking? He wanted the Church to move from un-Biblical practices back to Biblical practices. The Church cannot be whatever it wants to be; it is Christ's Church and He, as the Head of the Church, has spoken as to what is and isn't acceptable within the Church. The Priest argues, however, that the gay community should fight for acceptance in the Church, which he calls a "fight for their souls." This implies that if the gay community can get the Church to accept them, they will gain their souls, (or salvation). But this couldn't be further from the truth. Again, we're only using homosexuality as a working example, but the key point is this... your salvation does not depend on whether the Church accepts you or not, but on whether your faith is in Jesus Christ. Salvation is as attainable for a gay man or woman as it is for anyone else, but all must attain it through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ. It's not whether the Church accepts you, but whether you follow Jesus and His Word despite the teaching of the Church which may be in error. This is what Martin Luther and the Reformers realized; that they would rather be rejected by the Church and follow Christ because the Church, despite having the name "Christian Church", was in fact opposed to Christ. And this is also what Jesus did in His days on the Earth, as the Priest himself pointed out in the episode we're considering. He did see hypocrisy and injustice and demand a change, rebuking the religious leaders at the time, saying...

Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering. (Luke 11:52)

The lawyers were those who, like the Priest in this episode, were supposed to be experts in the Law (that is, the Law of Moses... the Scriptures.) But they led people astray from the Scriptures by "teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." This Priest, (or in reality, the writer of the episode), didn't even teach correctly something as clear as what it means to "turn the other cheek!" If we want to be a fighter like Jesus, our fight must be for adherence to the Scriptures...

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:3-4)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Is Marital Fidelity A Sin Against Yourself?

I read the following statement in an article recently in relation to adultery: “Our age allows most things to happen before marriage but accepts nothing much thereafter.” Before we’re married we’re permitted to sleep around, and so the implication seemed to be that we should also be permitted after marriage because the urge to do so doesn’t change. Of course, as a Christian this kind of logic really gets me stirred up, because once upon a time society did not approve of sleeping around before marriage, but as society abandoned this Biblical principle, many Christians everywhere would have been saying “This is the start of moral decay, so that eventually adultery will even be acceptable.” And here we have an article explicitly trying to move us further down that path of moral decay. Whereas the article would suggest we should permit philandering after marriage because we accept it before marriage, I would argue the other direction to say that we should not permit it before marriage precisely because we don’t permit it after marriage.

The article seems to put forward the argument that because we all have the desire to be adulterous, it is actually just as wrong to deny ourselves that desire as it is to be unfaithful. We essentially need to hurt someone; either our family or ourselves, and so we can legitimately ask which is the lesser of two evils. But I think that even a straight forward “lesser of two evils” evaluation would find us against adultery, since the damage done to the whole family is greater than the damage done to ourselves. I have a very worldly friend who says, in all honesty of heart, “Cheating is ok as long as you don’t get caught.” So even by her standards the damage to the family is greater, but can be avoided by them never finding out. Thankfully this “utilitarian” kind of morality is not how Christian morality operates. We know that God has created us, and has designed us with a certain nature in mind, and to follow a certain order. When we operate contrary to that order, we typically call that sin. Our consciences, among other things, tell us the difference. We know that adultery is wrong because nobody can do it in good conscience. This is why they keep it a secret. If we have to say “Cheating is ok as long as you don’t get caught,” then this reveals that our conscience knows it to be wrong for, as the Bible says: “everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (John 3:20)

The Bible uses marriage to illustrate man’s relationship to God. A marriage, as God intended it to be, illustrates a God who loves us so much He would even die for us, just as a husband might love his wife so much he would even lay down his own life for her. And it shows Man as devoted to God exclusively, like a faithful wife. If, in reality, men and women cannot help their adulterous desires, then how much more will Man fail to be faithful to God? As society accepts more and more such things as promiscuity before marriage, and as Man more and more turns away from God, then a greater frequency of adultery is precisely what we should expect. If you cannot be faithful to your spouse, you can hardly be faithful to God; but the opposite is true as well, I think, because if God does not exist then your “god” is yourself. You are the highest authority in your own life, and as “god” you can decide what is and isn’t permitted, and what is and isn’t best for you. As this article I read pointed out, adulterous desires are always going to be there - the question is whether you are going to hurt your family by indulging in them, or yourself by not indulging in them. But if you are “god”, the law-giver in your own life, then you’re fairly biased in this judgement. Statistics show that around 50% of married people have been unfaithful, and I’ve thought for a long time that the real reason behind this is selfishness, or self-centeredness. Unless we deny ourselves and put our families first, of course we’re far more likely to give into temptation when that temptation inevitably arises. But the fundamental principle of Christian morality, which will guard against all temptations toward committing adultery, is to put others first, especially our spouses and children.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Biblical View of Fasting

I have never done a Bible study on the topic of fasting, and I have never heard a sermon preached on the topic of fasting. Speaking to my brother the other day, he made this observation as well, asking me "What is fasting all about? Is that something we're supposed to do as Christians?" The Bible speaks of fasting, yet I find that Christians never seem to talk about it. My understanding of fasting has come directly from my regular reading of the Bible over the years, essentially without any external influence at all. So I thought I'd share with you the conclusions I've come to on the topic of fasting.

What I find as I read the Bible is that fasting is often linked with prayer, which might give the impression that sort of "adding" fasting to your prayer life will make your prayers more effective. But is this a voluntary denial of food in order to make the prayer more effective? I don't see how the denial of food would make prayer more effective. When the Bible teaches explicitly on how one is to pray effectively, it teaches that we should pray according to God's will (which is almost the same as saying "according to Scripture"), and that we must be living righteously. I'm not so sure that denying one's self food will affect our prayers. But what I have found in my own life is that, when I'm really stirred up to pray about something, I actually lose my appetite for food somewhat involuntarily; and I suspect that this is what fasting meant to those characters in the Bible which fasted. When we're distressed, or in grief, we often lose our appetites. I have a friend who, when his girlfriend broke up with him, ate nothing for days. He was simply too upset. What kinds of things might cause a Christian to become that upset that they lose their appetite? And wouldn't they be the kinds of things that a Christian might begin to pray about fervently? As I read the Bible, I find that fasting is almost always in response to some distress, as is the prayer associated with it. Some Biblical examples would be when David's first child to Bathsheba becomes sick; David prayed and fasted over that. And Saul, when he was confronted by God on the road to Damascus, ate no food for several days after. We can be distressed or grieved by our circumstances, but we can also be distressed over our spiritual state of being. When I as an unbeliever, for example, truly came to understand the weight of my sins, this for me was a time when I literally lost my appetite and couldn't eat. And we see fasting of this kind in the Bible as well. Another example would be when the King of Nineveh proclaimed a fast in response to the preaching of Jonah, which convicted the whole city of their sins.

Quite often in Scripture we find people, usually those in power, proclaiming a fast. This is often in the form of a king's edict that everyone in the city should fast, like in the case of Nineveh. Another example would be where Esther proclaimed a fast before she approached the King about the fate of her people. In such cases it seems as though a fast would not be involuntary, but would be deliberate, and obviously toward some purpose. But whereas I might fast in response to a distress which affects me, these proclamations are in response to some distress which affects the whole city or people. I have no doubt that culturally it was a symbol of expressing one's distress to God. But as always, it was not the outward gesture which was important to God, but the true attitude of the heart; and I think that if my city was preached to by Jonah, I might have gone into that "involuntary fast" over it whether the King proclaimed a national fast or not. It's a bit like when, in our culture, we commemorate certain tragic events with a minute of silence. One can keep silent for a minute and be thinking about all manner of things besides the dead soldiers, or what have you... but if the memory of those soldiers really does mean something to you, you might consider them during that minute as you ought.

Isaiah 58 is probably the most explicit text on fasting in the Bible. It begins with the people asking God "Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?" They possibly saw fasting as a way of making their prayers more effective. But God answers "Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers." And then, with words of correction, God says...

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?" (Isaiah 58:6-7)

These things don't really have anything to do with denying one's self food, and that's God's point. God is not interested in asceticism, or self-denial, in some attempt to get closer to God. Rather, God is interested in good works. Going without food so that some starving person might have a meal; that might be the kind of fast which God is interested in. And to be so grieved over the spiritual state of those in the world around us that we lose our appetites, that's what Biblical fasting really is.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." (Matthew 9:14-15)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How My Son First Learnt About Homosexuality

My son is five years old, and yesterday at school one of his classmates told him what the term "gay" means. He came home to us a little disturbed by what he'd heard, and this post is about how I, as a Christian parent, handled my son's questions. I want to write about this because to me, this is what my blog is really all about... an honest look at how a Christian views the world. And how I raise my children is of particular interest, as this truly reveals the beliefs we value. My son, prior to yesterday, had never really known anything about homosexuality at all. We don't really know what his friend at school has told him, but the following is an honest transcript of how our conversation went.

Son: Dad, do you know what gay is?

Me: Gay? What do you know about "gay"?

Son: Oliver says it's when a boy likes a boy, or when a girl likes a girl.

Me: … Yeah, that's right. …

<The look on my son's face was as if to say 'Seriously? That can't be right...' So I said...>

Me: Is that ok?

Son: No.

Me: Why not?

Son: I don't know? ... They can't have babies.

<Realizing that this is going to have get serious, I sat down and put my son on my lap.>

Me: Listen... you know that boys marry girls and girls marry boys, right?

Son: Yeah.

Me: But sometimes, something inside a person is broken and instead of liking girls, they like boys. Or something inside a girl is broken and they like girls instead of boys.

Son: Why?

Me: I don't know. But lots of people are broken in different ways... sometimes people are born retarded, like that boy we know; or some people are born blind. For some reason, something inside gets broken. I don't know why. But you know that teacher at your school, Ms. Finn? She's gay... she has a girlfriend.

Son: <Shocked> I don't like her anymore.

Me: Why not?

Son: … I don't know.

Me: Listen to me... some people are very mean to gay people because they're broken. But that's no reason to be mean to someone! We've talked before about that retarded boy, and how it's not nice to be mean to him. It's the same thing. It's not nice to tell him he's retarded, or to make fun of a blind person, or to tell someone they're fat... and it's not nice to make fun of a gay person, or to tell them they're "broken". They don't feel broken, but really we're all broken people in lots of different ways, even if sometimes we don't feel broken. And it's not nice to make fun of people or be mean to anyone.

<My son is deep in thought now, and I think this is where I'll leave him. So I say...>

Me: C'mon, it's bed time...

So this was basically me teaching my son theology, and applying it to homosexuality. It's what I've explained a few times on this site before... that all of Creation is essentially broken, in so far as things are not the way they are supposed to be. But how are things "supposed to be"? To have any notion at all of things having a "way they're supposed to be", you need a God who created with intent...  that is, a God who designed, or intended, for things to work one way and not another. And with Christian theology you have that... God created us to be "in His image". We are supposed to reflect God's character, like an “image”. But none of us do, necessarily, because we are all "broken" in various different ways. Sin has corrupted all of Creation.

Now one might say, "You've compared homosexuality with retardation and obesity... but they're different, at least in the fact that not even the Bible calls it a sin to be retarded or fat." This is true, but no analogy corresponds in every respect. These examples are similar in that all of these are not the way things are supposed to be. Perhaps a better analogy for adults would be promiscuity, which is also considered fairly normal in society, but which, according to the Bible, is actually a sin and a "broken" desire in man. But it also occurs to me that whenever we take what is broken about the world and rejoice in that and glorify it, that is sin. And that would even apply to obesity and possibly retardation. We've all heard of gluttony, and that's sinful. Nobody wants to say "Being fat is cool! Let's all pig out so we can all be fat!" No, we feel sorry for fat people in some sense, as it is not what anyone generally desires to be. The analogy holds true... we love fat people and they're our friends and we make them our husbands or wives, and we treat them equally with anyone (or we ought to). But there is still something to grieve over... nobody wants to be fat, and we would discourage the overeating which feeds the problem. And I suppose we can make a similar parallel to retardation in that nobody wants to be retarded, or thinks being retarded is cool. We love those people afflicted with it, and we shouldn't think less of them, and we ought to befriend them. But there is something to grieve over on their behalf. People can't help being retarded or fat, and I would probably affirm that some people can't help being gay. But society's attitude should change, I think, so that it is seen as an affliction - a part of the brokenness of this world. That's what I think Christian theology has to say about it. And I would say the same about promiscuity, or alcoholism, or any number of different issues which affect our lives, some of which society agrees are a problem, and some of which society takes no issue with. The decider, however, is God; and God has revealed through the Bible various things which are not as they should be.

I've made this point before, but I'll reiterate... where the Bible prohibits homosexuality in Leviticus, it also prohibits bestiality and incest. Without a God who determines the way things are supposed to be, you really can't say, yourself, that "Yes, incest and bestiality are wrong, but homosexuality isn't." Why should there be any distinction at all? An evolutionist has told me that bestiality is wrong because we don't want to share our seed with other species. This seems absurd to me. Why is that an intrinsic rule of the game? What's the worst that can happen in the process of evolution; a mule is born? So what? And when I queried the Internet as to how evolutionists justify homosexuality, the answer seemed to be that "It is good to have men in the community who like to stay at home instead of going out hunting. Men are strong, and it is good to have some of them 'in the village' at all times, guarding the women and children, yet not being a threat to the men who are out hunting, as their wives won't be adulterous with such men." Well, offensive stereotypes aside, this story doesn’t even make any sense... do all the men have to go out hunting at the same time? I’m sure that plenty of straight men will hang around in the village because their talents have to do with repairing houses or, who knows, defending villages? This explanation is thoroughly a product of imagination. It's story-telling as much as any myth you'll ever find.

Now, as I said, this is an honest blog about how one particular Christian views the world. And not all Christians are the same. Some approve of homosexuality, but I don't in so far as I think it should not be practiced; and those who have homosexual feelings ought to seek Christ's help as they struggle against them, recognizing that this is a kind of brokenness in their minds and bodies. This is what I believe the Bible teaches, and if I didn’t care for what the Bible teaches then I wouldn’t care about other people’s sexuality. But I do care because I believe that what the Bible teaches is for our good, and will lead us to the ultimate good of fulfilling the very purpose of our design... to reflect the image of God. And then there are also some Christians that hate homosexuals and throw insults and abuse (even physical abuse) at them. And I hope it came through to you, as well as to my son, that this is not acceptable at all. It's not Biblical or Christ-like in any way.

We live in a broken world, and it is broken in so many ways. And some day my son and I will probably have to have one of these talks about pornography in his web history, or some such thing, and he's going to have to realize that he himself is broken too! But there is One who makes all things new...

And he who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new."  (Revelation 21:5) 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why Does The Bible Tell Us To Fear God?

Yesterday I wrote a post explaining that a Christian’s motive to be good is not out of a fear that God will punish us. If it were, that would be a kind of “fake morality”, and that’s not what Christian works are. We know that we have forgiveness and salvation, and we know that good works won’t earn us those things either; so our motive for good works is not to avoid punishment, nor are they to earn the reward of salvation. But there may be a point of confusion here, because the Bible does tell us to “Fear the Lord”. So on the one hand the Bible says things like “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18). And on the other hand it says things like “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear...” (1 Peter 1:17). This latter verse sounds like we should live in fear of judgement. But the rest of this passage reminds us that we have been saved from our sins... “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” The fear Peter speaks of here is, as I see it, more of a respect for something valuable; namely the redemption we’ve been given. I find that I often carry with me this emotion... that in whatever I do or say, I want to show people what Christianity is all about; namely that Christ has given me a love of righteousness and a hatred for sin. I don’t want to mess up that witness, and so I conduct myself with good, respectable behaviour. I don’t want anyone to say “This guy calls himself a Christian, and yet look at how he behaves!” That doesn’t mean I live as a faker all my life; rather, I just carry with me this awareness of my sinful nature and a consciousness of the importance to overrule it. I recall to this day the one time I happened to use an expletive in front of a co-worker, and I shudder with regret over that! I don’t normally swear, and I have no idea why it slipped out at all. To me, this seemingly trivial episode is a big deal! The “fear”, then, is not a fear of consequences for “messing up”, but just a fear of letting God down. And not only in front of others, but we know that God watches us in private as well. So the “fear of God”, for me, is more of a sense of awe of God, and a sense of the incredible honour and responsibilities He’s given us. I think you could take the commonly occurring phrase in the Bible, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”, and paraphrase it as “Remembering the glory of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Remembering all of His attributes, who He is and what He’s done, will teach you wisdom.

Now, we know that we are saved from Hell, but there are punishments in this life that we might suffer. Most Christians should acknowledge this. We can consider the words in Proverbs which say “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.” There may be circumstances where, when we have sinned, God brings some grievance to our lives in order to discipline us. This may be, for some, a case where there is a fear of God in that sense of worrying about a consequence for our actions. While we know that we will be saved in that afterlife, there is a present life where God may put us through hardship to teach us all the more to hate sin and love righteousness, or to discover what is truly wonderful about righteousness, and what is truly grievous about sin. You may hear of these referred to as “temporal judgments” in Christian lingo. When we suffer the consequences of our sins, we can often understand then why our actions were wrong. Sometimes it’s not enough to tell our children what they ought not to do. Sometimes they need to learn (possibly the hard way) why something is wrong. Consider the difference between hearing your parents say “don’t play with matches” and actually burning your finger, for example. Suffering some consequence for our sin generally means we won’t repeat it, though not out of fear of further punishment, but rather because we now understand a little clearer what was so wrong with what we’ve done. There may be consequences for our sins; and so there should be if we have any hope of learning what is right and being corrected. A parent disciplines their child, but the child doesn’t live in fear of their parents. A child of an abusive parent may do, but that’s because an abusive parent deals harshly with their child for no good reason. But discipline is deserved and any child can tell the difference between abuse and righteous discipline. The wise father who disciplines his children is not feared, but loved and respected.

Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (Hebrews 12:9-10)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Why Be Good?

Today I want to talk about a Christian’s motivation for being good, because as I speak to various people from time to time about my faith, it seems that there is a common misconception of the Christian faith in regards to this matter. People will often say that, rather than do what I personally and honestly think is right, I’ll do what I think God wants me to do “so that I don’t get smited!” People think that we live in constant fear of the wrath of God if we don’t do the right thing. And I can totally understand why people would have that idea... we can consider Noah’s flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, two examples of where God “smote” the people for their sins. These stories are so well known, and they do paint a picture of God as a wrathful God to be feared. This image is certainly true and I’m not about to deny any part of Scripture. In fact, I want to say that these two examples are only illustrations of something far worse... namely, the Hell that awaits sinners. But the conclusion which follows this; namely that if we want to avoid such a horrifying destiny we should stop sinning and be good... this conclusion is false.

Now it is true that we should repent and stop sinning, but that is not how we will escape Hell. Therefore, escaping Hell is not the motivation for doing good. Once you have sinned you are destined for Hell, according to the Bible, and adding good works won’t change the fact that you’ve sinned. Some people think that if we added up all of our good works and our evil works, God would accept us if only our good works were more in quantity and quality than our evil works. But that’s not how the God of the Bible thinks. No amount of good works can erase the fact that you have done evil... your good works do not atone for your evil works. Once you have sinned, your situation is hopeless. That is, except that Jesus Christ, who was sinless, voluntarily died on our behalf, and His death was sufficient to atone for our sins. Understanding how that works is, I think, something that is ultimately beyond our comprehension, and so it must necessarily be accepted by faith. But believing that this is true, God counts that belief as your righteousness (to put it in the phrasing of Romans 4).

So a Christian’s motive for good works, if they understand this, cannot be to escape God’s wrath. They know that doing good instead of evil won’t save them because they have already done enough evil to receive the punishment of Hell, and they continue to do so by nature. Rather, what happens is that, when a person accepts Christ they receive the Holy Spirit who begins to transform that person’s life so that they begin to naturally hate evil and love righteousness. Christ’s nature starts to manifest itself in us. Not entirely, however, else we wouldn’t sin at all. God’s plan is to give us our full “transformation” when He returns. So we do continue to live in a fallen world with a broken, sinful nature. And God could leave us completely unchanged until His return if He wanted to, but He gives us this “taste” of what is to come. It is this change in us which often serves to assure us that what we have is real, because after all, faith is difficult when you have a broken, sinful nature.

So we don’t perform good works out of fear, but rather out of love! Christ’s nature is one of love, and if Christ’s nature is manifest in us, then our love for others is all the more amplified because of that. And love, if you think about it, is really the basis for all true, or genuine morality. We do good not out of hope for reward, nor to save ourselves from punishment... our reward is assured and our salvation is assured. As people of faith we still sin because the time for our full salvation has not yet come. But we have this altered nature, as I said before, so that we don’t deliberately want to sin. When we slip up it is generally met with regret and repentance shortly after. If a person claims to be a Christian but doesn’t appear to live this way... that is, they deliberately sin often and have no regrets about it, it may be a sign that they are not genuinely saved at all.

But we’re in this fallen state where we are susceptible to sin, though our final relief from our sin nature is guaranteed us. Why God does this is something I think we’ll better appreciate looking back, but in the present it’s a struggle. Sin has its appeal, but we know that it’s no good for us. I think that any true Christian will tell you “What I really long for is the time when I won’t even be tempted to do the wrong thing any more!” But this struggle between hating sin and yet also seeing it’s allure and being tempted, this state of affairs is itself the punishment for our sins. Sin is, by nature, destructive, and so sinfulness itself can be used by God as a punishment. But the final judgment of mankind will come at the return of Christ, and at that time the final punishment for sins will be dealt, as well as salvation for those who have trusted in Christ’s atonement for them. This future time is what we wait for; to finally receive deliverance from sin and corruption.

The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. … Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? (Lamentations 3:25-26, 39)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

We’ve all heard the phrase “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t...” We say this when we find ourselves faced with two courses of action, neither of which are desirable. It causes me to wonder, are there really any situations in this world we might find ourselves in where, no matter what course of action we take, we will be forced to sin in some way? Some theologians have said “Yes, in a fallen world we can find ourselves in such a situation.” That is, because sin permeates every aspect of this world, there may be times when we simply cannot escape sinning. That’s what we should expect in a fallen world, and we should just choose the lesser of two evils and call upon the mercy of God to forgive us. And when we wonder how a perfect world will be different so as to alleviate this problem, I suppose we have to just throw our hands up in the air and say “It is just beyond the capability of our imaginations to even imagine how God might design a perfect world...” And fair enough, I suppose. But there’s one thing that bugs me about this idea... Jesus lived in this fallen world, and yet was without sin. How did He manage to remain sinless even in this fallen world of ours?

Consider how in Luke 4, at the start of Jesus’ ministry, He spoke in a synagogue and what He said upset the people so much that they essentially formed a lynch mob and took Jesus to a cliff, intending to throw Him off. If Jesus had let them He would have remained an innocent victim of violence. But Jesus had a mission ahead of Him, according to God’s plan of salvation for the world. And rather than fighting them off and becoming guilty of violence, the Bible says that Jesus simply passed through their midst and went his way. This certainly sounds like the supernatural intervention of God. I don’t imagine that the people of that lynch mob suddenly found that their muscles stopped working so that they couldn’t grab Him. And I don’t imagine that Jesus suddenly became like a ghost so that He physically walked through the people. I don’t really know what happened, but to many there it may not have looked overtly supernatural at all. Perhaps, rather, all of those involved who were intending to throw Jesus off the cliff suddenly lost their nerve. And I wonder whether, maybe, this kind of thing doesn’t happen all the time? Like maybe when I’m walking down a dark alley past some guy standing against the wall, what I don’t realize is that this guy is a desperate drug addict who, for the past 20 minutes has been psyching himself up to mug the next passer by... but then, as I walk past him within striking distance, he suddenly loses his nerve. And neither of us are ever aware that it was God who intervened in that way.

So this is how I see not only a perfect world working, but our own world too. No world created by God doesn’t involve God interacting with it. The Bible says that “he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3). Whilst I think people usually see that as God being responsible for the forces which bind matter together, I think it goes beyond just interactions between particles and covers every aspect of the system, and includes even our social interactions. We also read in the Bible that:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

If God “will not let you be tempted beyond your ability”, He must be intervening in every aspect of our reality to control the situations you find yourself in. And the reason there is probably never really a genuine case of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, where no matter what you do you will end up sinning, is because God intervenes to prevent situations like that. And in a perfect world, for example, there might be no car accidents because God would always intervene to prevent them. And there may not even be any disagreements amongst people, because God may intervene in our minds to create empathy and understanding, taking away pride and envy, and so on and so forth.

People should see this relating somewhat to the “problem of evil”. If God is intervening in this world, He doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job... there are car accidents and major disagreements all over the place! But this is a fallen world according to God’s plan. God put it in its fallen state and He will restore it from it’s fallen state, according to His plan and in His time. He has made the world fallen because He has good reason to. Let’s not forget that, while God intervened in Luke 4 to save Jesus’ life, He later allowed men to lay hands on Him and torture Him to death on the cross, all according to His perfect wisdom and plan. And whereas I might be saved from a mugging, another man passing down that dark alley might not. But why God might allow a mugging is a topic of discussion that can go for hours... But possibly God allowed evil so that He could demonstrate His love in sending Christ and saving the world from it.

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. (Psalm 91:11)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Our Only Hope

I recall my parents, as a teenager, were often warning me about the dangers of drinking, and of drugs, and of sex and pornography. Of course, I drank and did drugs and had sex. And I often remember my parents saying “We tell you these things over and over, and we wish you’d listen but you just do what you’re going to do anyway!” It made me feel like I was more rebellious than most teens. But over the years I’ve discovered that so many people I’ve spoken to have this same memory of their parents saying the very same thing... “We’ve told you over and over, but you’ll just do what you’re going to do anyway!” You see, it’s just a plain fact that you cannot constrain the sinful nature in others, no matter how you try. Not even the sinful nature of your children. As a parent this causes me so much anguish... to think that my children are going to grow up and do all of these foolish things. When I look at my life I know for a fact that there is nothing anybody could do or say that would have stopped me from doing what I wanted to. I even did things that I myself abhorred, and I thought to myself “Well, I expect this is just something I need to get out of my system and I’ll grow out of it.” But I didn’t. The only thing that finally put an end to my wicked deeds was Jesus Christ.

Most people’s view of Christians is that they want you to be saved because otherwise you’ll go to hell. Of course, that’s true; but more often than not the desire to see you saved is so that you’ll know the joy of knowing Christ right now! And also that you’ll be saved from your own sinful ways right now, in this life. Christ gives us a new heart which, by nature, hates sin and will turn away from it. Though you possibly don’t see it this way, your sins are causing damage to your life right now. This is precisely why our parents tell us not to do these things... it’s because they probably did them as teenagers and discovered for themselves that they all ultimately lead to pain and hurt.

In order to keep our children from sin we might try to prevent them in various ways, either by penalising them when they do wrong or by restricting their access to certain activities, whether that’s a curfew for going out or an Internet filter for web sites, or whatever. But as hard as you try, children will find a way around these measures. You cannot keep them from the world; it’s simply not possible. Let’s consider what Paul says here...

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
(Colossians 2:20-23)

That is to say, if you claim to have “died with Christ” (which is a term synonymous in the Bible with having been “born again”), then why would you adopt this “rule book” of asceticism? Rather, the Spirit of God in you would naturally make you hate what is sinful and avoid it of your own accord, rather than because some rule book says so. Because we know that whether we have a rule book or whether it’s our parents constantly telling us what we ought not to do, it won’t make any difference. The only hope of keeping ourselves from sin is for Christ to change our very natures.

This leaves me feeling totally helpless. I am helpless to change my own sinful ways... as I already experienced in my own life, I could not “grow out of” certain habits, or keep myself from giving in to temptations because, even if we do all we can to avoid them, we cannot escape them altogether. It also leaves me feeling helpless towards my family. I know that I cannot stop my children from doing what they’re going to do as they grow up. This is also true of my wife, or my brother, or my best friends. Our only hope is in Christ. Only Christ can change our hearts, and only a change of heart will keep us from sin. This means that my only hope in trying to keep my family from sin is to appeal to Christ in prayer on their behalf... to pray for their salvation.

But I’m not suggesting that we just give up and do nothing but pray. I think this is what a lot of parents have done when they say “You’ll just do what you’re going to do anyway...” with the implication of “why should I bother telling you anything?” That’s not right at all. Jesus said...

Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

But when we’re “doing them and teaching them” we are, in fact, pointing people towards Christ. More than that, we should be explicitly teaching them about Christ also. Christ is their only hope. The Bible is clear - the Law will not change your heart, but we need the Law to show us our need for Christ. The rules our parents lay down for us do at least restrain sin in us. I certainly didn’t do any hard drugs because my parents and school teachers educated me and gave me a healthy sense of fear about them. And so we teach the law to others, but essentially it’s in order to reveal each person’s need for Christ. Through the teaching of the law (and by that, I don’t necessarily mean the Mosiac Laws as they are in the Bible, but simply what we know to be wrong in God’s eyes), we teach our loved ones of their need for Christ as they live through the very experience I have outlined in this post... that, as I said in the beginning, no matter what my parents told me I basically did what I wanted anyway; and that the only way I could ever stop sinning was when I received the Spirit of God. It’s heart-breaking, but it’s true; you will not save your children from sin. You can only trust in Christ. We are all dependent on Him for salvation from sin. This is “by God’s design”... that in everything we are dependent on Him. This is why, as parents, or simply as people who care for one another, we need to be continually pointing people towards Christ. It’s not enough to say “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that”... the only way a person will adhere to these willingly is if Christ literally changes their will. This is why we need to teach what the Bible says to one another and to our children.

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:5-7)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Understanding Federal Headship

There is a Biblical concept in Christian theology known as “Federal Headship”. It is most commonly discussed in reference to Adam and Jesus. Adam is the head of the human race, and the consequences of his sin are inherited by his offspring; the entire human race. Similarly, Jesus is the head of the Church, and the consequences of His righteousness are inherited by His “offspring”, those who are of faith. This concept is quite difficult for many people, and it’s certainly something which I have struggled with. But today I thought I’d share some of the conclusions I’ve come to in thinking about this doctrine.

What got me thinking about Federal Headship recently was not in reference Adam and Jesus at all. I’ll get to that in a moment. But what I found as I was trying to research this doctrine was that, the only thing people ever seem to talk about when it comes to Federal Headship is Adam and Jesus. And yet, understanding the headship of Adam and Jesus isn’t really the most difficult thing to understand. The way I see it is this... it’s more about identification with Adam or with Jesus. When we sin, it might as well have been us who were created as the first man and ate that forbidden fruit. It demonstrates that if we were in the same situation, we would have done the same thing. When we believe in Christ for salvation, however, we do all that is necessary to demonstrate that we are against Adam, disapproving of sin altogether, and that we are for Christ, desiring righteousness instead of sinfulness. Perhaps one of the best verses in the Bible which helped me to understand Federal Headship this way is the following...

Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,' so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. (Luke 11:47-51)

The Lawyers, to whom Jesus is speaking, demonstrated that if they had been in power at the time the leaders of Israel put those various prophets to death, they would have done likewise, making them equally worthy of the punishment due to their ancestors. People ask how Federal Headship is just, but I think it’s just because we literally share the guilt of our ancestors. When we look at the “big ones”, Adam and Jesus, who together cover all of mankind, it’s not difficult to see how this is true. It’s not enough to say that we disapprove of Adam’s specific sin while we go on sinning in other ways, thereby demonstrating that we at least approve of sin itself in some form or other. Likewise, when we identify with Christ, every good Christian knows that it’s not enough to say that we hate sin, but to actually turn from sin and do righteous deeds is evidence of the veracity of such a faith claim.

But what about “smaller scale” examples? This is what I have been struggling with over the last few weeks since, in my devotional reading, I read the passage in 2 Samuel 21. In this passage we learn that King Saul, while he was in power, had attempted the genocide of the Gibeonites. Now, many years later, David is king and Saul is dead. God tells David that atonement must be made for Saul’s sin. So David goes to the Gibeonites and asks them how atonement should be made. The Gibeonites ask for the sons of Saul to be killed. This request is approved of by David and by God, it is executed, and atonement is successfully made. I was a little shocked by this. Why, I thought, did Saul’s sons deserve to die for the sins of their father? I thought about it continually. After a while I began to see it in terms of Federal Headship. Whilst the Bible tells us that the sons will not be put to the death for the sins of the father, that doesn’t mean that when the sons still identify with, or approve of the sins of their father that they shouldn’t be dealt with in the same way as their father was, or should have been. After all, Saul and his sons actually lived in Gibeah, and at what time did Saul’s sons go to the Gibeonites and say themselves, “How can we make atonement for what our father did to you?” This demonstrates that they most likely condoned the acts of their father.

Now there were probably many who still approved of what Saul had tried to do, but it was the sons who had to pay. The story alludes to the fact that David expected the Gibeonites to want the lives of many others; perhaps of the soldiers who had slain some of their people; but the Gibeonites were content for just the sons of Saul to die. This appears to be because of an awareness of this very principle of headship. But what if Saul’s sons had truly disapproved of their father’s actions? Let’s consider how, when Israel came into the land of Canaan, they were told to destroy every nation there because of the sins of those nations. But first they find Rahab, a woman who believes that Yahweh is God of all. Her faith, or identification with Yahweh, is why she is spared while all of Jericho is destroyed. That faith, and ultimately repentance, is what changes things. Rahab is not the only example. Later on in the Book of Joshua, which document’s Israel’s conquest of Canaan, we have none other than the Gibeonites themselves! The way I see it, the Gibeonites were a whole nation who felt the very same way that Rahab did. While their neighbours remained rebellious against Yahweh by trying to resist Israel, they came to Israel essentially in surrender, believing that Israel were indeed the instruments of Yahweh’s just judgement. And so the Gibeonites themselves were saved through their own repentance.

Now, Rahab’s whole family was saved, and people rarely tend to ask “but what if her family didn’t believe as she did?” Likewise, Noah’s whole family was saved on the ark, but I’ve not heard anyone ask, “but what if Noah’s wife or children hated God?” And on a national level, I'm sure that not every Gibeonite was in favour of surrendering to Israel, or every Ninevite was repentant when Jonah prophesied there, but nobody tends to ask "what about those who didn't want to surrender to Yahweh?" I’m sure I’ve heard people ask the inverse question; in cases where punishment is inflicted upon the children rather than salvation. But I think the answer is the same either way. Generally a family or nation does tend to stand together, but when they don’t we trust that the Judge of all the earth will do what is just. That may not mean that one of Noah’s sons doesn’t get to ride on the ark, or that one of Saul’s sons who disapproved of his father gets to escape the execution. Rather, as is so often the case, justice is fully reached after death in the age to come. The whole of the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles is about the choices that Israel's kings made, and each king is typically evaluated as to whether they were "like their father David" or "like their father Jeroboam". And we're told often, in many ways, that if they would repent they would be blessed, but if they would worship other gods they would be cursed. Each king, therefore, is shown to have either done right in God's eyes, or done evil in God's eyes. How their decisions affected the nation is precisely the point of the books, ultimately explaining why Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians. And of course the righteous in the nation went down with the whole nation because of the sins of the kings and the general population. But nobody has a real problem with that because we know that each individual will find their just reward after death. And this is how we should see the smaller-scale examples, like with the sons of Saul.

Presently, this principle of families and nations being identified as one, united in their beliefs and aspirations, is illustrative of the “big picture scenario”. That is, the Adam and Jesus “families”. Jesus also said of the Pharisees that they were “like their father the Devil”. They were identified as a certain “family of people”. In typical Biblical style, the cultural practices and principles which apply to groups or to individual people are illustrative of spiritual ideas. It’s true that you cannot choose your father, but thanks to Christ you can choose to be born again!

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sincerity Without True Repentance

Since I recently bought a bigger hard drive for my computer, I have taken the opportunity to transfer my old CD backups to hard disk. I have always been one to journal things going on in my life, and as I’ve been transferring these CDs I have found old journals which I had long forgotten. Today I’d like to share this very personal piece of my own past with you. I discovered the following journal entry dated April 2001; roughly five years before I became a born again Christian! I had no recollection of this particular event until I read my own words.

April 2001
For the entirety of the year 2000 I prostituted myself with Kathryn for the sake of accommodation – to be away from my mother. To me, to sin against God was worth the escape from her. I hated the sin. It was also there that I began to smoke dope. And all the while, I knew I was doing wrong. There were nights where I would wander into the garden on my own and throw my hands up to the heavens, and pray to the Lord to forgive me and not forsake me. I knew that one day I would return to Him, but at the time I was in an awkward situation.

When the day came that I was able to break up with Kathryn, I was so happy because it meant I would not have to sin any longer. I thanked God for the opportunity, and I would say to Him, “Now, I return to you!” Yet far too frequently, the sex continued. It was not even satisfying – it was sex for the sake of sex. I was never really attracted to Kathryn. It seems ironic that I would sin against God where there is no real temptation to do so.

But now I'm not living with Kathryn, and I have no reason at all to sin against God. And yet I find that I have her visit from time to time and I give in to her. The drug smoking has reached a point where I own my own drugs, which is something I swore I would never do. In fact, I always thought that if I owned my own, it would indicate that I had a drug problem. Now is the time to nip that in the bud. I have already decided never to smoke again, and I should give the drugs away so they are not a temptation to me. Nobody I know except Blake smokes drugs anymore anyway. Yet another irony where I sin for the sake of sinning. I think God has ultimately made it as easy as possible for me to give up my sinful ways.

I have prayed from time to time for God not to forsake me. My intention has always been to return to His side. I know that I have gone astray, and I hate that I have done so. And now it is Easter. It was not until I was at my mother’s as we had grace that I thought about His sacrifice for us. Saturday, I had a prompting to read the bible. My problem has always been that I don’t recognise prompting. I never know if it is from God or not, and I am quick to justify promptings as natural cause and effect. But this prompting was to read Jeremiah. Which chapter and verse? I did not know, but I was prepared to just flip into Jeremiah. However, Aaron called and I never opened the Bible.

Two days later, the word Jeremiah was still floating around in my head. To make matters worse, within those two days I had smoked drugs, and I’d had sex with Kathryn. I was in fact lying next to Kathryn, making yet another one of my miserable apologies to God, when I was pondering the word “Jeremiah.” Which chapter, Lord? Which verse? Then, for no reason at all, 13:22 came to mind. And of course, I was completely skeptical. How many times before had a chapter and verse popped into my head, and the corresponding passage have no relevance to my life? Or at least, not that I could see. But when I read this passage, my heart froze, and I knew that God Himself was speaking directly at me. At me!

The passage is as follows:
“And if you ask yourself, “Why has this happened to me?” it is because of your sins that you have been disgraced publicly. Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the Leopard change its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. I will scatter you like chaff driven by the desert wind. This is your lot, the portion I have decreed for you,” declares the Lord, “because you have forgotten me and trusted in false gods, I will disgrace you in public that your shame may be seen – your adulteries and lustful neighings, your shameless prostitution! I have seen your detestable acts on the hills and in the fields. Woe to you, O Jerusalem! How long will you be unclean?”

No longer, Lord! No longer! I have prostituted myself, and I have done detestable things. But I have not forgotten my Lord, and my wish is to return to His side! I want to get closer to Him. I have let Him down. I have let myself down. I deserve to be disgraced in public, though I wish that God does not punish me this way. I will return to Him. I will turn from my sin. I will burn my drugs and I will refuse Kathryn every time. But these are just words. What does it take for a man to give up his wickedness? Does any man have the power to do this? I am not attracted to Kathryn, and yet I give in to her. Even when I have made up in my mind that I will reject her, I cannot. And even though no one will join me in the drug taking, I manage to sin against God with drugs also. Only God can help a man to turn from his ways. And so my prayer to God is that He change me. I cannot go on being wicked. It hurts me to hurt Him. And I know my life will be better without the sinfulness within me. I no longer wish to rebel against Him. I no longer have any need.

And despite my wickedness, He has never left me. All those nights that I thought my prayer was in vain, He listened to me, and He never left my side. Because of Him, I have this new job. He has blessed me, despite my wickedness. What love God has for me, it brings me to tears. I feel so, so unworthy. I feel so low. I feel like I could never make it into His presence. I must commit myself to following Him. God help me!

The words of this journal entry sound remarkably like my thoughts and the words of my prayer to God when I did finally give my life to Him in 2006. It's tragic to think that, despite these deeply sincere words, I don't recall any change in my ways what so ever. In fact, the only way I finally stopped seeing Kathryn was when I started a relationship with a new girlfriend. And that relationship was sexual from the start as well. So at no time did God's remarkable message to me cause me to change my ways. The reason I've posted this here is because I really think that so many people have had similar experiences to this... they are truly convicted about their sin and they say all the right things before God, and (as far as I can tell) sincerely believe that they will indeed turn from their sins... but they don't. Why does this happen? What happened to me?

Perhaps it pays to be the person who wrote the journal entry above... I do at least know the writer intimately :) I'm sure I know what happened, and I think there's a clue here in the journal entry itself. I wrote...

To me, to sin against God was worth the escape from her. ...
I knew that one day I would return to Him, but at the time I was in an awkward situation. ...
But now I'm not living with Kathryn, and I have no reason at all to sin against God. ...
My intention has always been to return to His side.

Can you see where my heart was? It was saying "I'm going to do things my way until..." Until what? As I look back over the journal entry, I think there were a whole lot of things I was waiting for. I make a big deal that Kathryn wasn't terribly attractive, and that "nobody will smoke drugs with me anyway..." In other words, I would continue sinning until I didn't have any personal motive to sin, or anything to gain from sin. This is where I was deluded. Folks, you cannot wait until you're done with sin before you will come to Christ, because you will never be done with sin!

Of course, this seems to be something I acknowledge in the journal entry. I said that if I'm sinning now with no apparent motive, then how can I turn from sin? I knew that I needed a supernatural change of heart. That was precisely the message that God was speaking to me through the Jeremiah passage. But we see that even if we acknowledge that this is true, we must be prepared to actually forsake the sin, whatever the cost and however strong the attachment to it might be. Though I acknowledged that I needed a supernatural change of heart, (that is, to be born again), I was still not prepared to give up the pleasures of sin. This is a perfect example of seed sown amongst thorns (see Matthew 13:1-23).

Now if I had made this confession in Church at the time, everybody would be saying "Praise God, you're born again!" It would probably be enough to fool anyone. And I think that for many people in this world, a confession like this, with all of the sincerity that was felt along with it, has been enough to fool their own selves also! Let's keep in mind the words of Paul, spoken to many who may have likewise been fooled...

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. (2 Corinthians 13:5)

In 2006, when I did finally give my heart to the Lord, what was different? The difference was that I was prepared to forsake my sins despite the fact that I loved them, rather than "so long as I don't need them anymore." And now, six years later, I have not returned to my former ways by any means, but rather, the more time that passes the more opposed to sin I become, and the more pro-active towards God's mission and plan for this world I become. This is how I know that my confession in 2006 was not just another of those prayers which was sincere but without true repentance.

So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:33)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

What's Wrong with Pornography?

Today’s post deals with an issue which I think is far more serious than people believe it to be. I think that for so many people, if I told you that pornography ruins lives, they would probably scoff and call me a prude. But I think that, actually, it’s not so hard to see that this is true, and when we scoff it’s really because we all consider ourselves immune from the dangers. When we’re considering the danger of pornography, we’re really considering the dangers of feeding our own fantasies, and this is something that we all think we have under our control, believing we can always maintain a separation between fantasy and reality. But the Bible says that whatever is in our hearts and minds is ultimately who we will be in deed and reality. And I want to say that indulging in the fantasies of pornography makes us adulterers at heart, and very often will ultimately make us adulterers in reality. What makes me so sure of this fact? It’s because, if I had not become a Christian and given up pornography as a result, I know for certain that I would have cheated on my wife by now. In fact, it’s by the grace of God that I did not do so before I became a Christian; because I remember my former self, how I would have taken any opportunity that presented itself. But I don’t think that’s “just me”. According to one statistic, over 50% of married couples have been unfaithful, and knowing how prevalent pornography is in our society I believe there is a certain correlation there. I think we all know this to be true, and it isn't hard to find articles which agree (such as this.) It is also true to the testimonies of many, many others, including for example Nate Larkin, a former porn addict.

Now, I have a friend who has moved here from Russia. He told me something interesting. Since his mother is in Russia, he and his wife often sit down at the dinner table with a laptop set up in one of the seats, and his mother will be there via a live Skype video stream. Though she is Russia, they are literally able to enjoy meal times together. This is how real and intimate live streaming is, so that if we imagine, instead of a family sharing a meal together, one couple having sex on one end and another having sex at the other, I would quite literally call that group sex. We shouldn’t diminish the power of video. Perhaps it’s slightly removed from actually being in the same room as another couple, but not so far as to make it significantly different. Just about all of the same elements of attraction and arousal are there. If we consider group sex to be wrong, at what point does engaging with others sexually become "ok"? Well, I don’t think it’s ever ok. It’s not so different from a pre-recorded video, nor even from images created in our minds by erotic novels... the same wrong element is there in all of these; namely the desire for someone who is not your spouse. Pornography fills our heart with sexual desire, and when we desire for something we want to see that desire fulfilled. It's as simple as that.

But it's not just that pornography may lead to physical adultery. The mere act of interacting with pornography is already a kind of adultery. There are chat rooms where people can share their desire for one another, and it is expected now days that the person on the other end probably doesn’t look like the picture they upload to you. Nevertheless, when a man or a woman engage in that fantasy, it will affect their whole reality. Consider a film like Catfish, or talhotblond, which is freely available online. These are examples of just how intrusive a fantasy can be on one’s whole reality. These documentary films tell the true stories of men and women who, through online sexual relationships, ruined their lives. It might be argued that they are exceptional and extreme, but actually, with the exception of the murder which takes place in talhotblond, I think they are quite typical. We all know, for example, that even online role playing is wrong. Visiting the home page of one such role playing site (in the name of research, of course), I found what I expected to find... “Anonymity is important to the members of this site.” Why is it that men and women use a fake name and go to great lengths to prevent their spouse from finding out? If you saw a scene in a film where a father walked in on his son and the son slammed his laptop shut, wouldn’t we all correctly infer what he had been doing? It reminds me of the Proverb "The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion." If it were innocent there would be nothing to hide. The wife in talhotblond would do that; slamming her laptop shut if her husband walked past. Why? It’s because she knows that this is tantamount to cheating and is by no means innocent. Her husband in the film explained how he will always wonder whether he was only ever an outlet for the fantasies she’d lived online. The feeling of knowing that your wife is thinking of someone else while you’re being intimate is not very different from finding out that she’s cheated.

Now I know that many people who, if they’re into pornography, will scoff at this post. But I think that’s precisely because they’re into pornography! I don’t think I ever saw how damaging it was to my life until, through Christ, I gave it up altogether. Back then I knew that I would cheat on my wife if I had the chance, but back then I didn’t care. What does that say about my true feelings for my wife? Though in some sense I have always loved her, I can honestly say that I love her more now with a true love than I did back then, and praise God for that! God transforms our hearts and our lives. All of my fantasies, instead of being frustrated by the fact that I can’t actually live out what I viewed online, are instead the reality I live with my wife! Through Christ, she fulfills all my desires because the desires themselves are now for her only. Those who scoff are desensitized to their own adulterous desires, and to the seriousness of adultery itself. Folks, do not be fooled; pornography ruins lives, but Christ saves lives.

Let your fountain be blessed, 
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
be intoxicated always in her love.
Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman
and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?
(Proverbs 5:18-20)