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.

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)