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.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Why is Christianity So Offensive?

Many people find Christianity offensive, but if you ask around I believe you'll find that there is no common answer as to what is offensive about it. Some well known people like Richard Dawkins have stated why they find Christianity offensive, and many will simply regurgitate their answers. But in reality, I've heard many and conflicting reasons as to why Christianity is allegedly offensive. And according to the Bible, this is exactly what we should expect to find. In fact, I believe that there has never been a soul alive who was not offended by the Bible. This is because, according to God Himself, our fallen humanity is by nature opposed to God. We will all be offended by the Bible and its teachings, but many of us by the grace of God will be transformed so that our whole perception is changed.

I have spoken to an atheist friend of mine some time ago who said “The thing that upsets me about Christianity is that it’s all too easy! You say ‘I believe in Jesus’ and then, oh goody, you don’t suffer eternity in hell.” So he’s offended that Christianity is “too easy”. And although he’s oversimplified things, his point still stands. Being accepted by God is, in fact, “too easy”, because in reality it should be utterly impossible. No amount of good works is sufficient to merit acceptance from God. So in a sense, the level of difficulty with which God has provided us acceptance with Him is hardly cause for complaint. But then you have people on the exact opposite side of the fence who are offended by Christianity because God seems to have made it too difficult. Why can’t God simply accept us, regardless of how we behave or what we believe? This is what I mean, and what the Bible means, when it says that our fallen nature opposes God. God cannot “win” - either He’s made things too easy or they’re too difficult… people will always find something to be offended by.

Jesus was faced with this constantly. People were offended when John the Baptist led a life of asceticism, and then were offended when Christ ate and drank to the full, with prostitutes and corrupt tax collectors no less. When Jesus visited such people, he didn’t care what people might think because He knew that people would be offended either way; because the problem isn’t what He was doing, it is our opposition to God. Jesus told a parable in which a man hired various men to work in a vineyard, each working a different number of hours, but in the end all were paid the same. The men were offended that the ones who worked longer weren’t paid more, but the owner of the vineyard said (to paraphrase) “What have I done wrong? I’ve only showed generosity.” Likewise, people like my friend are offended by how easy it is to be accepted by God, and how, in a sense, the same reward is given to those who work hard at preaching the gospel, for example, as to those who believe in Christ and only speak of Him to the relatively smaller number of people they come into contact with. And yet it’s just as crazy - to be offended at God’s amazing generosity!? Again, fallen humanity is in opposition to God by its very nature, even if it doesn’t make sense. Similarly, the religious men of Jesus’ time were always upset with Him for healing people on the Sabbath, a day in which no one was supposed to work. And this is, of course, beyond belief. They’re upset because Christ did a good deed. And “good deed” isn’t strong enough an expression… it was a deed greater than anyone else can even do. The problem is not Christianity. The problem is us. We all, by our very nature, oppose God and are offended by Him. How often have I heard people say “I don’t need God, I am fine on my own.” Wait, are these people offended because God wants to help them and have a relationship with them!? This is our fallen nature talking contrary to proper reason.

Several times in the life of Jesus, the religious leaders were so offended by Him they were going to stone Him, and of course in the end they crucified Him. But Jesus said, on one occasion, “I’ve shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered Him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Perhaps the real offense of Christianity is that Christ claimed to be God Himself. This implies that what Jesus taught was of greater authority than any other religion or philosophy. Ultimately, this is the great offense of Christianity, from the person who says “I’m fine without God” to the person who says “Why can’t God simply accept everyone regardless.” Each of these reasons all boil down to the same essential thing... each one is really saying, “There is another ‘way’... there is my way; the way that I think is right.” Ultimately, the offense of the Bible really is that our fallen nature opposes God, in that this nature of ours does not want to submit to God. All people, without exception, are offended by Christianity and the Bible until they are prepared to submit to God. Once you do submit to God, there is no longer anything offensive about Christianity, for who can say to God “you’ve got it wrong”, since the crucial thing about submitting to God in the first place is acknowledging that He created us and has every right to tell us how things ought to be and how we ought to live.

Our fallen, sinful nature prevents us from coming to Christ, because we are offended by Him. But people do come to Christ because Christ Himself changes our very nature. How is it that Christ does this for some and not for others? This is a topic for debate amongst theologians, but for me, I put together passages which say “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32) and “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” (Hebrews 3:7). So, then, there is some way in which God presents Himself to us all, and some way in which we hear His voice. And maybe that’s different for everyone? This very day I spoke to a man who said that, while jogging, he “felt the presence of God”. Whatever we might want to say about that experience, it was profound enough to have prompted him to ask questions about God and to begin to investigate religion. Whatever the case may be for us personally, we are clearly given the opportunity to open up to God and submit to Him, or to “harden our hearts” as the Bible warns against. This appears to be, in my view, something we can do prior to Christ changing our nature of opposition to Him. That is to say, while in opposition to Him, (and this very much accords with my own experience), we are able to reason and say “Look, God, I don’t like the idea of giving up my sins or changing my beliefs, but… I believe that whatever you might change in me, it will be for my good, because you are all wise. You created me after all, and you know best.” And so that step of faith where, in a sense you’re still in opposition to God, not wanting to change, and yet being prepared to change, even to give up your own identity for whatever God will transform you to be, is possible, (or is made possible by Christ) in all of us, fallen as we may be. And so, given that we are all offered the gift of salvation, what cause for offense can there really be?

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 16:15-17)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Is Ebola the End of the World?

To be honest, I haven't read any hype saying that Ebola is the end of the world… the fourth horseman of the apocalypse some such? But neither have I been looking for such articles. Still, the thought can't help cross one's mind. The news reports sound just like the introduction to one of those post-apocalyptic, Planet of the Apes style movies. A virus wipes out all of mankind leaving a tiny remnant of a population who happened to be immune or some such. Or maybe the virus was let loose by the Illuminati as they plot to destroy all of mankind, save the super elite who will have exclusive access to the antidote, which they already have? Like I said, I haven't been reading the theories, but I'm guessing there are some out there that go something along these lines. Well, I not prepared to stand up and say "The end of the world is at hand!" but I do want to say that an end is coming, and whether this is it I don't know. What I do know is that whether it comes now or hundreds of years from now, an end is coming and we must all be ready. When a crisis such as this arises, there is no shortage of people who will say "This is the end of the world!" But that just proves the point that a crisis like this reminds us of how feeble our existence is, and the fact that Man has survived so many of these close calls is testimony to the fact that there is a God who is in control of all things.

The Book of Proverbs, which epitomizes God's wisdom, says:

The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it. (Proverbs 22:3)

Throughout the Bible, God presents to us the danger over and over again; that is, the theme of a judgement to come, and we can either be prudent and wise, or "simple" as in the proverb. Noah believed God's warning and so built an ark to hide in (Hebrews 11:7). And when the angels came to Lot, living in Sodom, they warned the whole family. But his soon-to-be sons in law scoffed at the news. They perished when the hailstones fell. The warning of danger came to these people, and each one had a different response. Similarly Jesus warned us:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. (Luke 17:26-30)

We don't even have to get caught up in technical matters of a Great Tribulation and the Rapture. All we need to notice here is that a future end is still to come, and we can have the response that has proven to fail from these two examples of Noah and Lot (which are only two of many), or we can have the response of faith which, like the faith of Noah and Lot, saved them.

The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it. The wisdom of this statement is evident to anyone, but the problem for many is that they don't see the danger. They don't see it because they don't believe Jesus. Is Ebola the end of the world? I don't know. But we've been through world wars and we're still here, nuclear missile crises and we're still here, environmental disasters and we're still here. But how foolish it is to think that we survived these things because we are invincible? Any of these could have been our end. How close to destruction do we have to get before we'll take God's warning seriously? My fear is that when the Ebola virus is contained, people will say to themselves "Hooray for mankind! We're so clever that nothing can defeat us!" And they'll forget that all of mankind could have suffered an "end of the world" devastation. They'll forget that the reason they Googled "Is Ebola the end of the world?" is precisely because at one point they started to wonder... maybe the Bible's warnings are true? Whether Ebola is the end of humanity or not, it should indeed remind us that our very existence rests solely in God's hands - we are powerless to circumvent His will. And we should realize that God is not about making idle threats but even Ebola is a serious warning from God. Whether it is, in fact, a plot by some secret organization, we are powerless to stop it. If it is the angel of death, like in the days of King David's census, we are powerless stop it. Powerless, that is, unless we repent.

The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it. In this sense, the prudent sees the danger because they believe God's Word. If you don't believe God's Word you won't believe that the Ebola danger is in God's hands, but rather in the hands of scientists in a lab. No wonder the Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But repentance, which is evidence of belief in God's Word, can save us. There is something we can do to "hide ourselves" from the danger. When Nineveh repented, God spared Nineveh. When Josiah humbled himself, God delayed the captivity. And God says explicitly:

If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. (Jeremiah 18:7-8)

True repentance is not just turning away from the evil deeds themselves, but away from the very heart of evil; and that necessarily means subjecting one's self to God. An atheist will say "I'm moral", but but by what standard is he moral? His own. And he can define morality any which way it suits him. No, believing that there is an end for those who harden their hearts toward God, you must also submit yourself to God. Sodom and Gomorrah is explicitly called an example of what is to come, as we have seen, yet Jesus said "And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day." (Matthew 11:23) In context, the implication is that they would have remained because they would have repented. If Sodom is a forewarning of what could happen to us, then so is the message that if we would repent we might be spared.

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. (Hebrews 12:25)

For he will hide me in his shelter 
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will lift me high upon a rock.
(Psalms 27:5)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On the logical fallacy: "God Doesn't Give Us What We Want, Therefore He Doesn't Exist."

Last year, the computer game "Disney Infinity" was released. After watching a whole bunch of YouTube videos about the game, my son has come to me begging that I buy him a copy. But this happens to come at a time when he is being disciplined for some recent misbehaviour. As punishment, I've banned him from playing computer games at all so that he can learn about consequences, and also that he might learn that people and family are more important than computers. As you can imagine, part of the problem for him, and for many children (and some adults!) is that computer gaming is a very engaging activity, and children block themselves off from normal social interaction with the people around them. And so when he asked me for Disney Infinity, I told him "Do you really think I'm going to buy you a new game while you're currently banned from the games you have?" Nevertheless, you should have seen the tantrum that ensued!

My son begged me for the game. We also happened to be at the mall where the game could be purchased. After I visited the ATM, he took a peek at my bank balance, and so he knew that I could well afford the game. There was no reason, in his mind, that I shouldn't give him the game. I loved him unconditionally, took joy in making him happy, and I had the financial means... we were even at the mall! To him, it made no sense for me to deny him the game. I had the means and surely, if I loved him, I would have the desire, but... wait, this sounds familiar...

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" — 'the Epicurean paradox'.

This is said of God and evil. But something along these lines is what my son might say about his Dad and the Disney Infinity game.

"Is Dad willing to buy Disney Infinity, but not able? Then he is broke. Is he able, but not willing? Then he doesn't love me. Is he both able and willing? Then why don't I have Disney Infinity? ...".

My purpose here is to make the fallacy of the Epicurean paradox stand out. My son knows that I'm not broke. He also knows that I do love him. So then he simply asks this rhetorical question, "Then why don't I have Disney Infinity?" To me, Epicurus sounds just as childish. I don't buy my son Disney Infinity, though I'd like to, precisely because I love him. Because I love him, I'm taking a course of action to prevent him from becoming a spoilt child, and one of those self-entitled adults.

Does this parallel God? I'm not trying to say that God's purpose for evil is to prevent us from becoming spoilt and self-entitled, but rather I simply want to show the fallacy of the Epicurean argument. We can understand this human scenario where, despite being fully able to grant my son's wishes, there is a reason (possibly beyond my son's comprehension), which causes me to refrain even from the thing that I myself would rather do! So, too, God may have reason to refrain from what He would rather do, and that reason may even be beyond our comprehension; though still at our level, understandable in terms of analogies like this one.

But what really blows my mind is that atheists usually use this argument, in the category of "the Problem of Evil", to say that God doesn't even exist. That is surely non-sequitur. You might use this argument to suggest that God is evil, or that God is not all powerful, but how does it suggest that He doesn't exist? Forgive me if you're an atheist who doesn't argue this way, but I've spoken to enough atheists who do that I think it's worth mentioning. What the argument can potentially do is cause some dissonance in a theist's world view. What this means is that one can cause a theist to question his own world view by saying that the things you believe about God create a contradiction. When one identifies apparent contradictions is their own world view they strive to resolve them. One possible way to resolve the dissonance is to reject that world view altogether and replace it with another; one that does not have any apparent contradictions. To a lesser degree, we can change one of our beliefs (eg that God is all-powerful or that He is all-loving) in order to remove the contradiction. But of course, there are other ways to resolve such conflicts. We can, for example, discover new information which explains how something which may have seemed unlikely or impossible is in fact perfectly sensible. Just as my son, when he is a parent some day, may hopefully look back and see that what I did made perfect sense, having a different view of the world and knowing more about the evils of materialism and such like. Sometimes things make sense from a different perspective, but we are unable to see that perspective; not just for lack of consideration, but we may be physically or mentally limited so that we cannot possibly discover what's missing to make sense of the way we perceive things. But sometimes the problem is framed in such a way that we perceive a contradiction that doesn't actually exist, which is kind of what's happening here with Epicurus.

As I read through the Bible, I notice time and time again that God corrects the reasoning of men. In Ezekiel 18, for example, God tells the people "You say, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?" And God explains how, in actual fact, God's idea of justice is far more perfect than their own view, which sees God as unjust. And in the gospels, Jesus is continually showing that what the Jewish religious leaders did and taught, which were things that they saw as truly righteous and pious, were actually quite unrighteous; as epitomized in the way they objected to the healing of the sick on the Sabbath day. (How can you call it righteous to object to the healing of the sick!?) All this to say that it just goes to show that we can consider ourselves wiser than God, even when it should seem obvious that we are thoroughly misdirected.

The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple. (Psalm 119:130)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why Is God Silent?

I woke up one morning with a start. It was a Monday and my alarm hadn’t gone off! I grabbed for my phone so I could check the time… I was already half an hour late for work! I rushed through getting ready for work, raced to the car and headed off. As I was driving I thought to myself, “You know, you could have woken me, God! You could have sent birds to chirp at the window or caused some other loud noise. If my wife were awake, she would have shaken me, exclaiming ‘Get up! You’ll be late for work!’ How much more do you love me than her, but you just sat there and watched me sleeping! What kind of love is that!?” Of course, even as I was thinking it, I knew that I was only playing out a drama in my mind, and I knew that the ranting character in my head would soon figure out why God remains silent when, humanly speaking, a loving person would intervene in the situation.

The answer to that question did not come quickly. But I think that over time, as I have come to know God’s Word deeper, this behaviour of God's kind of makes sense. As I was reading Ezekiel recently, a certain phrase stood out for me…

Then he said to me, "Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures? For they say, 'The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land.'" (Ezekiel 8:12)

And then again…

Then he said to me, "The guilt of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great. The land is full of blood, and the city full of injustice. For they say, 'The Lord has forsaken the land, and the Lord does not see.' (Ezekiel 9:9)

What God wants to do with us, according to Scripture, is to reveal the true nature of our hearts. Outward appearances can be deceitful, even to our own selves. We need our outward appearance to be a reflection of our true selves. God aims to bring that true self within us to the surface, and this is one way in which He does it. A person may do good while others are watching, but when no one is watching they will do whatever they like. But a truly good person does good even when no one is watching. And so God feigns not to be watching. He is often "out of sight, out of mind", in order that He might reveal to us our true natures. He, of course, knows our true natures, but for our sake, so that we might see it, He brings that true nature of ours to the surface.

When Moses led the people through the wilderness, God tested them time after time. It is explained in Deuteronomy…

And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. (Deuteronomy 8:2)

If God had treated them lavishly it would have been easy for them to maintain an outward appearance of love and devotion, without truly discovering what they were really like. But when we’re not comfortable and things don’t magically turn out well for us, and when birds don’t gather outside our window to wake us when our alarms have failed - then we are more likely to let our true selves come out… the one that says “I don’t even need God! What has He done for me lately!?” And we freely demonstrate our contempt for other people, and our lust for certain others, and the pride we have in ourselves… We favour whom we wish and despise whom we wish, “because there is no God, as far as I can tell, who could care less anyway.” But there is a God, and leading you to think this way has been His intention, because now it is revealed to you what is truly in your heart. One who knows God does not think this way, but knows that even through the toughest of life’s trials, God has not forsaken them. In the wilderness, as Moses led the people, God showed them more miracles than He has ever done, at least until the time of Christ. Yet even then they felt abandoned by Him and, as a result, manifested their sinful hearts and turned to idols. Consider the words of the people at the foot Sinai, as God was meeting with Moses amid a cloud of thunder and lightning. Even in the presence of all this, we read of them…

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, "Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." (Exodus 32:1)

And of course, by asking for other gods, and in saying that Moses has deserted them, they most surely imply that the God of Moses has deserted them. We see this over and over throughout the wilderness wanderings, and in various places throughout Scripture, like when King Saul was told to wait for the prophet Samuel to make a sacrifice before going into battle, but Samuel delayed. This was to reveal what kind of a king Saul was, for just as Saul had made his own sacrifice in order to get on with things, Samuel emerged saying…

... "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you." (1 Samuel 13:13-14)

In other words, this was to show that Saul was not a man after God’s own heart, by contrast with David who was chosen in his stead. Samuel’s delay and, in a sense, God’s apparent lack of presence, revealed the true heart of Saul.

And surely this is not a difficult thing to grasp? How much greater is the love of one for another when it is not reciprocated? Like a man who cares for his wife who is in a coma, believing that one day she will awake. And how much more loved will she feel at that time, knowing that her husband has been by her side for so long despite the hardships, emotional and otherwise. And of course I’m not saying that God does not reciprocate our love… it’s not as though we have no experience of it now. But the true intimacy of God is undeniably withheld from us at this time. We cannot, at this time, embrace Him and speak with Him face to face. This is our great longing. We wait for it to be fulfilled, as God promises it will be. But presently, what kind of person are we? Are we one who waits patiently for that day, or one who simply believes that God is dead and we should just make the most of what we have left?

Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. (Psalms 25:3)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What Kind of Things Should We Pray For?

My children often say to me, “Dad, let’s pray together.” And I always say, “Alright… you start. What do you want to pray about?” I put that on them because this, to me, is the most important question. I hope that they will learn something by thinking about that question. And so the dialog with my children usually goes something like this… “I want to pray that I get to watch TV all day tomorrow!” And I say, “OK, but what do you think God’s answer to that would be? Don’t you think he might say something like, ‘It would be better for you to help your parents with some house work as well!’” And they get that look on their face like “Is God on my side or what!?” But then they say “Fine… I want to pray that my friends will come and play tomorrow!” And I say, “OK, but let’s think… maybe they’ve already made a commitment to do something else. Would it be right for God to cause them to break their commitment so that He can answer your prayer? You know it’s not good to break your word. You can pray that prayer, but just remember that there may be a good reason it won’t happen.” My son kind of nods his head. But it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of prayer we’re allowed to say!? He continues… “How about I pray that tomorrow I won’t lose my temper like I did earlier today?” And I say, “Now that is a fantastic prayer! Let’s pray that...”

It’s fairly obvious when you consider the prayers of a child that some prayers can be foolish. But of course, they don’t seem foolish to the child, perhaps until someone older and wiser points out the folly behind them. And I think, how do we know that we’re not just as foolish with our prayers, and just as blind to their folly? Indeed, we need someone “older and wiser” to guide us too. And for that we have God, who speaks to us and guides us through His Word.

I suppose that there are many good and true things we can say about prayer, and how we should pray. But the one that seems to have risen to prominence in my thinking is that we should always pray according to God’s will. That is to say that we first get to know God’s will, and then we pray in accordance, or in agreement with what we know to be His will. Notably the Bible says “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 John 5:14). To me, prayer begins with meditating on the character of God, and the Word of God in which His will, and His character, is revealed. As I did with my son, every prayer is first met with the question “What would God think of that prayer?” When we come to praying that we might not lose our temper, we know that this is something which is according to God’s will, because we know that to lose our temper is not the way we ought to behave. The Bible (and therefore God) tell us this, in James 1:19-20 for example. And we know that God’s will is for us to behave, in character, like His Son.

Jesus gave us a model for prayer, which we call “The Lord’s Prayer”. It begins with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come, your will be done…” Besides the explicit phrase there of “your will be done”, everything in this prayer is an example of praying according to God’s will. Of course it is God’s will that His name be holy (Numbers 20:12 for example). And of course God desires for His kingdom to come and for His will to be done on Earth. Other examples of prayer are sometimes used as a model, such as the prayer of Jabez. It says “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” Perhaps at first glance this can sound like a prayer which we might object against saying “Well, you want your border increased, but surely that means taking from someone else’s border doesn’t it? And how would they feel about that?” But of course, this is prayed by an Israelite in the context, I believe, where he is praying according to the revealed will of God that Israel would occupy all of the land of Canaan. We wouldn’t normally presume to pray to God that we might dispossess our neighbours of their land, but in this case God had said that those neighbours were to be dispossessed as punishment for their sins (eg Deuteronomy 9:4). And then he prays that God would keep him from “harm”, which can also be translated “evil”, that it might not bring him pain. In other words, (as I might render it), to keep him from sin because sin will cause himself grief. And perhaps as Jesus would render it, (as He did in the Lord’s prayer), “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” It seems to me that every righteous prayer is an example of this principle, that we pray according to the will of God.

In closing, consider what David said in prayer when God revealed to him what His will should be for David…

For you, my God, have revealed to your servant that you will build a house for him. Therefore your servant has found courage to pray before you. (1 Chronicles 17:25)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Perplexity of God's Sovereignty

When Jesus stood before Pilate, and Pilate had the authority to save Jesus’ life or to condemn Him to an excruciating death, Jesus told him “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” How would that have sounded to Pilate? I think that Pilate probably took it to mean “You won’t harm me; God won’t let you.” But we know the end of the story already, and so we don’t read it that way. We read it more as “Pilate, it’s not up to you, it’s up to God…” And of course, we know that God chose to cause His Son great suffering in order that we could be saved from our sins in a just manner. But let’s consider a similar dialogue in the context of a story where we don’t know the ending from the beginning… Imagine a man standing in front of his boss at work, and his boss is saying “If you refuse to falsify this information, I will fire you!” And the employee replies, “You know, as a Christian I believe in always doing what’s right. Your threat means nothing to me because God is in control of all things.” Now surely the boss will take this to mean “You couldn’t fire me if you wanted to!” But I imagine that this story could more than likely end in the employee being fired. So when we meditate on the fact that God is in control of all things, it gives us comfort that no matter what happens, everything is going to be alright. But hopefully most of us are mature enough in our faith to realize that this means everything will be alright, even if we get fired from our job! (Or whatever other misfortune it may be.) Some people would look at the outcome and say that "God clearly didn't come through for you... maybe He doesn't exist!" But surely we can see that maybe from God's perspective the best move is for this guy to get a new job with an honest boss!

God is in control of all things, which means nothing happens that isn’t according to His will. And it is apparent that His will is to allow suffering, and to allow sin. I don’t think you can deny this. But that doesn’t mean that God can’t have preferences. When we are faced with several options in life, it’s not the case that only one of them is “God’s will” and all the others aren’t. It’s not the case that only one course of action is “righteous” and all the others are “evil”. Sometimes you can choose between two courses of action, both of which are good. Do you give some amount of money to charity or do you spend it on your wife? Every particular case is different. There may be some cases of this where God might approve of either course of action equally, whilst at other times He would say “to spend it on your wife is ok, but to give it to charity is better”, and then other times it may be that case that to spend it on one rather than the other is actually a sin! To give a real example, consider how the Pharisees thought themselves terribly righteous in donating to the temple, when Jesus said (and I paraphrase) “Actually, you’re robbing your parents of the support you should be giving them in their old age!” So even from God’s perspective, morality isn’t black and white without “better and best”, “worse and worst”. God can will there to be sin and suffering whilst still having a preference for there to be neither. In other words, God can will two different things (that there be sin and suffering, and that there be no sin or suffering), and have a preference for one over the other.

In the case of God, who cannot do any unrighteousness, both of these “wills” must be righteous, and maybe that’s where we will really struggle here. But I think that to allow sin and suffering in the world doesn’t make God unrighteous. For example, sometimes the pain we experience in suffering is necessary in order for God to be righteous! If we don’t somehow punish our children when they’ve done wrong, for example, we ourselves are actually unrighteous in failing to correct that behaviour. Or we've seen that it might be righteous of God for us to lose our job rather than be subjected to ongoing temptations or perhaps persecution in that workplace. God can also have a righteous reason to allow sin. One possibility is that sin demonstrates God to be true because we are never better off when we’re in sin. Whenever we are able to compare our lives with sin and without sin, we will always say that it’s better without, and thereby we prove that God is right in prescribing the conduct for our lives which He has prescribed. Unfortunately, many people aren’t prepared to take that leap of faith to discover what life might be like without sin. But those who have found Christ and have overcome sin can all testify that life is better without sin… (even when we lose our jobs because we refuse to sin.) When I personally find myself miserable or depressed for no apparent reason, I will often come to realize that I've been letting my behaviour slip in some way.

We know that God’s preference is for there to be no sin and no suffering because these are things He will ultimately do away with. They are devices He presently uses (wilfully) in order to demonstrate to us His power and His love. His power and love are demonstrated when we discover that through Him we overcome both of these things. Through Him we overcome suffering in that even while we suffer we have peace and faith and hope. And through Him we overcome sin as He empowers us to turn away from it. People who oppose the existence of God on the basis that a loving God would not allow sin and suffering I think fail to see how God’s love is expressed as a result of the existence of sin and suffering in the world. How would we know the extent of God’s love if He had not comforted us in our darkest hour? How would we know the extent of God’s love if He had not forgiven us despite the most wicked things we had done? And while I don’t expect that this closes the case on the problem of evil and the perplexity of God’s sovereignty, I find it is sufficient to at least be able to say and believe, without being intellectually dishonest with myself, that there can be an all powerful God who loves me and who also allows me to suffer and to sin.

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)