Saturday, February 4, 2012

Grace, Miracles, and the Power of Prayer

Oslo Cathedral, taken after the Christmas Eve Midnight Service, 2011.

Back when Rick and I were dating in college we had a discussion about miracles. He said that he had a problem with miracles because he couldn't see why God would break His own laws. Why would an omnipotent, omniscient God create a universe with predictable natural laws, only to later violate them? My counter-argument was, in a nutshell: "Why can't an omniscient, omnipotent God do whatever He jolly-well pleases?"

But I just couldn't get Rick to see things my way. He continued to be stuck on the idea that even though God could break His own laws, He shouldn't want to or have to in order to accomplish His purposes.

After a while, we just dropped the subject, and it never came up again until seven years ago, when our oldest daughter, Chelsea, was thirteen. She asked me: "Mom, why would God break His own laws?"

It must be genetic!

But this time I didn't give such a simplistic response. Eleven years earlier, our second-born, Ingrid, had been diagnosed with a seizure disorder and cerebral palsy, so over the years I had often reflected on what the Bible says about miracles. And right around the time when Chelsea asked that question, I had experienced a paradigm shift in my understanding of the subject. Rick's (and Chelsea's) point is not just a valid one--it has far-reaching theological implications.

Saint Augustine said, “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature." But today we know more about nature than Saint Augstine did, and quantum physics indicates that we don't live in a clockwork universe with fixed laws. Physicist Paul Davies says in an interview on the radio show, "On Being":
If God does anything, God has to be at work in the world. And now, if we go back to the sort of universe that Newton had and the one that Einstein supported, the notion of a deterministic universe, a clockwork universe, then this becomes a real problem, because if God is to change anything, then God has to overrule God's own laws, and that doesn't look a very edifying prospect theologically or scientifically. It's horrible on both accounts. 
But when one gets to an indeterministic universe, if you allow quantum physics, then there is some sort of lassitude in the operation of these laws. There are interstices having to do with quantum certainty into which, if you want, you could insert the hand of God. So, for example, if we think of a typical quantum process as being like the roll of a die — you know, "God does not play dice," Einstein said — well, it seems that, you know, God does play dice. Then the question is, you know, if God could load the quantum dice, this is one way of influencing what happens in the world, working through these quantum uncertainties. 
In other words, miracles may not violate the laws of physics, since quantum physics tells us these laws are not deterministic. So given quantum physics, God could have parted the sea and done other miracles without breaking the laws of physics. Miracles would not be impossible--in any situation there would be a minuscule, non-zero probability of a miraculous outcome. And the hand of God could be at work in those probabilities, loading the dice according to His will.

But having said that, I want to move away from quantum physics to a discussion of the theological reasons for believing that God is consistent in His actions and purposes, even with respect to miracles.

The Theological Implications of the Problem of Miracles

One objection I've often heard from skeptics is, "If an omnipotent, omniscient God exists, why doesn't He just do X?" where X is something very different from what we observe in nature and discover through science. In other words, why would an all-powerful deity bother with methods and processes, when He could simply swing His celestial wand and make things happen?

This is the opposite objection to the one expressed by Rick and Chelsea, and it's based on the same presupposition that I used to hold: That since an omnipotent, omniscient God can do whatever He pleases, random displays of power should be expected.

But the problem with this position is that God not just all-powerful, He is also all-good and all-wise, which means that He is rational, orderly, and consistent, not capricious. He could have raised up children for Abraham out of rocks (Matthew 3:9), but instead He did it through the process of birth and development, both physical and spiritual. His works--natural or supernatural--bear the same divine imprint.

Physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne says in Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship:
It does not make theological sense to suppose that God is a kind of show-off celestial conjurer, capriciously using divine power today to do something that God did not think of doing yesterday and won't be bothered to do tomorrow. There must be a deep underlying consistency in divine action, but that requirement does not condemn the deity never to do anything radically new or unexpected. In the Christian tradition, we use personal language about God, not because we think God is an old man with a beard sitting high above the bright blue sky, but because it is less misleading in using the finite resources of human language to call God 'Father' than it would be to employ the impersonal language of 'Force.' The divine consistency is not a rigidly unalterable regularity like that of the force of gravity, but it lies in the continuity of a perfectly appropriate relationship to prevailing circumstances. 
Polkinghorne makes a number of very important points here, so I would like to spend some time unpacking them and using them as a framework for some of the insights I have acquired over the years.

First, he points out that it is less misleading to call God "Father" than to use the impersonal word "Force." To think of the God of the Bible as an impersonal force is a greater error than to be too anthropomorphic in our conception of God. God is not just a Person, but a loving Father who desires a relationship with us.

However, we can also err by failing to see that, although God is not an impersonal force, the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, is "power from on high" (Luke 24:49). God is not just like us, which means that prayer is not just like asking another person to please pass the salt, expecting either the request to be immediately granted or to be told, "No, I think you've had enough sodium." (Although, in my experience, the latter doesn't happen too often at dinner parties.)

Sometimes God does deny a request, knowing that to grant it would hurt us--or He has something better in store. Paul would learn humility and greater reliance on God's power as a result of the thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

But when we pray for something according to the promises in God's Word, and the answer doesn't come, the Bible nowhere tells us to assume that the request has been denied.  On the contrary, Jesus says to keep praying and not give up, telling the parable of the unrighteous judge (Luke 18:1-8).

This is a strange parable because it makes sense that nagging might wear humans down to the point where they will do something they were disinclined to do (children learn this at a very young age), but why would God say, essentially, "Just keep wearing Me out with your nagging, and I'll eventually do what I want to do anyway"? If our view of God is too anthropomorphic, this makes no sense. Unlike the unrighteous judge, God never becomes weary (Isaiah 40:28), and He is both willing and able to meet our every need (Philippians 4:19).

But if there is a "deep underlying consistency" in God's actions, as Polkinghorne says there must be, and God is the Creator of the universe, then we should not expect Him to act just like a human father. He is far more than that. We should expect to see close parallels between what nature reveals about His mind and what the Scriptures reveal about it. That is, just like there are physical laws, there ought to be spiritual laws.

The Vine and the Branches

John 15:5-7 says: "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. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you."

That last sentence is one of those embarrassing statements by Jesus that are rarely mentioned in polite Christian company. We have all experienced unanswered prayer, so we may think that the idea that whatever we wish will be done for us has to be a mistake. I remember hearing this verse as a child and putting it to the test. I prayed and wished very hard for a bag of candy to appear under my pillow, but alas, I had to conclude that Jesus must have been wrong because there was nothing under my pillow.

However, what people often fail to notice about this passage is that the promise has a condition. And that condition is that we must abide in Christ in the same way that a branch abides in the vine. In other words, we have to stay close enough to Christ so that His life-giving Spirit flows through us in the same way that sap flows from a vine to the branches.

How do we know if we are abiding in the way Jesus commands us to? The test is whether we bear good fruit (Matthew 7:16-20)? And what is good fruit, the kind produced by the Holy Spirit? "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).

So John 15 describes a spiritual law that is exactly like a physical law. Just like a branch has to stay attached to the vine to bear fruit, we have to maintain this same close connection to Christ to bear good fruit. What happens if we don't? We will wither spiritually, just like a branch withers if it breaks off from the vine. But if God's Spirit works through us, we will bear much fruit and wield the power of God through our prayers.

This passage is so matter-of-fact that it's almost harsh, but the laws of nature are so matter-of-fact that they're almost harsh. If I start eating a slice of French silk pie every night I will gain weight and probably clog up my arteries. That is an extremely harsh reality because I happen to like French silk pie. But the upside is that by eating healthy food and exercising we can become healthier and feel better. So although the laws of nature make us responsible for certain unpleasant outcomes, they also give us power.

But without losing sight of the spiritual law Jesus describes in John 15, we also have to remember that God is not an impersonal force, like the laws of nature, but a loving Father. He is in charge of our spiritual growth. He is aware of our weaknesses and failings, and He doesn't give up on us unless it becomes clear that we'll never grow fruit no matter what He does (Luke 13:6-9). If we abide in Him a little and bear some fruit, He prunes us so we will be more fruitful (John 15:2).

Grace and Miracles

The reason why I named my blog "Grace and Miracles" is because I love the Blaise Pascal quote: "The two foundations; one inward, the other outward; grace, miracles; both supernatural." It's not because I'm particularly fond of the title, "Grace and Miracles." An atheist once told me that he would visit my blog even though the name reminded him of an Oprah segment. I guess I can kind of see that . . .

Anyway, Pascal is saying that the grace of God that changes our hearts is just as supernatural as the power that effects miracles in the world. "Grace" means the work of God in our hearts--how He forgives us, makes us spiritually alive, and changes us to become more like Him. Again, we can understand this by analogizing it to something in the natural realm. Electricity enlightens a room and also keeps our appliances running. The same power accomplishes different things. Likewise, the Holy Spirit enlightens our hearts, but it is also God's supernatural power in the world.

What does this mean in terms of the promise of Jesus that if we abide in Him we will bear much fruit and we will receive whatever we ask for? It means we will ask for the right things because we will want the right things. We won't ask for candy to appear under our pillows, because if we are manifesting the fruit of self-control we won't be so desperate for candy in the first place. And if God's love has transformed us, we will pray for other people because we will genuinely care. To the extent that God's Spirit lives within us, we will want what God wants and therefore pray according to His will.

It does not, however, mean that moral perfection is required of us before God will hear our prayers. If that were the case, none of us would have any hope! On the contrary, He invites us to come to Him, warts and all, and He is the one who strengthens us and gives a crown of beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:3). When we abide in Him, He gives us His love for our hate and selfishness, His joy for our depression, His peace for our turmoil, and so on. Jesus came to call sinners, which means that we all qualify. And the more we experience the liberality of His gifts of grace, the more we come to believe that He will graciously give us everything we need.

Is the Vine and the Branches Analogy Consistent With the Rest of the Scriptures?

As we have seen, John 15 reveals an underlying consistency between grace and the power of prayer--both depend on our relationship to Christ being like the relationship of a branch to a vine. The Holy Spirit is like the life-giving sap that flows through to the branches and makes a real difference in the physical world by producing fruit. But let's test John 15 to see if it really does shed some light on when and why miracles occur in the Scriptures. Is it consistent with the rest of the Bible?

We do see that much of the time when miracles occurred in the New Testament, believers were praying for a extended period of time, often as a large group. In other words, they were abiding in Christ in a particularly focused way. For example, Acts 1:14 says that the believers were with one mind "continually devoting themselves to prayer," and shortly afterwards the day of Pentecost came (Acts 2:1). Again, Acts 2:42 says that the believers "were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer," and Acts 2:43 continues by saying that many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. In Acts 10:9, Peter was praying when he had the vision about the unclean animals, and Acts 10:30 says that Cornelius was praying when a man appeared before him in shining garments.

In Acts 12:2, King Herod put James the brother of John to death--the first of the apostles to be martyred. And then Herod captured Peter as well and put him in prison, but "prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God" (Acts 12:5). After Peter's miraculous rescue, the church was still gathered together praying for him (Acts 12:12).

That story is particularly significant because there is no mention of prayer when James was captured and killed. That doesn't mean they didn't pray, but the death of James may have sent shock waves through the church, because the passage about Peter specifically mentions twice that they prayed, and they prayed fervently into night.

John 15 makes sense of Luke 18:1-8, the parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge. Jesus says to cry out to Him day and night, and when we do, His power will be at work on our behalf, granting our request speedily.

We also see this principle typified in the Old Testament. In Exodus 17:8-13, the Amalekites attacked Israel, and Moses stood at the top of hill holding up the staff of the Lord. As long as he held it up, the Israelites were winning, but when he lowered it, the Amalekites started winning. After a while, Moses became tired and Aaron and Hur held up each of his hands until sunset, when the Israelites won. God's power was at work as long as Moses held up the staff of the Lord.

Again, in Joshua 6, the warriors of Israel were commanded to take the ark of the covenant and march around Jericho for seven days, once on each of the first six days, and seven times on the seventh day. After they did so, the wall of Jericho collapsed and the Israelites conquered the city. The ark of the covenant represents the throne of grace or the presence of God, and the number seven in the Bible represents completion or perfection. So they walked in the presence of the Lord for seven days, and the wall collapsed, just like we are called to persevere in prayer until the answer comes.

I could also discuss the story of Jacob wrestling with God all night, and Abraham "negotiating" with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, as well as other passages, but I think the above examples are sufficient to establish the consistency of the Bible's teachings about persevering prayer. The passages use different illustrations from nature or everyday life to communicate a spiritual concept. In other words, human language is insufficient, so we have to analogize to concepts that we do understand, each of which helps illuminate this principle.

I would like to make an important observation here before I move on. Sometimes a suffering person may feel like a failure after praying for a miracle that doesn't happen. But it's important to note that Peter did not deserve to be miraculously delivered any more than James did. Peter was asleep when the angel rescued him, so he wasn't even praying. The church was praying for him. And even Moses grew tired and needed someone to hold up his hands.

When we really study what the Bible says about prayer and when miracles occur in the book of Acts, we can see why they would be extremely rare today. We wield the power of God through our prayers, and the prayers of one Christian may be like one candle, lighting up one small part of the darkness. But if an entire congregation holds up candles, the blaze can conquer the darkness.

How often do we, as a church, devote ourselves to prayer the way the early church did? Not nearly often enough, but I have seen God work in powerful ways when we do.

This is not to discount the power of individual prayer. James 5:16 says that the fervent, effectual prayer of a righteous person can accomplish much. However, if we are praying for a miracle, we should expect to have to put forth much effort, learn from past mistakes, and not give up. The Bible compares the life of faith to running a race (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 12:1), so why should we expect it to be easy?

When God Does Something Radically New or Unexpected

There are times when miracles occur in the New Testament and there is no specific mention of prayer. For example, Jesus performed many miracles, and much of the time He just spoke healing to people. Jesus is, of course, different because He is the Son of God, but He also spent forty days fasting and praying before He began His ministry. He remained in a state of unbroken communion with the Father, so He Himself lived what He taught in John 15.

But, according to the four canonical Gospels, nobody prayed or had faith when Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection. Does that invalidate the principle of the vine and the branches? No. As Polkinghorne says, "There must be a deep underlying consistency in divine action, but that requirement does not condemn the deity never to do anything radically new or unexpected . . . The divine consistency is not a rigidly unalterable regularity like that of the force of gravity, but it lies in the continuity of a perfectly appropriate relationship to prevailing circumstances." (Italics added.)

The resurrection is a unique event because it is the bedrock of Christianity (1 Corinthians 15:14-17), intended as proof to all people (Acts 17:31), and the only biblical miracle that can be critically evaluated based on the textual details. In other words, secular historians can analyze the text using the same historical criteria applied to all ancient writings and determine whether certain non-supernatural facts are likely true. For example, a sizable majority of scholars who have written on the subject believe that women did in fact find the tomb empty. Non-theistic historian Michael Grant says, "[I]f we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty." Almost all scholars hold that the apostles at least believed that Jesus had appeared to them postmortem. And by taking these and other salient facts together an honest inquirer can make an inference as to whether the resurrection probably occurred. I discuss the resurrection in greater detail in this series of posts.

The question of whether the disciples and Paul believed that they would see Jesus postmortem is significant because if they did, it may be reasonable to infer that it was some kind of mass hallucination brought on by the power of suggestion. And if the text had said that only those with faith could see Jesus, then we may have had an Emperor's New Clothes situation. But in the canonical narratives nobody expected Jesus to appear to them (least of all Paul), and they still boldly proclaimed the resurrection afterwards in the same hostile environment where Jesus had been crucified, and where members of their community continued to be persecuted and killed (Acts 7:58-60, Acts 8:1-3, Acts 9:1-2, Acts 12:1-4). The severe persecution by the Jewish and Roman leaders did not stop the church from growing in Jerusalem and spreading throughout the Roman Empire.

And in spite of the initial unbelief of the disciples of Jesus when faced with His resurrection, He did in fact predict it in Matthew 16:21, Matthew 17:22-23, Matthew 20:18-19, Mark 8:31, Mark 9:31, Mark 10:34, Luke 9:22, Luke 18:31-33, and Luke 24:7. So it should not have been unexpected.

The Divine Imprint on Biblical Miracles

Jesus expresses the underlying consistency in divine action when He says, "Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does" (John 10:37). Only if something is consistent with God's purposes and actions should we believe that it is from God. And the canonical miracles do bear this divine imprint in two ways: First, Jesus did on a small scale and in a focused way what God does or will do in nature on a large scale, and second, the miracles contain symbolism of God's redemptive purpose.

In Miracles, C. S. Lewis says about the miracles of Jesus: "Each miracle writes for us in small letters something that God has already written, or will write, in letters almost too large to be noticed, across the whole canvas of nature." He classifies them in the following two ways: "The first system yields the classes (1) Miracles of Fertility (2) Miracles of Healing (3) Miracles of Destruction (4) Miracles of Dominion over the Inorganic (5) Miracles of Reversal (6) Miracles of Perfecting or Glorification. The second system, which cuts across the first, yields two classes only: they are (1) Miracles of the Old Creation, and (2) Miracles of the New Creation."

The Miracles of Fertility are turning water into wine, making much bread out of a little bread and many fish out of a few fish, and the virgin birth. He points out that, "Every year, as part of the Natural order, God makes wine. He does so by creating a vegetable organism that can turn water, soil, and sunlight into a juice which will, under proper conditions, become wine." But at the wedding in Cana, He short-circuited the process. Likewise, He regularly makes a little corn into much corn in nature and multiplies fish.

As for the virgin birth, Lewis points out that "no woman ever conceived a child, no mare a foal, without Him." But once in history, when He created the Man who was to be Himself, He removed the human father from the chain of causation.

In his discussion on the Miracles of Healing, Lewis says that there is a sense in which no doctor ever heals--the body heals itself, and the doctor may simply stimulate this process or remove what hinders it. But once in Palestine, the "Power that always was behind all healings puts on a face and hands."

Christ's one Miracle of Destruction was to cause the fig tree to wither and die, just like God allows the cycle of life and death in nature everywhere.

With the Miracles of Dominion over the Inorganic, Lewis crosses over from the Miracles of the Old Creation to the Miracles of the New Creation. When Jesus calms the storm, He does what God does in the Old Creation, but when He walks on water He does something "that is the foretaste of a Nature that is still in the future. The New Creation is just breaking in."

The Miracles of Reversal are when the dead are raised, a process that is unknown in the Old Creation--"it involves playing backwards a film that we have always seen played forwards."

And he concludes this discussion by saying, "And the Miracles of Perfecting or of Glory, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, and the Ascension, are even more emphatically of the New Creation. These are the true spring, or even the summer, of the world's new year. The Captain, the forerunner, is already in May or June, though His followers on earth are still living in the frosts and east winds of Old Nature--for 'spring comes slowly up this way.'"

As for the symbolism, it used to bother me when pastors focused on the deeper message embedded in the miracles, as if Jesus did not literally perform miracles. However, this is not an either/or proposition. Something can be literally true and also symbolic. For example, I literally went to Norway for Christmas and attended the Christmas Eve midnight service at the Oslo Cathedral. Then, right around the stroke of midnight I snapped the picture of the ceiling, which says, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" or "Glory to God in the Highest"--what the angels sang to the shepherds after announcing the birth of Christ (Luke 2:14). The picture is also symbolic of the topic of my blog post, how God's power works through us and brings glory back to God, in the same way that the power emerging through the ceiling lights up the bulbs in the chandelier, which in turn reveal the ceiling. (Granted, the analogy breaks down in that the ceiling does not empower the light bulbs.) But none of this occurred to me at the time. I was just trying to take a visually pleasing picture.

And the Bible contains many different literary styles, but deep symbolism of God's redemptive purpose seems to appear in just about all the stories, parables, and miracles--in the Old Testament and the New--as if God stamped them with His signet ring. The blind see, the lame leap, the dead live, and the unclean are cleansed. Darkness falls upon the earth when Jesus is dying, because the sun is obscured, but when He gives up His spirit the veil of the temple tears in two, allowing sinners into God's holy sanctuary. Saints emerge from their tombs (Matthew 27:52), foreshadowing the day when those who dwell in the dust will awaken (Isaiah 26:19) and when the sea will give up its dead (Revelation 20:13).

Why Don't We See Miracles Today?

Many people ask that question, but I think it assumes too much. If a "miracle" is defined as a great outcome following prayer, including healings that doctors can't explain, then miracles most certainly happen today. I have personally experienced highly improbable outcomes after prayer over the years and have seen them in the lives of other Christians. But if a miracle is something contrary to the laws of nature, then we are back to square one and the question of why God would break His own laws. According to New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye, "Besides, the random nature of quantum physics means that there is always a minuscule, but nonzero, chance of anything occurring, including that the new collider could spit out man-eating dragons." Quantum physics tells us that we live in a very strange universe, so we can never say that a particular event cannot happen in the natural order.

What is a miracle? At what point does a doctor go from saying, "I can't explain this," to "This is a miracle"? Ever? Does it all just come down to the improbability of an outcome?

If prayer makes a difference something supernatural is happening even if the outcome could have occurred without prayer. I just took some time off from blogging to focus on prayer because of a medical crisis involving my son, where we found out, after a series of tests, that he had had a severe reaction to a medication. Not only did he recover from everything without any medicine (except a week of Benadryl), but the insurance covered all the tens of thousands of dollars for the hospitalization, and I saw more answers to prayer in that month or two than I have in a long time, including the great news about the remission of Rick's agent Lee Hough's aggressive cancer and Rick's novel being featured by Amazon and hitting the number one spot that day for Kindle sales.

Coincidence? Maybe. But in the words of William Temple, "When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don't, they don't."

I met novelist Brandilyn Collins for the first time back in 2009. At the time, she was experiencing the reinfection of her Lyme Disease she describes on her website. I knew about the instant healing of her first and most severe bout of Lyme Disease after fellow Christians set up a 24-hour prayer vigil on her behalf, and I remember thinking how that resembled the prayer vigil by the church for the Apostle Peter. If the Bible is true in what it says about prayer, an effort like that would be most likely to bring about a miraculous outcome.

However, although I prayed for her (and she was kind enough to pray for my daughter Ingrid, who was having seizures at the time), it concerned me that she was unlikely to get that kind of an organized, continuous prayer vigil again. It is rare for Christians to do something like that. There are so many people to pray for, and frankly, we don't take prayer anywhere near as seriously as we should.

But God still had Brandilyn's well-being in mind, and working within the framework of His spiritual laws, He answered our comparatively sporadic, weak prayers by providing a medical remedy that healed her over the course of six months.

When Jesus says that it shall be done to us according to our faith, He is stating the spiritual law of John 15 in a different way. Faith simply means being open to the power of God, so the more of God's power we can bring to our situation, either by our own prayers or the prayers of other believers, the more likely we will see a miraculous outcome.

Martin Luther said, "Prayer is that mightiest of all weapons that created natures can wield." And no wonder, since prayer is the means by which we lay hold of the power of God! If we really believed that, would we see more outcomes like Brandilyn's? Could our greatest gift to our children be our prayers? What would happen if we, like Augustine's mother Monica, brought our children before the throne of grace day and night? We know that her fast-living, rebellious son became one of the most influential theologians and philosophers in history.

Final Thoughts

The unifying theme of this behemoth blog post is the consistency of divine action, so I would like to conclude by identifying one more way in which God's supernatural work mirrors His work in nature: Just as we grow and develop physically, we grow and develop spiritually. This means that faith can be a very long, slow process even when we have experienced God's work in our lives many times and are intellectually convinced. We have to see the same cause and effect again and again, and allow our faith to be tested from many different angles, so we don't secretly fear that reality would shatter it.

Abraham was the man of great faith, but at one point he doubted enough to "help" God fulfill His promises by impregnating Hagar. Moses lived in Midian forty years, engaged in the lonely business of tending sheep, before God appeared to him in the burning bush (Acts 7:30). And even then, he doubted. The Christians who prayed for the Apostle Peter did not believe that he was still alive when he arrived at the door. They told the servant girl Rhoda that she was out of her mind when she announced it (Acts 12:12-16), even after they had prayed fervently for Peter for hours and had witnessed other miracles.

So if we struggle with doubt, we are in excellent company. But God is the author and perfecter of our faith, the one who calls us out of death into life, who plots our course, who teaches us to walk by faith, who picks us up and puts us back on our feet when we fall--and who knows exactly how long to let us lie there before He does.

God is mindful that we are but dust, but there's nothing prosaic about that dust--science tells us that we are made of stardust! And God's Word resoundingly echoes with our intended destiny: "Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever" (Daniel 12:3).

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Thoughts on Apologetics

George MacDonald:
I fear only lest, able to see and write these things, I should fail of witnessing and myself be, after all, a castaway---no king but a talker; no disciple of Jesus, ready to go with Him to the death, but an arguer about the truth. 

C. S. Lewis, in the poem, "The Apologist's Evening Prayer":
Thoughts are but coins.  Let me not trust, instead
of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O Thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.

Anette Acker, in the blog comments, prior to ever writing anything on apologetics (quoting C. S. Lewis):
"What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words."
I'm sure that Lewis, as an apologist, saw the futility of words. People will always find the words to defend what they want to believe. Only a personal encounter with God (even if it's not dramatic) brings true faith.
Do I agree with that? Well, I certainly agree with George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis, but I'm not sure about that Anette Acker person. (People who use words like "always" are always wrong.)

Apologetics has been very helpful to me in terms of answering the question of whether Christian theism is intellectually defensible, even as I seek out and honestly confront the best counter-arguments. The answer is an unequivocal Yes--more so than I expected when I first started engaging in discussions with atheists.

But I think it has limited value in terms of changing minds in dramatic ways, and this is why: First, we are all governed by will and emotion as well as intellect, and a person's worldview is often a major part of his or her identity. I remember when Norway voted on EC membership back when I was a child. Everybody had bumper stickers that said, "JA" or "NEI." I may not have understood any of the issues, but I knew that all right-thinking people said "JA," and a "NEI" bumper sticker was conclusive proof of feeblemindedness, a character flaw, or both.

Although most adults are a little more sophisticated than that, we are still prone to thinking in terms of in-crowds and out-crowds and banding together against the opposition. So completely changing our minds and, consequently, our identities, is difficult.

Second, those who have never experienced the presence of God in their lives and for whom God feels non-existent will require a much higher burden of proof than someone who has lived the Christian life, studied the Bible in-depth, seen answers to prayer, and experienced spiritual growth. The same evidence may be sufficient for one person and not for another.

On his blog, Atheist Central, Ray Comfort once wrote a couple of posts about a Canadian Christian talk show host who was experiencing a crisis of faith. The main reason for his crisis was that he had never experienced God's presence in his life, so for him God may as well be non-existent. How much would it help him if I said, "Just look at this evidence and these arguments. Can't you see that Christianity is true?" No, he probably wouldn't be able to see it because his own immediate experience would speak to him more powerfully than anything I could say. As hard as it is to change a worldview, it may be easier than maintaining a radical disconnect between experience and belief, at least for some people. He would need prayer more than argument.

Judging from their writings, C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald did not experience this disconnect. However, the above quotes capture their sense that apologetics, or thoughts of God, are a poor substitute for God Himself, and how our thoughts can crowd out the stillness that God inhabits. If I'm always arguing about God, unable to rein in my thoughts, how can I draw near to Him?

I'm going to take an indefinite break from blogging about apologetics. The central reason is that it has become impossible to keep the comments from getting out of control, and it's burning me out. (The post on my daughter's study abroad has 199 comments on numerous subjects, and about half of them are mine.) I have always felt that apologetics blogs can be counter-productive if arguments are made and not defended or questions remain unanswered. Although the truth of Christianity does not depend on the ability of any given Christian to defend it, people still often conclude that there is no answer if they don't see one. Maybe it is my fault that my discussions spiral out control, but I have not discovered any way to avoid it without leaving unanswered objections, questions, and arguments. And that's something I feel irresponsible doing. If there is a solution I have not found it.

I do feel privileged to have had these discussions with you all and have learned a lot. They have been an invaluable gift to me and I appreciate your friendship. But everything tells me that I'm at a point of transition.

So although I will do a post on the power of prayer, as I've said I would, I will not be engaging in debate in the comments.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Rick's Legal Thriller Hit #1 in the Kindle Store Today!

Just out of the blue, Amazon decided to feature When the Devil Whistles as their Daily Deal today (Friday) for $1.99, and it shot up to #1, right above John Grisham!

It has been #1 much of the day, but I figured I would immortalize it by taking a screenshot.

The book description is:

Allie Whitman is a professional whistleblower with a knack for sniffing out fraud in government contracts. Conner Norman is a gifted litigator and together they form Devil to Pay, Inc., a shell corporation that files lawsuits based on Allie s investigations. They soon find themselves fighting potentially fatal battles in and out of the courtroom, going great lengths to protect secrets that could ruin them both.

And the author description:
Image of Rick AckerRick Acker is a Deputy Attorney General in the California Department of Justice. He prosecutes corporate fraud lawsuits like those described in When the Devil Whistles. He has led confidential investigations into a number of large and sensitive cases that made headlines in and out of California. Rick holds law degrees from the University of Oslo and the University of Notre Dame, where he graduated with honors. In addition to his novels, he is a contributing author on two legal treatises published by the American Bar Association. Rick lives with his wife in the San Francisco area. Visit him on the Web at: 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Eternal Weight of Glory

On May 20, 2007, my husband's brother died of cancer, leaving a wife and a two-year-old daughter. He was thirty-eight.

His pain became excruciating toward the end of his life, and one day, after getting off the phone with my mother-in-law, I remember praying, How can anything be worth this? How can You let a good man with a young family die in ever-growing pain?

Two weeks before he died, with very little remaining strength, he spent several hours at his computer, writing. He had degrees from Brown, Princeton, and the University of Chicago Law School. He had worked for a large, prestigious law firm and had left it to follow his dream to do environmental protection for a non-profit organization. He had lived in France and Kenya and had climbed mountains around the world. But his "Final Jottings"—right before the cancer attacked his brain—were : "Do not fail to seize the love of God, which is available to you in the all-embracing sacrifice of Christ."

I have for a while talked about writing a post on the problem of evil, but theodicy is a daunting subject because the Bible is never philosophical about suffering and evil. The shortest, and, in my opinion, the most powerful verse in the Bible is John 11:35, which follows the death of Lazarus: "Jesus wept." Jesus knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead and increase the faith of those present, but He was "deeply moved in spirit and was troubled" when He saw their grief (John 11:33).

The Book of Job is all about the problem of evil, and yet Job, with his raw and authentic complaint to God, is applauded by God, while his friends, with their judgmental platitudes, are sharply rebuked (Job 42:7). God rejects their simplistic theodicy and answers Job by asking if he really is in a position to judge God. Does he have the wisdom of God?

The problem of evil is complex because, on the one hand, God has permitted evil and suffering, but on the other hand, we are called to overcome evil and alleviate suffering wherever we see it. Acts 10:38 says that Jesus "went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him." So the devil is responsible for oppression and suffering, and God's will is healing and well-being. But God created Satan and all the fallen angels, and He could put an end to all suffering and evil right now.

Why doesn't He?

In order to do justice to the problem of evil, we have to put it in its proper context. Although it is a practical problem for anyone, philosophically it is a Christian problem, since Christianity, more than any religion, speaks of a God of love. But the Apostle Paul, who was called to his ministry with the words, "I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake" (Acts 9:16), says in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18: "For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."

Paul says that suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory. And since God is preparing us for the eternal Paradise that will someday replace this temporary order, it is no wonder that if we belong to Christ we will become familiar with the dizzying spin on the potter's wheel.

Only a particular kind of universe can produce certain moral qualities in us. If we never encountered danger, how could we practice courage? If we never experienced opposition, how could we learn fortitude? If nobody ever wronged us, we would not learn forgiveness. If poverty did not exist, we would have no opportunity to practice charity or learn contentment. Failure and suffering can teach us humility and empathy. If we were self-sufficient and never wanted for anything, we would not seek God.

The new Paradise will, unlike the innocent Eden, consist of redeemed sinners who will have known the deepest lows of human existence and its greatest heights, like a symphony of high and low notes, dramatic fortissimos and tender pianissimos. That is how God uses evil for His own good purposes, and Romans 8:18 says: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us." This life, for better or for worse, is like a mist that appears for a short while and then disappears (James 4:14). But our share in the kingdom of God will last forever.

To be sure, hardship can bring bitterness and hopelessness, but that is a choice we make. We can also choose to overcome evil with good and let the fire of affliction purify us. As Augustine says:
For, in the same fire, gold gleams and straw smokes; under the same flail the stalk is crushed and the grain threshed; the lees are not mistaken for oil because they have issued from the same press. So, too, the tide of trouble will test, purify, and improve the good, but beat, crush, and wash away the wicked. So it is that, under the weight of the same affliction, the wicked deny and blaspheme God, and the good pray to Him and praise Him. The difference is not in what people suffer but in the way they suffer. The same shaking that makes fetid water stink makes perfume issue a more pleasant odor.
It is to the one who overcomes that God will "grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7). And in order to overcome, there has to be something to overcome. Romans 12:21 says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." We are not to take what life throws at us sitting down. We are called to fight! And we overcome the world by our faith (1 John 5:4), which is the power of God within us.

My brother-in-law passed into eternity on a high note. He overcame the ravages of cancer that threaten to dehumanize and became increasingly conscious of the love of God through it all. His Final Jottings may, from an eternal vantage point, have been his greatest accomplishment of all.

But in no way am I downplaying his tragic and untimely death. Death is an enemy that will someday be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26), because evil and suffering are not God's will.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away (Revelation 21:2-4).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Why I Haven't Been Blogging

I apologize for dropping from the face of the blogosphere a couple of weeks ago, but our thirteen-year-old son was hospitalized with what turns out to have been a very severe reaction to a medication, and I'm just now becoming capable of letting my mind do anything but pray. I think he is going to be fine, although he has unfortunately inherited his mother's sensitivity to medications--I'm allergic to three antibiotics.

Now we just have to figure out what to do about all the missed schoolwork . . .

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Divine Inspiration

Darkknight56 asked me what it means for the Bible to be inspired by God, and I said that I would do a post on the subject. So let’s start by looking at the story of Peter warming himself by the fire in the courtyard of the high priest and denying Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. In Matthew 26 and Mark 14, the high priest and other members of the Sanhedrin questioned Jesus in the courtyard and condemned Him to death before Peter denied Jesus and before the rooster crowed. However, in Luke 22, Jesus was only held in custody in the courtyard, and the denial of Peter and the rooster’s crowing happened before the Sanhedrin took Jesus to the council chamber to be questioned.  

In other words, Mark and Matthew have the meeting where Jesus references Daniel 7:13 take place before dawn in the courtyard and Luke records it as taking place in the council chamber during the day. Unless Jesus was questioned and pronounced guilty twice—once before and once after Peter denied Him—it looks like the details don’t quite line up. 

Oh, no! What do we do? We take a chill pill because the sky is not falling. What does the Bible say about divine inspiration? 2 Timothy 3:16 says: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” The Greek word theopneustos is only used in 2 Timothy 3:16 and it literally means, “God-breathed.” 

So it says that all of Scripture is God-breathed, but it also tells us the purpose of the Scriptures—to train us in righteousness and equip us for every good work, or, as 2 Timothy 3:15 says, to give us “wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” 

If this is the purpose of divine inspiration, then unless we insist on holding the Bible to a standard that it doesn’t set for itself, the minor discrepancies I mentioned before don’t matter. We can be saved through faith and equipped for God’s work without knowing exactly when and where Jesus was questioned by the Sanhedrin. 

Historical Accuracy

But of course the facts do matter because Christianity is a religion based on the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, our faith is in vain. This fact is the lynchpin of Christianity.

So the New Testament narratives have to be historically reliable, and according to the late Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White, they are. Sherwin-White did a detailed analysis of the trial of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels and the Book of Acts. He says, “As soon as Christ enters the Roman orbit at Jerusalem, the confirmation begins. For Acts, the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming.”

And he does address the question of when and where the trial before the Sanhedrin took place by saying: “The detail of the time-table may seem trivial, but it is like the button that hangs the murderer. Mark and Matthew have the time-table right, where Luke is less probable.” In other words, Mark and Matthew (and John) are correct that it took place at night and they took Jesus to Pilate in the morning. 

Why does he say that the details are like the button that hangs the murderer? For two reasons: First, Sherwin-White says that we have enough information about Roman officials’ daily round to know that they started their workday very early and ended it by noon at the latest. Some officials started before dawn and completed their work by ten or eleven. This means that on Luke’s scheme, the Jews would have arrived at the Praetorium to see Pontius Pilate too late, while he was engaging in his organized leisure activities. Sherwin-White concludes, “The Jews, because of the festival, were in a hurry. Hence there was every reason to hold the unusual night session if they were to catch the Procurator at the right moment.”

Second, he says: “The quite unessential detail of the fire, which is common to both Mark and Luke, in the story of Peter’s denial, supports the Marcan version. Why light a fire—an act of some extravagance—if everyone was sleeping through the night?” If Jesus had just been held in custody in the courtyard of the high priest, as Luke reported, no fire would have been lit.

So through his knowledge of Roman history, Sherwin-White is able to confirm the historicity of these important events that have in the past been rejected by scholars like German theologian and church historian, Hans Lietzmann. (According to Sherwin-White, Lietzmann “pours a great deal of scorn” on the idea of the trial taking place at night and concludes that no trial ever took place before the Sanhedrin.) 

Sherwin-White likewise confirms the historicity of minor details like the soldiers dividing amongst themselves Jesus' clothing (Luke 23:34), by saying: "Given the relevant prophecy from the Old Testament [Psalm 22:18], there is every reason to assume that this is one of the evolved myths dear to the form-critics. But, as has been familiar since Mommsen, legal texts confirm that it was the accepted right of the executioner's squad to share out the minor possessions of their victim."

In other words, in spite of minor discrepancies like the one between Luke and the other Gospels regarding the time-table, the New Testament appears to be remarkably accurate historically. 

How Can We Tell if God Inspired the Scriptures?

Of course the evidence for historical accuracy tells us little about whether the Bible is God-breathed. It merely says something about the human authors, much like the accuracy of a secular document does. Nor does the minor discrepancy in Luke tell us that the New Testament is not God-breathed, since it does not undermine the purpose of divine inspiration stated in 2 Timothy 3:16. 

To address the question of whether the Bible is divinely inspired, we have to see if it contains evidence that it is the product of one Mind, communicating the message of salvation. If so, then this evidence would be supportive of the claim and purpose of 2 Timothy 3:15-16. 

Let’s focus on the beginning of Genesis, one of the most contentious parts of the Bible and, if my observations are an accurate gauge, the cause of most defections from Christianity. But I'm not going to get into the question of the age of the earth or other scientific aspects of creation. Instead, I am going to talk about some of the typology of Genesis and see how well it fits the theology of salvation. 

A "type" is something in the Old Testament foreshadowing or pre-figuring Christ or His salvation. Luke 24:27 refers to typology (Moses) and prophecy (the prophets), when it says, "Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures." Although what Jesus actually said is not recorded there, Jesus often explicitly referenced the Old Testament types during His ministry. However, other types are left for us to discover on our own.

Paul says in Romans 5:14 that Adam is a type of Him who was to come. So if Adam is a type of Christ, then Eve is a type of the church, which is the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:25, Revelation 21:9). In Genesis 3:6, where Eve is tempted to eat the fruit, she noticed that the tree was "good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise." In other words, her temptation falls into all three categories mentioned in 1 John 2:16, "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life." But she fell.

Jesus was also tempted by Satan in ways that fit into these three categories (Luke 4:3-12): Turn a stone into bread (lust of the flesh), worship Satan and He would receive the splendor and authority of all the kingdoms of the world (the lust of the eyes), and jump from the highest point of the temple and legions of angels would catch Him (the boastful pride of life). He resisted the temptations and fulfilled all righteousness on behalf of the church. 

After Adam and Eve fell, they sewed together fig leaves to cover themselves. This corresponds to Matthew 21:19, where Jesus curses a fig tree that has no fruit but only leaves, as well as the parable in Luke 13:6-9 of the fig tree in the vineyard that didn't bear any fruit. 

In Genesis 3:21, God takes away the fig leaves and covers Adam and Eve with garments of an animal's skin. Likewise, God covers us with the righteousness of the sacrificial Lamb, Christ. John 15 says that if we abide in Christ, we will bear good fruit—in other words, we will have the righteousness of God.

Genesis 3:8 says that Adam and Eve hid from the presence of the Lord God after they sinned. Isaiah 59:2 says that our sins separate us from God. However, God sought them (Genesis 3:9), and when they responded, He gave them the garments of skin. Luke 15:4-9 says that God seeks the lost. However, it is up to us to respond if we are to receive His salvation (Revelation 3:20).

They were driven out of the Garden of Eden and not permitted to eat from the tree of life. But Paradise was restored through Christ, who says in Revelation 2:7: "To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God."  

A lot more could be said—like how Adam was put into a deep sleep and Eve was "taken out of man," just like the church was born out of Christ after He died on the cross (Jesus often referred to death as "sleep"), and how God finished His work of creation on the sixth day and Jesus said on the sixth day, "It is finished!" However, my purpose in all this is simply to illuminate the theological cohesiveness of the Bible, as if one Mind is communicating His message through all the various human authors, spanning many centuries and two religions. And even in the very first pages of the Old Testament, the central message is about salvation. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Planes, Trains and Automobiles—and Sending Daughters Abroad

I've probably watched the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles at least five or six times, and it's just as laugh-out-loud funny each time. It is about a man (Steve Martin) who tries to get home to his family for Thanksgiving, and everything that can go wrong goes wrong on his trip, including the fact that he always ends up with an annoying shower ring salesman as a companion (John Candy). But I don't think it's just the comedic genius of John Candy and Steve Martin that appeals to me. I watch that movie to truly appreciate the fact that I am not out there experiencing a trip of nightmarish proportions. I'm experiencing it vicariously, yes, but with the power to instantly end the experience via the click of a remote control and go to sleep in my own bed--a power I woefully lack when I'm actually out there braving airports and delayed flights. So that movie is more than just mindless entertainment to me--it's a complex psychological experience.

I've been having the opposite psychological experience since I woke up this morning, after finding out that my daughter Chelsea has been stuck at the Reykjavik airport on her way to Norway--about sixteen hours now. She will hopefully arrive in Oslo by 2:30 a.m., barring further delays. After much time talking with relatives on the phone, communicating with Chelsea through email, and researching hotels on the Internet, she has a hotel room by the airport and will be picked up by my dad when she checks out tomorrow at noon. Hurrah for the Internet for making long distance helicopter parenting possible! 

Not that Chelsea needs helicopter parenting. She pretty much planned this year abroad entirely by herself--figuring out how to get her college credits transferred, how to get a Norwegian social security number and passport (she has dual citizenship), learning the culture and language, and following the Norwegian news. She has lived and breathed Norway for the past year. 

She has also carefully researched the Norwegian fashions. (In case anyone is wondering, Converse high tops are a must have if you are planning a trip in the near future--the more colors the better.) A couple of days before she left, after too many trips to the mall to buy and return shoes and stuff, I warned her against going to Norway with a Norwegianer-than-thou attitude, by telling her about my Italian friend back when I studied in Norway my junior year in college. His real name was Giorgio, but when he moved to Norway he exercised the exceedingly poor judgment of legally changing it to Jørgen. He wore traditional Norwegian sweaters all the time and spoke Nynorsk (the version of written Norwegian that combines dialects and which is used in more traditional parts of the country). He was far more Norwegian than those of us who were born there, and of course we thought that an Italian born-again Norwegian was too funny.

Chelsea explained that she was in no danger of becoming like Jørgen because although she had worked very hard to become as Norwegian as possible, she wouldn't look like she had tried too hard. She would look like she effortlessly blended, instead of screaming, "I am American!" 

Maybe true. But even with all the right footwear, the best laid plans of mice and men and college girls can go awry. Several months ago when we made the reservations, Chelsea didn't need a meddling mother to tell her that a ten-hour layover in Reykjavik (which has now turned to sixteen) was too long and that she should go through London instead. She loved Iceland almost as much as she loves Norway (and yes, I think the past tense is probably correct, although I haven't asked her about it).  

I just got on Flight Stats and found out that her flight out of Iceland has taken off. Yay! And it will arrive at 2:30 a.m. local time. Not so yay--especially since we left for the San Francisco Airport at 6:45 a.m. yesterday, and her trip will take a grand total of 37 hours. But at least it should be over soon.

So I think I'll take a deep breath (after I call and double-check Chelsea's hotel reservations in Oslo) and watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles again tonight.

UPDATE at 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time: She is now in her hotel room and the lady at the desk was nice enough to offer to let her check out at 2 p.m. tomorrow, so she can sleep in.