Thursday, December 3, 2009

Will We Have Free Will in Heaven?

The agnostic blogger I mentioned a few posts ago just made an excellent argument that I would like to address here. I said: "Inherent in the power to choose is the power to choose evil. There's no way around it. To say that God could have given us free choice and also made it impossible to choose evil is like saying that he could have made 2 + 2 = 5. It is intrinsically impossible."

He replied: "I think you just proved that Heaven cannot exist!"

On the face of it, he certainly seems right, and a few months ago his response might have stumped me. If God can give us free will in Heaven while still making sin impossible, he could have done it on Earth. And if we don't have free will in Heaven, why do we have it here, with all the evil and suffering it entails?

This is actually a question that I've already given some thought to in the past few weeks, in an effort to reconcile the Calvinistic-leaning and Arminian-leaning Bible passages in my mind. I've arrived at a conclusion, although I am by no means saying that this is the full answer. I'm only saying that although the blogger made a good point, it didn't put me into checkmate. There is a theologically accurate way out of the logical dilemma.

Not only will we have free will in Heaven, but we will be perfectly free; however, we will not choose evil. How can these two things coexist, particularly given my earlier argument? Because a redeemed believer is a completely new creation that exists only by virtue of having surrendered the will and let God fill him or her. This also leads to perfect freedom, which I discuss here. When God fills us, he changes our hearts and minds, so that we want to do his will. If we desire to do his will, that means we will not sin. Why would we do something wrong if we are not tempted? However, this gift of a new heart is contingent on surrendering the will freely, because God did not create robots.

So every person in the world has a will and can choose to rebel against God. But since we are born into original sin, nobody can choose to fully obey him. Sin in our hearts makes it impossible. However, we can surrender to him when he draws us to himself--that is, we can give ourselves to him and let his Spirit fill us. And when we do, he changes us from the inside, which means sin loses its grip.

Everybody in Heaven has a completely surrendered will, which allows Christ to fill them and work through them. And because their hearts and minds have been renewed, they have no desire for sin, even though they started out with the same propensities for sin that we all have. They have lived through the curse, and sin no longer has any power over them.

So on the one hand, God works through us when we surrender the will, but on the other hand, this sets us completely free. God's sovereign grace and perfect human freedom meet at the apex of absolute surrender. And that is how we will spend eternity.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Who Benefits from Our "Perfection"?

I read a blog today where the author announced a very painful development in her life, and it struck me how apologetic she sounded. The whole post was about how she expected to be judged. A reader commented by saying that she wondered if Facebook does more harm than good because people are always bragging about their perfect lives. I also have a few perfect Facebook friends, so I thought that was a good subject for a blog post. I told Rick, "You know how some people try to seem perfect on Facebook by talking about everything they accomplish, the gourmet meals they've prepared, and how well their kids are doing? That's going to be the subject of my post."

Rick stared at me blankly. "They're trying to be perfect? I thought they were just being boring."

So maybe this post is only for those of us who are tapped into feminine culture, where we often feed our own insecurities by accepting the image of perfection as the reality. When we look at that woman on the cover of Cosmopolitan, we know that she's been airbrushed. So why do we always forget? Why did I think, "Wow, Demi Moore is really thin. Not fair," until Yahoo! news brought to my attention that someone had butchered her airbrushing by cutting off her hip? Did I really not know that she was airbrushed until then? (Of course she still looks great, airbrushing or not.)

But the more important question is why we do it to other people. If we can deceive someone into thinking we have it all together, who benefits? We know the truth of it. All we've done is made the other person feel bad and participated in an endless cycle of pride, insecurity, and deception.

If we could just break free from that and be transparent, maybe people who are hurting would speak up before the problem gets out of control. "Perfection" creates a barrier between us and other people, but transparency is a point of connection. It is a bridge between us and other people that enables them to be real. It tells them that we're not too "perfect" to understand. We've shared all the struggles that define the human experience, right?

John Wesley said, "Let your words be the genuine picture of your heart." The condition of our hearts is all that ultimately matters anyway, so we might as well take off the mask. Are we just silver plated or silver straight through? God wants to bring all our flaws and impurities to the surface, so he can deal with them. 

And that is the beauty of transparency--it shows the power of the cross in a flawed human being. On the one hand, we are fallen, but on the other hand, our hearts are being renewed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:16) Why not let people see this process, so they know it's real?

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Veil That Separates, by F.B. Meyer

Have we cheapened grace so much that we don't see the thick curtain that hangs between God and us? Is the presence of the Holy Spirit merely a theoretical concept? Here is a very biblical explanation (not often heard today) for the spiritual numbness we may feel.
What is the veil that hangs between you and the presence of the Holy Spirit? It is probably some misunderstanding between yourself and another. What veils man from man also veils man from God. He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God who he has not seen. Perhaps you are unwilling to forgive someone who has wronged you; or you will not ask forgiveness from one whom you have wronged. Perhaps you owe restitution money on a debt or a theft of twenty years ago. The conviction that you ought to make it good forms a thickly-woven veil between your Lord and you. Or perhaps there is some duty, some obedience to a positive command that you ought to perform but that you have evaded and shirked. Any of these things is enough to curtain off the filling of the Holy Spirit and make it a dim uncertainty. 
Oh, let God reveal to you the cause of your shadowed experience! Then dare to obey Him at whatever cost. Make right what is wrong, repay what is owing, obey what is incumbent. Do it though it cost you an earthquake and a crucifixion. The peace of God will immediately settle upon you, and the light within will break forth speedily.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fountains of Water



Recently it seems like everywhere I turn I hear of people who have sought God and not found him. It makes me almost feel guilty that he has always been there so very real whenever I have needed him. I know what an undeserved gift that is. My heart really goes out to those people, and I've been praying for them a lot throughout the day today. And then I opened the Bible and came across this passage:

The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none,
And their tongue is parched with thirst;
I, the Lord, will answer them Myself,
As the God of Israel I will not forsake them.
I will open rivers on the bare heights 
And springs in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water
And the dry land fountains of water.

Isaiah 41:17-18

Such a beautiful picture of God's living water, available to all who thirst. I know that the reason why my heart goes out to them is because his heart goes out to them. And he's calling me to come before his throne in prayer on their behalf.

Who can understand the mystery of prayer? When God wills something, he calls us to pray. It is the means by which we lay hold of the victory of God in all earthly battles.

In prayer we can carry each others burdens when we are otherwise powerless to help. We can give immeasurable secret gifts that transcend time into eternity. We can make fountains of water available to the many afflicted and needy.

And, when we do, that living water satisfies our thirst as well.

Are We Brainwashed?

Those of you who read my last post might recall that an ex-Christian told me that Christianity is a "huge brainwashing operation," but he also said that he admired Christians like myself who take our faith seriously. I asked him why he admired those who were more fully brainwashed. Wouldn't it be healthier not to internalize it?

It might have occurred to you that there was an easy way for him to get out of that trap: Take back the compliment. And he did. He admitted that I'm brainwashed but wouldn't concede that "half-Christians" who just "go with the flow" are better off. They really make him mad.

But it seems to me that a fully brainwashed Scientologist like Tom Cruise is much worse off than someone like Katie Holmes who just married into it and seems basically anchored in reality. When . . . ahem . . . if they split up, I'm sure she'll go back to being Catholic or whatever she was before. Nothing against Tom Cruise (I'm sure he's a nice man), but I would never tell him that I admire his conviction. (His hair, maybe, but not his conviction.)

But you'll be pleased to know that I didn't press the issue with the ex-Christian, even though I'm confident that I could have succeeded in getting him to admit that I'm completely nuts.

Still, the issue of brainwashing is an interesting one. Is Christianity just mass brainwashing? The mere fact that it's the majority religion in our country doesn't prove that it isn't. Not even its Founder teaches that majority rules when it comes to truth. He says that the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it. (Matthew 7:14)

So what is brainwashing? Wikipedia gives the following definition:
Mind control (also referred to as brainwashing, coercive persuasion, and thought reform) refers to a broad range of psychological tactics thought to subvert an individual's control of his or her own thinking, behavior, emotions, or decision making. 
And the following definition appears in the body of the article:
Philip Zimbardo discusses mind control as "the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes."
I think that there's definitely brainwashing in the church; however, true Christianity is the opposite of brainwashing, because we are called to freedom.

There is often psychological pressure (blatant in some types of churches and subtle in others) to believe things that are not entirely true. We are supposed to be peacemakers, so we would much rather pat backs than challenge. Christian communities are often like cocktail parties, where a dissenting voice is like the person who jumps up on the table and does a little dance. I've been that person sometimes and felt the crushing hangover afterwards: "Oh, no, I disagreed. I'm so bad!"

During the first ten years after I became a Christian I never questioned anything. I would sit in the pews on Sunday mornings with my mouth hanging open while the pastor planted his ideas into my brain. If someone with the right credentials (read: a conservative evangelical) said something with an air of authority, I would be willing to fight to the death for it. When Rick and I met in college, he was more of a critical thinker, and I was somewhat disdainful of that: "Everybody knows this, Rick! I don't have to defend it!" I preferred osmosis.

But sixteen years ago during a multifaceted crisis, God taught me that osmosis is not the way to truth. If we believe everything we're taught by fallible Christian men and women, we will approach the Bible with preconceived notions that blind us to the plain meaning of the text. It's sort of like the telephone game where the message gets distorted a little each time. What a dangerous way to handle God's inspired word! You could say that my deprogramming began at that point.

According to Philip Zimbardo's definition of brainwashing (compromised freedom of choice), Christianity is the opposite because we are called to freedom from all encumbrances of the will. A mature Christian is neither slave to sin (Romans 6:6) nor to the law (Romans 7:6). He or she cannot be manipulated but does everything freely and without compulsion (2 Cor. 9:7). A Christian is to be truthful to the core (Psalm 51:6) and have an undivided heart (Psalm 86:11). All of this is a free gift from God through faith (Ephesians 2:8).

In true Christian churches, the dignity of the human will is respected. The less psychological pressure to do what everybody else is doing, the better. Pressure enslaves and therefore hinders the spiritual growth God desires. Love, on the other hand, liberates and ennobles.

As Christians, we can fall prone to legalism, something that is fatal to faith. Paul devoted the entire letter to the Galatians to warning them about the "false gospel" that had enslaved them. Is legalism so bad, if it keeps people behaving properly? Yes, it is so bad, because spiritual freedom is at the heart of our salvation. A Christian is called to echo the psalmist: "I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free." (Psalm 119:32)

So there may be brainwashing within the church, in the sense that we can be blinded to the truth or stripped of our freedom of choice, but that is not the true gospel. "Where the Spirit of God is, there is liberty." (2 Cor. 3:17)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Is It Real?

I've been in dialogue with an atheist this past week. He came from a Christian family and was a Christian himself until about ten years ago. He is very polite and honest but militantly against Christianity. He believes that no deity could possibly be more tyrannical than the biblical God, and he's convinced that all religion is brainwashing. Furthermore, Christians are guilty of cognitive dissonance.

During the course of the conversation, he told me that nobody in his family has seemed very concerned about his soul in the past few years, and although that didn't bother him, it was proof that it wasn't real to them. But he admired Christians like myself on the strength of our convictions. I asked him why, if he thought Christianity was brainwashing, he admired those who were more fully brainwashed. I reminded him that to him Christianity was not just a perspective he disagreed with but "a huge brainwashing operation." So presumably the less we internalize it, the better, right? Did I detect some "cognitive dissonance"?

My husband Rick questioned the wisdom of taking a compliment and using it against someone to win an argument, which got me thinking about whether theological debate ever wins any converts at all. Does any unbeliever ever say, "That's an excellent point. Thank you so much for pointing out the flaws in my reasoning. I believe now"? There's usually so much ego in those discussions that it seems virtually impossible to persuade.

Then it occurred to me that all my encounters with atheists in the past year had one common denominator: Even though they had rejected Christianity, they all had a very sensitive radar for whether it was real to someone who professed it. In fact, some of them were very honest about that, and when they determined that it was real, they actually asked questions.

That makes sense to me. When it comes right down to it, only a few questions really matter to them in those discussions: Does the biblical God exist? Is he good? And does he have the power to save souls in a way that is noticeable to the world? The most compelling evidence for God is his love in a human heart because it answers all those questions affirmatively, at least as a starting point. But when the discussion turns into debate, people immediately classify it as two egos wrangling over words, and it's over. Few things are more human, and less divine, than that.

I think that when this man talked about the "strength of my convictions," he really meant that my faith looked real to him. That would have been a good time to leave it alone and declare a small victory, instead of proving to him with my arguments that I was no different from anyone else.

I should have taken the words of 2 Timothy 2:23-25 more seriously: "But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition."

It is so easy to take the words of life and use them as a dagger, doing more harm than good. All we have to do is look at the Inquisition and other less-than-glorious moments of church history to see that this is one of Satan's most powerful weapons.

We may think we're immune to that, but those words turn into a weapon whenever the ego takes over. One of the pastors at our church said that the opposite of love is not hate but Self, and I think he's right. The ego is always a barrier to God's love working through us. And every human soul bears the imprint of its Creator and therefore recognizes his love.

What a difference it would make if we always remembered that.

Friday, November 6, 2009

God's Sovereignty and Human Freedom

What does it mean to talk about God's sovereignty? How does human choice fit into the picture? Christians have debated this issue for centuries and will undoubtedly continue until the Second Coming. The reason why we disagree on this subject is because the Bible seems ambiguous, and it's a lot easier to take apart somebody else's worldview than to formulate a biblically and logically consistent one of our own. So accept this as it's offered: a point in the journey of a finite mind to make some sense of the profound mysteries of God. As always, I welcome your honest thoughts.

God is sovereign, but his sovereignty in this world is not the same as it will be on the New Earth, where God will work in and through every person for his perfect glory. As long as evil exists, God's highest will is thwarted. (But as I will discuss later, even now he has defeated evil on the cross, and he has the power to overcome it.) The kingdom of God is in our midst (Luke 17:21), but it has not yet been established like it will be when Jesus comes in glory with his angels (Matthew 16:27).

In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus tells us to pray: "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." That means that God's will should direct and motivate all our prayers, but it also implies that his will doesn't necessarily happen by default. And that would make sense, because he has given us prayer as a means of laying hold of his will. Why else would we pray? To change God's mind? Personally, I trust his judgment more than my own. But I'm still told to pray fervently, because changing the status quo is not necessarily changing God's mind. Jesus was always fighting against the status quo during the three years of his ministry.

Although God's overall purposes for his creation will stand, we can't look at every past event and unequivocally say that God willed it. For example, does he will that millions starve to death or die of AIDS in Africa or that children be brutally raped and murdered? To me, it seems blasphemous to suggest it, especially since we know that Jesus "went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil" (Acts 10:38). As ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), let's make sure we don't unwittingly defame him.

I thought that my views about this would be controversial in our modern religious climate, where a lot of people believe that God controls everything and therefore every atrocity is ultimately his will. But it turns out I actually have a Calvinist in my corner: John MacArthur. In his sermon, The Plan of Prayer, he says:
Now this may sound heretical but in this context, people, [tragedy] is not God’s will. That is the kind of stuff that Jesus came into the world to stop. Because "God is not willing that any should perish." And believe me--there are people perishing all over the place. God will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, and not all men do. God’s will is done in heaven, but it isn’t always done on earth.
Certainly God can work in those atrocities for good, and he will bring suffering into the lives of his people so he can perform spiritual surgery. I can testify to that. But there's much evil in the world that serves no good purpose at all. It is not according to God's will. It simply happens because of human will to do evil. (Note that I did not say "free" will. Our will is not free until God frees it.)

And that human will is pivotal in this discussion. God, in his sovereignty, made creatures that actually have the power to rebel against him. When I work on my novel, the characters do and say exactly what I want them to. Some novelists say that their characters almost come alive and shape the book. That takes more creativity than I have. But it's still nothing compared to God's creative genius. These four children that Rick and I have brought into the world actually have wills of their own. Although I don't often appreciate that as much as maybe I should, right now as I'm sitting at my desk writing (and they're in school), I consider it the greatest miracle of creation.

Do I believe that human choice is absolute? No. We are all born in bondage to sin (Romans 7:14), but we are called to freedom (Galatians 5:13). "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Cor. 3:17) By his grace, God enables us to receive him, but he respects even the most wretched, rebellious will in order to nurture it the point where it's fully surrendered to him. That's why Jesus stands at the door and knocks (Revelation 3:20), instead of just kicking it down. He wants to meet us where we are and enable us to surrender, and the more we do so, the more we experience his sovereign grace in our lives, in the sense that everything we do and say is by his power. But he has also called us to perfect freedom, so even though he wants us to let him be everything in our lives, he doesn't force his way in.

I've seen in my own life how much God respects my will. He will spend years trying to get me to surrender in a particular area, using experiences, other people, Bible teachings, directs insights--and by the time I do, I submit willingly. Why doesn't he save himself the trouble and just overpower my will? Because I am called to freedom. Christ wants to be "all, and in all" (Colossians 3:11), but he wants friends, not slaves (John 15:15). The crowning glory of his creation is creatures who will someday reach the pinnacle of perfect freedom and complete surrender to his will. Only God can make such a thing possible, but it's not easy even for him, because he has chosen not to pull all the strings. So not everyone will share in that glory.

In this country, most of us don't question the importance of freedom, hence the song that goes, "I'm glad to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I'm thankful for the men who died and gave that right to me." Something in us recognizes that freedom is worth dying for. Since we are created in the image of God, is it such a stretch to say that he values freedom just as highly and that he's willing to make great sacrifices for it? If God had been content with puppets, evil would never had entered the world, and he would not have had to send his Son to die on the cross.

But having said all that, I also believe that God in his sovereignty can override a person's will. For example, when I pray for God to protect my children, I trust him to be a shield about them to protect them from evil people as well. God's hands are not tied because he respects the evil person's choice. In John 7:30, the authorities tried to seize Jesus but they couldn't because "his hour had not yet come." Nobody had the power to harm Jesus apart from the will of the Father.

Also, prayer for somebody else can be so powerful that it may bring a person to the point where he or she is unlikely to resist God's grace. Times of great revival were usually precipitated by fervent prayer. Prayer will light a spark of life and stir up a hunger where there was none, but it doesn't overpower someone's will. It is perhaps the most profound way in which we can be fellow workers with God, because we tap into the power that raised Jesus from the dead.

Through the cross, God's sovereignty in this world is equal to his sovereignty on the New Earth. Jesus fully disarmed all the spiritual forces of evil (Colossians 2:15), and "by his stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5). This is an objective, historical and spiritual reality. Through Christ, we have complete victory (1 Cor. 15:57) and access to the throne of grace, where we find mercy and grace in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

Why is this world such a mess if evil was defeated on the cross? Because it is through faith we lay hold of this victory. "This is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith." (1 John 5:4) Faith is as powerful as Christ's victory on the cross, because it is his victory.

Hebrews 11:1 says: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (KJV) The word "substance" is key here, because the Greek word hypostasis means "reality, essence, substantial nature, assurance." So faith is far more than positive thinking--it is the reality or essence of the victory of Christ on the cross. In other words, it is the thing itself. I explain this further in The Substance of Things Hoped For.

This is very important to understand, because it shows why faith is so important. It is the means by which we receive the free gift, or as Charles Spurgeon said, "Faith is the hand that grasps." So faith, then, is our measure of an objective reality: Christ and everything he accomplished on the cross. In other words, if we want to lay hold of God's will, we have to look to the cross.

How do we get faith? Three ways: By hearing the word of God, by surrender to God, and by abiding in Christ like a branch on a vine. Romans 10:7 says: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God." In order to have faith, we have to hear the gospel message. That is the seed of faith. Of course there's no way to believe if we've never heard the word of life. But even if we have been born again by the Spirit, we have to keep hearing the word in order to grow in our faith.

Surrender means that we yield our will, and that goes back to what I said about Jesus not kicking down the door. He has called us to freedom, right? So he will only fill us with his Spirit if we surrender to him. But you might have noticed that complete surrender is not that easy because it involves admitting defeat, and we would rather stake our little flag of self-sufficiency in the ground and die. And we actually do have to admit defeat. We have to realize that we're spiritually bankrupt, needy, weak--without God we're unable to do anything about the evil in our own hearts, let alone the evil in the world.

So what do we do if we intellectually recognize the need to surrender, but we can't do it? We take a step back and ask God to give us the desire to surrender. Let's say you don't buy a thing I've said, but if it's true, you would like it to be real in your life. Then you can take a step back even further and ask God to work in your mind, to bring intellectual faith. Maybe you hate religion altogether, but you're not completely settled in your atheism or agnosticism. You're not sure if it's Jesus you hate, or just the behavior of some of his so-called followers. Then tell God that. Wherever the barrier, he will meet us there. In the end, all the sons and daughters who are brought to glory will only be there by the power of God, and the smaller and more helpless we are in our own minds, the greater he is in our lives, because we will have exorcised the greatest enemy of all: Self.

The third way to have faith is to abide in Christ. That is, we have to spend time with him, and allow him to work through us like sap flows through a vine to the branches. John 15:7 goes so far as to say, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." But there's a catch here--if we abide in Christ we won't want a larger home or a more prestigious job. God will change our hearts so that we want his will. So we come full circle back to the Lord's Prayer: If we abide in Christ, we will have the power to lay hold of God's will, to make this world more like heaven. We will have the victory that overcomes the world: faith. (1 John 5:4)

So a person who lives by faith in Christ will surrender more and more fully to God's perfect sovereignty, while growing in freedom. The two are far from mutually exclusive; they are inexorably linked.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Is God's Word Internally Consistent?

Somehow I've managed to get myself into a lot of dead-end discussions with Christians about God's sovereignty recently. What I mean by "dead-end" is that they are about questions that have no answer discernible to finite minds. And even though I started out enjoying them, right now I feel like these issues have deadened my spirit. Bible verses that make God seem hard and irrational sit like bricks in my soul.

But God's answer seems clear: He has never revealed himself to us fully in his word, but he has fully revealed everything we need to know. How could his infinite mind possibly be contained in the pages of a book to be read by finite beings. When God appeared to Manoah, Samson's father, Manoah asked him his name. God replied: "Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?" (Judges 13:18) Why do we waste so much time trying to define God's nature when he has made known to us everything we need to know? He told Moses, "I am who I am." And if we draw near to him we'll know that he is wonderful. If we need more evidence of that in human terms, all we have to do is read through the Gospels. Jesus is God's nature in human form.

I marvel at the brilliance of God's word, and its consistency about everything important to our salvation. I just finished reading Future Grace by John Piper, a Calvinist. It is essentially a practical book about living by faith in God's grace, and it adeptly incorporates the hard passages that are often ignored because Christians don't understand how to square them with salvation by faith alone. But (except for one chapter) it doesn't delve into questions about the nature of God's sovereignty and how exactly he saves us--the issues that divide Arminians and Calvinists.

Although I'm not a Calvinist, I had independently reached almost exactly the same conclusions. The word of God is very clear about the practical aspect of salvation. If we dig deep enough, we will find that every book of the New Testament says the same thing about what it means to live by faith and how that translates into good works. And Christians who are led by the Holy Spirit, regardless of denomination, will arrive at the same truth. For example, Brother Lawrence was a Catholic, but he says essentially the same thing in The Practice of the Presence of God.

1 Corinthians 1:19 says: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." From God's standpoint, the intelligent have no advantage. In fact, if they devote themselves to speculating about things that God has not revealed, they will be frustrated. And it will lead to division among believers.

So God's word is amazing because he answers to no one except his own nature--he will decide what we need to know about him. He will not be forced into a box by those who demand that he justify himself. But he will teach us everything we need to know to walk with him in faith and obedience. And his word is remarkably consistent from that standpoint.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Peace of God



We all know the peace of lying in a hammock or walking along the beach. But what is the peace of God? Is it a feeling? Yes, but only in the sense that we feel good physically when we are healthy. The peace of God is spiritual health.

In our natural, broken state, we're divided against ourselves much of the time. We're stressed because we take on to much. We take on too much because our egos demand it. We allow tension to build between ourselves and others because we can't see their pain past our own. We let bitterness grow in our souls like cancer. We destroy our bodies in a desperate quest for pleasure. We're consumed with anxiety over the future, because we don't trust in God.

But the gift of God, through Christ, is freedom from all that. He wants to clear out all the toxic emotions and integrate us so that we are not fighting a civil war within our hearts. When our minds, hearts, and hands are under his sovereign control, we know true peace. And that peace also gives life to the body. (Proverbs 14:30)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why Did Martin Luther Tell Us to Sin Boldly?


Go to fullsize imageMartin Luther was not the type of person who'd say, "On the one hand, this . . . on the other hand, that. Let me just clarify what I said so nobody will take offense." If he had been, we might not have had a Reformation.

He often used hyperbole that made his opponents demonize him and sent his proponents scrambling to demonstrate from his other writings what he really meant. But his words never got lost in the white noise.

This is what he said: "God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world."

What on earth could he have meant by that? Is he saying, like many Christians believe today, that the Cross covers continued, willful sin that we refuse to surrender? No, he is not. How do I know this? By interpreting those words in the context of his whole theology. He said elsewhere: "If you do not give forth such proofs of faith [good works], it is certain that your faith is not right. Not that good works are commanded us by this Word; for where faith in the heart is right, there is no need of much commanding good works to be done; they follow of themselves. But the works of love are only an evidence of the existence of faith." (Italics added.) Although Luther stressed that we are saved by faith alone, faith by its very nature produces good works. The idea that a person can be saved while continuing on exactly like before is a dangerous misunderstanding of both the Apostle Paul and Luther.

So what, then, did he mean? He is talking about the power of the Cross to forgive and heal all sin. Real sin, not just the imaginary kind where deep down we feel that we were justified.

Then there are times when I decide to start praying more and becoming less lukewarm, and it never fails--I always end up falling flat on my face shortly afterwards. It must be because Satan suddenly considers me worthy of his attention and brings to the surface something that had been in my heart all along. When I'm still down, he says: "Look at you. What a disgrace! And you call yourself a Christian!"

It is at that moment that Luther's words become relevant. There are many ways I can react. I can justify myself and add that one to my collection of "imaginary" sins (although at this point I'm starting to think that maybe all my sins are real), I can try harder next time, I can despair, or I can hide from God like Adam and Eve did after the Fall. In other words, I can let Satan put me on the defensive.  

Or I can act like the Cross actually means something. Like it is enough for sinners like myself. I can say to Satan: "Yes, I AM a sinner! Thank you for the reminder, because sometimes I fool myself. But the Cross is sufficient for ALL sins of ALL people, both to remove the guilt and the stain." Or, in the words of Luther, I can say: "Indeed, by calling me a sinner you are supplying me with weapons against yourself so that I can slay and destroy you with your own sword; for Christ died for sinners." God's grace is sufficient for me, and his grace gives me not just forgiveness but victory over sin as well.

In Luke 7, Jesus demonstrates to a Pharisee how he welcomes even the worst of repentant sinners, and the power of his forgiveness. A woman had brought an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, and she kept anointing his feet with the perfume, weeping, and wiping his feet with her hair. The Pharisee, who hosted the party, was indignant that Jesus didn't seem to know what type of woman she was--a sinner. But Jesus explained, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with perfume. For that reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little loves little."

She was a bold sinner, but her trust in (and love for) Christ was stronger than her sin, so she experienced his victory over sin, death, and the world. The power of the Cross was enough for her, and it is enough for us.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

When We Question Our Salvation

About ten years after my conversion, I went through a period when I laid awake at night thinking that if the Bible really meant what it said, I was going to hell for sure. If you've read "Venite Ad Me, Omnes" or "The Needle's Eye," you know that that period of our lives was boot camp on steroids. When God had my undivided attention, I saw that many parts of the Bible just didn't fit into the neatly packaged, processed salvation message that is palatable to modern consumers. For the first time, I had a glimpse of what it would be like to face a holy God.

We live in a culture where "Christianity Lite" is the majority religion, where all we have to do is recite a prayer and we will be irrevocably saved, even if nothing really changes in our lives. But this is not the true gospel. God's word has to be consistent about everything pertaining to our walk of faith in obedience (and it is). And yet much of what it teaches doesn't fit into the modern conceptual framework. Every book in the New Testament says that good works are evidence of faith, and Matthew 25 makes it very clear that we will judged by our works. Without good works, we don't have saving faith. (James 2:14-26)

If we read the Bible regularly we have probably already noticed that. We will come across some very hard passages. And it can lead honest Christians to question their salvation in the lonely darkness when Christian culture recedes and they are alone with God. But I am convinced that when we wrestle with those doubts, God is at work, preparing to show us the nature of saving faith and give us a deep certainty that he who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

We have to be careful not to slap a band-aid on those doubts, because they play an important role in leading us to repentance. That means not listening to Christians who say that there can be faith without fruit. God talks about such people when he says, "They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying, 'Peace, peace,' but there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:14) Without victory over sin, the patient is still terminal. But if our sins trouble us and make us want to despair, we are exactly where we need to be in order to receive the cure: saving faith.

If we feel like we are hopeless sinners, we are in excellent company. The thief on the cross next to Jesus was on death row, and he never got a chance to do good works. He knew he deserved to die. But Jesus said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43)

Why was he saved? Because he was justified by faith, apart from any good deeds. Romans 5:1-2 says: "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand." When we truly repent, meaning that we recognize our utter helplessness and unworthiness (Luke 18:14), we obtain our introduction by faith into a state of grace. That means we have saving faith. And that faith gives us victory over sin and enables us to trust God for our final salvation. If that thief had survived, there would have been good works.

I want to try to make that seem a little more real and practical, because we've all heard those words again and again. And yet they're just words until we actually experience it. In The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence described how he came to trust God for his salvation. He spent years convinced that he would go to hell, and then suddenly he realized that it was because he lacked faith that God would save him, and he spent the rest of his life in joy and liberty.

But he never became complacent about his salvation, he just trusted God to do his will through him. "When an occasion of practicing some virtue was offered, he addressed himself to God saying, 'Lord, I cannot do this unless Thou enable me.' Then he received strength more than sufficient. When he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault saying to God, 'I shall never do otherwise, if You leave me to myself. It is You who must hinder my failing and mend what is amiss.' Then, after this, he gave himself no further uneasiness about it."

Brother Lawrence recognized that God alone can save us, from the moment we are born of the Spirit to the day we die. All we have to do is surrender and trust. We have to let him empower us to do his will. Let's say the problem is that we want to keep sinning. Then we have to ask him to help us stop wanting it. Only he can help us want the right things. The more we depend on God, the more he can work in and through us for his glory.

And even then, spiritual growth takes time, so we shouldn't be discouraged when we fail. God is in charge, and he will work in our hearts and through our circumstances to bring us to our final destination. He is our Good Shepherd and we can fully trust in him.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Death of a Star



Nature so often hints at the unseen mysteries of eternity. I was thinking the other day about how much a star is like a spirit. Angels are often compared to stars. Jesus is the "bright morning star."

When fire burns within a star, it radiates power, light, and beauty. But when a large star collapses into itself, it becomes an invisible black hole that is just a tiny point in space but has infinite density and pulls in everything around it, including light. Most of us have known people who are like that: demanding, manipulative, self-pitying, egotistical--they devour those around them without ever feeling satisfied. Their egos make them incapable of really loving another person. All their relationships are dysfunctional in some way.

That is the essence of hell. The angel Lucifer was believed to have been the greatest and most beautiful of the heavenly host. But when he led a rebellion against God, he and the angels who followed him became like black holes: small, powerful, and dangerous--devouring other souls. They no longer had the fire of God glowing within them.

Our spirits will live forever, much in the same way that a burned out star doesn't just cease to exist. The question is whether we want the fire of God burning within us throughout eternity. Do we want the bright morning star to arise in our hearts? (2 Peter 1:19) Our eternal glory can only come from him, or not at all.

"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)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gandhi and Christianity: Did the Apostle Paul Contradict Jesus?

Go to fullsize imageAs I mentioned before, Mohandas Gandhi was deeply drawn to Jesus and his teachings. When he died in 1948, he had about a dozen books in his possession, including the Gospel of John and The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ. But he never accepted Jesus as more than a great teacher, and he held that Paul's teachings were grafted onto those of Jesus.

I don't know exactly why he reached the conclusion that Paul contradicted Jesus, but I can make an educated guess. Some people claim that Jesus taught salvation by works while Paul taught salvation by faith. Gandhi never seemed to accept the idea that salvation could come by faith, probably in part because his Christian friends didn't seem to really understand it themselves. I discussed that in my previous post. If Gandhi saw Jesus as a great moral teacher who said little about faith, that might explain why he was drawn to him and felt like Paul taught something completely different.

But Jesus and Paul taught exactly the same gospel in different ways. Jesus was like a novelist and Paul a theologian. A novelist is supposed to show, not tell, and that is exactly what Jesus often did. He told stories to illustrate what the kingdom of God is like, using a lot of symbolism, and he demonstrated what faith looks like in action. His way of teaching was like drawing our attention to the beauty of a flower.

Paul's way, on the other hand, was like dissecting the flower and analyzing each part scientifically. He explained the nature of faith in a very nuanced and complex way. But his message was always ultimately about "faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6). Paul recognized that the gospel is as simple as it is profound.

Jesus and Paul both taught justification by faith, which means that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). This is a gift, quite apart from any goodness in us. But Paul discussed the subject at great length from a theological standpoint, while Jesus simply illustrated what type of person will be justified. He told a parable to some people who "trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt" (Luke 18:9). A Pharisee and a tax collector went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanked God that he wasn't corrupt like other people, including the tax collector. But the tax collector couldn't even lift his eyes to heaven. "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Jesus declared that the tax collector went away justified, "for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14). So here we have a man who was still very much a sinner, but he was set right in God's eyes.

Likewise, both of them taught that salvation must be through faith alone, but that true faith leads to good works. Paul says that we are chosen for "salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth" (2 Thessalonians 2:13). In other words, faith means that the Holy Spirit lives within us and transforms us from the inside out. Jesus illustrates this in John 15 by saying that he is the vine and we are the branches. If we abide in him, we will bear much fruit, but apart from him we can do nothing. His Spirit is like the sap that flows through to the branches, and the fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

It is true that Jesus spent a lot of time talking about how we are to live and setting the standard. And Gandhi appreciated that. But the standard is impossibly high because of our human limitations. Gandhi saw that, too. At the end of his life, he wrote: "It is an unbroken torture to me that I am still so far from him whom I know governs every breath of my life and whose offspring I am. I know it is because of the evil passions within me that keep me so far from him; yet I can't get away from them."

Gandhi saw very clearly that the goal is always love, but he never recognized that faith in Christ is the only means by which we can lay hold of it. The gift of salvation is to let the love of Christ flow through us, putting to death the "evil passions" that even a lifetime devoted to virtue can't control.

Jesus set the standard so high because he enables us to meet it by changing our hearts. He was far more than just a good teacher--he came that we "may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gandhi and Christianity

Mahatma GandhiMahatma Gandhi seemed to have been a man with a rare moral compass. He humbly sought the truth and he was self-aware enough to know that he needed what Jesus came to give. More self-aware, frankly, than many Christians. He was in a perfect position to understand the power of the cross, but it appears that he never fully did.

Gandhi was deeply drawn to Christ, referring to him as "a beautiful example of the perfect Man." He befriended a number of Christians and consented to their efforts to convert him, even though he noted that his friend Mr. Coates had "no regard for my religion." Mr. Coates introduced Gandhi to other Christians, including one man who said: "Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind. Only he who accepts His great redemption can have eternal peace. Think of what a life of restlessness is yours [because Gandhi was always atoning for his own sins], and what a promise of peace we have."

Gandhi replied by saying: "If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless."

"I assure you, your attempt is fruitless," the man replied.

"And the brother proved as his word," Gandhi continues in his narration. "He knowingly committed transgressions, and showed me that he was undisturbed by the thought of them."

That man sounds like a lot of Christians today, doesn't he? We want Jesus to take away our guilt without removing the stain. We are content to know that we'll go to Heaven, even if our lives stay exactly the same. But if I still cherish sin this side of the cross, who's to say that Heaven would be desirable to me--a place where, according to C.S. Lewis, "we shall not be able to retain the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell." The truth is, if I don't love God and hate my sin, I will probably not be motivated by Heaven anyway.

But I think to a degree we all want more than "pie in the sky by and by when I die." I want my soul to be right within me, so that sin is not my default setting. I don't want to be arrogant, insecure, lazy, stressed, irritable, weak, clueless, prejudiced, anxious, hateful, jealous, naive, vengeful or any of those things that make life miserable and complicated. I want the space beneath my skull bones to be a pleasant place because it is the prism through which I see the world. My thoughts and feelings matter a whole lot more than circumstances. If I'm bitter or angry, what difference does it make what my life looks like to others?

When Gandhi told Mr. Coates about his encounter, he was horrified. But Gandhi reassured him that he knew that not all Christians hold to such a theory of atonement. "Mr. Coates himself walked in the fear of God," Gandhi wrote. "His heart was pure, and he believed in the possibility of self-purification."

The possibility of self-purification? How is that good news? Gandhi had been attempting self-purification his entire life as a Hindu. But clearly his best efforts were not good enough, otherwise he wouldn't have expressed such a longing to be redeemed from his sins. Not surprisingly, Gandhi decided that Christianity was not much different from his own religion.

But properly understood, Christianity is fundamentally different from any other religion, because Christ came to reconcile us to God and restore our souls. When Jesus died on that cross, he defeated evil once and for all. And through faith in him, we have victory over our sins. He justifies us (sets us right with God) and sanctifies us (heals our brokenness). The vilest criminal and Mahatma Gandhi have equal access into God's presence to receive a new heart and a new spirit. (Ezekiel 36:26)

That seems to be exactly what Gandhi wanted--to say with the psalmist, "I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free." (Psalm 119:32) He wanted the chords of sin and death to be broken.

"Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Control


You might have gathered from my previous post that writing has felt a little frustrating recently. And it wasn't just about my writing--the careers of some novelists we know are threatening to come to a screeching halt (since I have yet to publish anything, my writing career has remained safely in the ditch :). They write compelling stories and devote a dizzying amount of time to publicity. Still, their sales numbers are lagging and some of them have been told that their publishers will not enter into another book contract.

Thankfully, Rick has a contract with Abingdon Press on his current work in progress, When the Devil Whistles, but we're very conscious of the need to use publicity as wisely as possible from the very beginning. We're studying what seems to work and what seems to be just busywork. Not that we're anywhere near discovering the magic bullet.

But this morning God spoke to me through novelist Susan Meissner. I don't know her, but she has a rare ability to hook me with her concepts and keep me turning pages. I'm not naturally a fiction reader, so that takes some doing. I noticed that she has a new novel coming out and that her Amazon sales rankings are very good.

A few months ago, Susan wrote a blog post that really stuck with me. She talked about being frustrated with writing, even though she had books out in the marketplace that were doing well. So she did what she had done years ago while struggling to get published: she surrendered her writing career to God, leaving it completely on his altar to do with as he pleased. She would focus on honing her craft, while leaving that which is out of her control in God's hands. God blessed her writing career afterwards, but she didn't necessarily draw a connection--mostly she focused on the effect it had on her.

I'm sure Susan does publicity, but she doesn't dominate social networking sites. She's not the kind of person I look at and say, "Whoa, I could never keep that pace! Why bother trying?" Mostly she seems anchored in God, epitomizing Psalm 46:10: "Cease striving and know that I am God."

And it occurred to me that surrender is the way of the cross: laying down my life (meaning everything) to pick it up. As long as we hold tightly to something, we're not trusting God with it. Control is fueled by subtle fear: "If I don't hold everything together, it will fall apart!"

I see through personal experience how closely surrender is tied to faith. If something is too important to me, I find it hard to pray with faith. But if I regard myself as a stewart of God's business, then a deep certainty of his faithfulness grows within me. I have an easier time yielding some areas of my life than others. But I'm very slowly learning to surrender everything--my family, my money, my writing, and my life--to God.

In writing surrender becomes particularly important because of the revolution of rising expectation. How did Paul Young feel when The Shack was no longer in the top five on Amazon? How about the bestselling novelist whose latest book was panned by critics? If I feel jealous, frustrated, fearful, or proud now, more success will not solve the problem because I will expect more. But if I give my writing to Christ, he will safeguard my heart.

And a final point on surrender: If I keep tight control over my life, God can't use me. But if I surrender it to him, he will fit me into his eternal plan. That doesn't necessarily mean success by worldly standards, but from an eternal vantage point it's the only life worth living.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reflections on Forrest Gump

Rick and I watched Forrest Gump last night. Each time I watch it I'm struck by Forrest Gump's brilliance. And this time the movie spoke to me in a new way.

Friday was one of those "Why am I writing?" days. Why am I adding more words to all the words that are already out there? All right, so the words have to come out, but other than that? Why blog? Why did I write a lengthy comment on John Piper's blog on the subject of Arminianism and Calvinism, and then another long clarification of the first one that nobody responded to? (That is an excellent question, come to think of it . . .)

Although God takes pains to try to keep my pride in check (not usually successfully, I might add), he's always there to life me up when I feel discouraged. And this time he used John 3:8, my blogging friend Becky, and Forrest Gump.

John 3:8 says: "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." Recently God has orchestrated a number of divine appointments in my life. He gives me just enough insight into a person to know what to say, and no more. Sometimes I have no idea what happens afterwards, although I always keep these people in my prayers. It's like God says to me: "All right, Anette, I have a small part for you to play here, and then I want you to exit at stage right."

But every now and then (like Friday) that frustrates me, because I want to know if anything I do or write makes a difference. Sometimes God humors me, but sometimes he just wants me to trust.

And this weekend he put everything in context. On Friday, Becky posted "A letter to yesterday's feather ," which I'm quoting in part:
dear feather...

Yesterday i thought it sad that you were captured by the wind, torn from the body of the bird from which you came. Today i think maybe it was a blessing in disguise. You seem alive only in that wind; without it you'd lie lifeless on the ground. It is the stream on which you sail. Yesterday i found you curled round that little yellow flower. And today, who knows? Maybe you're resting on the bark of an old twisted tree. And tomorrow, maybe you'll adorn the headdress of a child pretending to be an indian warrior. Maybe one day someone will find you and turn you into a pillow to bring comfort to their weary head? Unite you with a whole case of feathers again. Until then you are free to dance upon the breeze, be carried by a force outside yourself, given momentum by an invisible torrent of air . . . I wish you well little feather. Submit and ride with Him. 
That got me thinking about Forrest Gump and the feather at the beginning and end of the story. I love the juxtaposition of his simple, humble storytelling and the magnitude of the actual historical events. His listeners on the bench understand the historical context and so do we, but Forrest Gump understands only one thing: that every situation calls for him to do the right thing. That's what makes him so brilliant.

If we're led by the Holy Spirit, we are like Forrest Gump, going through life doing God's will without any idea of the significance of the events in which we play a role. And where God leads, the stakes are eternal and therefore infinitely more important than the events in the movie. God handpicks us for a particular encounter and gives us the right words, knowing that they are timely. What could be more important than that?

Like Forrest Gump, we have an audience which understands the significance of the smallest deed, if done with God's love and by his direction. Hebrews 12:1 tells us that we have a great, invisible "cloud of witnesses surrounding us," including departed heroes of the faith and angels. (Luke 15:10) They see past worldly distractions to the eternal soul at the center of the drama. They know, as C.S. Lewis said, that "nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat."

If we can eternally influence just one, our lives are not in vain.

And that's worth writing for.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Venite Ad Me Omnes"



In the center of the University of Notre Dame campus, not far from the law school, stands a statue of Jesus with his arms stretched out and the inscription, "Venite ad me omnes" ("Come to me all") on a plaque. The simplicity of those words always filled me with a deep peace back in the days when my only worry was finals. It wasn't until May 12, 1993, the day after I completed the requirements for law school graduation, that their meaning began to take on a whole new significance.

May 12, 1993 was the day that redefined "normal." When Ingrid, not yet five months old, had her first seizure.

Fast-forward three months: Rick and I drove back to Illinois from Minnesota with a sedated eight-month-old Ingrid sleeping in her car seat. In three months, she had gone from a beautiful, communicative baby to one who could no longer cry or smile, and whose right hand was fisted and unusable from constant seizures. I knew that the seizures would start up again as soon as the Valium wore off. But the children's hospital had sent us home. She was not a candidate for surgery and none of the experimental medications had worked.

But more devastating than any of that, God had not come through and healed her, in spite of our frantic, all-consuming prayers. The laws of nature had prevailed as I feared they would, and I found myself standing over the precipice of a terrifying new reality.

The strange thing about evil is that we all know it's there, but most of the time it doesn't seem real because it stays at a safe enough distance. Theologians write countless books on The Problem of Evil, trying to make sense of it. But when it encroaches on your personal space for the first time, when the knowledge of evil becomes part of the fiber of your soul, explanations mean nothing. The safety rails are off and you realize the magnitude of the stakes. A place called Hell could really exist, because you've been there.

My first reaction when Ingrid wasn't healed was, "So God isn't real after all. We're in this nightmare all alone." I had no explanation--no defense of God. Watching Ingrid having a seizure was like standing by as wild dogs tore my baby apart. How could God allow that? My worldview was shattered.

But I was even more shattered. I started having panic attacks, and darkness hung like a curtain around me. The only way I could get through the day was by leaning more heavily than ever on the God whose existence no longer seemed intellectually credible.

And he was there, more real than ever before. He told me to lay down the burden, to stop praying for Ingrid so obsessively and come. Come without asking for anything except his presence. Surrender everything at his altar. "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28)

I clung to him like never before, releasing everything into his hands--Ingrid, my precarious mental state, and my faltering faith. His light spilled into my life, more powerful than ever, filling me with a joy and peace that could only be supernatural. The darkness that had lurked in every corner fled at his presence, and the panic attacks disappeared and never came back.

A few days later, an untried combination of medications stopped Ingrid's seizures enough to bring us out of crisis mode. And God began to rebuild our family's life.

The problem of evil has many moving parts, and all the books in the world combined can't do justice to it. But it has only one solution: Christ. Having experienced that first-hand silences many questions.


Friday, September 18, 2009

"I hurl you into the universe and pray"


We just dropped Chelsea off at college. I've only called her twice in the two hours since we got home, so I'd say I'm holding it together remarkably well.

She's ready, though, even if I'm not. In the past year, Chelsea has metamorphosed from a teenager into a woman. She took care of all the planning for her move, occasionally taking me along for shopping trips. She ordered her pink bike on-line and even assembled it herself. (All right, so she put the fenders on backwards, but who's perfect? We had the bike shop do a "tune up." Not that we thought it would fall apart or anything.)

It goes without saying that I miss her, but the strangest part is permanently giving up the illusion of control. I say "illusion" because nobody ever controlled Chelsea. She grew up to be a wonderful young woman with far better judgment than either of her parents at eighteen (and arguably either of us now), but only because she chose to be.

Until Chelsea was eight, The Strong-Willed Child by James Dobson was my child rearing bible. He said that strong-willed children take comfort in knowing that their parents are in charge and that there are consequences when they step out of line. The problem was that Dobson had never met Chelsea Acker. "I shall never surrender!" was her battle cry. And she never did, no matter what the consequences.

One night, Chelsea and I had just finished locking horns about something when in desperation I asked God for guidance. (Yes, it's typical for me to wait until I'm desperate to ask God for help. But I'm getting better.) The answer he impressed on my mind was clear. "If you're under grace, why are you putting Chelsea under the law?" I suddenly realized that "Because she's a child" didn't cut it.

Through Chelsea, God taught me a powerful lesson: The law cannot change a person, including a child. That is the whole point of the Gospel. Only God's grace, working from within to mold the heart, can transform a life.

So from that moment on, we focused on our relationships with our children, making sure above all else that they know how much we love them. And we prayed for them, trusting that God alone has access to their hearts. The other three children have always accepted guidance a lot more easily, but Chelsea needed to make her own mistakes and learn from them. And by the time she hit her teenage years, she seemed to have gotten the rebellion out of her system. William Sears analogizes strong-willed children to high-risk, high-yield investments. If so, we've really hit the jackpot on this one!

The only real power we have over children is on our knees, because they may choose to go their own way when the rules are gone. But the power of prayer is infinite, and not limited by proximity. I won't know where she goes, when she comes home at night, or whether she wears a bike helmet, but I can ask God for his shield of protection. Not just during the next four years, but always.







"I hurl you into the universe and pray."
--Netta Gillespie

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Transforming Doubt to Faith

Most Christians struggle with doubt at times. Sometimes we think of it as a dirty secret that offends God and would shock other Christians. So we pretend, by saying and doing all the right things. But God desires "truth in the innermost being." (Psalm 51:6) He wants us to come to him with our struggles, so he can help us work through them. "A bruised weed He will not break and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish." (Isaiah 42:3)

I've found over the years that a number of things have helped me overcome doubt. First, when my faith is tested I lean more heavily on God. James 4:8 says: "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you." The best way to grow in our faith is to abide in Christ as a branch on a vine, so his Spirit flows through us like sap. The more time we spend with God, the more real he becomes to us, and the more power he has in our lives.

Second, we need to stop treating our faith like a fragile object that must be stored away someplace safe. Although Christians talk about knowing the truth, we often act as if we fear the truth more than anything. It's okay to ask the hard questions lurking in our minds and let unbelievers challenge our faith, because God's truth can withstand our most intense scrutiny. As Christians, we have nothing to fear. So let's trust God that he is the rock of ages, including the scientific age. When we embrace all truth without fear, our faith will grow. God doesn't need our truth-twisting any more than we need a crooked attorney to defend us.

Third, God expects us to walk in faith. What are we willing to risk for God? Our money? Our reputations? Our lives? It's important to draw a distinction between walking in faith and putting God to the test. The same deed may be an act of faith by one person and recklessness by another, because the first person was led by the Holy Spirit. But often the Bible tells us very clearly what to do. For example, it tells us that if we give, God will give back to us. I've found that the best thing to do during times of financial uncertainty is to be generous. That is an act of faith. Will God keep his promise to provide? Yes, he will, and our faith will grow. When we choose integrity over popularity, we take a step in faith. God often rewards those acts of faith, but more importantly, we are building on an everlasting foundation that matters far more than his provision in this life.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Time for a Nap

And whoever put this thing on my bed probably won't be needing it for a while. 

-- Coco (guest blogger)


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Unity in the Spirit vs. Conformity to the Subculture

On Monday, John Piper wrote in his Desiring God blog that he hoped his daughter would hear President Obama's speech to the students. So far he has received 287 comments. There are two things I really like about Piper's blog. First, he speaks his mind, and second, his readers speak their minds.

I commented that it didn't even matter to me if I agreed with him--I'm just so thrilled when Christians refuse to toe the party line and think in lockstep. I realized afterwards that it might have seemed like I am against Christian unity. Like I enjoy a good fight. But that's not entirely true. I'm all for unity in the Spirit, but against conformity to the Christian subculture. There's a huge difference.

A number of home schoolers replied to Piper's post. Now there are few people I admire as much as home schoolers. I'm just remembering back to Chelsea's elementary school years, and the joys we had trying to get her to do her homework. Chelsea used to be very strong willed, and even though she has always had the gift of gab, she lived by the old adage that volume trumps logic and reason. But she has turned out to be the most wonderful eighteen-year-old, so that's one of the reasons I know there's a God. Anyway, I developed a deep and lasting reverence for home schoolers during those years.

But I question the notion that protecting children from "the world" keeps them from sin. We are the world! (Isn't that a song?) What I mean is that we are not necessarily any better than unbelievers. As anyone who has spent time in the subculture will attest to, we can sin with the best of them, we just Christianize it. When it comes to gossip, anything goes as long as we start out with, "So-and-so really needs our prayers," and end it with, "Bless her heart!"

I don't mean to sound cynical--I know many amazing Christians. But they are amazing only because they walk with the Holy Spirit, not because they shelter themselves from people who think differently. They have learned not to conform to the world (or the Christian subculture), but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. (Romans 12:2) How do we renew our minds? By having the mind of Christ. (1 Cor. 2:16)

The only thing that keeps us from conforming to the world is having the mind of Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Without it, we will conform to something worldly, either popular culture or the Christian subculture or both. But when the Holy Spirit transforms us, there will be unity between believers. Why? Because the Spirit is not divided against himself. Where he governs, Christians are of one mind.

But we are to look to Christ, not to other Christians. They may be wrong, and even if they're not, why should we settle for secondhand grace? If we focus on other Christians, we will at best conform. But if we look to Christ, he will unite us through his Spirit with other like-minded believers.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Through a Glass Darkly

I meant to blog last Friday but ended up frolicking with atheists at Dwindling in Unbelief instead. We discussed the story of the prophet Elisha being mocked by a group of boys who said, "Go up, you bald head! Go up, you bald head!" Elisha, as you may recall, replied by sending down a curse so that two bears appeared and tore the boys apart.

The discussion had been going on for some time (years) before I commented, with people arguing between themselves about the ages of the boys, and other things. I replied something to the effect of, "I don't care if they were five or twenty-five, I find that atrocious!" A self-described ex-Christian congratulated me on not engaging in the cognitive dissonant truth-twisting "that is so common among Christians." But, he warned, be careful where it takes you. (Apparently his path toward "deconversion" began when he read this story to his small children, and it had brought tears to his eyes because of what it said about God.)

I told him that I know exactly where it takes me--to Christ. He had to deal with cognitive dissonant truth-twisting from religious people all the time. The Pharisees were hateful and self-righteous, and their religion blinded them to Jesus's goodness. They went so far as to accuse Jesus of having an evil spirit, and he replied by saying that a sin against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven them. The sin against the Holy Spirit is to call good evil, and evil good, something that gradually shuts the light of truth out of our souls. So instead of defending the indefensible in the name of God, it's often best to leave it alone and admit that we don't understand.

Another man then apologized for his earlier outburst in response to my first post. He explained that it makes him so mad when people say that God is good in spite of everything he does. My reply (which is still in moderator limbo) is the subject of this post.

Good in spite of everything he does? I suppose that's a natural attitude if we think of God as a wrathful, indiscriminately murderous deity. And that's how he's often described in the Old Testament. I don't know what to make of that.

There are many things we don't understand about God. As Paul said, we see him "through a glass darkly." But the Gospels give us a clear portrait of Christ, who is the "exact representation of [God's] nature." (Hebrews 1:3) We don't have to dig through the Old Testament to figure out what God is like. Jesus was the incarnate God. So we know that when we see him face to face, we won't be confronting an irrational killer of children. We will see the face of pure love, the epitome of goodness, the one Mahatma Ghandi referred to as "a beautiful example of the perfect man."

If we spend our lives blaming God for all the evil in the world, it is Jesus we are blaming. Jesus who spent the three years of his ministry welcoming sinners, healing the sick, and who sacrificed his life to defeat evil. Never once was he philosophical about suffering--he simply alleviated it. He wept when Lazarus died. He healed on the Sabbath because he couldn't allow Satan to torment a woman one more day. By any honest standard, he was full of grace and truth.

And he is the Christian God. If we truly understand that, many questions become irrelevant.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

When Theology is Like a Drug

Last night, I lay awake thinking about Calvinism, Arminianism, and open theism until my brain hurt. I repented of that sin in the morning.

Sorry about the geeky joke, but I'm only half facetious. This past week I've often felt like Jesus has knocked on the door of my heart and I've replied: "Don't bother me! I'm thinking about theology." And I'm not thinking about it in a particularly constructive way--I'm trying to figure out how God does his job. How does he save us? Does he cause the suffering in this world? If he allows something evil to happen, is that really different from causing it to happen? And if not, is that where the open theists come in with their ideas that God doesn't know the future? Are there better explanations that are more scripturally accurate as well as viscerally satisfying?

STOP!!!!!

(Deep breath)


It reminds me of C.S. Lewis's insightful words: "Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head. From all my thoughts, even from thoughts of Thee, O Thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free." He is saying that theology--the study of God--is very different from God himself. I am to trust Christ, rather than my own theological views. Through faith, I can humbly receive him and let him fill my heart and mind. Amazingly, the Almighty wants fellowship with me, even if I don't understand everything.

I'm not saying that the study of theology is useless to our walk of faith. God calls us to love him with our minds as well as our hearts. And that means studying his word diligently. But when I get caught up in the abstract, I often lose sight of the essential. If the Arminians and Calvinists still don't see eye to eye after all these centuries, does God really require me to come up with an airtight explanation?

"The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (Galations 5:6) I hope I remember that while disagreeing with someone.