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. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why is Faith Necessary for Salvation?

First, I want to apologize for taking so long since my last post. I commented on a couple of other blogs, and although I enjoyed the discussions, they went on for far too long. This is a habit of mine that I'm going to try to conquer, so I can take less time between blog posts.

However, I had planned to answer a couple of questions on Think and Wonder. Wonder and Think . . . about two months ago, but since that post is now old, and my answer is kind of lengthy (very atypical for me, I know), I figured I would just do a blog post on it. Maybe others have the same questions.
Why is belief a necessary component of Christianity? Of salvation? 
Why this mental affirmation of the death and resurrection of Christ for our salvation? 
Hebrews 11:6 addresses the first question: "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him."

In other words, in order to come to God, we have to believe that he exists and that seeking him is worth it. There is nothing esoteric about this concept.  Unless we believe that a hospital exists and is likely to cure our disease, we will not go to the hospital either.

And it is by coming to God, through Christ, that we are saved. This theme of God calling us to come to him runs through the Old and the New Testaments:

"Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number" (Jeremiah 2:32).

"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David" (Isaiah 55:1-3).

"If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him" (John 7:37-38).

These verses talk about persistently coming to God, not just responding to an altar call. It is the lifestyle described in Micah 6:8: "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

And why does God require us to come to him or walk with him? So he can heal our souls. Walking with him has great reward, which is why Jeremiah 2:32 asks rhetorically: "Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments?"

When Jesus laments unbelief, he says: "For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them" (Matthew 13:15). Unbelief shuts us off from the healing God wants to give.

However, Hebrews 11:6 implies that simply seeking God earnestly is indicative of sufficient faith. And this is illustrated in the story of Mark 9:19-25, where Jesus tells the father of the convulsing boy: "Everything is possible for him who believes." The father responds with, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" This man did not have very much faith, but he had enough to seek Jesus and to ask for help--even help to believe.

What is Faith?

There are two facets of the Christian faith: First, there is the intellectual belief that it is true. This depends on objective evidence and reasoning. And second, faith means the ability to receive what God wants to give. Jesus frequently chided his disciples for their unbelief--in spite of having seen many miracles--referring to it as the hardness of their hearts. The disciples had evidence, and yet they often doubted (Mark 16:14).

The Intellectual Aspect of Faith

Christmas movies often tout the virtues of faith, but faith in and of itself is entirely neutral. It is good to believe something true and bad to believe something false. And to know the difference, we have to think critically.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is highly intellectual. The Jews have always valued literacy, and the Book of Proverbs continually exhorts us to acquire wisdom and understanding. Proverbs 8 is a celebration of wisdom, saying, "For wisdom is better than jewels; and all desirable things cannot compare with her" (Proverbs 8:11), and characterizing wisdom as God's companion when he planned out and created the universe (Proverbs 8:22-31).

When the Book of Acts describes Paul's evangelistic efforts, they almost always involve him reasoning with people (Acts 17:2, Acts 17:17, Acts 18:4, Acts 18:19). He reasoned with the Jews from the Old Testament Scriptures, but when he addressed the Greeks in Athens, he met them where they were by referencing what was familiar to their culture (Acts 17:22-31).

Of all the groups that Paul addressed, only the Jews from Berea were called "noble" or "noble-minded," because they "they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11). In other words, they were receptive to the message, but they didn't accept it uncritically--they checked the Scriptures to see if what Paul said about the Messiah was true.

The Bereans were not motivated by jealousy like the Thessalonians, nor did they scoff like some of the Athenians. They simply evaluated the claims of Paul rationally, and this earned them the description "noble-minded."

The Spiritual Aspect of Faith

Although intellectual belief is important, by itself it cannot save us. James 2:19 says: "You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless." The faith that saves is the kind that changes our hearts so that our actions follow. This is a gift to us from God, by his Spirit.

Ezekiel 36:26-27 prophesies: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws." Saving faith enables us to receive what God wants to give, so that we may become everything God intends for us to be.

How do we get this kind of faith? Revelation 3:20 says: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me." All we have to do is surrender to God and permit him access to our hearts and our needs.

This is not something we do just once. If we want to grow spiritually we have to keep an open door policy with God, so that we come to know him and let him do the renovation that needs to be done in us. The more we let that happen, the more we make it possible for God to work through us, building his kingdom.

Why Is Faith in the Resurrection Necessary for Our Salvation?

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins." And in Romans 6:10-11, he says: "For the death that [Jesus] died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus."

In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N. T. Wright uses the analogy of a bank account to explain what this means (he is referring to the word translated "consider" or "reckon" in Romans 6:11).
When Paul says 'reckon', he does not mean that the act of 'reckoning' something creates a new entity . . . the language of 'reckoning' is that of adding up a sum, a column of figures. When I add up the money in my bank account, that does not create the money; life is not, alas, that easy. It merely informs me of the amount that is already there. When I have completed the 'reckoning', I have not brought about a new state of affairs in the real world outside my mind; the only new state of affairs is that my mind is now aware of the way things actually are.
When Jesus died for us and rose again, he set up an eternal "bank account" for us with everything we could possibly need or desire forever. By his stripes we are healed from the explosive temper that controls us, the demanding ego that makes us and those close to us miserable, and every affliction of body or soul.

And we have to know about that for the same reason that if we possess a bank account containing a large sum, it does us no good if we have no idea it exists--or if we know about it but rarely get around to making a trip to the bank.

As Paul says in Ephesians 1:18-20: "I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms."

Faith means having the eyes of our hearts enlightened, so that we can understand that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to us. And that power comes from the Holy Spirit, whom we are given as a pledge of our inheritance when we believe (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My Faith Journey

View Image
A statue on Notre Dame campus
with the inscription, Venite Ad Me Omnes 
("Come to Me All")

My friend, Mary, has asked me to contribute a chapter to her book about people who have emerged through a crisis of faith with a changed and stronger faith, and the following is the first draft. I would welcome any suggestions on how to make it better.

At first I wasn't sure if what I experienced was a true crisis of faith in the way that others have experienced it, because I never felt abandoned by God for very long. When, at my lowest point, the thought, Maybe God does not exist, began to form in my mind, it was countered by the words of Job in Handel’s Messiah through the car stereo: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” God was closer to me than ever—hovering over the chaos.

So in that sense my crisis was very different from those who eventually abandon their faith. But in other ways I suspect that it was similar: My crisis shook the very foundation of my faith, which had to be rebuilt brick by brick into something more solid. I came to a point where platitudes wouldn’t sustain me—I had to know that it was true. My faith could no longer be like a fragile object stored in a glass cabinet. It had to be taken out and tested at the risk of its destruction.

I faced the crossroad that permits no shrinking back into one’s comfort zone, which leads either to a stronger, deeper faith or its abandonment. Mary’s book is from the perspective of those who end up taking the former path, as described by George MacDonald in words that comforted me during that phase of my life:

"A man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood . . . Doubt must precede every deeper assurance; for uncertainties are what we first see when we look into a region hitherto unknown, unexplored, unannexed."

My Faith Prior to the Crisis

My faith background is fairly eclectic. I was baptized into the Norwegian Lutheran State Church, of which one of my only memories is being stuck in the annual going-to-church-on-Christmas-Eve traffic for about an hour, when the entire community tried to cram into a relatively small traditional church. My other memory was of going to the same church on a school field trip in fourth grade and being shocked when a Pakistani boy in my class announced before the field trip that he didn't believe in our God. That was my first experience of anyone believing anything different from what the state church taught. 

After moving to the U.S. when I was eleven, our family started attending the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church in Minneapolis, where I went through confirmation. Then I attended St. Olaf College, once again (you guessed it) a Norwegian Lutheran institution. 

Things started to change at the age of nineteen, when I came to Christ in a Charismatic church while visiting my aunt in Florida for spring break (such a rebel, I know). My senior year, I met my husband Rick, who also had a Lutheran background, but to his father's dismay I corrupted Rick into leaving the Lutheran Church, and we attended an evangelical church after we married. Then we enrolled at Notre Dame Law School, a Roman Catholic institution, where we found an evangelical church in South Bend. 

Already at this point, I had experienced the gentle stretching of my faith that I think helped me through my coming crisis. Rick was a more critically-thinking Christian than I was at the time, so he challenged my myopia. And I knew that there were genuine Christians outside of my narrow sphere of modern evangelicalism, like our Contracts Professor Edward Murphy, a deeply spiritual Catholic Christian who authored the book Life to the Full, and who sadly succumbed to cancer a few years after we left Notre Dame.

But I still had that sense that I was the center of all rightness and to the extent people said what was familiar to me, they were also right. And the further they were from that center, the more wrong they were. I never asked myself why I should be so right—I simply equated familiarity with truth. 

The Day that Changed Everything

Ingrid at four months
Our first two children, Chelsea and Ingrid, were born during the three years I was in law school. It may not seem like the brightest idea to have babies in law school, but this was, after all, Notre Dame, where people often had children numbering in the double digits—and when in Rome . . . (Sorry—I didn’t even notice the pun until after I wrote it.) 

But God prepared me for what lay ahead by showing me that I could do all things through Him who strengthens me, including juggling babies and my studies. I had a rough semester that started a month after Chelsea's birth, when I was in a sleep-deprived stupor every day. After that semester, I concluded that the only way I would make it through law school with decent grades was if I started every day with an hour of focused Bible reading and prayer. After that, my grades became better than before I had children, and when May 12, 1993 rolled around, I had just completed my best semester in all my years of schooling and was awaiting graduation.

Ingrid was released from the
hospital, but very sedated, for
my graduation.
(Rick graduated the year before.)
That was the day when Ingrid, at five months old, had her first seizure. I was feeding her at the time, and my first thought was that she was choking on the milk because she stopped breathing and turned blue. But I had seen a seizure before while working with the mentally disabled, and in my haste to call for medical assistance I yanked the phone cord out of the wall and couldn't keep my hands from shaking as I tried to plug it back in. But my fears at the time did not come close to doing justice to the reality we faced. 

Ingrid was in and out of hospitals in Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota over the next three months, while doctors tried in vain to stop the seizures that came every few minutes. At one point, she developed pneumonia because she was so heavily drugged that she could hardly swallow. She stopped crying and smiling, and her right hand became fisted and unusable from the seizures. 

I spent most of those three months just praying—praying while sitting in the hospital, praying at night, reading the Bible and devouring books on prayer. I had experienced God's faithfulness many times before and knew the power of prayer, so I would have faith and I wouldn't stop praying until she was healed—even if it killed me. I would permit no doubt in my mind and no grief in my heart. 

I remember one night toward the end of the three months while Ingrid was at a hospital in St. Paul, the premier hospital for epilepsy care in the Midwest, and we were staying with my parents in Minneapolis. I was up praying in the middle of the night, as usual. Rick found me and said, "Let's say a three-year-old is helping her father do something that only the father can do. It is okay for the three-year-old to take a break and get some sleep. You're the three-year-old in this scenario and God is the father, so why don't you come to bed?"

I thought that was a quaint analogy, but what kind of mother would I be if I let my eight-month-old suffer while I slept? So I stayed awake and continued to pray. I was convinced that by the time we exhausted all natural remedies, God would intervene and heal Ingrid. 

After three weeks at the St. Paul hospital, the doctors had concluded that Ingrid was not a candidate for surgery, and the experimental drugs had not helped her. But she had apparently overstayed her visit, because they told us that she would be discharged, without anywhere else to go. "We think that Ingrid is doing much better, and is ready to go home. She only has about seven seizures per day now."

"But that's because you give her Ativan after three seizures, which knocks her out after about seven seizures for the rest of the day," I said.

"No, we think she is doing better even without the Ativan."

"Let's test that then and wait to give her Ativan," I suggested.  

"Okay, but we still have to get the discharge papers ready. Most epilepsy patients stay for a maximum of two weeks, and Ingrid has been here for three now." So they knew as well as I did that Ingrid had not improved at all on the experimental medicine. But they were not willing to tell us that there was nothing else they could do. 

While we waited for the discharge papers, Ingrid had over twenty seizures, just as I had suspected. Then the Ativan stopped them by once again putting her into a deep sleep. I was exhausted and my conviction that Ingrid would be healed was gone and replaced with overwhelming dread and tension. I had not cried since my graduation week, when Ingrid was first hospitalized. But I cried the whole time we waited for the papers and during the entire drive back to my parents' house. 

Rick recalls holding Ingrid and praying for her later that night. Her tiny body convulsed with one seizure after the other, every minute or two, and he thought to himself, I'm holding my daughter as she dies.

The next day we started driving back to Illinois, where we were living at the time. Darkness hung like heavy curtains around me, and I started experiencing almost unbearable panic attacks. No longer was I only concerned about Ingrid, but I began to fear for myself as well for having driven myself so hard at a time when I needed to grieve and heal. I had made the leap of faith headlong into the abyss, and now I wondered if anyone was there to catch me, or if I had leapt to my doom.  

Then the song came over the car speakers: "I know that my Redeemer liveth. And that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God."

Job's bold pronouncement of faith in God and the resurrection kindled a small spark of faith within me. I didn't have great faith, in spite of my mental gymnastics and my frantic, all-consuming prayers, because when Ingrid wasn't miraculously healed in the way I had hoped, my immediate reaction was, I knew it. 

But I still had a little faith—enough to do the one thing that faith demands of us: come to Christ. "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).

So I clung to Him like never before, releasing everything into His hand—Ingrid, my precarious mental state, and my faltering faith. For the first time, I came without asking for anything except His presence. I surrendered everything at His altar. And I decided that instead of trying to control God, I would listen to Him and let Him lead me.

Over the next two weeks, I continued to struggle with panic attacks and waves of depression, and I felt very strongly that God commanded me to cut out all caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugar from my diet (which I later learned can make panic attacks worse). I started jogging, making a practice of thanking God for every blessing, releasing all my anxieties to Him, and resting in His presence moment by moment.

God's light spilled into my life, more powerful than ever, filling me with a joy and peace that I had never before experienced. The darkness fled at His presence, and the panic attacks disappeared and never came back. 

During this two-week period, Ingrid continued to have seizures that we had to stop with Ativan, which would put her into a deep sleep for the rest of the day. But we knew that Ativan was not a permanent solution, because it stops working for seizures after a couple of weeks of daily use. So at the end of the two weeks, her seizures started coming every few minutes even when we gave her Ativan, and we had her admitted to the intensive care unit of the local hospital.

I thought the poor ICU doctor would have nervous breakdown, because he had inherited this problem from the specialists in St. Paul, and there was nothing he could do. He had long phone conversations with them, and finally he told us that the specialists had recommended that we try combining the experimental medicine (Felbatol) with Phenobarbital, rather than Tegretol. I don't think anyone thought this would help, since we had tried just about every combination of every anticonvulsant available. 

But the seizures stopped. For two weeks, Ingrid did not have a single seizure. Then she started having a few, several times a week, but we were out of crisis mode and were able to sign her up for rehabilitative therapy and early intervention programs. 

That was not the solution I had envisioned, and Ingrid's disabilities continued to be challenging, but the pressures I faced made me look to God, who had a lot to teach me. Some say that God's ways are inscrutable, but I say that He's eager to instruct, even though the human mind can only very slowly process the truths that He has revealed. We can't wait for answers to every why before we believe, because only when we live by faith, by looking to Christ, does the puzzle begin to take shape.  

Where I am Today

Back when Ingrid was first admitted to the hospital in St. Paul, we met with a hospital social worker who wanted to see how we were holding up. I made a point of giving all the "right" answers and demonstrating what a great attitude I had. I thought for sure I had succeeded, because she smiled and nodded a lot, so obviously she was quite impressed. 

But in her report, she said that I was in denial and really needed a good support network. I was somewhat offended by this at the time, but she was 100% correct in what she said about me. 

That is one way in which I am different today. In the aftermath of the crisis, I learned how important it is to face all truth—about myself, the world around me, and the Bible. "Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom" (Psalm 51:6). I have come to see that truth is the building block of genuine faith. Only when I resolve to build my foundation of faith with solid materials will it sustain me during a crisis. And this means testing everything to make sure it's true.

I have also become more faithful to the Bible, which some may claim is inconsistent with the desire for truth. But no such inconsistency exists. I have found that the more I seek the truth, the more I see that it lines up perfectly with the teachings of the Bible, and the stronger my faith becomes. In the beginning, it felt threatening to me to seek the truth because I risked finding that what I believed was false. And much of what I believed was false because I had plenty of blind spots. But I have always found the Bible to be true. 

Another question raised by my story is whether I still believe in modern day miracles, and the answer is an emphatic "yes." I believe they happen and that we should pray for them. 

But we don't experience the power of God by trying to twist His arm like I did when I prayed for Ingrid. After Ingrid was discharged from the St. Paul hospital, Rick and Chelsea were looking at cartoon pictures on the computer, and one of them was of a tiny man sitting on a huge hand and breaking into a major sweat trying to move an unyielding thumb. I can't tell you how much that picture spoke to me at the time! That is not what prayer is supposed to be like. 

God wants to give, and when we surrender to Him moment by moment, we receive His power. And it is this power that alone can do great works in this world that glorify God. Only God can glorify God, and "Christ in us" is our "hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). Yes, we are to wrestle in prayer, but we wrestle to stay persistent and focused. As Martin Luther said, "Prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance, but laying hold of His willingness."

Prayer is the simple act of abiding in Christ, like a branch on a vine, but such simplicity is the greatest challenge of the Christian life. And so my journey continues. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Opium of the People?

A few months ago, I had a conversation with Juanetta, a homeless woman who occasionally collects money for her shelter outside of our local Target store. She told me of her heartbreak when her son was sentenced to prison, but how God had helped her finally surrender the burden to Him. And she was full of joy, with a smile on her face and words of kindness to everyone who passed by. “God has something wonderful to give us and all we have to do is open up our hearts,” were her parting words to me, and as always when I talk with her, I didn't just feel enriched, I was enriched.

But if Karl Marx had still been alive and leaving Target at the time of our conversation, he might have said that it proved his point:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Getting rid of the vale of tears is a noble goal and one that Juanetta and I share. We agree that it is not a good thing when children end up in prison, and that people should give generously to the poor. (She was after all collecting money for her shelter.) But did Marx really think that he could eradicate car accidents, terminal illnesses, poverty, broken marriages, and the rebellion of children by simply demanding that people give up those things? And since he could do precious little about the vale of tears, it seems rather backwards to demand that people give up its "halo."

I don't for a moment concede that faith is an illusion, but Marx correctly observed that it helps people get through difficult times. In fact, I would say that there is a positive correlation between faith and poverty. How does the Bible explain this correlation? James 2:5 says: "Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?" He has set up this world to function according to the survival of the fittest, but He has set up the kingdom of God in such a way that only the humble can receive it. "God is opposed to the proud, but He gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). And that means the poor and disadvantaged have a distinct advantage.

Like Juanetta said, God has something wonderful to give us, but we have to open our hearts to receive it. And if our hearts are full of other things, we won't. Augustine agreed. "God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it."

In her Magnificat, Mary, the humble young girl with great faith who was chosen by God to carry His Son, said: "[God] has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and He has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed" (Luke 52-53). At the end of the Gospels, God exalts another Mary with the honor of being the apostle to the apostles—the first messenger of the resurrection of Jesus. Who was Mary Magdalene, the mystery woman who received the spotlight at such an important moment, but is hardly mentioned elsewhere? Luke 8:1-3 indicates that she may have been wealthy, but that Jesus had cast out of her seven demons. We are not given any details, but we can safely say that this means she had major issues and would have really needed Jesus.

To the early Christians, the order of the postmortem appearances of Jesus was significant, with some non-canonical Gospels claiming the first appearance for whomever they admired most. For example, the Gospel of the Hebrews says that Jesus appeared first to James. The importance of the order is not lost on Paul, who doesn't mention Mary Magdalene in that patriarchal society, and goes through the list and concludes with, "and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (1 Corinthians 15:8-9).

Saul of Tarsus was neither poor nor disadvantaged in any way. He was an upwardly mobile, self-righteous Pharisee, who believed that he was doing God's will by destroying the church. But God could still use him. Paul continues: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10, italics added).

And those words highlight what it is that God wants to give us if only we open up our hearts: the grace of God—that is, the power of God through the Holy Spirit. It was the grace of God that changed Paul from a proud, hate-driven man to a humble, hardworking man who called himself the least of the apostles and penned some of the most well-known, eloquent, and powerful verses about the preeminence of love: 1 Corinthians 13. And it is the grace of God that gives Juanetta joy in spite of her circumstances.

But even though Paul was God's chosen instrument for bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles, he continued to struggle with pride, and in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, he says that he was given a "thorn in the flesh" to keep him from exalting himself. When he asked God to take it away, God replied: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." In other words, as great as Paul was, the power of God was greater in him in his weakness and suffering. Then he was able to come to God with empty hands and an open heart and be filled with the power of Christ.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Failed Rapture Notice

A friend of my husband got this email, and I thought it was pretty funny. Did anyone else get it?

ADDENDUM (5/28/11):

Since the above was admittedly a poor excuse for a blogpost, I figured I would add the following comment on the subject of Harold Camping that I posted on Thoughts from a Sandwich this morning. (Parts of the main post are in red and my response is in black.)
Aren’t [Christians who believe Jesus could come again any time and urge you to "get right with God," yet criticize Camping by stabbing out Matthew 24:36 like a weapon] committing the same error, albeit with slightly less precision? They know it could happen today. Yet, ironically, by such knowledge, seem to have eliminated today as a possibility, pursuant to their own Bible verse.
Most Christians didn’t eliminate May 21, 2011 as a possibility. We just didn’t think it was any more likely than, say, May 25, 2011. It’s the difference between expressing confidence that someone is going to win the lottery and being so confident that I will win the lottery that I take out a loan and spend the money in anticipation.

And Harold Camping’s antics have about as much in common with the position of Christian orthodoxy as the behavior of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cultists had in common with the statements by Stephen Hawking that aliens probably exist somewhere. Whether or not Hawking is right, his statement is not worth laughing at because he has good reasons for saying that. This would be even truer if scientists actually discovered evidence of extraterrestrial life. The fact that most of the people who talk about aliens have been kooks wouldn’t then render scientists kooks.

I know that the idea of Jesus coming again as described in the Bible is bizarre, because something like that has never happened before. But quantum physics is bizarre and so is Big Bang cosmology. The question is whether we have good reasons for accepting those bizarre things as true.

And since Christians have good reasons for believing that God exists and that the Bible is God’s word, and the Bible is very clear that Jesus will come again, our belief is reasonable. However, Camping’s was not—he used completely random calculations to arrive at his date, going against Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32, and Acts 1:7. What he did has little to do with Christianity—he will now simply take his place in history (once again) as one of a number of failed apocalyptic preachers, not all of whom were Christian.

Yes, he’s right that every day is a good day to get right with God, and in his case that would mean the humility of admitting he was completely wrong (rather than just changing the date) and taking some responsibility for the people he mislead.

Has Jesus been waiting around for 2000 years for people to stop remembering he is coming back? 
I wonder if he regrets putting that clause in the contract….
Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10 say that the Gospel must first be preached to all nations. That probably has happened by now, but it was certainly not true in the first century when those words were written. So that is a fulfilled prophecy.

The description of the church in Revelation 7:9 has also been fulfilled: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and people and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands.”

There are Christians around the world of all nationalities, races, languages, and cultures, and the Bible is the most translated book in the world, continuing to be translated into new languages all the time.

In the Great Commission, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). Surely He wouldn’t come again before that had been accomplished?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Did God Pour Out His Wrath on Jesus?

I have often heard it said that God poured out His wrath on Jesus on the cross, and afterwards His wrath was appeased. This brings to mind an image of God feeling very angry and having to get it out of His system somehow. Christ was a willing scapegoat who took God's wrath upon Himself, and afterwards God felt much better. 

The problem with the idea of God pouring out His wrath on Christ, aside from the fact that it makes no sense, is that the Bible says nothing of the kind. If you do a search on the way the words "the wrath of God" are used in the New Testament, they always refer to Judgment Day, when God will execute justice on the world. The words are never used in connection with the vicarious redemption of Christ. 

What, then, does the Bible say about the vicarious redemption of Christ? 2 Corinthians 5:21 says: "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Isaiah 53:5-6 prophesies, "But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed." 

So God didn't pour out His wrath on Jesus, He laid on Him the sins of the world, so that He might pay the penalty for them through His death. Why? Hebrews 2:14 says, "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil." So Jesus did not die to appease God the Father, but to defeat the forces of evil. 

Before Jesus became sin on our behalf, Satan had no power over Him because it is sin that gives Satan a foothold. This is why Satan could not harm Jesus when He fasted in the wilderness, but he could tempt Him. And if Jesus had succumbed to temptation, then Satan could have destroyed Him. However, in John 14:30-31, Jesus says, "I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father." The "ruler of this world"--this fallen world--is Satan, and he has a claim on sinners. Sin separates us from a holy God, so we don't experience His power and protection. 

Although Satan had no claim on Christ, God allowed the sins of the world to be placed on Him, and our sins separated Jesus from the Father. This meant that the spiritual forces of evil could do whatever they wanted to Him--humiliate Him, cause Him psychic torment and excruciating physical pain, and kill Him, and that is what they did. Jesus was punished for the sins of the world, thus paying the penalty that we could not pay, reconciling us to God, and granting us freedom from the power of sin and death. 

This is not God demanding a burnt offering, because they never pleased Him. Hosea 6:6 says: "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings." 

Isaiah 1:11, 17 says: "'The multitude of your sacrifices--what are they to me?' says the LORD. 'I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats . . . Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.'" 

Micah 6:6-8 says: "With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

And Hebrews 10:4 says that "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." In other words, this ritual of burnt offerings accomplished nothing, even though the Law of Moses required it. But like the rest of the law, it was powerless to save, and was a mere shadow of what was to come: God sending His own Son to pay the penalty for our sins and bridge the chasm between God and sinners. This means that we may receive the Holy Spirit, who has set us "free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:2).

Clamflats was right when he said in a comment, "At least with the word 'appease,' we are following a ceremonial sacrifice script which is recognized cross-culturally." People sacrificed to appease their gods until Constantine, the first Christian emperor, ended the practice in the Roman Empire. Although sacrifice never pleased God and never took away sins, it was within this cultural framework that He worked His plan of salvation. But instead of demanding a sacrifice from us, God turned the "ceremonial sacrifice script" around and sacrificed Himself for us.

Charles Wesley's hymn, "And Can It Be?" aptly says, "Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?" but the sacrifice of Christ was more than just a symbol of His love. Romans 8:3-4 says, "For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."

Wesley's hymn continues:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

The atonement of Jesus "quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven," by breaking down the barrier between God and humanity. His atoning blood has the power to set us free from the chains of sin, so that we will escape the wrath of God, or His righteous judgment of sin, when He ushers in "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13). Jesus gave Himself for us, giving us His righteousness in exchange for our sin, suffering that we may be healed, and dying and rising that we may live.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Glory Rendering, Mother's Day, and Redemption

Clamflats asked the following question, which I have edited slightly to make it more coherent out of context (but let me know if I changed the meaning, clamflats). And I wrote most of it before Dan answered the question, so hopefully you don't mind, Dan. 
The idea that the motive of the crucifixion is glory-rendering makes it seem that we humans are bit players in some divine grand opera. Why would God require glory and why would corporal punishment be necessary? At least with the word "appease," we are following a ceremonial sacrifice script which is recognized cross-culturally. 
A couple of hours ago I changed my Facebook profile picture to the above photo with my mother who passed away at sixty-two. My sister Elisabeth was the first to comment, saying: "What a GREAT photo Anette!!! She is missed every day, and was the best MOM ever! Thank you for posting this and Happy Mothers Day to another great mom!" I replied by agreeing with my sister about what she said about our mom, wishing Elisabeth a Happy Mother's Day, and returning the praise.

Now, you would presumably never ask, "Why is Mother's Day necessary? Do mothers raise children so they can be praised by them?" Of course parents don't raise and make sacrifices for their children in order to receive praise, but it still right to praise our parents for what they have done for us. And it makes parents very happy to receive heartfelt praise from their children.

But it is also right for children to honor and respect their parents just because they are they are their parents, just as it is right to honor and respect the President whether or not we voted for him.

So the answer to the question of why God would "require glory" is that it is right to give Him glory because of who He is and also because He deserves it. Jesus deserves glory because although He was equal to God, He emptied Himself and became a mere human, willing to take our sins upon Himself and die on a cross between two criminals on our behalf. "For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:9-11). God the Father deserves glory because He "so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

Although, as I will discuss later, the primary purpose of the crucifixion was not glory-rendering between the Father and the Son, God still deserves glory for doing that for us, in order to bring "many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:9-10). And that is the other part of this glory-rendering business--that at the coming of Christ, God will glorify the church, the Bride of Christ. That is, if we belong to Christ and allow ourselves to be made like Him in this life, we will share in His glory. Christ made that possible through the cross.

So the Son glorifies the Father and the Father glorifies the Son, in the same way that I would praise my mother, sisters, mother-in-law, and other mothers on Mother's Day, instead of going around saying, "Boy, I am an amazing mother, and since today is Mother's Day, I'm going to tell you all about it." That would be wrong. Praise always flows from one person to another (or at least it should).

But since Jesus loves us so much and has chosen us to be His own, He puts us between Himself and the Father, so that the glory and love that flows between the Father and the Son is ours as well. Jesus says, "No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15). So although He is the exalted King who will come in glory with His angels, He invites us to be His friends.

But the love of Jesus was costly and sacrificial, and the cross preceded the throne. It led to a staggering promise, that if we are His children, we are "heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ," with the following sobering qualification, "if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him" (Romans 8:17).

Why should suffering have to precede the glory God has prepared eternally for His people? That is something I will discuss in future posts. But in the next post I will address the second part of clamflats' question: Did the sacrifice of Jesus appease the wrath of God?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why Doesn't God Do Something About Evil?

Jesus on the Cross

Many people who find the evidence for a Creator in natural theology compelling have a hard time believing that He could be good. He seems more like a disinterested deity who created and moved on without a backwards glance. As one atheist whose father was dying put it, "If this is the best God can do, he must've taken a half day on Friday."

When he said that, it occurred to me that on a Friday afternoon, God defeated sin, suffering, and death forever on the cross. He finished His work of re-creation and opened up a way that will culminate in a new heaven and a new earth where our humanity is perfected and death and suffering is a thing of the past.

But He also used a powerful symbol to communicate His love for us even when we don't understand why there is so much wrong with the world. God came in human form and took upon Himself our sin and our pain. He died the most shameful and excruciating of deaths, between two criminals. He was present with the lowest of the low, promising Paradise to the repentant sinner (Luke 23:39-43).

From the very beginning, God planned to take responsibility for allowing evil in His creation, by sending His Son to die for us. Contrary to what Christopher Hitchens has said, this is not human sacrifice, something the Bible strictly forbids. It is self-sacrifice by God Himself, the ultimate expression of love and humility.