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The Problem With The New York Times’ God Problem

The polemical can sometimes become the enemy of the thoughtful.  This seems to be what has happened in an opinion piece penned by Peter Atterton for The New York Times titled, “A God Problem.”

Mr. Atterton is a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University who spends his piece trotting out well-worn and, if I may be frank, tired arguments against the logical integrity of Theism.  He begins with this classic:

Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted?  If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it.  On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone.  Either way, God is not all powerful.

This is popularly known as the “omnipotence paradox.”  God either cannot create an unliftable stone or He can create an unliftable stone, but then He cannot lift it.  Either way, there is something God cannot do, which, the argument goes, means His omnipotence is rendered impotent.  C.S. Lewis’ classic rejoinder to this paradox remains the most cogent:

God’s omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense.  This is no limit to His power.  If you choose to say, ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,’ you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, ‘God can’ … Nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

Lewis’ position is the position the Bible itself takes when speaking of God.  Logically, there are some things Scripture says God cannot do – not because He lacks power, but simply because to pose even their possibility is to traffic in utter nonsense.  The apostle Paul, for instance, writes, “If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for He cannot disown Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).  In other words, God cannot not be God.  He also cannot create liftable unliftable stones – again, not because He lacks power, but because liftable unliftable stones aren’t about exercising power over some theoretical state of nature.  They’re about the law of noncontradiction.  And to try to break the law of noncontradiction doesn’t mean you have unlimited power.  It just means you’re incoherent and incompetent.  And God is neither.  To insist that God use His power to perform senseless and silly acts so that we may be properly impressed seems to be worthy of the kind of rebuke Jesus once gave to the religious leaders who demanded from Him a powerful sign: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign” (Matthew 12:39)!

Ultimately, the omnipotence paradox strips God’s power of any purpose by demanding a brute cracking of an irrational and useless quandary.  And to have power without purpose only results in disaster.  For instance, uncontrolled explosions are powerful, but they are also, paradoxically, powerless, because they cannot exercise any ordered power over their chaotic power.  Omnipotence requires that there is power over uncontrolled power that directs and contains it toward generative ends.  This is how God’s power is classically conceived.  Just look at the creation story.  God’s power needs purpose to be omnipotence, which is precisely what God’s power has, and precisely what the omnipotence paradox does not care to address.

For his second objection against God, Mr. Atterton turns to the problem of evil:

Can God create a world in which evil does not exist? This does appear to be logically possible.  Presumably God could have created such a world without contradiction.  It evidently would be a world very different from the one we currently inhabit, but a possible world all the same.  Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why He wouldn’t have created such a world.  So why didn’t He? 

According to the Bible, God did create a world where evil did not exist.  It was called Eden.  And God will re-create a world where evil will not exist.  It will be called the New Jerusalem.  As for the evil that Adam and Eve brought into the world, this much is sure:  God is more than up to the task of dealing with the evil that they, and we, have welcomed.  He has conquered and is conquering it in Christ.

With this being said, a common objection remains: Why did and does God allow evil to remain in this time – in our time?  Or, to take the objection back to evil’s initial entry into creation: Why would God allow for the possibility of evil by putting a tree in the center of Eden if He knew Adam and Eve were going to eat from it and bring sin into the world?  This objection, however, misses the true locus of evil.  The true locus of evil was not the tree.  It was Adam and Eve, who wanted to usurp God’s authority.  They were tempted not by a tree, but by a futile aspiration: “You can be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).  If Adam and Eve wouldn’t have had a tree around to use to try to usurp God’s prerogative, they almost assuredly would have tried to use something else.  The tree was only an incidental means for them to indulge the evil pride they harbored in their hearts.  If God wanted to create a world where evil most assuredly would never exist, then, He would have had to create a world without us.

Thus, I’m not quite sure what there’s to object to here.  The story of evil’s entrance into creation doesn’t sound like the story of a feckless God who can’t get things right. It sounds like the story of a loving God who willingly sacrifices to make right the things He already knows we will get wrong even before He puts us here.  God decides from eternity that we are worth His Son’s suffering.

The final objection to God leveled by Mr. Atterton has to do with God’s omniscience:

If God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know.  But if He knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from His perfection.  Why?

There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God.  As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy.  But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them.  But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.

This is the weakest of Mr. Atterton’s three objections.  One can have knowledge without experience.  I know about murder even though I have never taken a knife or gun to someone.  God can know about lust and envy even if He has not lusted and envied.  The preacher of Hebrews explains well how God can know sin and yet not commit sin as he describes Jesus’ struggles under temptation: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).  Jesus was confronted with every sinful temptation, so He knows what sin is, but He also refused to swim to sin’s siren songs.  The difference, then, is not in what He knows and we know.  The difference is in how He responds to what He knows and how we respond to what we know.

One additional point is in order.  Though I believe Mr. Atterton’s assertion that one cannot know certain things “unless one has experienced them” is questionable, it can nevertheless be addressed on its own terms by Christianity.  On the cross, Christians believe that every sin was laid upon Christ, who thereby became sin for us.  In other words, Christ, on the cross, became the chief of sinners, suffering the penalty that every sinner deserved, while, in exchange, giving us the righteous life that only He could live (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).  In this way, then, Christ has experienced every sin on the cross because He has borne every sin on the cross.  Thus, even according to Mr. Atterton’s own rules for knowing, in Christ, God can know everything through Christ, including every sin.

I should conclude with a confession about a hunch.  I am a little suspicious whether or not this 1,140-word opinion piece in The New York Times decrying faith in God as illogical was written in, ahem, good faith.  This piece and its arguments feel a little too meandering and scattershot and seem a little too clickbait-y to be serious.  Nevertheless, this is a piece that has gained a lot of traction and talk.  I’m not sure that the traction and talk, rather than the arguments, weren’t the point.

Whatever the case, Theism has certainly seen more compelling and interesting interlocutions than this piece.  God, blessedly, is still safely on His throne.

April 1, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Tragedy in California

They are the worst wildfires in the history of the state of California.

Nearly 250,000 acres have burned.  79 people have been killed.  Sadly, that number will likely climb as first responders continue their search through the rubble these fires have left behind.  The town of Paradise, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has been especially hard hit, with nearly the whole town being destroyed.

California has had a rough go of it lately.  Just two weeks ago, the state endured another tragedy as a gunman opened fire at a country bar filled with college students in Thousand Oaks, killing twelve.  The shooter was a Marine Corps veteran who appears to have had all sorts of mental health issues and was, at one time, on the cusp of being committed.

The sheer number of tragedies that roll in through each news cycle can begin to feel overwhelming.  For each town that is charred and person that is shot, we ask, “How can we stop this from happening?”  Answers to this perennial and pressing question seem to elude us.  When tragedies do strike, we are thankful for firefighters who risk their lives on the frontlines of massive and unpredictable blazes and officers who run into hails of bullets rather than away from them.  Proactively, we are instructed to keep dry brush away from homes in fire zones and guns out of the hands of mentally disturbed people.  But despite our best efforts, the tragedies keep coming.  Tragedies, even if they can be somewhat mitigated and managed by us, cannot be successfully stayed by us.

On the surface, the California fires and the California shooting seem to be two different types of tragedies.  One is a natural disaster.  The other is man-caused carnage.  Below the surface, however, these two tragedies share a common core:  sin.  The fires remind us that the sin that came into the world with Adam and Eve has disordered and distorted the world in profound and frightening ways.  The mass shooting reminds us that sin is not just in the world.  It is in us.  It’s not just that we cannot eradicate the sin that distorts creation; it’s that we cannot even kill the sin in ourselves.

The message of Christianity reminds us that, even as societies scramble to address sin, we need a victory over sin that we cannot gain for ourselves.  Sin needs not only our noble actions and timely reactions, but a perfect transaction that exchanges our sad sin for a better righteousness.  This is the transaction Christ makes for us on the cross.

Tragedies are sure to continue.  And we should be thankful for those fighting on the front lines of those tragedies.  But we can also be hopeful that tragedy’s time is short, for sin’s defeat is certain.

November 19, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Who Needs Friends When You Have God?

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A new study from the University of Michigan suggests that those who have a strong faith in God are often isolated from others.  Todd Chan, a doctoral student at the university, explains:

For the socially disconnected, God may serve as a substitutive relationship that compensates for some of the purpose that human relationships would normally provide.

This is an interesting hypothesis, but studies like these do not seem to provide consistent results.  W. Bradford Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has found that:

…religion generally fosters more happiness, greater stability, and a deeper sense of meaning in American family life, provided that family members – especially spouses – share a common faith.

In other words, contrary to what Mr. Chan found, faith in God can actually deepen and sustain relationships instead of serving as a substitute for relationships.

Certainly, there are people of deep faith who find themselves bereft of human companionship and, consequently, lonely.  The Bible admits as much, while also seeking to offer comfort and a promise of companionship to those in isolated situations:

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.  (Psalm 68:5-6)

God does indeed promise to be there for someone when they have no one.  But He doesn’t stop there.  He also “sets the lonely in families.”  In other words, He doesn’t just serve as a substitute for human companionship, He actually grants human companionship.

Christianity has always confessed a Triune God, in relationship with Himself from eternity, as the model for and the giver of deeper and better relationships with others.  This is part of the reason why Christianity first took root in the more densely populated urban areas and why it was initially less prevalent among more rural areas.  As Rodney Stark notes in his book The Triumph of Christianity:

The word pagan derives from the Latin word paganus, which originally meant “rural person,” or more colloquially “country hick.”  It came to have religious meaning because after Christianity had triumphed in the cities, most of the pagans were rural people.

Christianity first flourished in cities because those were where the largest communities of people were.  Christianity, it turns out, is irreducibly communal.

Jesus famously summarizes the whole of Old Testament law thusly:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Jesus is clear.  A relationship with God can and should lead to better relationships with others.  Regardless of what Mr. Chan’s study may assert sociologically, theologically, God is not a second-string substitute for human relationships.  Instead, a human, who had an intimate relationship with God and was Himself God, became our substitute on a cross so that we could have a relationship with God in spite of our sin.  God is not a last resort relationship when you’re lonely, but a first love relationship who promises never to leave you alone.  And there’s just no substitution for that.

September 10, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Tragic Spate of Suicides

One week.  Two tragic deaths.

First, it was iconic fashion designer Kate Spade, who was found dead in her apartment Tuesday night after she had hung herself.  Then last Friday, it was celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who, while working on an upcoming episode of his CNN show “Parts Unknown,” also hung himself at the hotel where he was staying in Kaysersberg, France.

We are facing nothing short of a suicide epidemic in our country.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that suicide rates are up almost 30 percent nationwide since 1999.  During this time period, only one state saw a decrease in suicides: Nevada.  And Nevada’s rate decreased by only 1 percent.  In North Dakota, the suicide rate jumped more than 57 percent during this time period.  In 2016, nearly 45,000 people took their own lives across the United States, making suicide more than twice as common as homicide and the tenth leading cause of death overall.

We have a problem.

Mental illness certainly plays a role in many of these terrible deaths.  But more than half of the suicides in 27 states involved people who had no known mental health concerns.

Of course, no explanation, no matter how clinical or comprehensive it may be, can ever even begin to blunt the pain of a life lost on those left behind.  Mental health diagnoses of diseases like clinical depression often only leave people wondering why physicians weren’t able to help.  Suicide notes often raise more question than they answer.  It seems no explanation can really answer the furious and frustrated one-word interrogation of “why?”.  This is because this is an interrogation birthed by pain and bathed in pain. You see, there is a creeping realization that comes with death – a realization that a person who was once with us has now gone away from us and we will no longer be able to see them, talk to them, or hold them.  As many a grieving person has muttered after the suicide of a loved one: they were taken from us too soon.

The horror of suicide needs some sort of hope.  But hope is hard to find in something as final and gruesome as death.  This is why we need the gospel, for the gospel reminds us that there is a death that undoes death.  While suicide takes people we love from us, the gospel declares that Jesus, out of love, gave His life for us.  As the apostle Paul puts it in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Suicides may feel final, but the cross of Christ reminds us that they do not have to be.  The cross’s effects held on for three days before the cross was double-crossed by an empty tomb.  The effects of a dark moment of despair that leads to a tragic end by one’s own hand may hold on for a little longer, but their days too are numbered.  A resurrection is on its way.

And so, to anyone who is suffering, perhaps in silence, let me say simply this:  you do not have to escape despair through your own death, because despair has already been defeated by Jesus’ death.

He’s your reason to live.

If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, you are loved and there is help.  Talk to a counselor or a pastor at your church.  If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.  Do it now.  The life God has given you is far too valuable to lose.

June 11, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Secularism’s Struggle

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Last month, a group of social scientists from the United States, Malaysia, Finland, and Denmark published an article in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science titled, “The Future of Secularism.”  In it, the researchers noted that even though social scientists have generally assumed that secularization would increase as scientific inquiry and discovery continued to mature, thereby sidelining the need for religious beliefs to explain the machinations of the cosmos, secularization has not burgeoned the way these scientists had predicted.  Instead, internationally at least, religiosity is actually on the rise.  This article put forth some theories as to why this is the case.  First, because religious people tend to have more children than non-religious people, religious parents have more opportunity to pass along their beliefs and values to their children than do non-religious people.  Second, these researchers see a correlation between secularization and smarts.  The smarter one is, the more secular he tends to be, these researchers say.  And since there has been an overall decline in people’s IQs, these researchers suggest that such declines have led to increases in religiosity.

Obviously, there is much that could and should be said about a study such as this.  For starters, the story these researchers tell about how secular societies arise is hotly disputed.  These researchers assume what has been called by philosopher Charles Taylor a “subtraction story.”  A subtraction theory of secularization asserts that as science is able to explain more and more, less and less space becomes available for the explanations of religion.  Taylor rejects this theory and instead sees that, in more religious societies, people’s concerns are centered not just on imminent things that science can observe, but on transcendent things that are beyond the purview of science as a discipline.  In other words, people in religious societies are not simply asking questions that, one by one, have been answered by science so religion is no longer needed; instead, they are asking questions that are fundamentally beyond the realm of science – questions of meaning and purpose and morality and perfection.  Hence, religion occupies a primary place in some people’s imaginations because of the questions they are asking.

It should also be noted that though these researchers’ glib assertion that as intelligence decreases, religiosity increases may be the finding of some isolated social science studies, it is certainly not born out by the overall the arc of history.  The contributions of Christianity to architecture, literature, and even science are innumerable.  So much of what we know now was driven by Christian intellectuals.  Indeed, a quick look at the histories of our nation’s auspicious ivy league universities demonstrate that we owe a great debt to Christianity intellectually.

For all that is questionable about this article, certain aspects of this study are not surprising.  For instance, it is not surprising that religious parents tend to raise religious children.  This is what they should be doing.  In fact, this is part of what is commanded by Scripture:

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.  (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

Faith formation begins at home, Deuteronomy says.

It is also not surprising that the reports of religion’s impending death always seem to turn out to be premature.  There appears to be a religious impulse in humanity that just won’t quit.  The apostle Paul notes that this religious impulse finds its root in the religious reality of the creation of God:

Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.  (Romans 1:20)

In their study, the social scientists acknowledge that even some fellow researchers have suggested “that human needs for a spiritual life are actually strong evidence for the reality of a supernatural realm.”

Beyond a family’s religious heritage and humanity’s general religious impulse, it should also be noted that, from its inception, Christianity specifically has been an evangelical faith.  To know of good news and not to share it, in the Christian conception of things, is cruel to people in need of a Savior.  So share we do.  And, every once in while, through the Spirit’s ministry and by the power of God’s Word , when we share Christ, a person is converted to Christ and religiosity increases.

All of this is to say that the belligerent endurance of religion is due to much more than higher birth rates and lower IQs.  Indeed, religion endures not just because it stands athwart secularism yelling, “Stop!”  It endures because it looks at all that is around us and processes the human experience and says, “There’s something more.”

Religion is the search for that “something more.”  And, I believe, Christianity reveals the One who is more.

May 1, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Turkey, Germany, Power, and Love

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Terror doesn’t take a break for Christmas.

This past Monday was a tragic day in Europe.  In Istanbul, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by Turkish police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas, who shouted “Allahu akbar!” and “Do not forget Aleppo!” in an apparent protestation of Russia’s recent bombings of the embattled city.  Then, later the same day, in Berlin, a Tunisian man, Anism Amri, is suspected to have driven a semi-truck into an open-air Christmas market, killing twelve and injuring scores of others.  ISIS has claimed involvement in the attack.

In one way, this is all too predictable.  Terrorists are trained and indoctrinated to be callous to human carnage.  They seek power through the exercise of brute force.  ISIS has made no secret of its goal of a global caliphate and, even if it knows it can never realize such a theocratic dream, it will lash out at every opportunity possible to, at the very least, wield power through fear.  Terror attacks will continue.

It is difficult to imagine how Christmas must have felt for the loved ones of those lost in these attacks.  A day that celebrates history’s greatest birth is now tinged by the stain of death.  And yet, Christmas is precisely the message this world needs in the face of these continuing attacks.  For Christmas reminds us how such attacks will ultimately be overcome.

On the one hand, we should be thankful that responsible governments work tirelessly both to prevent these attacks and to bring attackers to justice. On the other hand, we should never forget that such efforts, no matter how noble they may be, are ultimately stop gap measures.  The defeat of terrorism lies not in the power of human governments, but in the meekness and weakness of a babe in Bethlehem.  N.T. Wright explains why this is the case when he writes:

You cannot defeat the usual sort of power by the usual sort of means.  If one force overcomes another, it is still “force” that wins.  Rather, at the heart of the victory of God over all the powers of the world there lies self-giving love.[1]

Terrorism is rooted in a lust for power.  But a lust for power cannot, in an ultimate sense, be exorcised by a use, even if it’s an appropriate use, of power.  A lust for power can only be defeated by, to use N.T. Wright’s phrase, “self-giving love.”  And this is where Christmas comes in.  For it is self-giving love that moves God to give His one and only Son to the world as a babe at Christmas.  It is self-giving love that moves God’s one and only Son to give His life for the world on a cross.  And through the meekness and weakness of the manger and cross, victory is won over every sinful use of power.  To use the words of the apostle Paul: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

In the 1980s, one of TV’s most popular shows was MacGyver.  At the heart of the show’s popularity was the fact that no matter how perilous a situation he may have found himself in, MacGyver always seemed to find a way out of it using the simplest of means. A pair of binoculars that deflected a laser beam.  A paper clip that shorted out a missile on its countdown to launch.  MacGyver’s strange and unexpected hacks to disarm every danger imaginable have become so eponymous with MacGyver himself that his name has turned into a verb.  If there is a problem that calls for a creative solution, you can “MacGyver” it!

In a world that knows only the use of force in the face of force, Jesus pulls a MacGyver.  He solves the problem of the abuse of power in a way no one expected.  He uses a manger to enter the brokenness of our world.  And He uses a cross to overcome the sin of our world.  In this way, a Turkish assassin is no match for the manger.  And a Tunisian terrorist is no match for the cross.  Why?  Because though the former things may engender fear, the latter things hold forth hope.  And hope will win the day.

________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York:  HarperOne, 2016), 222.

December 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Monogamish Is Nothing Like Monogamous

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The opening of Zachary Zane’s op-ed piece for The Washington Post reads almost like satire:

During my exploratory college years, I was often confused about my sexuality. I knew I had loved women, but found myself, drunkenly, in the arms of various men. I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. Was I in denial of being gay? Was I simply an open-minded straight guy? Or was I just a drunk and horny hot mess?

These questions kept me up at night.

This has all the trappings of a hackneyed B-list movie about a frat guy caught in an existential crisis fueled by alcohol and lust.  But Mr. Zane isn’t playing on silly stereotypes.  He’s serious.  This becomes all too clear as he continues:

My senior year of college, I entertained the idea that I might be bisexual, but I didn’t embrace the label until a year after graduating. That’s when I learned that I didn’t have to like men and women equally to be bisexual. I learned that sexuality was a spectrum, and my point on the spectrum wasn’t fixed…

In my queer theory class in college, I also learned that gender, too, is on a spectrum. Some of us don’t view ourselves as strictly male or female. We can be both, neither, or somewhere in between, a.k.a. bigender, agender or genderqueer.

This led me to ask the question: Since sexuality and gender aren’t understood as binary anymore, does monogamy have to be?

The morphological ludicrousness of the claim that monogamy can be on a continuum aside – “mono,” after all, does mean “one” and “gamos” refers to marriage, which means that any romantic relationship that involves more than one person committing themselves to one other person is, by definition, no longer monogamy – this claim also brings with it a whole host of relational, emotional, and theological problems.

Relationally and emotionally, polyamorous relationships are recipes for ruin.  Narratively, the Bible makes this clear enough in its description of the disastrous polygamous relationships of patriarchs like Jacob and Solomon.  Theologically, however, the problem goes deeper than just ill-fated relationships.

Timothy Keller makes the point that Christianity places a high value on self-sacrifice.  Indeed, the heart of the Christian faith is found in a man who sacrificed Himself on a cross and invites us to deny ourselves by taking up our own crosses and following Him (cf. Matthew 16:24).  Our culture sees things differently.  Rather than placing a premium on self-sacrifice, our culture tends to value and even idolize self-assertion.  We are obsessed with asserting who we believe ourselves to be and demanding that those around us accept and celebrate who we say we are.

The problem with self-assertion is that it is often little more than a flimsy mask for self-indulgence and self-centeredness.  This is why polyamorous relationships are so dangerous.  When two people are more concerned with their own sexual desires than with committing themselves and giving themselves sexually to their partner, they wind up using each other instead of loving each other.  In this way, self-assertion is the very antithesis of love.  The words of the apostle Paul come to mind here: “Love is not self-seeking” (1 Corinthians 13:5).  You can’t love someone well and seek first yourself.

I understand that two people may freely agree to live in a polyamorous relationship.  But is this because they are truly committed to each other, or is this because they are secretly committed to themselves?  I also understand that monogamy can be difficult.  I have counseled enough couples rocked by affairs to know how easily and how often marriage vows can be broken.  But I have also seen how deeply an affair hurts the cheated upon and the children in a family.  The person having the affair may find some measure of self-indulgent satisfaction, but only while exacting out of others a steep and terrible price of brokenness and pain.

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves:  what kind of people should we be?  People who indulge our fetishes, chase our desires, and flex our selfishness, even as we try to disguise our shamefully selfish selves under a facile moral-esque construct of self-assertion? Or should we be people who think about others before we think about ourselves, even if that means denying our desires and even if those desires include our sexuality?

Christianity’s answer is clear.  To repeat Jesus’ call to us all: “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

Deny themselves.”

Deny the money you could spend on yourself to give it to someone else.

Deny the time you could keep for yourself to be present with someone else.

And yes, deny the sexual desires you feel in yourself to be devoted to someone else.

Why?  Because when you deny the desire to assert yourself for the sake of someone else, that’s when you find the things in life that matter most.  Indeed, that’s when you find yourself.

“Whoever loses their life for Me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

That’s self-sacrifice.  And that’s a life well-lived.

December 12, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

More on Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas

Let’s try a little thought experiment.

Imagine you’re a police officer in Baton Rouge.  You’ve been called to a convenience store where a 37-year-old man named Alton Sterling has been reported to have recently threatened another man with a gun.  You approach Mr. Sterling and pin him to the ground when someone shouts, “He’s got a gun!  Gun!”  Fear takes over.  Shots are fired.  And Alton Sterling lies dead.

Now imagine you’re a police officer in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  You pull over a vehicle that has a broken taillight.  The man inside, Philando Castile, dutifully explains that he has a concealed carry permit and has a firearm in the vehicle.  When Mr. Castile reaches for his license and registration, however, you think he’s reaching for his gun.  Fear takes over.  Four shots are fired.  And Mr. Castile dies in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter.

Finally, imagine you’re a 25-year-old black man named Micah Xavier Johnson who has watched other black men be shot and killed in altercations with the police under suspicious circumstances time and time again.  You see protest after protest against these shootings by Black Lives Matter, but in your mind, these protests do not equate to real action.  After the tragedies in Baton Rouge and St. Paul unfold, you seize on these moments to exact revenge.  At a protest in Dallas, you, with anger coursing through your veins, aim your arsenal of firearms at twelve officers, killing five of them, only to finally be taken down yourself by law enforcement officials.

Are you still with me?

Now, let’s do a little math.

Fear + Anger = Eight People Dead

At this point, I need to include some caveats.

First, don’t misunderstand the intent of my thought experiment.  I am not trying to exonerate bad behavior by asking us to imagine ourselves in each of these men’s shoes – by asking us to empathize with them.  Empathy never tries to excuse sin, but it does try to understand people because, when we understand people better, we can understand what leads to a week like the one we just experienced better and, hopefully, take steps to prevent another week like this one from happening again – ever.

Second, the facts in all these cases are still unfolding.  When 49 people were shot and killed by a terrorist at an Orlando nightclub, I offered an encouragement on this blog for people to patiently wait for the facts rather than jumping to conclusions about the shooter’s motives.  The same caution applies here.  It could be that one or both of these officers in Baton Rouge were animated by naked racial animus and shot and killed one or both of these men in cold blood.  If this were the case, the equation above would still hold, albeit on the anger side rather than on the fear side.  It could also be that, as more facts surface, one or both of these officers were not animated by fear, but by a legitimate concern for self-defense.  Turning to Dallas, it could be that Mr. Johnson was clinically insane and not in his right mind when he carried out these horrific attacks.  If this were the case, what he did still could not be excused, and his anger and hatred would still loom large, but it might be understood a little differently.  Carefully sorting through the facts – and being patient enough to do so – is incredibly important in tragedies like these.

Third, I am not a law enforcement official.  I know some law enforcement officials, and I have nothing but the utmost respect and love for them.  Honestly, if I had to walk in their shoes, I’m not sure that the altercations with Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile would have gone down any differently.  I can imagine myself becoming very frightened very quickly.  The fact that so many law enforcement officials keep their cool when tensions are high is a testimony to the character and competence of so many of these men and women.

Fourth, I am not a black man.  I have heard enough stories of incipient and systemic racism against black men, however, that my heart breaks.  I would not want to live under a cloud of such constant suspicion.  I would not want to have to teach my son the lessons of what little slights, sideways glances, and clinched purses could mean.  If I had to endure that day after day, I would be angry too.  And if someone was to needlessly take the life of someone that I loved, I can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted to exact an eye for an eye.  The fact that so many African-Americans keep their protests peaceful and focused on change rather than turning them into opportunities for revenge is a testimony to the character and compassion of so many of these men and women.

What has happened this week, then, is not an indictment of the masses, but the fruits of a few.

But…

Even though what happened this week was not by our hands, this is not to say it couldn’t have been by our hands.  Remember the equation?

Fear + Anger = Eight People Dead

Have you let fear take over your heart any time this week?  How about anger?  Is anything from the way you manage money to the way you treat your family to the friends you avoid to the grudges you hold to the politics you have that is driven by fear or anger? The results of your fear and anger may not be eight dead, but are the results in any way good?  Let’s adjust the equation a little bit.

Fear + Anger = Plenty That Is Not Good

Is this true of you?

Fear and anger are part of the human condition and are devastatingly etched into the annals of human history.  One needs to look no further than the night before Jesus’ death.  When Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of the religious leaders, Peter goes from being so angry at what is about to beset his Master that he cuts off the ear of a man in the mob that has come to arrest Jesus to being so fearful at what is transpiring with his Master that, just hours later, when a servant girl asks him if he knows Jesus, he denies his Savior and friend.  Fear and anger coalesce into one necrotic night.

The truth is this: there’s plenty of fear and anger to go around – among the masses and, if we’re brutally honest, in our hearts.  The equation holds true for us all.

So, on the heels of a terribly tragic week, let me conclude with two gentle reminders:

“Do not be afraid” (Luke 12:32).

And…

“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath” (Psalm 37:8).

Think on these things.

July 11, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Week of Tragedy: Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 10.00.08 AM

This has been a terribly tragic week.  Today, three cities are in mourning:  Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and now, overnight, Dallas.

In Baton Rouge, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot to death while being pinned to the ground by law enforcement officials.  In Saint Paul, Philando Castile was shot and killed by an officer after being pulled over for a broken taillight.  In both of these cases, there are questions over whether or not police officers used excessive force.  Then, last night in Dallas, when protesters gathered to decry what happened in Baton Rouge and Saint Paul, five officers were shot and killed, with an additional seven officers shot and wounded, by a sniper who was enraged by the shootings in Baton Rouge and Saint Paul.  It is the largest single loss of first responder lives since September 11, 2001.

As events continue to unfold, here are some things to keep in mind.

Grieve with those who grieve.

To all of the families who have lost loved ones this week in these tragedies, we should offer our condolences.  We should hold them up in prayer.  Losing loved ones are occasions for tears.  Empathy should be the hallmark of every Christian because it so closely reflects the incarnation.  In Christ, God came into our pain.  He experienced our pain.  He walked through our pain.  This is why the preacher of Hebrews can say that, in Christ, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize” (Hebrews 4:15).  For us to withhold empathy denies us the opportunity to show the world who we are by our love.  “Mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

Receive Christ’s peace.

When a week spirals into tragedy like this one has, we can be tempted to respond either with fear or with anger, or with both.  I’ll have more on these responses Monday on my blog.  For right now, suffice it to say that these responses are not helpful.  When the world is troubling, rather than responding with fear and anger, it is better to receive the peace that only Christ can give.

The night before Jesus goes to His death on a cross, He knows His disciples will respond both with anger (cf. John 18:10) and with fear (cf. John 18:15-18, 25-26).  But Jesus wants His disciples to receive His peace.  So He says to them, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).  God’s peace is stronger than human tragedy.

Trust that tragedy does not have the last word.

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, echoing the words of the nineteenth century abolitionist Theodore Parker, who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  How a moral arc can bend toward things like justice and righteousness and goodness can be tough to see after a week like this.  Yet, what is good has not been lost.

Jesus tells the story of a widow who comes to a judge, begging him to grant her justice against someone who has wronged her.  The judge, who apparently is not at all concerned with justice, continually diminishes and dismisses her concerns until he finally decides to grant her what she wants, simply because she won’t leave him alone.  This widow’s quest for what is good overcomes this judge’s careless embrace of what is wrong.  Jesus concludes His story by pointing to God: “Will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:7-8).

Jesus promises that in a world where plenty is wrong, God is a just judge who will eventually make things right.  God will not put us off in our tears, in our hurt, and in our devastation.  And although God’s conception of a justice that comes “quickly” may not fit our conception of a justice that comes “quickly,” we can rest assured that God’s final defeat of all that is wrong will have its say on the Last Day.  Not only that, God’s defeat of all that is wrong has already had its say in Christ, who triumphed over sin and death by the cross (cf. Colossians 2:15).  In a week that has been full of tragedy, this is something in which we can take deep comfort and by which we can hold out great hope.

Terrible tragedy will not have the final say.  Jesus will.

July 8, 2016 at 10:07 am 3 comments

Processing the Terror in Orlando

Orlando Terror Attacks

Credit:  The Guardian

Terror doesn’t sleep.

This is one of the lessons we’re learning from what has become the worst mass shooting in U.S. history carried out early this morning around 2 o’clock at a nightclub in Orlando.

The shooter’s name was Omar Mateen.  He had drawn the attention of the FBI in the past, and before he carried out his terror attack, he called 911 to pledge his allegiance to ISIS.  By the time his AR-15-style rifle and his handgun were silenced, 50 people were dead and over 50 were injured.  Mr. Mateen himself was killed by law enforcement officials while he was holed up in one of the club’s bathrooms with hostages.

News reports have been filled with people expressing shock, sadness, and outrage.  All of these responses are certainly appropriate, but what especially grieves me is that they are also entirely predictable.  We know how people will respond to a terror attack emotionally precisely because we have had so much practice responding to terror attacks emotionally.  ParisSan BernardinoBrussels.   But this tragedy – like the ones that have come before it – is too important not to respond.  When human life is senselessly and violently taken, we should stop and we should reflect and we should respond.  Here are a few things, then, to keep in mind.

Do not be afraid.

This is not the first time I have written this in the face of a terror attack.  But this is also something that bears repeating.  After all, whenever an attack like this one unfolds, our natural and almost reflexive reaction is to ask, “Am I next?  Am I safe?”  But such questions are unhelpful because such questions are utterly unanswerable.  There is no way for us to control the future.  This is why the apostle Paul commends us to be people of prayer rather than people of worry and fear: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).  We may not be able to control the future, but we do know someone who holds the future.  We are called to present our fear to Him and place our trust in Him.

I should point out that there is a difference between being afraid and being vigilant.  Fear happens when a person mulls over all sorts of possible, though unverifiable, bad scenarios for the future.  Vigilance is when a person looks for clues of trouble in the present and reports them to the appropriate authorities for investigation.  Being vigilant is helpful.  Being afraid is needless.

Remember, there is a reason attacks like the one in Orlando are called acts of terror.  They are attacks specifically designed to instill fear.  Don’t let these attacks have their way in your heart.  Christ is stronger than terror.

Be careful connecting dots.

One of the major focal points of this story has been the clientele to whom this night club in Orlando catered.  The club at which these attacks were carried out is called the Pulse, which is well-known as a hotspot for those in the LGBT community.  Shortly after the attacks, GLAAD, a gay rights advocacy group, tweeted, “Our hearts break for the victims and families of this horrific act of violence. We stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community in #Orlando.”  The call to stand in a solidarity of care, concern, and compassion is well-taken.

At the same time, many in the media and beyond are already wondering and conjecturing out loud concerning whether or not the fact that this is an LGBT club in any way served as a motive for the shooter.  In an article for the Huffington Post, Michelangelo Signorile offers a brief history of attacks against LGBT spaces, strongly intimating that the Orlando attack was probably more of the same.

Whether or not the patronage of this nightclub is somehow connected to the motive of the shooter is certainly a question that needs to be asked and answered.  At this point, however, overly confident pronouncements can do more harm than good.  A good rule of thumb is this:  investigation precedes correlation.  In other words, let’s not jump to conclusions.

As a Christian, this is something that I must regularly remember.  It can be far too tempting to search for some pious, consoling, and grandiose reason why a God who Scripture reveals to be a strong and sure defense would allow a horrific tragedy like this to happen.  But correlating current events to overly specific divine purposes is a theological fool’s errand.  Theologically, I must say only what I can know for sure according to Scripture: (1) that such a shooting is an expression of deep sinfulness and depravity (Romans 3:15); (2) that events of death grieve the heart of God because death is not a part of His design (1 Corinthians 15:20-22); and (3) that God is with and cares for those who have lost loved ones (Psalm 23:4).

Connecting disparate facts now will only leave you looking a fool later.  So be careful.

Remember Christianity’s unique message.

As I have said in the past, I am sympathetic to those who claim that ISIS does not represent Islamic theology, at least in any responsible sense.  Just as I do not see the theological stances of, let’s say, the Westboro Baptist Church to be authentically Christian in any regular sense of the term, I can understand why many Muslim theologians would decry and deny that ISIS represents their faith.  But even if ISIS does not represent the Islamic faith in any theologically and academically rigorous way, it does represent some sort of faith – even if the faith it represents calls on its adherents to destroy those it hates.  And this is where Christianity stands apart.  The beauty of the Christian faith is that it centers around a man who loved those who hated Him and sought to destroy Him.  Moreover, whereas ISIS calls on its fighters to lay down their lives in order to bring death to infidels, Christianity has a Savior who laid down His life in order to bring life to sinners.  In other words, Christianity serves as the perfect foil to all the terror ISIS is dishing out.  Christianity loves when ISIS hates.  Christianity promises life when ISIS seeks death.  This is why, on a day that is full of plenty of reasons to hate and to grieve, I once again to turn to Christ who gives me reasons to love and to hope.  And I ask you to join me in doing the same.

May Christ reveal His love and His life to Orlando.

June 12, 2016 at 4:05 pm 5 comments

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