Posts tagged ‘God’

Meeting With God

Jacob's Ladder, Bible, Line Art, Landscape, Biblical
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There is an interesting line in Galatians about how Moses received God’s law:

The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. (Galatians 3:19)

When God gave the law to Moses, He mediated it through angels.

Angels regularly serve as mediators between God and people. When God has a message to deliver to a young maiden named Mary about how she will bear God’s Son, He delivers it through an angel. When God wants to notify her husband-to-be that the son in his fiancé is miraculously conceived, He sends an angel to deliver the news. When God wants to take the apostle John on a tour of heaven, He does so using an angel.

In Genesis 28, Jacob is at a low point in his life. He has become a fugitive from his home and family because he stole the family inheritance that rightly belonged to his older brother, who, when he found out, vowed to make Jacob pay with his life.

One night, while Jacob is camping out in the middle of nowhere, he has a dream:

He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:12)

As theologian Richard Bauckham points out, the stairway Jacob sees is probably climbing the side of a ziggurat, which was a tower commonly built in ancient Mesopotamia that was meant to “touch heaven,” as it were, so that the peoples of that day could ascend it and meet with their gods.

But Jacob’s dream comes with a twist. As in so many other dreams and visions, there are these angels, who one assumes are there to mediate Jacob’s meeting with God as he climbs the stairway on the ziggurat. But this dream is different:

There beside him stood the LORD, and He said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.” (Genesis 28:13)

In Jacob’s dream, God is not at the top of the ziggurat, waiting for angels to mediate his meeting with Jacob. Instead, He has come to the bottom of the ziggurat – to where Jacob is – to stand “beside him” and to meet with him directly.

When Jacob realizes what has happened, he declares:

“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17)

It turns out that Jacob is only partially correct in his analysis of what has happened. Jacob believes the Lord was “in this place” – the place where Jacob happened to be sleeping that night. He perceives his meeting with God as a chance encounter. He just happened to stumble across the place where God was.

But this is not what God tells Jacob when He speaks to him in his dream. He does not tell him that He dwells in a place, but instead that He desires to dwell with His people:

“I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go.” (Genesis 28:15)

God has not bound Himself to a map, but to mortals. This is why when God wanted to demonstrate His presence most fully, He came to mortals in a mortal who brought immortality by His resurrection.

God is with us. We don’t need to climb a ziggurat or wait for an angel to meet with Him. For we have met God directly in His Son. What Jacob got a glimpse of, we have received the fullness of.

August 30, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Shadow-Side of Freedom

Credit: Khairul Nizam / Pexels.com

Last week, the latch on our backdoor handle got stuck. After working it loose, I discovered that the whole handle was worn out and needed to be replaced. I groaned inwardly because I am not known for being handy. To put it mildly, I am “home improvement compromised.” But, after trudging to Lowe’s to purchase a new handle, I scoured YouTube and found a guy with a thick southern accent who walked me through the process of replacing a door handle step-by-step. Everything was replaced, rekeyed, and ready to go within a few minutes. And I was more than a little thankful for the YouTube handyman who was wiser to the ways of door handles than I was.

In a famous 1946 lecture, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre quipped:

Man cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse.

Sartre argues that when it comes to living, you just have to “figure it out.” He goes on to tell the story of a young man, who was once a student of his, who struggled to decide whether to stay and care for his mother in Paris or join the Free French Forces and fight the Nazis. Sartre asks of this young man’s moral dilemma:

What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother?

If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.

According to Sartre, this young man was just going to have to “figure it out.”

Sartre concludes his lecture:

Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.

Sartre’s lecture, at first glance, carries with a lucrative offer of freedom. There is no higher authority of power, he argues, to which you can appeal to make life’s decisions than yourself. You can choose for yourself by looking to yourself. But, as my door handle experience reminded me, there are times where looking to yourself is not freeing, but frightening. Sartre admits as much when he says:

Man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.

Too much freedom, it turns out, can feel like condemnation because, as initially nice as it may be to jettison a higher authority who looks over your shoulder and tells you what to do, you are still not truly free in one very important way – you are not free not to choose. You must choose something and then live with the consequences of your choice, no matter how awful. Everything rests on you, and you just have to “figure it out.”

The promise of Christianity is not that it removes or avoids all human responsibility and choice. There are plenty of calls in the pages of Scripture for humans to live morally and to choose wisely. But all of this human responsibility is placed inside a larger story of divine sovereignty. God is ultimately in control, offering guidance so that we may make righteous decisions and offering forgiveness for all the times we do not. We are not left merely to our own devices to “figure it out.”

One of the implicit criticisms Sartre levels against Christianity is in the story of his young student who is trying to decide between remaining in Paris to take care of his mother or joining the Free French Forces to fight the Nazis. Sartre explains that divine guidance will do this man no good because there is no divine guidance to tell this man what to do:

What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother?

But Sartre misses something in his characterization of God’s guidance. The young man in Sartre’s story faces two choices that could be considered moral. But just because there is no divine command that will make this young man’s particular decision for him does not mean that there is no sovereign help.

The Psalmist says:

The LORD is with me; He is my helper. (Psalm 118:7)

A lack of specific guidance from God about a specific decision does not mean that there is a lack of the presence of God through every decision. God will be with us – in our best decisions and our worst – with a freedom that removes burdens instead of one that creates them. For even when we don’t know what to do, He will help us through, and He will work things out, even when things – or when we – go astray. We don’t just have to “figure it out.” Instead, we can trust in Him.

March 8, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Texas Snowstorm

That was interesting.

I’ve lived in the Lonestar State since the mid-90s and I’ve never seen anything even close to what Texas just experienced. The snow in San Antonio – where I live – was beautiful. The power outages, frozen pipes, icy streets, and water pump failures that followed were not. An arctic air mass pushed way south and brought Texas record-shattering low temperatures that, in many areas, dipped into the single digits. The rock bottom temperatures managed to freeze out coal and gas power plants, a nuclear power plant, and a host of west Texas windmills, which forced the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the power for the state, to quickly ration power in order to prevent a catastrophic blackout that could have stretched on for months. Everyone who was not part of a grid that provided power to critical services like hospitals was left in the dark – and in the cold.

A natural disaster like this is certainly perspective-shifting. On the one hand, this kind of weather, and the havoc it brings, can make you feel powerless. Human ingenuity can constrain – but it cannot restrain – the effects of the natural world. On the other hand, a disaster like this can remind you of the things for which you should be thankful, but that you also usually overlook. Reliable power. Running water. Climate control. You don’t notice these things until you don’t have them.

Of course, a time like this can bring out the best in people. Neighbors did help neighbors. People who had power opened their homes to those who did not. The long line I waited in to buy groceries at a dark H-E-B that had only enough generator power to operate a few checkout lines was full of generally chipper and friendly people who were thankful that the chain was doing everything it could to provide Texans with the staples they needed.

In Acts 27, the apostle Paul is sailing for Rome when he encounters a massive storm. For fourteen days, Paul and the crew on the ship hang on for dear life. They finally wash ashore on the island of Malta, where they encounter some friendly residents:

The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. (Acts 28:2)

I’ve come to appreciate a good fire when it’s cold.

But just when it looks like Paul’s luck is finally changing, tragedy strikes again:

Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. (Acts 28:3-6)

Of course, Paul is neither a murderer nor a god. But he does serve the one, true God – the God who saw him through this terrible storm. And this is what Christians still believe – that for every crisis, every storm, and every difficulty, there is a God who sees us through. And even though He doesn’t protect us from every tragedy, He is present with us through every tragedy.

As Texas’s power grid continues to stumble back online, there will be changes to the grid that will need to be made, officials who will need to be held accountable, heroes who will need to be thanked, and people who will need our help. But through it all, we can be thankful that the God who made the world – and us – cares for us. This is why He sent the One the prophet Malachi called “the sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2) – Jesus Christ – to us.

The “sun” sounds awfully nice right now.

February 22, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Practicing Contentment in 2021

File:The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 498. Moses finishes building the tabernacle. Exodus cap 40 v 33. Mortier.jpg
Moses finishes building the tabernacle
Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible Illustrations

As the Israelites wind their way through the wilderness on a trek to the Promised Land, they construct a tent of meeting. This is the place where Moses goes to meet directly with God. The tent is quite elaborate, containing yarns, fine linen, gold, silver, and bronze. Because a project of this magnitude is costly, Moses begins the project with a capital campaign of sorts where:

Everyone who was willing and whose heart moved them came and brought an offering to the LORD for the work on the tent of meeting. (Exodus 35:21)

By all accounts, the capital campaign proves to be wildly successful – so much so that they wind up raising far more than they need for the completion of the tent of meeting. As the workers are assembling the tent from what has been brought, they say to Moses:

“The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the LORD commanded to be done.” Then Moses gave an order and they sent this word throughout the camp: “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.” And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work. (Exodus 36:5-7)

The workers receive a windfall of gifts for their work on the tent of meeting. But what is really important is this: they recognize the windfall. They know they have more than enough.

It’s hard to recognize a windfall. We are too easily tempted, no matter how much we have, to always want more – and to believe we don’t yet have quite enough.

In Luke 3, John the Baptist preaches about the impending judgment of God. In response, the listening crowd asks:

“What should we do then?”John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:11-14)

To avoid God’s judgment, John calls the people to be content with what they have and not hoard more than they need.

As we head into 2021, a good resolution to make might be this:

I will practice contentment.

After all, as we reflect on 2020, it can be tempting to focus on all the things we didn’t get:

I didn’t get a raise because my company is struggling financially.

I didn’t get to keep my job because I got caught in a round of layoffs.

I didn’t get to spend time with my family over the holidays because of social distancing.

I didn’t get to go out to eat or go much of anywhere at all because so many places were closed.

I didn’t get more time with my loved one because COVID-19 took them.

All these things may be true – and some of them are downright devastating – but they’re still incomplete. Because at the same time there is much we are lacking, there is much we still have:

I still have a job even if I didn’t get the raise.

I still have the wherewithal to look for a job even if I lost my old one.

I still can see my family on Facetime even if I can’t be with them in person.

I still can order food in even if I can’t go out.

I still have loved ones who are with me and God now has a loved one who is with Him.

Statements of loss, with some practice, can turn into reflections of contentment.

No matter what this year may bring, of this much we can be sure: God will provide. And, more than likely, He will provide more than enough. Perhaps we should take some time to recognize that we might just be sitting on a windfall.

January 4, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

“Let us” vs. “I will”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (Vienna) - Google Art Project - edited.jpg
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel (c. 1563) / Wikipedia

Human arrogance is nothing new. It’s as old as sin itself. Adam and Eve, after all, were tempted into sin by a delusion of grandeur – if they broke a command of God, they could “be like God” (Genesis 3:5).

Another early instance of human arrogance comes in the form of an infamous building project:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:1-4)

The arrogance of humanity in this project can be summed up in two words:

“Let us.”

“Let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly,” they say. “Let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves,” they plan. They believe that there is nothing they can’t do. They don’t need God when they have a “Let us.”

When God discovers the people’s plot, He stops them by confusing their language so they can no longer communicate with each other, which is why we now call this building project “Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world” (Genesis 11:9). But God does not merely judge these people by confusing their communication. He does something else. He does something more. He tries something better.

In the very next chapter of Genesis, God calls a man named Abraham and says to him:

Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:1-3)

God is not only promising to bless Abraham here, He is also working to undo the calamity of Babel by responding to humanity’s arrogant “Let us” with two words of His own:

“I will.”

“I will give you a new land,” God explains. “I will make you into a great nation,” God declares.

On the one hand, the words “I will” can trouble us, because what God will do always outdoes and overcomes what we might want to do. On the other hand, these words of God are a great promise for us. They remind us that our accomplishments, our worth, and our lives are not in our hands. We do not live by what we do. We live because of what God has done – and will do – for us.

At a time like this, the temptation to say “Let us” can become overwhelming. “Let us get a raise so we can live more comfortably.” “Let us airbrush our lives on social media so we can present ourselves perfectly.” “Let us win this presidential election so we can beat our opponents into submission politically.” What we need most at a moment like this, however, is not another “Let us.” We need God’s “I will.” “I will provide for you.” “I will grant you My perfect righteousness.” “I will be your perfect king and your loving heavenly Father.” His “I will” always works better than our “Let us.”

The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

October 26, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Name-Calling

Credit: Craig Adderley / Pexels.com

One of the most common responses to last week’s vice-presidential debate that I heard was that of a sigh of relief. It was noticeably mild-mannered compared the first presidential debate held a week earlier. Both President Trump and Vice-President Biden came under sharp critique for their name-calling of each other. Check out these headlines:

‘Will you shut up, man?’: Debate devolves to name-calling as Trump derails with interruptions

First Trump-Biden Presidential Debate Devolves Into Interruptions, Name-Calling

First Presidential Debate Turns Into Fighting and Name-Calling

Quite apart from politics, name-calling, in general, concerns me. As anyone who has been badgered or belittled on a school playground knows, sticks and stones may break some bones, but names can also hurt you.

Last week, as I was preparing to lead a study on Isaiah 1, I came across this passage:

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! “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.” (Isaiah 1:10-11)

Isaiah encourages the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah to hear the word of the Lord. Historically, the prophet writes these words around 740 BC. The towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, however, were famously destroyed by fire and brimstone some 1,300 years earlier. They no longer exist. So, to whom is Isaiah speaking?

Here, the famed cities are being invoked metaphorically to refer to the rebellious people of God – the Israelites. Isaiah is making the point that the wickedness of the Israelites has become so great that they might as well be the people of Sodom and Gomorrah – cities renowned for their depravity. In other words, Isaiah is calling the Israelites names.

Name-calling seems to be an awfully unbecoming behavior for a prophet of God. And yet, what sounds like disrespect at first is actually an act of desperation. He asks earlier:

Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. (Isaiah 1:5)

Isaiah longs for the Israelites to repent before they become afflicted by God. Isaiah’s name-calling, then, is not meant to insult, but to implore. The prophet is imploring people of Israel to understand just how precarious their spiritual situation really is. So, he uses the most jarring example of systemic and sanctioned sin he can think of: the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Of course, this is not the only time Isaiah calls the Israelites names. Later in his book, he writes:

But now, this is what the LORD says – He who created you, Jacob, He who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are Mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

God calls the people of Israel names to help them understand their sin. But He also calls them a name to promise them redemption from their sin:

Mine.

I’m not big on name-calling, but that’s a name I’d love to be called by God any day. Because of Christ, I know I am. And because of Christ, you are too.

October 12, 2020 at 5:00 am Leave a comment

Casting Your COVID Anxiety on Christ

As states, cities, and businesses begin what will likely be a long, slow, and uncertain process of reopening as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to show signs of receding, a new normal is sure to emerge. Social distancing will likely continue for some time. Face masks will likely be commonplace. E-commerce will almost certainly dominate. And we will be encouraged to sanitize, sanitize, and sanitize.

For some, the transition out of staying at home will be exciting. They are ready to go. Others I have talked to are experiencing a fair amount of anxiety over re-entering workplaces and public spaces. There is, after all, still a lot uncertainty surrounding how far this virus will continue to spread and how much more damage this virus will continue to do.

In the early 60s of the first century, one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, was living under a lot of uncertainty. The ruler at this time was a Roman Emperor named Nero, who became a famed persecutor of early Christianity. When Peter writes his first letter to the church-at-large, though he does not quite yet know the future holds, he knows he has to encourage Christians to be ready for potential trials and persecution to come:

You greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1:6)

Even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” (1 Peter 3:14)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you … If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:12, 16)

Such looming trials, understandably, caused a lot of anxiety among many in the early church because they did not know where, when, or if they were going to suffer and be persecuted.

Peter, however, does not want these Christians to be trapped by their anxiety. So, he writes these famous words:

Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)

Peter knows that anxiety often arises because of circumstances that are beyond our control. In order to deal with anxiety, Peter instructs us to give what we can’t control to the One who is in control. And He assures us that what we can’t control is safe with Him, because “He cares for you.”

When Peter invites us to cast all our anxiety on the Lord, the word “cast,” in Greek, is a participle – “casting.” This verse, therefore, can be translated as a phrase that piggybacks on the verse that comes before it:

Humble yourselves…under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time, casting all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)

It turns out that casting our anxiety on the Lord not only helps us feel better, it helps us learn humility, because it reminds us that we are not masters of our own destinies and captains of our own ships. Our calling is not to be in control, but to humbly submit ourselves to God’s control – to live under His mighty hand, which, Peter promises, will take care of our problems, even when our problems are as thorny as how to re-enter workplaces and public spaces in the midst of a still-very-ominous pandemic.

As anyone who has dealt with intense anxiety knows, anxiety is not an emotion one can simply “turn off” or “un-feel.” It bubbles up inside of us, often when we least expect it. But even if we cannot stop it, we can confront it. Clinically, we can receive help for it. And spiritually, we can cast it on Christ. He’s strong enough to take care of it. And He’s compassionate enough to take care of us.

May 4, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Learning to Give

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Credit: Gift on Picspree

A new report released by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and Vanguard Charitable found that the percentage of U.S. adults who donated to charity dropped significantly between 2000 and 2016. 20 million fewer households donated to charity in 2016 than in 2000. While some attribute this drop in charitable giving to the Great Recession, which began back in 2008, giving has not recovered since this economic downturn, which has led researchers to seek out other drivers to explain the decline.  And one driver has become quite apparent. Una Osili, who is one of the co-authors of this report on charitable giving, explains that God and giving seem to go hand in hand:

“Attending services is correlated with giving to religious organizations, but it’s also correlated with giving to secular groups.”

It turns out that a decline in worship attendance can be correlated with a decline in giving.  People of faith tend to give to their communities of faith, but they give even beyond their community of faith, as Professor Osili notes, to secular organizations. Faith and generosity work together. To jumpstart generosity, then, perhaps a good place to start is not with a fundraiser, a plea, or a guilt trip, but with an invitation to trust in a God who is inordinately magnanimous and to worship Him on a regular basis.

Christians are driven to give because we know that God has first given to us. We believe that God has given us all that we have. So, if God has given us everything, the least we can do is give something.

This does not make giving easy, of course. Christians can still sometimes wonder if they have enough to give. Christians can still be tempted to horde their resources instead of sharing their resources. But this does not mean that giving is not a call. And this does not mean that giving is not a command.

Allow me to offer a challenge: as this year draws to a close, figure out a way to give – whether that be to a church, a charity, or a worthy cause. But then, take it a step further. Don’t just give once in the spirit of the holidays; make it your practice to give consistently as an exercise of faith. Giving is not meant to be an occasional anomaly in your life; it’s meant to be the way of your life. And, by the way, when it is, you bless the lives of others.

And everyone could use a blessing.

December 9, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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

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

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