Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Way We Think about Ourselves is the Way We Feel about Ourselves

Psychologist James Hillman understandably insists that we have to recover a glimpse of our true destiny from the deadening materialistic ways we usually interpret our lives:

“We dull our lives by the way we conceive then…By accepting the idea that I am the effect of…hereditary and social forces, I reduce myself to a result. The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim. I am living a plot written by my genetic code, ancestral heredity, traumatic occasions, parental unconsciousness, societal accidents.” (The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, Random House, 6)

Hillman so clearly recognizes the emptiness of a life built upon merely genetics and “societal accidents” and reminded me of my own self-despair. Years of psychotherapy had stripped me of any conception of dignity, meaning, honor, value, or purpose. I had become nothing more than a result, and the only source of value or purpose left open to me was that of enjoying my now painful and dysfunctional life, something far beyond my grasp.

Many years of searching have taught me that we are designed to find our value by connecting to Something greater than ourselves. Without this connection, we futilely pursue the company and autographs of the rich and famous, join the “in” crowds, or wear designer clothing. It took me years to learn that living was a matter of dying, of giving up my vain attempts to forge an impressive identity. Instead, I found joy in this understanding:

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Medications and Me

Pragmatism is short-sighted; making choices dictated by the immediate payoff is very myopic, even when these choices might serve to reduce stress and depression. Anglican priest and adjunct professor of theology, Joel Scandrett, wanted results. He had been navigating a PH’D program in theology and was experiencing stress and depression. Understandably, he acquiesced to the recommendation of his Christian therapist to take anti-depressants. Scandrett writes,

“The results were nothing short of miraculous. Within weeks, my depression had lifted. I no longer felt overwhelmed or that God was nowhere to be found. I was freed from confusion and emotional paralysis to make vital life decisions that led, among other things, to the marriage and family I now have. Antidepressants (combined with counseling) dramatically improved my life.”

I often counsel that many, including Martin Luther, have grown spiritually through their struggle with feelings that “God was nowhere to be found” by turning to God and His Word with renewed urgency. However, after six years of use, Scandrett became skeptical about antidepressants for a different reason:

“I found myself becoming cavalier and impatient, insensitive and spiritually complacent. The antidepressants kept me feeling good even when I should not have…I felt as if I were floating through life unaffected, enveloped in a pharmaceutical sphere of emotional impenetrability.”

Scandrett was able to break free from chemical dependency, but many can’t or fail to even see the need to do so. But we are left to ask questions about what happens to a society where immediate relief trumps the broader concerns about our humanity and need to experience our the full range of feelings and sentiments associated with this humanity. Scandrett concludes:

“I’m wary of the way they can inure us to compassion, sorrow, guilt, and regret—emotions that are essential components of spiritual maturity—and I’m alarmed at the way society increasingly views them as a cure-all.” (Christianity Today, March 2009, 26)

What type of world have we created? What are the consequences when 15% of adult Americans, who are on psych-medications at any one time, live their lives with conscience dulled and compassion cooled? Our minds have already been tranquillized by postmodern philosophy—“There are no moral absolutes; instead, everyone has their own truth.” What then do we become once our feelings have also become sedated?

I don’t want to argue that meds are never legitimate, but there are profound costs, many invisible. Instead of relying on short-term benefits, our default mode should be a matter of seeking God’s wisdom:

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

I sincerely thank God that meds never worked for me. Instead, I can look back upon my years of agony and say, “Thank you God that I was afflicted that I might learn your Word.” (Psalm 119:67, 71)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Words and Propositions Transform Lives

In “The Future Lies in the Past,” Chris Armstrong (Christianity Today, Feb. 2008) writes,

“For the younger evangelicals, traditional churches are too centered on words and propositions…The younger evangelicals seek a renewed encounter with God beyond both doctrinal definitions and super-successful ministry programs.”

But “words and propositions” do matter, profoundly. I was about to graduate with a bachelors in social work, and went to visit our venerable department head for some parting words. After a few exchanges, her face deepened and she stated with some hesitation,

“I don’t know if I should say this, but I think you’re going to have problems wherever you go.”

Her words knocked me off my seat. I thought I had been a good student and couldn’t understand what her words meant. However, before I could ask, her phone rang. I waited a good half an hour, but finally had to depart without ever having resolved my discomfort. I was so deeply stung, and by someone I had respected, that her words remained with me as an arrow, which could not be removed without tearing the surrounding skin. In fact, the arrow remained imbedded for years.

“Words and propositions” are soul food, but they can also seem irrelevant to our lives, which often feel like a “groan” (Rom. 8:22-23; 2 Cor. 5:2). It’s therefore understandable that we’d crave a “renewed encounter with God,” and we should! But how? Through spiritual disciplines?

Martin Luther had been tortured by doubts about his worthiness before a just and punishing God. Despite the severe spiritual disciplines to which he subjected himself, he couldn’t find any peace with God. In his Commentary on the Book of Galatians, he wrote,

“Although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would satisfy Him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather murmured against Him.”

What made the difference for Martin? “Words and propositions!” He continues,

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement, ‘The just shall live by his faith’ [Rom 1:17]. Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Therefore I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through the doors into paradise.”

God’s words can lead us to the threshold of paradise, although we might have to ponder these words “night and day” (Psalm 1). The Cross of Christ liberated me. It informed me that I was free from needing to prove and obsessively justify myself. It freed me from denial, guilt and shame. It liberated me to attend to others’ needs and to laugh at my own problems, now beholding my glorious life in my Savior.

Although this generation might have a postmodern distaste for words and propositions, it’s better to teach them the virtues of a healthy meal than to indulge them their Big Mac.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why Atheists are not the Best Adjusted People

This Saturday, Anita and I went to the Ethical Culture Society to hear a psychologist speak. The talk, sponsored by an atheist group, was followed by Q & A. The psychologist was asked by one atheist why surveys have consistently indicted that those who believe in God – and the vast majority of these are probably Christians – are happier than others. Another asked if any studies have shown that atheists exhibit better mental health than others. The psychologist was unable to respond affirmatively to either question.

This is tremendously embarrassing for atheists, who pride themselves for their rationality and their grasp of reality. They therefore think it just that the “good life” should belong to them – not to the deluded theists – but this is not what the studies show.

Consequently, it is a bitter affront to them that Christians should be happier. It’s as if Jacob had stolen their birthright. How then do they explain this “illegitimate usurpation” of what should have been their inheritance? Generally, they seem to credit this reversal of fortunes to supportive Christian community.

However, I think that they are mistaken. Although it might be true that Christians generally enjoy a more fulfilling social life, I think that this is the result of certain cognitive-affective fruit that are gradually born out of a relationship with Christ. Let me try to identify some of the fruits of faith in Christ:

1. The Christian has been given a gift of forgiveness and righteousness (Eph. 2:8-9; 2 Cor. 5:21). Our identity and significance has been established! When this truth has become cemented into our being, we find that we no longer need to prove ourselves or to impress others. The desires may still remain, but these needs can no longer exercise dominion over us. We no longer need to live in denial about ourselves. There’s nothing left to deny. Our Savior can turn every negative into a positive.

2. The Christian can better accept suffering and failure knowing that, even in the midst of these, Christ is working everything together for good (Rom. 8:28). If instead everything that you have is in this life, then there is a greater urgency about getting what one wants here and now.

3. The Christian can better accept his/her inadequacies and insecurities, knowing that it’s no longer about us, but about Christ who now owns us (Gal. 2:20). This enables us to get our sights off ourselves and onto the One who loves us beyond understanding (Eph. 2:16-20).

4. More concerned about God’s opinions, we become less concerned about humankinds opinions and their enslaving effects (Proverbs 29:25).

5. We can also accept our sin and shame, knowing that His blood cleanses us from everything (1 John 1:9).

6. Despite our painful circumstances, we can still hope, convinced that we have an all-powerful God (Gen. 18:14). What can the atheist hope in beyond himself? And because everything rests on his own shoulders, he must deny those things about himself that aren’t worthy of his self-trust.

7. It is a delight to serve the Lord (Psalm 1:2-3), and this gives us meaning and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

8. It is also so satisfying to have the truth and the understanding that it brings (Proverbs 2: 10-11). It then becomes a wisdom that enables to peacefully navigate the challenges of life.

9. We are co-heirs with Christ for all eternity (Rom. 8:17). Knowing this, we can better endure the disappointments of this life and are less inclined towards envy. We already own the world!

10. When we know that our basic needs are met, we are liberated (John 8:31-32) to attend to the needs of others. Consequently, our relationships tend to become deeper and more fulfilling. Their co-dependent aspects slowly lift as the morning mist.

This is just a partial list of the fruits of a life in Christ. But fruits are produced in season. It had required many years before these truths had percolated down into my heart from superficial believing. Painful trials had to first be transformed by the Spirit, through the Word, into soul-food.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Representative Case of a Bible Skeptic

Marcus Borg, Professor of Religion, Bible-skeptic and former member of the Jesus Seminar, advances an illogical but common point of view:

“Whether or not Jesus thought he was the messiah, he is the messiah. That is, his messianic status and the truth of the exalted metaphors do not depend upon whether Jesus thought of himself in those terms. Whether any of them go back to Jesus or not, they are the [1st century Christian] community’s testimony to what Jesus had become in their life together.” (“The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions,” co-authored by M. Borg and N.T. Wright, 55)

I know what you’re thinking: “How could Jesus be 'the messiah,' and yet be totally deluded about His identity and mission? And how about all of the passages that reveal that Jesus knew Himself to be the Messiah?” Well, Borg has an answer for this:

“In our earliest gospel, a messianic self-claim is not part of the Jesus’ own message. In Mark, Jesus does not teach about being messiah, Son of God and so forth. To clarify: the issue is not whether Mark thinks Jesus is the messiah and the Son of God. For Mark, Jesus is both.”

However, when I re-examined Mark’s Gospel, the evidence that Jesus thought Himself the Messiah was overwhelming. Here’s just a small sample from the 1st chapter:

1. "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord [YHWH], make straight paths For him.'" (Mark 1:3). Although this doesn’t come from the mouth of Jesus, He later affirms that this does pertain to Him (Mark 9:12-13).

2. “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’"
(Mark 1:11). After such an event, how could Jesus not know that He is the Messiah?

3. About the many self-authenticating miracles that Jesus performed, Borg surprisingly confesses, “In common with the majority of contemporary Jesus scholars, I see the claim that Jesus performed paranormal healings and exorcisms as history remembered. Indeed, more healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in Jewish tradition. He must have been a remarkable healer.” (66). If Borg then takes these accounts as historical, how then can he insist that the greatest miracle worker couldn’t have regarded Himself as the Messiah? (Strangely, Borg does not regard the “miracles” as “supernatural intervention.”)

4. "What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are--the Holy One of God!" "Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of him!" (Mark 1:24-25). If even the demons knew that Jesus was the Messiah, how could Jesus not realize this fact?

However, Borg is also aware of these verses and a multitude of similar verses that suggest that Jesus knew that He is the Messiah. While Borg believes that there is an historically accurate core within the Gospels, he also believes that those verses that affirm the Messiah-ship of Jesus were later embellishments by the early church. Nevertheless, he confesses that even the early, more historical layers of Mark:

“Present Jesus as an utterly remarkable figure, but I think the inference that he was the messiah, Son of God, and so forth, was most likely first made by the early Christian movement.” (57)

The evidence coerces Borg to admit that Jesus was an “utterly remarkable figure.” Everything He said and did was remarkable and even radiated the fact that Jesus understood His divine mission. How could Jesus not regard Himself as the Messiah in light of raising the dead (5:41), empowering his disciples to cast out demons (6:7), calming the seas (6:48-51), feeding the multitudes (6:41, 8:20), and healing them (6:55-56)?

How then can Borg deny His self-identity? Although Borg identifies himself as a “Christian,” he refuses to believe what is most fundamental to the Christian faith:

“I have trouble imagining that Jesus saw his own death as salvific…It seems a strange notion to me: that Jesus thought that his own death would accomplish all of this.” (81)

What are Borg’s reasons for his radical views?

“First, with the majority of mainline scholars, I see the passion predictions in Mark as post-Easter creations…Moreover, traces in the gospels indicate that Jesus’ death was a shock to his followers and a shattering of their hopes. This is hard to understand if Jesus had spoken so clearly about his upcoming execution.” (81)

This might be hard for Borg to understand, but the denseness of Jesus’ disciples is a consistent theme throughout the Gospels. They failed to understand very much about Jesus and His mission. Why should we expect it to be any different in regards to His prophecies about His death and resurrection?

However, Borg seems to have a deeper reason to doubt that Jesus believed that He’s the Messiah, who had to die for the sins of the world:

“Honesty compels candor: I find this [the atonement] not only a strange notion, but an unattractive notion to attribute to Jesus. I don’t want Jesus to have seen his death as having the significance that Tom [Wright] gives it. As a Christian, I want Jesus to be an attractive figure.” (82).

I appreciate Borg’s candor and also his desire for “Jesus to be an attractive figure.” However, unredeemed man understandably does not regard the Messiah’s death for the sins of the world as attractive. This death communicates some unattractive facts – that we are sinners who are in desperate need of the Savior and deserve to die for these sins. Only when we confront the depths of our sin and helpless situation, does the Cross become attractive, even glorious!

When we start with skeptical sentiments, we can always find skeptical tools to defend these sentiments. Borg starts with a conception of Jesus that suits his tastes and then exercises the liberty to discount, as later embellishments, those verses that fail to fit his conception. With this type of picking-and-choosing, we can prove anything we want to. And that’s just what many scholars do.

There are many tools available by which scholars can derive the results that suit them. If we start with the idea that Scripture is totally a human phenomenon and then choose investigative tools that coincide with this starting-point, we can assure ourselves that we’ll derive our desired conclusions.

Borg starts with the presupposition that Scripture is just a human product. He then eliminates those verses that could not humanly have been known to the New Testament authors:

“About the events reported between arrest and execution [of Jesus], including the trials before Jesus and Roman authorities, I have little historical confidence. The reason: whatever happened was not witnessed by Jesus’ followers; they had fled and were not there.” (87).

However, Borg’s stance refuses to even consider the possibility that the Bible is also the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Peter 1:20-21) and what was written had supernaturally been revealed. If the Bible is the Word of God, we have to be open to the possibility that some disclosures might have been supernatural. Jesus promised that the Spirit would lead the Apostles into all truth. If we are Christians, we should be open to this reality. However, from the get-go, Borg has ruled this out. He started by presupposing human causality, and it was inevitable that this is where he’d terminate his inquiry. Sadly, for the sake of attaining professional respectability, many Evangelicals do likewise.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Embracing the Darkness:
How a Jewish sixties Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression, God’s Way

The insights presented within this book, sharpened by decades of depression, desperation and doubt, penetrate far deeper into the essence of faith, growth, and therapy than other similar works while retaining a thoroughly Biblical orientation. Daniel demonstrates how depression became a portal through which to perceive how faith and understanding impact joy, assurance, self-acceptance and intimacy with God.

God is the healer, and faith in His Son is the key! The way we think impacts who we are and how we experience life. This truth is particularly transformational because how we think about God will also determine how we feel about God and our sense of assurance and intimacy with Him. The question of depression, despair and anxiety rests squarely upon this faith issue.

Daniel Mann writes:

Depression had been nipping at my heals as far back as I could remember. I didn’t have a clue about countering it. The various therapies, religions, and lifestyles I resorted to proved little better than quicksand. The more I struggled, the deeper I sank.

I tried to outrun it. In 1970, I left the USA to roam around Europe and the Middle East, always on the move, sleeping in barn and field, anywhere I could find relief.

In 1976, I came to a final way-station that promised ultimate relief, the Messiah. I had an initial “honeymoon” period. I saw and experienced things I couldn’t deny. Nevertheless, depression again blindsided me with another unwelcome visitor--panic attacks. The faith that I thought would weather the storm ran away terrified. The God that I had thought I had come to know, if He indeed existed, didn’t respond to my flimsy and desperate cries for help. Perhaps He did exist, but He just didn’t like me enough. In any event, I found myself devastated for the next several years.

I continued to pray and to seek God for answers, not because I believed that He would eventually answer me, but because I had no other place to turn. I had tried everything else! I didn’t really trust God anymore, but I trusted Him more than anything else.

I was convinced that if Christianity was the truth and Christ died for my sins, I shouldn’t be feeling the way I was. If He loved me, He would answer my prayers. There was no reason why I should be more dysfunctional and suicidal than those who didn’t even have a faith in Christ. Surely, my experience had to disqualify Christianity, but Christ remained my only hope.

I now look back over my years of depression in a way I never thought I’d be able. I never thought I’d be able to honestly thank God for the pain. However, it’s been through the pain and utter despair that He’s taught me so much. I’m reminded of Paul’s cry of anguish: “Indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).

Through the ordeal, my Savior has indeed become dear to me in a way that couldn’t have been otherwise. It’s through the ordeal that I’ve come to love Him as He is and to even accept myself despite my many imperfections. My weaknesses serve as a token of His undying love. They remind me of the extent of His love and tender care of this life.

This book started as a course at the New York School of the Bible entitled, “Biblical Principles for Handling Depression and Despair.” It then became a Seminar “Blooming in the Valley” which has been presented at prisons and churches. One prisoner wrote, “This Seminar beats any anti-depressant I’ve ever had.” A pastor wrote that “he had been thinking of giving up both life and ministry before attending the Seminar. “

The book is divided into two major sections. The first deals with the content of the Seminar, along with additional autobiographical material which illuminates my many embarrassing missteps. The final several chapters critique secular counseling. An addendum provides additional autobiographical material for those so interested.

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Ignorance is a Good Excuse, but we’re not Ignorant!

The Bible has some bad news for atheists and others who claim that they are unaware that they are violating Divine decrees. The late brilliant British mathematician and atheist, Bertrand Russell, had been asked what he would say to God if he died and was asked, “Why didn’t you believe me?”

Russell famously responded, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.” However, his terse dismissal is directly contradicted by Scripture:

“What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For 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 men are without excuse.”
(Romans 1:19-20)

I can imagine Russell’s retort: “Of course, I must admit that we are all aware of strong moral impulses, but how can you blame us if we wrongly ascribed them to mere bio-chemical reactions and therefore didn’t attach much importance to them?”

However, the wisdom of Scripture is prepared for such a retort:

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Romans 2:1)

It’s easy to say with our mouths that we just didn’t have enough evidence, but it’s another thing for our lives and behaviors to agree with this assessment. They just don’t agree. Our lives acknowledge that transcendent, absolute laws exist. This is demonstrated by the fact that we “pass judgment do the same things.”

As C.S. Lewis wisely put it, even the atheist will make judgments like, “Give me a bit of your orange. I gave you a bit of mine!” or “Come on; you promised!”

“Now what interests me about theses remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies, ‘To hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.”

“Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promises to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining, ‘It’s not fair.’”
(Mere Christianity)

God’s laws are so persuasively written on our hearts that we can’t but make judgments against others. By doing this, we endorse the very laws or standards about which we assert that we lack the evidence. When we judge others, we are in effect saying, “This is a standard by which I’m judging you!” While our mouth denies this, our lives say affirm these standards.

Here’s the bad news: When we affirm these judgments, we acknowledge that they are just and that everyone, including ourselves, should be subject to them. But there’s also good news. Jesus promised that if we seek, we will find. John extends this great hope:

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

However, many atheists protest that we haven’t freewill – that our choices have all been pre-programmed or determined by our chemical-electrical neural circuitry. This, I’d simply like to ask the atheist, “Is not then your rejection of freewill and your responsibility before God just a chemical-electrical reaction?”

To meaningfully deny freewill requires freewill, the very freewill that the atheist claims he lacks. Why then take his denial seriously? I don’t think God will.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Naturalism vs. Supernaturalism

A letter to Christian Evolutionists at BioLogos:

If you are truly Christ-centered, then you have a responsibility to declare the glory of God’s works (Psalm 145:10-12) instead of invoking random and mindless processes to account for these. GOD’S ID is not simply Scripturally warranted (Rom. 1:18-20; Psalm 19); it is also rationally warranted:

1. God’s ID is the only adequate cause to explain the disparate phenomena of consciousness, freewill, intelligibility, fine-tuning, the origins of life, DNA, the cell, absolute moral principles, physical laws, energy, matter...

2. There is no scientific evidence that anything happens naturalistically. Instead of evolution, we observe de-evolution (a reality endemic to the 2nd law of thermodynamics), contrary to Darwinist expectations. One then can even talk about “naturalism of the gaps.”

3. Occam’s Razor (the law of parsimony) requires the simpler explanation over the more complex. Naturalism has to postulate many disparate explanations for the above realities.

4. It makes more sense that the laws of physics have a common ID origin than each existing immutably, independently and un-intelligently:

a. God’s ID can better account for their immutability than a naturalistic world having nothing more than molecules-in-motion.
b. The laws operate uniformly throughout the universe – not like a wave that looses it strength over time and distance – suggesting that they transcend the physical world.
c. They act in harmony – they don’t self-destruct – also suggesting ID.

5. Irreducible complexity is ubiquitous. The simplest life form depends on millions of bits of info coming together at one time. Even the building blocks – proteins – are only produced by living cells.

6. We have no experience with things coming out of nothing as naturalism suggests. Instead, they require a supernatural Creator.

God is therefore the best way to account for our observations.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Jews: The Sign-People of God

Rumor has it that a certain Russian Czar asked his advisor, “How can you prove to me that there is a God?” The advisor surprisingly answered, “Just look at the Jewish people!”

What did he mean by this? The Hebrew Bible’s prophecies about this wandering nation have been unusual and fulfilled it dramatic ways. Moses declared that God had chosen Israel and had blessed them exceedingly but prophesied:

You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me." But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today. If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. (Deut. 8:17-19)

In accordance with God’s direction, Moses had specified the many blessings that would be Israel’s if she remained faithful to God’s covenant (Deut. 28). Since that time, no people has ever been so successful, learned and wealthy as the Jewish people. Achievement has followed them into whatever place Israel had been exiled. Their degrading exilic circumstances, which have destroyed other peoples, have not interfered with God’s blessings to His sign people. He has always brought forth His broken and persecuted people against all the odds and the hatred of the surrounding peoples.

However, as Moses had prophesied in many places (Deut. 32), their successes had allowed them to stray away from their possessive God. Moses had consistently warned them of the consequences:

The LORD will drive you and the king you set over you to a nation unknown to you or your fathers. There you will worship other gods, gods of wood and stone. You will become a thing of horror and an object of scorn and ridicule to all the nations where the LORD will drive you…Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. (Deut. 28:36-37; 65-66)

There has never been a people as hated and persecuted as the Jewish people. Yet, from the midst of this hatred, their God had promised restoration to exiled and tormented Israel:

But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers--their treachery against me and their hostility toward me, which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies--then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the [My promise about the] land.” (Leviticus 26:40-42)

On three occasions, God had rescued His repentant people, brought them back to the land, and re-established their nation.

1. In response to the cries of enslaved Israel’s cries, after hundreds of years of cruel bondage in Egypt, God sent Moses to lead them to redemption and freedom.

2. After the fall of the Babylonian empire in 532, God placed it in the Persian Cyrus’ heart to equip the Jews to return to their own land and rebuild their Temple.

3. Following the two rebellions against Rome (66-70 CE and 132-136 CE), the Jews were expelled from their land. After centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust in Nazi Europe, once again, Israel was restored as a nation in 1948.

No people group has ever returned to its ancestral land -- even once -- after entirely leaving it. Israel has been restored to their Promised Land on three occasions. This is not merely an historical anomaly, it is a sign of Divine intervention, and it doesn’t stop there.

Prophecy reveals that, in the end, Israel will once again be a nation and again without faith towards her God. Her assailants will mercilessly break her, but this time her God will intervene decisively and permanently:

The LORD will judge [“vindicate” ESV] his people and have compassion on his servants when he sees their strength is gone and no one is left [to oppose the enemy], slave or free…Rejoice, O nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people. (Deut. 32:36; 43)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Humans couldn’t have Invented the Bible; God did!

While the Bible asserts that we are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), skeptics claim that instead we created God in our image. Although this is often true, it doesn’t mean that this allegation is always true. In fact, when we examine the Hebrew Bible, it becomes readily apparent that no one would have created this God with His demanding laws and teachings. Let’s start with the Jewish Patriarchs.

1. THE PATRIARCHS: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the forefathers of Judaism, were certainly not role-models. Instead, the Bible reveals that they were cowards, deceivers, liars and worse. We humans don’t create or select such role models, least of all the Fathers of our faith. Instead, we fashion them into the saints with which others would want to identify. This is exactly what the Talmud did with the Patriarchs. It sanitized the Bible’s depiction of them, and made them sinless. In contrast, the Bible’s portraits sharply conflict with what we’d create – so much so, that we feel compelled to re-create them.

2. MOSES: Even the greatest of all Israelites had been forbidden entry into the Promised Land because he had sinned. Aaron also is presented as a humiliated sinner. What hope therefore could the average Israelite entertain about his own future welfare? Not much! Such a revelation could not be the invention of humans who want to maintain a zealous following.

3. THE ISRAELITES: They are not portrayed as faithful to God, but as stubborn and unfaithful. Meanwhile, the Talmud characterizes the Jewish people as spiritually superior, the very thing that the Bible warns against:

• “After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, "The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness." No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Deut. 9:4-6)

We humans don’t characteristically write such disparaging things about ourselves and our people, and it gets worse. Almost all the prophets denounce Israel. How is it that the Jewish people would retain as Scripture such thoroughly condemning writings? They must have been convinced that they had no other choice, lest they oppose God.

4. MOSAIC LAWS: While much of Moses’ commands resemble those of other legal systems from that period, notably Hammurabi’s Code, much of it is not characteristic of anything else we find in the ancient Near East. For instance:

• The covenant was transacted with all the people, not just the king.
• The king was required to read the Torah to remind him that he was no better than other people (Deut. 17).
• A day of rest was mandatory for even animals and foreigners (Exodus 20:10).
• The Sabbath (7th) year required the cancellation of debts to protect the poor (Deut. 15:1, 4) – certainly not something that people who make the laws would tolerate.
• The Jubilee (50th) year required that the land be returned to its original owners. In fact, this law was so radical that there is no evidence that Israel ever obeyed it.
• The priestly caste was denied true wealth – land. Instead, God was to be their inheritance.
• The law granted soldiers permission to leave the army if they feared. If any nation granted their soldiers such an out, it would loose its army (Deut. 20).

Similarly, there are many other laws that humans, especially from that period of time would never tolerate. Therefore, these laws must have come from above!

5. MOSAIC THREATS: The warnings for disobedience were severe and demanding. If an Israelite failed to keep the law in just one respect, he was under a curse (Deut. 27:26). We humans would not accept such a threatening religion. Nor would the Rabbis, who qualified this teaching in several ways. For instance, Gerald Sigal, The Jew and the Christian Missionary, wrote,

• [Deuteronomy 27:26] does not refer to the breaking of the Law by an ordinary individual. It is, as the Rabbis explain, a reference to the authorities in power who fail to enforce the rule of the Law in the land of Israel (J.T. Sotah 7:4). The leadership of the nation is thus charged, under pain of the curse, to set the tone for the nation and make the Law the operative force in the life of the nation.

6. PROPHECIES: The Prophets uniformly prophesied (and declared) Israel’s spiritual failure (Deut. 29:4; Joshua 24:19). Moses even taught Israel a song that would serve to continually indict them. Israel would reject their God, and God would bring destruction upon them (Deut 32:15-35). No one would invent a religion foretelling such negative consequences for its own people.

Perhaps even more offensive to Israel, the Prophets also envisioned the hated Gentile nations enjoying the abundant blessings with Israel in the end. Perhaps the most poignant demonstration of the Israelite consternation to this Divine plan is exhibited by Jonah, who rebelled against his call to preach to Nineveh. This is because he feared that his preaching would serve as a vehicle for God blessing the Ninevites.

7. PENTATEUCHAL HOLIDAYS: Of the six prescribed holidays, only one of them is truly commemorative of an historical event – the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread. The other five seem to be prophetic. They look forward to God working events to their glorious culmination. However, this is very unusual – something we humans don’t do! Holidays commemorate past events. Characteristically, all of Israel’s non-divinely-ordained holidays are commemorative. Hanukkah commemorates the cleansing of the Temple and the Maccabean military victories. Purim commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people in Persia. T’sha b’Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple. Simchat Torah commemorates the giving of the Law on Sinai.

8. ASSIGNMENT OF DATES: We assign dates to occasions we want to remember. Not so the Torah (Pentateuch). There is no assignment of a date to the giving of the law, to any military victories or momentous defeats. There is no “Victory over Jericho” day or “Pharaoh’s Defeat in the Red Sea” day. Instead, the dates are those that are important to God.

This is only a mere outline of the ways that the Bible is humanly repugnant – not the type of thing that we would create if we had the choice. When we survey the Hebrew Bible, we do not find a human landscape with identifiable benchmarks. Instead, we encounter something entirely alien to our expectations and inclinations – something that doesn’t flatter the ego, but instead humbles us, if we are enabled to see this unearthly terrain through unbiased eyes. But it’s this humbling process that prepares us for a Divine encounter that will leave us unsatisfied with the world we had once inhabited.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Knowing that the Bible is the Word of God

“Believing that the Bible is the Word of God isn’t about facts or evidence, but instead groundless faith.”

This represents a gross misrepresentation of what the Bible teaches as “faith.” Belief was always to be based upon concrete reasons-to-believe. This was also true within the Hebrew Scriptures. Israel was required to believe because God had provided incontrovertible reasons-to-believe:

• “You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, and you heard his words from out of the fire.” (Deut. 4:35-36)

Belief was never something that was supposed that rested on feelings and experiences alone. According to Hebrew thought, everything had to be proved by two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15). This also applied to matters of faith. Israel was provided with strict evidential criteria to determine what and who should be believed (Deut. 13:1-5; 18:19-22).

Jesus continued this very tradition: “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does” (John 10:37). If He didn’t manifest the miraculous signs of His Father, then it didn’t matter how charismatic He might seem. He was not to be believed (John 5:31-38).

“But even if Jesus did perform miracles, we don’t have that type of evidence today. Therefore there isn’t enough evidence to believe that the Bible is God’s Word!”

This seems to be contradicted by the Bible (Romans 1:18-32; 2:14-15; Acts 14:17). For one thing, I’ve know many non-Christians who have experienced miracles that have substantiated the Bible, but have simply chosen to turn their back on this evidence.

In addition to this, there are many testimonial evidences of Jesus’ miracles. The Apostle John wrote in favor of the weightiness of eyewitness testimonies:

• “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

“You’re not expecting us to believe that the Bible is God’s Word based upon 2000 year old biased testimonies!”

If you were an historian who bothered to weight the historical evidences, you might see things differently. In fact, the ancient enemies of the Christian faith never denied that Jesus performed miracles:

• "It is noteworthy that Jesus' enemies are not presented as denying that he did extraordinary deeds; rather they attributed them to evil origins, either to the devil (Mark 3:22-30) or in the 2d-century polemic to magic (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.32.3-5)." (Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, pp. 62-63)

Even many skeptical historians acknowledge that Jesus must have been a worker of miracles:

1. "Among NT scholars there is almost universal agreement that Jesus performed what he and his contemporaries regarded as miraculous healings and exorcisms. (B.L. Blackburn, Jesus and the Gospels, p. 556),

2. "Any fair reading of the Gospels and other ancient sources (including Josephus) inexorably leads to the conclusion that Jesus was well known in his time as a healer and exorcist. The miracle stories are now treated seriously and are widely accepted by Jesus scholars as deriving from Jesus' ministry. Several specialized studies have appeared in recent years, which conclude that Jesus did things that were viewed as 'miracles'." (B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, pp. 11-12, NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998)

3. "The deepest impression Jesus made upon his contemporaries was as an exorcist and a healer. . . . In any case he was not only believed to possess some quite special curative gifts but evidently, in some way or other he actually possessed them." (Michael Grant, An Historian's Review of the Gospels, pp. 31, 35)

4. "Yes, I think that Jesus probably did perform deeds that contemporaries viewed as miracles." (Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, p. 114)

5. "There is no doubt that Jesus worked miracles, healed the sick and cast out demons." (Gerd Theissen, The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, p. 277)

6. "In most miracle stories no explanation at all is given; Jesus simply speaks or acts and the miracle is done by his personal power. This trait probably reflects historical fact." (Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 101)

7. "There is agreement on the basic facts: Jesus performed miracles, drew crowds and promised the kingdom to sinners." (E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 157)

8. “Yes, we can be sure that Jesus performed real signs which were interpreted by his contemporaries as experiences of an extraordinary power." (H. Hendrickx, The Miracle Stories and the Synoptic Gospels, p. 22)

9. "[T]he tradition of Jesus' miracles has too many unusual features to be conveniently ascribed to conventional legend-mongering. Moreover, many of them contain details of precise reporting which is quite unlike the usual run of legends and is difficult to explain unless it derives from some historical recollection; and the gospels themselves show a remarkable restraint in their narratives which contrasts strangely with that delight in the miraculous for its own sake which normally characterizes the growth of legend." (A.E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History, p. 100)

Consequently, the Christian, N.T. Wright concludes that it is “clear that Jesus' contemporaries, both of those who became his followers and those who were determined not to become his followers, certainly regarded him as possessed of remarkable powers." (Jesus and the Victory of God , p. 187)

Perhaps Jesus’ most significant miracle of all was His resurrection. Regarding the overwhelming evidence in favor of this event, two non-believers conclude:

1. “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.’” (Atheist historian Gerd Ludemann)

2. “The Disciples’ conviction that they had seen the risen Christ…is historical bedrock, facts known past doubting.” (Paula Fredriksen, both quoted from the Case for the Real Jesus, Lee Strobel)

“Well, even if you are right about these miracles, these don’t prove that Jesus is the Messiah or even that your Bible is the word of God!”

Jesus’ miracles and resurrection are embedded within a rich interpretive framework. The prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures instruct us to interpret them messianically. The promised One would die for our sins and rise again!! However, laying forth the messianic prophecies would require volumes. Instead, I’ll conclude with two quotes from the ancient Rabbinic writings, which provide another interpretive perspective. The Jerusalem Talmud reads:

• "Forty years before [30 AD] the destruction of the Temple [70 AD], the western light went out, the crimson thread remained crimson, and the lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open" (Jacob Neusner, The Yerushalmi, p.156-157).

The Babylonian Talmud likewise reads:

• "Our rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple [70 AD] the lot did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-colored strap become white; nor did the western most light shine; and the doors of the Hekel [Temple] would open by themselves" (Soncino version, Yoma 39b).

These accounts look to the year of 30 AD, presumably the year of the Cross. At this time and for the “forty years” until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, supernatural omen were manifest against the nation of Israel. The Temple light, which was lit every evening, would never stay lit despite the diligent efforts of the priests. The light symbolized the presence of God among the people, who understood that its failure to stay lit represented God’s departure.

“The gates of the Temple” presumably would not stay closed because this symbolized the fact that God was leaving His Temple to destruction as He had prior to the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BC (Ezekiel 10:18-19).

“Nor did the crimson-colored strap become white” referred to the Yom Kippur ritual of sending a scape-goat off into the wilderness bearing the sins of Israel. For years prior to the Cross, it would be miraculously transformed from red, symbolizing sin, to white, symbolizing forgiveness (Isaiah 1:18). However, this miracle promptly ceased at the time of the Cross, as if God was now informing Israel, “Goats will no longer carry away your sins!”

There were other “coincidences” also associated with the Cross. In Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, Orthodox Jewish writer, David Klinghoffer, repeats some of these omens, but adds:

• "The Talmud states that from forty years before the Temple's destruction and onward, there were supernatural omens of the disaster to come--that is, starting from the inception of the Christian religion following the death of Jesus. The eternal fire of the Temple altar would not stay lit. The monumental bronze Temple gates opened by themselves. Josephus confirms the Talmud's account of the inner Sanctuary's east gate and its mysterious openings. He adds other portents from these years: a bright light shinning around the altar and the Sanctuary at three in the morning, a cow brought for sacrifice giving birth to a lamb, apparitions of chariots and armies flying through the sky above the whole land of Israel." (117)

The interpretation seems clear, just as Isaiah had prophesied:

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:3-6)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Happiness Studies

According to the Huffington Post, God “is getting accolades from mental health specialists who say they are finding that a belief in God plays a positive role in the treatment of anxiety and depression, The Washington Times, reports. University of Toronto psychologists reported last year that 'believing in God can help block anxiety and minimize stress,' their research showcasing 'distinct brain differences' between believers and nonbelievers. A new study released Wednesday by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago took the idea a step further. In patients diagnosed with clinical depression, 'belief in a concerned God can improve response to medical treatment,' said the new research, which has been published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.”

These findings do not reflect something new, but the author goes on to question why: “Why do people believe? Because it's true? Or because it's good for them?”

Why not both? When I complete my jigsaw puzzle, I have placed the pieces where they truly belong. I guess that’s a form of correctness or “truth.” However, I also feel a certain sense of satisfaction with the congruent image looking back at me. As the pieces fit together in such a harmonious way, and as the final inserted piece brings unity – a connectedness – to the whole, so too does my Lord bring unity and harmony to my life!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Truth, Relationship and Intimacy

One blogger accused me of “fundamentalist Bible idolatry” because I would quote Scripture and reason according to Scripture. In contrast, he claimed to be God-centered instead of Bible-centered. He then asked me to delineate the difference between the two positions. Here’s how I answered:

Bible-centrism is God-centrism!!! This is because God has always insisted that His people relate to Him through His Word, as Jesus summed it up:

Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him….If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. (John 14:21-24)

You might ask, “Why is God so insistent about His Word?” Perhaps this might help. Jesus insisted that we had to worship God in spirit (in the depth of our being) and in truth (according to His revelation) (John 4:20-24).

Truth is the only foundation for a meaningful relationship. It is so critical to any relationship that we love/appreciate the other according to who they really are. For instance, if you’re wife adores you simply because you remind her of her first lover, such a relationship is built on smoke and deceit, and its fraudulent nature will inevitably surface with disastrous results.

This is why we are not free to mentally construct God in any we way please, but according to His own self-revelation. Anything short of this is idolatry – creating God and relationship according to our own tastes. As such, it isn’t truly relationship but egoistic self-stimulation.

Communication Skills don’t Cut through Self-Delusion

This was my response to someone who placed a lot of hope in communication skills to heal relationships:

Welcome back! I’m not a big believer in communication skills. I know that for me the problems had been much deeper. Lacking the assurance of Christ’s love, forgiveness and righteousness, I lived my life believing in myself and my earned sense of self. However, to believe in myself required that I deny and suppress the counter-self-righteous evidence, evidences that disqualified my belief in self -- my selfishness, self-centeredness, and need to always promote myself and to be right.

It also required me to feed myself a lot of nonsense self-affirmations that tended to alienate me from both life and viable relationships. Relationship depends upon truth, the only basis for sharing a common vision and communication. It’s hard to relate to someone who believes that they are the savior of the world or is in deep denial about themselves. It requires that we enter into the fantasy world of another. After a while, that gets old and irksome. Instead, we long for authenticity.

Consequently, whenever my wife and I got into an argument – and that happened often – I was convinced that I was right and she was wrong, and she was convinced of the opposite. As a result, we could never reconcile our differences, but had to bury them in order to move on. But we didn’t really move on. Our differences just festered, and communication skills couldn’t even begin to touch them. We humans are just highly resistant to the truth, especially the truth about ourselves!

However, it has only been in following Christ – not in my five highly recommended psychologists – that I found liberation (John 8:31-32). Knowing His love and gift of righteousness allowed me to slowly lay down the self-delusions that had taken me captive. Consequently, I can now laugh at myself and admit that I am wrong, because it’s no longer about me, but Him. He loves me and will never leave me.

Also, I am no longer needy of others opinions of me. Of course, they can hurt me, but I just take my pains to God, knowing that He’ll lift me back up. And He does!!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Morality Starts at Home

When we violate God’s wisdom, we pay for it, literally. On March 9, 2010, reported,

“Family breakdown now costs Britain £41.7 billion per year, estimates the Relationships Foundation, a British-based think tank…

The Foundation’s estimate includes £12.38 billion in tax credits and benefits, £4.27 billion in housing support, and £13.68 billion in health and social care. The authors report that their estimate works out to £1,350 a year per taxpayer.”

The Foundation describes these costs as both “unsustainable” and rising “rapidly” and adds that,

“Functioning families are key to learning, capacity building, acquiring skills and providing welfare. They provide social care and support worth £73 billion a year in the UK, and family businesses generate turnover in excess of £1 trillion, contributing £73 billion each year in tax.”

How are we to understand this deterioration? “In an op-ed for the Daily Mail at the end of January, columnist Melanie Phillips connected the breakdown of the family with the erosion of the institution of marriage in British society. ‘The disintegration of the family lies at the heart of the progressive breakdown of moral and social behaviour - and the erosion of marriage lies at the heart of that disintegration.’”

Of course, this comes as no surprise. We are killing ourselves and our societies with our philosophy of instant self-gratification and “my-needs-first-ism.” This will prove to not only be a dead-end financially, but also emotionally, interpersonally, and medically. We don’t build lasting and meaningful relationships by placing our own gratification first. Any 10-year-old can tell us that. Nor do we build healthy minds and bodies by indulging our every whim.

So what’s the answer? The Church! Before all else, we have to show the world that we have the answer and that we are willing to take the same medicine that we dish out. We have to put God’s will above our own. Nobody will take our prescription seriously, when they see us flush it down the toilet.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Leaving the Faith

We face an assortment of discouragements during these hard times that promise persecution. We are grieved by the performance of the church, our own often dismal performance, and apostasy (people falling away from the faith.) We grieve for lost friends, brothers and sisters in the Lord, and we grieve for ourselves. If they could depart from the faith, isn’t it possible that I too might fall away?

This problem – trying to remain confident in the face of apostasy – has confronted the Church from the time of its inception. Therefore, there is much Biblical counsel from which we can draw comfort. For one thing, apostasy has not blind-sided the Church. It has been prophesied from the start, beginning with Moses, who gave his Israelites a song that would remind them of their betrayal. In the midst of their successes, they would turn their back on their God to their great loss (Deut. 32). Nevertheless, in the end, God would restore Israel.

Likewise, Jesus warned about the great and final apostasy. The masses would be deceived by miraculous manifestations, but that He would keep His people from this deception (Matthew 24:24).

Paul brings the discouragement of apostasy even closer to home. When he visited the elders at the church at Ephesus for the last time, he prophesied that “savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock” (Acts 20:29).

Our first reaction to apostasy is to think that something is horribly wrong, that the trust we had placed in God had somehow been misplaced! Instead, apostasy is part of God’s plan to purify the Church by removing those who are not truly brothers (Hebrews 12:26-27). (I too grieve. Even the removal of dead branches can be painful!)

God uses trials to shake loose from the Church those things that aren’t part of its architecture. Paul even names names – Hymenaeus and Philetus. I’m sure that they were very esteemed. They apparently were fully accepted among the brethren, trusted enough to be heard and to “upset the faith of some” through their deviant gospel.

In the face of this falling away, how could those who remained be sure that they were in the right or that they would even remain in the true Gospel? Paul assured the church through Timothy that the Church the Lord has built “stands firm,” because “the Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim. 2:19). Evidently, Hymenaeus and Philetus were never His, despite the fact that they had appeared to be genuine Brethren.

Our confidence tends to easily surrender to anxiety. After Jesus had warned His flock that one of them would betray Him, each nervously began to question whether it might be he who would do the betrayal. They never once thought, “Oh, I know who will betray Jesus. It’s that Judas! I always had a bad feeling about him!” No one dreamed that Judas wasn’t truly one of them (John 17:12). Apostasy will blind-side us again, for only God can read the heart.

We often join religions and cults – even the very demanding ones – because they fulfill our need for self-righteousness, our appetite to feel special and superior to others, the outsiders. Jesus prophesied that many would come to Him and declare that they deserved His blessings, reciting a list of their spiritual accomplishments. Jesus’ response was shocking:

“Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”
(Matthew 7:23).

For years, I had been horrified by His response. If they, who had performed great spiritual deeds, weren’t worthy of Jesus’ salvation, what hope did I have. Like them, I too had been unwilling and perhaps unable to let go of the illusion that somehow I was worthy of Jesus’ free gift of life. It required years for me to face the fact that I was totally unworthy of even His “thank you” (Luke 17:10). However, with my breakdown and the final resignation to this realization – that I came to Him empty-handed, without any valid claim upon His mercy – I found peace and an understanding of the simplicity of the Gospel. I also came to realize that we’re all “evildoers” (Eph. 2:1-3) who need His free gift of life. However, this fact is repugnant to us.

I’ve become thoroughly convinced that this understanding must come as a gift. It’s just too unnatural for us to lay aside our cherished belief that we are deserving of Him. I think that this is at the heart of apostasy – we believe too much in ourselves and our own foolish ideas to be receptive to the truths of God. We believe too strongly in ourselves to believe in Him.

If we do grasp the Gospel, and consequently our own unworthiness and hopelessness, we realize that without Him we have nothing and nowhere else to go! According to the Apostle John, this had not been the case of those who had departed from the faith:

“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19).

Had they been believers, they would have remained, perceiving the green pastures they had in the Gospel. Never truly having been believers, they had no idea what they were leaving behind. Instead, they trusted that they could do better elsewhere. When we know the Gospel, we know that there isn’t an “elsewhere!” If the God of the Gospel isn’t for us, we have nothing and are nothing (Gal. 6:3). It takes only the smallest measure of faith, true faith, to comprehend this, but the vast majority of humankind is destitute of this dust-sized faith, filled instead with an imitation – an edifice of self-trust.

I thank God that He has whittled away my edifice. If only we would all pray, “Teach us the truth, no matter how painful!” Apostasies will come, but our Savior knows those who are His!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Christianity Ruins Everything?

Whether it’s church bashing or church burning, it has become a national pastime, but this one has its victims. Bashing is also generously dealt out by church insiders, who profusely apologize for the church. I’m all for apologies when a wrong has been committed, but many of these “apologies” don’t pertain to wrongdoing but wrong-being. We Christians are apologizing for being ourselves. Criticism can often be healthy and constructive, but criticism can easily become contempt, even self-contempt, especially when abundantly served up with every meal. Snowfall is delightful, but an avalanche is deadly.

It has become so acceptable to regard the church as “intolerant,” bigoted,” “judgmental” and “homophobic,” even by the most “tolerant” newscasters and social pundits. However, when they point the finger at the Church, indicting it for “intolerance,” they never once admit their own intolerance toward the Church.

This hypocritical climate has elevated biased and unbalanced reporting into standard-operating- procedure. The media has justified this by subtly painting the Church as the villain, the purveyor of discrimination, denying civil rights to all people. Therefore, according to the prevailing cultural bias, “they deserve what they get.” This carefully packaged bias has serious consequences, even depriving the church of police protection in the midst of intimidation and violence. As a result, Christians wrap themselves in a cloak of “mea culpa” and inhabit the shadows of society. Others – the younger Christians – have become convinced that the Church needs to be entirely overhauled.

I think it’s time to balance out the portrait that society is being force-fed. The 19th century Princeton theologian, B.B. Warfield, wrote,

“Hospitals and asylums and refuges for the sick, the miserable and the afflicted grow like heaven-bedewed blossoms in its path. Woman, whose equality with man Plato considered a sure mark of social disorganization, has been elevated; slavery has been driven from civilized ground; literacy has been given by Christian missionaries, under the influence of the Bible.” (The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield)

Fortunately, although secularism has been able to remove the crosses and Bibles from public places, it has not yet been able to remove hospital names of the likes of “St. Mary’s” or “Methodist Hospital” or “Presbyterian Medical Center” -- a remaining testimony to the glory of Christ. Perhaps the only reason that our Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Brown still retain their names, is because their names do not reveal their Christian origins – all were started as Bible schools to train pastors.

Ironically, today’s universities have washed their hands of their parents and pretend that they were the sired by secularism. They scornfully proclaim that the West progressed in technology and science because it succeeded in shedding its religious mantle. However, historian Rodney Stark offers a very different assessment:

“Rather, the West is said to have surged ahead precisely as it overcame religious barriers…Nonsense, The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.” (The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, xi)

Nevertheless, many of the new atheists proclaim that Christianity can’t do anything right. While they charge that Christians can’t do science – after all, our minds are already made up – the facts protest against this indictment. British scientist Robert Clark sums up the evidence this way:

“However we may interpret the fact, scientific development has only occurred in Christian culture. The ancients had brains as good as ours. In all civilizations—Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, India, Rome, Persia, China and so on—science developed to a certain point and then stopped. It is easy to argue speculatively that, perhaps, science might have been able to develop in the absence of Christianity, but in fact, it never did. And no wonder. For the non-Christian world believed that there was something ethically wrong about science. In Greece, this conviction was enshrined in the legend of Prometheus, the fire-bearer and prototype scientist who stole fire from heaven, thus incurring the wrath of the gods.” (Christian Belief and Science, quoted by Henry F. Schaefer, 14)

Likewise, secularism likes to boast that it is the author of equality and justice. However, Jurgen Habermas reminds us that,

“Christianity and nothing else is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source.”

It’s our Bible that has provided the rational basis for equality and egalitarianism. It even required Israel’s king to study the Bible in order to remind him that he was no better than the lowest human and has subject to the very same laws (Deut. 17:18-20; Gen. 1:26-27). Even the highly secular Thomas Jefferson wrote,

“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?” (Notes on the State of Virginia)

Rights are not found in nature, nor can they be the endowment of Darwinian theory, where only the strongest have “rights.” They require a foundation rooted in heaven.

Our media also likes to associate our shameful treatment with our nature American Indians with the Christian faith. In order to make their case credible, they delete those chapters of history that demonstrate otherwise. In New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675, Historian Alden T. Vaughn presents a very different portrait. The Puritans were arguably the most thorough-going Christians. Vaughan writes, “They came as close to living by their pronouncements as did any other society of the seventeenth century, or any other century, perhaps” (112). He summarizes his research about the Puritans:

“What emerges from my investigation of the sources is a conviction that the New England Puritans followed a remarkably humane, considerate, and just policy in their dealings with the Indians. In matters of commerce, religious conversion, and judicial procedure, the Puritans had surprisingly high regard for the interests of a people who were less powerful, less civilized, less sophisticated, and – in the eyes of the New England colonists – less godly” (vii).

This shouldn’t surprise us. Christ taught us to give as we have been given, and the Puritans took this and other Biblical teachings seriously. Vaughan disposes of two other myths:

“One of the most persistent myths concerning the relations between the Puritan settler and the American Indian asserts that the colonist robbed the native of his land…Such a view in no longer held by those reasonably well acquainted with the history of early New England…The second…holds that while the Indian willingly sold his land…the native did not understand the implications”

Indeed, history informs us that those who have been most committed to the Christ of the Bible have been leaders in the area of human rights. In this regard, Christian missionaries have received a bad name. However, in his book, Six Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization, Philip J. Sampson corrects this judgment:

“Human sacrifice…infanticide…bloody wars, where conquerors spared neither women nor children – all these had been abolished…by the introduction of Christianity.”

According to Sampson, missionaries suffered maligning because they interfered with the traders, many of whom sexually abused the native population for their alluring trinkets:

“I believe that, disappointed in not finding the field of licentiousness quite so open as formerly, they will not give credit to morality which they do not wish to practice or to a religion which they undervalue, if not despise.” Charles Darwin

Christians have been taking care of the poor and the sick for a long time, just as they have been commanded by their Master, so much so that they put the Pagans to shame:

“Emperor Julian [an opponent of Christianity] ordered the creation of hospices saying, ‘It would be shameful, when the Jews have no beggars, when the impious Galileans feed our own people along with their own, that ours should be seen to lack the help we owe them.’”
(Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World)

Julian and the other Pagans had been shamed by the unselfish care-giving of Christians. For instance the early third century theologian Tertullian wrote,

“We Christians have everything in common except our wives. It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Look,’ they say, “how much they love one another.’”

Aristides of Athens similarly wrote: “If the brethren have among them a man in need and they have not abundant resources, they fast for a day or two so as to provide the needy man with the necessary food!” Even the Pagan Lucian (190 AD) wrote, “The earnestness with which people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end.”

Such a confession was not characteristic of Greek and Roman Paganism. Historian Rodney Stark writes,

“Classical philosophy regarded mercy and pity as pathological emotions—defects of character to be avoided by all rational men. Since mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it was contrary to justice.”

In contrast to this, the Apostle Paul wrote,

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich”
(2 Cor. 8:9).

Consequently, it has become our duty to follow Christ in this manner. We have not always done it well, but the church has left its mark.

You are probably wondering at this point, “Well, the purpose of this essay is to defend Christianity, and so the author is merely picking out those things that support his position.” If you are thinking this way, you are correct. It’s a question that we need to ask of anyone who is making a case for any cause. Unbalanced reporting can mislead just as affectively as can out-right lies.

The Church has certainly experienced many humiliating moments throughout history, but at least we’re humiliated by them. I often ask myself if I’m presenting a distorted picture and/or coming to distorted, self-serving conclusions. Sometimes, we need to step back to take in the big picture, the entire panorama, in order to put the smaller parts into perspective.

For example, when we compare the panorama of nations that have arisen out of a Biblical worldview to those who hold very different worldviews, the comparison is quite illuminating. The communist/atheist nations that had promised a workman’s utopia instead have produced unmitigated suffering and genocide. By some estimates, these nations have exterminated 100 million of their own people!

While we are challenged by the horrors committed during the Crusades, our accusers conveniently forget that the Crusades were in response to hundreds of years of Islamic militancy, during which time Islam slew their way across North Africa and into Spain and across the Near East into India. Despite their many conquests, they continued to push their vision of world conquest into France in the 8th century and even to the gates of Vienna in the 16th.

While Christianity is routinely blamed for its “mistreatment” of the poor and marginalized, the truth is that within those traditionally Bible-oriented nations mercy and social justice found their most extensive flowering. It wasn’t in “enlightened” Greece and Rome that slavery came to an end. In fact, their religions promoted slavery. According to Dinesh D’Souza, even the enlightened Aristotle,

“had a job for low men: slavery. Aristotle argued that with low men in servitude, superior men would have leisure to think and participate in governance of the community. Aristotle cherished the ‘great-souled man’ who was proud, honorable, aristocratic, rich.” (What’s so Great about Christianity)

D’Souza continues,

“Christians were the first group in history to start an anti-slavery movement. The movement started in late eighteenth century in Britain…In England, William Wilberforce spear-headed a campaign that began with almost no support and was driven entirely by his Christian convictions…Pressed by religious groups at home, England took the lead in repressing the slave trade abroad.” (73)

Nor was this an anomaly. When Christians became excited about their Christ and His Word, they would often push for social justice:

“The Second Great Awakening, which started in the early 19th century and coursed through New England and New York and then through the interior of the country, left in its wake the temperance movement, the movement of women’s suffrage, and most important, the abolitionist movement.”
(D’Souza, 75)

Secularists wrongly claim these achievements and sentiments for themselves, failing to credit the Christian worldview they inherited, albeit diminishing. Instead, upon close examination, the secularist, pagan, and even communist worldviews provide little, if any, support for our concepts of equal justice and welfare. For example, atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche correctly observed that Christianity was the source of the ideas that he hated:

“Another Christian concept, no less crazy: the concept of equality of souls before God. This concept furnishes the prototype of all theories of equal rights.” (Will to Power)

Nietzsche realized that the concept of equality could not be derived from an examination of nature, but required a transcendent source, something that he thoroughly rejected. D’Souza observes that,

“When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal,’ he claimed that this was a self-evident truth. But it is not evident at all. Indeed, most cultures throughout history, and even today, reject the proposition.”

Instead, I believe that Jefferson was correct about our essential equality being a “self-evident truth.” However, our anti-God philosophies have obscured this fact. If evolution is a fact, then some are more evolved than others. If atheism is a fact, then reality is only a matter of what we can see, touch, or quantify. When we measure up our fellow humans against this single materialistic standard, we find that some are deserving and some aren’t; some are educated and productive, while others aren’t. There is no basis here for equality.

The essential equality among male and female also did not find support within classical philosophy:

“The Greeks viewed the family almost exclusively as a vehicle for procreation. Most marriages were arranged, and the husband and wife were not expected to be friends. Indeed, Aristotle thought women largely incapable of friendship, and he certainly didn’t expect wives to relate to husbands on the plane of equality.”(D’Souza)

Instead, it was under the umbrella of Christianity that the woman was exalted to a place of essential equality. While many commentators scorn the Christian concept of the husband as the head of the wife, they conveniently ignore the fact that the husband was required to give his life for the wife as Christ did for the church (Eph. 5:22-31).

Non-Biblical worldviews also fail to provide a basis for the value of human life. If evolution is the ruling worldview, then there is no basis to value humanity over the animal kingdom. D’Souza writes:

“In ancient Rome and Greece, human life had very little value. The Spartans left weak children to die on the hillside. Infanticide was common, as it is even today in many parts of the world. Fathers who wanted sons had few qualms about drowning their newborn daughters. Human beings were routinely bludgeoned to death or mauled by wild animals in the Roman gladiatorial arena. The greatest of the classical thinkers from Seneca to Cicero, saw nothing wrong with these practices.” (71)

Instead, it required the Christian worldview and the Christian emperor Valentinian to outlaw infanticide, abortion, and abandonment (374 AD)! Alvin Schmidt similarly observes,

“In neither Greek nor Roman literature can one find any feeling of guilt related to abandoning children…Even Seneca [60 AD], whose moral philosophy was on a higher plain than that of his culture, said, ‘We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.’” (Under the Influence: How Christianity Changed Civilization)

Perhaps the only reason that our modern secularists aren’t equally as decadent is because they have unwittingly inherited a Christian worldview. However, as this worldview continues to sustain attacks and erodes, we will become re-acquainted with the barbarities that had long ago been outlawed. Even the gladiatorial fights are slowly making a comeback in the form of “ultimate fighting.” Schmidt writes,

“Minicius Felix cites a Roman pagan who strongly criticized Christians for their anti-gladiatorial stance: ‘You do no go to our shows; you take no part in our processions…you shrink in horror from our sacred [gladiatorial] games.’”

From the Biblical perspective, we are all created gloriously in the image of God, and therefore, such barbarity is unacceptable, but not from a pagan or a strictly secular point of view:

“Each gladiator was seen as ‘crude, loathsome, doomed, lost…a man utterly debased by fortune, a slave, a man altogether without worth or dignity, almost without humanity.”
(Anthony Kamm, The Romans)

Such a worldview is the natural domain of secularism. If we are no more than flesh and blood, then there is nothing the matter with the survival-of-the-fittest. It required the Christian emperors Theodosius 1 (378-395 AD) and his son Honorius (404) in the East to finally outlaw these “games.”

I did not inherit the above sentiments. I was raised in a secular Jewish home and hated anything to do with Christianity and the West. In fact, I wanted to see the destruction of Christianity, a religion that I had wrongly held responsible for the death of so many of my own people. My change in sentiment is reflected in the words of Albert Einstein, who had fled Nazi Germany. He confessed that as the Nazis rose to power, he had looked to the media to challenge them. However, he was shocked when they all capitulated. He then looked to the great German universities, which certainly would not tolerate Hitler and his gang. However, they too fell willingly into line. He then looked to the Church, an institution that he had long despised, but the only institution that offered any resistance against the violent hoard. Perhaps this resistance was too little and too late, but it changed Einstein’s assessment of the church to one of respect.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Certainty isn’t Unrealistic or even Optional

My response to a postmodern Christian who doubts that we can have certainty:

Well, if you are certain that we can’t have certainty, allow me to be certain about various aspects of our faith. For instance, it is historically certain that Jesus died on the cross. Lee Strobel wrote, “Both Gerd Ludemann, who is an atheistic NT critic, and Bart Ehrman, who is an agnostic, call the crucifixion an indisputable fact.” And for good reason! There are just too many incontestable historical accounts verifying this fact.

In fact, so much of the Bible narrative depends on certainty. Moses doubted that Israel would believe that God had sent him back to Egypt to get them out. Therefore, God equipped him with miraculous signs – a staff transformed into a snake, a healthy hand transformed into a leprous hand, water into blood – so that Israel could be certain that God was with them (Exodus 4:1-9). He didn’t tell Moses, “Just tell them to believe!”

In contrast to this, Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty, writes,

“They are also wrong, however, who claim that reason and evidence prove the existence of God. God is not reducible to proof and only our weakness makes us wish it were so.”

Clearly, this is not a Biblical position. It was the “evidence” of Jesus resurrection that turned the Apostles back to faith (Acts 1:3; 2:22), that restored Thomas’ faith (John 20:27-28), and reassured the wavering John the Baptist (Matthew 11). Nor is this assertion even logical. Taylor reasons that reason can’t be used to prove God. How can he prove that “God is not reducible to proof?” Is he saying that God can’t prove His own existence?

We desperately need certainty. We need assurance to come boldly before our God (Hebrews 10:22). For many of my 34 years of following Christ, I had been psychologically shriveling up without the certainty of Christ’s love for me! Without this certainty, I was overwhelmed by my sins and failures. I lacked the strength to take my eyes off myself and my failures and to place them on my only source of hope – God! Certainty didn’t come quickly or easily, but it did slowly come, granted by the God who had mercy on me.

Even logically, we can’t doubt that we can have certainty. When someone says, “You can’t be certain about these things!” I merely reply, “Are you certain that I can’t be certain?” If he claims that he is certain about uncertainty, then he contradicts himself. If instead he is not certain about his claim, then he has to be more tentative about his dismissal of certainty.

Some preach against the possibility of certainty or assurance because if we don’t believe that it is possible, then we won’t grieve too much if we lack it. Although their intentions might be good, they oppose God, who wants us to strive for certainty and assurance:

“Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; 11for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.”
(2 Peter 1:10-11)

How do we “make certain” these things? First of all, we need to recognize that it’s a gift (1 John 4:13; Psalm 84:11; Eph. 2:10), but He grants this gift synergistically, in conjunction with our obedience. Peter mentions diligence, but diligence in regards to what? Prior to this, he mentioned “self-control,” “perseverance” and “godliness.” John makes it clear. We can be assured of our salvation in several ways – “by keeping His commandments” (1 John 2:3; 4:16-18), most specifically by loving the brethren. While our good deeds don’t save us, they can certainly reassure us. But ultimately, it’s our faith that provides the victory (1 John 5:4). If we truly trust in Him, we’ll endeavor to do what He tells us to do.

We also have to learn how to Biblically reassure our hearts, because our unredeemed feelings can preach a message of condemnation to us (1 John 3:18-20). Some of us have over-sensitive consciences. Although we struggle to walk in a way pleasing to our Lord, we always seem to fail. We need to reassure ourselves that He not only forgives and cleanses us when we confess our sins (1 John 1:9), but that He is able to make the weakest of us “stand” (Romans 14:4).

It is good that our Lord doesn’t make it easy for us. The comfort of certainty isn’t a good thing if we are living carelessly or slothfully. While in the hospital recuperating from a chain saw injury that severed my wrist, the surgeon warned me that I would have to quickly exercise my hand lest it become frozen in position. However, after the glorious encounter that I experienced with this sovereign God in the midst of this debacle, I was certain that I wouldn’t have to do anything. I was convinced – not according to Scripture – that He would take care of it all! Consequently, today I cannot close my hand into a fist. Perhaps, we may not be ready to handle the degree of certainty that we so much desire and require a prod in our back.