Friday, March 30, 2012

Freedom and Prostitution

Prostitution is now widely regarded as victimless and therefore, should be legalized. After all, shouldn’t we be free to fulfill ourselves in this manner! However, not everyone is of this opinion. Tania Fiolleau had once been a prostitute. She had also been an “overseer” of brothels who once employed hundreds of women.” Now, Fiolleau and other former prostitutes are denouncing the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision to legalize brothels. Why? On her website, Fiolleau argues:

  • First, the impact of migrant trafficking is an estimated 120 to 400 million dollars a year and accounts for roughly 8000 to 16,000 people arriving in Canada a year illegally. Vancouver B.C is also a major port for human trafficking. This goes a lot deeper than your typical prostitute on the street corner soliciting drivers. About twelve 15 to 30 year-old Asian girls are trafficked into Canada each week on visitors or work permits and then sold into prostitution. These women are working in brothels, and many of these are unlicensed establishment disguised as therapeutic massage centers, nail pedicure places, etc.  These women do not want to become prostitutes; they did not grow up with dreams of one day becoming a sex slave or being pimped.  Many of these are ‘tricked’ into coming on work visas and then forced into prostitution.
  • Second, the demands for young prostitutes is very high as customers prefer the services of adolescents for their own sick reason and they are also ‘perceived’ to be more clean and less likely to harbor sexually transmissible diseases. Many teens are recruited into prostitution by friends who are already part of the trade and youths who have left broken or abusive homes. They are, in turn, susceptible to offers of shelter and emotional support and are often tricked into prostitution. The average age of entry into prostitution in Canada is 13 to 14 years old. Most of them are recruited or coerced into prostitution and many are leaving abused homes.
  • Approximately 80% of women in prostitution have been victims of rape. Prostitutes are raped on average of eight to ten times per year; they are the most raped class of women in the history of our planet.  In a study, several prostitutes showed many of the same characteristics as soldiers returning from war. 76% of prostitutes met criteria for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). That number is higher than soldiers and Prisoners of war.
  • Legalizing prostitution becomes an incentive for women to enter the trade if we keep it legal…Once they enter the trade the statistics show that less than 3% of prostitutes can exit. They get addicted to the money, they get addicted to drugs, they lack education and they can’t get out.
  • Statistics show that two-thirds of the children born from prostitutes end up prostitutes as well or in jail.
  • The diseases that are spread are vast.
  • In a 1998 report of prostitutes across five countries, 92% of women said they wanted to escape prostitution immediately and they would if they had resources.  Women who sell themselves are often coerced, forced or drugged into it—sometimes even at gun point.
Later, Fiolleau told LifeSiteNews that prostitution is a physical and psychological destroyer of women. “As the years go on they develop drug habits. Every single time that you sleep with a John, it chips away at your soul. Eventually you are the walking dead and then you try to take your life. I see it over and over and over again.”

Prostitution is no less a victimless crime than outright murder. However, it’s far more seductive. It is ironic that the feminist movement claims to have taken huge steps to liberate and elevate women. While employment and educational doors have swung open, she has also been reduced to a sexual object to be gawked at, grabbed, undressed, used, discarded, and often murdered. She has been told that what she does best, where she derives her greatest joy – child rearing – is beneath her dignity. Instead, she has been “dignified” by a stressful career from which she must return home to her children who still need diapers changed.

What promises liberation and sexual freedom can enslave. The things that we want can kill, and this is not just true of drugs. Peter described this irony regarding false teachers and their alluring false teachings:

·        For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity--for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. (2 Peter 2:18-19)

Indeed, our choices can “master” us. All of this raises the question: “What kind of society do we want?”  However, it raises an ever more fundamental question: “What is freedom?” Is freedom a matter of indulging all of our passions whenever we want them fulfilled? Is freedom a matter of imbibing heroin or pornography if this is what pleasures us? Won’t our pursuits and addictions deprive us of freedom? Heroin certainly is a freedom killer. Many argue the same thing about pornography – that it kills normal relationships, addicting us to images and fantasies, undermining our commitment to families.

“Choice” is now equated with “freedom” – whether regarding prostitution or porn – but should it be? Perhaps, instead, it’s more like what Jesus taught:

·        Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?  (Matthew 16:24-26)

Perhaps, then, freedom is a matter of restraining our passion. For Jesus, freedom is also a matter of knowing and embracing the truth:

·        To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why the West has been the Best

Last night, I heard Pakistani Muslim turned atheist, Ibn Warraq, in a panel debate on “Why the West is Best.” Here is the substance of his presentation:

  • The great ideas of the West—rationalism, self-criticism, the disinterested search for truth, the separation of church and state, the rule of law and equality under the law, freedom of thought and expression, human rights, and liberal democracy—are superior to any others devised by humankind. It was the West that took steps to abolish slavery; the calls for abolition did not resonate even in Africa, where rival tribes sold black prisoners into slavery. The West has secured freedoms for women and racial and other minorities to an extent unimaginable 60 years ago. The West recognizes and defends the rights of the individual: we are free to think what we want, to read what we want, to practice our religion, to live lives of our choosing.
  • In short, the glory of the West, as philosopher Roger Scruton puts it, is that life here is an open book. Under Islam, the book is closed. In many non-Western countries, especially Islamic ones, citizens are not free to read what they wish. In Saudi Arabia, Muslims are not free to convert to Christianity, and Christians are not free to practice their faith—clear violations of Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • The edifice of modern science and scientific method is one of Western man’s greatest gifts to the world. The West has given us not only nearly every scientific discovery of the last 500 years—from electricity to computers—but also, thanks to its humanitarian impulses, the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. The West provides the bulk of aid to beleaguered Darfur; Islamic countries are conspicuous by their lack of assistance.
  • Moreover, other parts of the world recognize Western superiority. When other societies such as South Korea and Japan have adopted Western political principles, their citizens have flourished. It is to the West, not to Saudi Arabia or Iran, that millions of refugees from theocratic or other totalitarian regimes flee, seeking tolerance and political freedom. Nor would any Western politician be able to get away with the anti-Semitic remarks that former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad made in 2003. Our excusing Mahathir’s diatribe indicates not only a double standard but also a tacit acknowledgment that we apply higher ethical standards to Western leaders.
  • Nor does the West need lectures on the superior virtue of societies in which women are kept in subjection under sharia, endure genital mutilation, are stoned to death for alleged adultery, and are married off against their will at the age of nine; societies that deny the rights of supposedly lower castes; societies that execute homosexuals and apostates. The West has no use for sanctimonious homilies from societies that cannot provide clean drinking water or sewage systems, that make no provisions for the handicapped, and that leave 40 to 50 percent of their citizens illiterate.
From where did the West derive its principles of greatness? Warraq cites Athens, Rome and Jerusalem. However, Jerusalem was the prevailing inspiration of the Founding Fathers. John Adams, 2nd U.S. President and Unitarian, regarded the Bible as foundational:

  • Suppose a nation in some distant Region should take the Bible for their only law Book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God ... What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be. (Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Vol. III, p. 9)
On June 28, 1813, in a letter to the Deist Thomas Jefferson, Adams wrote:

  • The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.  
If Adams is correct, then we should expect to see a gradual deterioration of Western society as its Christian principles are eroded.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sorrow, Praise and the Psalms

What do we do when our hopes and dreams fall far short of our expectations? We can rephrase this problem a little differently for the Christian: What happens when the circumstances of our lives fall far short of the promises of God, leaving between these two extremes a confusing chasm?

The Psalms can teach us a lot about this chasm and how to deal with this tension. The Psalmist often cried out about this disparity between his life and what his God had promised him. Often, he complained to God about His “failure” to bring his life into conformity with His promises. In Psalm 43, the Psalmist complained that, instead of rescuing him from his evil and God-rejecting enemies, God had “rejected” him – the righteous one – in contradiction to His promises! However, it’s important to realize that the Psalmist wasn’t merely kvetching. He began his Psalm with an expression of trust:

·        Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; rescue me from deceitful and wicked men. (Psalm 43:1)

Clearly, he knew that God is faithful and worthy of our cries for help, or he wouldn’t have turned to Him. Nevertheless, as the Psalmist turned to God, he was also reminded of the fact that he had a beef against Him - his feelings and life-circumstances tell him that God has “rejected” him and he was understandably angry – that must first be resolved.

How can we turn to God, when we know that we are angry with Him and think that He has been unfaithful. We intuitively know that we are being hypocritical when we put on a smile and ask God for something, while we are dissatisfied with him. We first have to lay our cards on the table in hope of resolving our issues, and we all have them!
·        You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? (Psalm 43:2)

In essence, he is saying that things shouldn’t be this way, even worse, that God has failed him. God had promised to be his “stronghold” – his protective shield – but instead, the Psalmist finds himself “oppressed by the enemy.”

This just shouldn’t be. It is the Psalmist who had been wronged! It is he who had placed his trust in the Lord, while the others had rejected Him!

How did the Psalmist live with this tension, this disappointment? For one thing, he was transparent before his God, telling Him just what he felt. However, he didn’t take matters into his own hands and bolt, as many of us do when we feel betrayed by God. Instead, he had the wisdom to know that, despite his grief, disappointment and anger, God was his only hope. He had nowhere else to go. He therefore had to remain teachable. He had to trust in God, but his feelings were dragging him in another direction:

·        Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. (Psalm 43:3)

Our fears and pains often close in upon us like a bear-trap, gripping our minds into ruts of obsessive thinking. We need our Lord to lift us up with His “light,” His mountain-top perspective, bringing us into a place of truth.

Our feelings don’t always shed light. Instead, they can be like back muscles in spasm at the slightest misstep. We require a divine perspective powerful enough to overshadow the gloom and doom like a bright light that dissolves the shadows. The Psalmist knew that he was suffering from emotional myopia and that he needed God’s light to help him to see beyond his gloom:

·        Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God. (Psalm 43:4)

The light would restore him to sanity and also bring him back so he could see God as “my joy and my delight.” We don’t always see how our shadows blind us. Our pain causes us to focus in narrowly open ourselves and to lash out at everything else. I would guess that repeated spiritual failure had taught the Psalmist about his blindness and his utter need for God’s light.

I thank God for teaching me how foolish and blind I can be. He has stripped me of much of my self-trust. Mercifully, He has broken me so that I’d have to cry out for His light to regain a stance of praise.

While the Psalmist’s circumstances might not warrant praise, he knew that praise is the doorway into the transcendent light that can banish all the shadows of confusion and deception. Some might think that praise is a manipulation to get what we want from God. However, if praise is manipulative, it is intended to “manipulate” our feelings – our mental rut – not God:

·        Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 43:5)

The Psalmist had first issued his plea to God, but now he preaches to his own soul. In view of a millennium of God’s recorded compassion and graciousness, his soul was not acting reasonably by charging God with rejecting him, and he knew it. Consequently, we don’t need to see His deliverance before we praise Him. We can start praising Him now, anticipating His future mercy.

In actuality, the Psalmist had every reason in the world for hope and praise. Praise is not contrary to truth, although it might be contrary to our present circumstances. Instead, it is the highest expression of truth – a veritable cry of assured victory. Praise acknowledges what we believe and have always professed – that God will rescue us, despite our present pain and failures!

Our behavior must be liberated from the tyranny of the now – our feelings and mental ruts. Praise is liberating. It places our focus on the one source of hope, freeing us from fear and self-obsessions. As we praise Him, our problems often begin to melt as the morning fog.

Praise is soul-medicine. Isaiah wrote about donning “the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isaiah 61:3). Praise is one of God’s gifts to us. Knowing this, the Psalmist counseled himself that the elixir of praise was the very medicine that his “downcast…soul” required.

Many who don’t receive enough sunlight get depressed. I think that the same can be said about praise – we need large doses of it - especially now as we praise the Son.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Prayer: Does it Give Us a Blank Check?

Praying to our Lord is powerful thing. James claims as much

·        The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:16-18)

I would assume that James specifically chose the example of Elijah to demonstrate that prayer has to be according to God’s will. Praying for a drought hadn’t been Elijah’s idea of an effective means to deal with Israel’s sin. It was God’s:

·        Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, "As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word." (1 Kings 17:1)

Elijah had merely spoken God’s words – God’s will. Likewise, Elijah’s prayer for rain was at God’s promptings, according to His will. He caused Elijah to hear the rain coming even before there was a cloud in the sky:
·        And Elijah said to Ahab, "Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain." (1 Kings 18:41)

In no way did James envision prayer as a blank check. Instead, he warned:

·        You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)

If our prayers stem merely from our own will and desires, we should have little reason to expect that we will receive. John also had a very high estimation of the power of prayer:

·        I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us--whatever we ask--we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5:13-15)

John assures us that if we ask “according to His will,” we can bank on what we have asked for. I often ask God to make me more like Him and to teach me His ways. I know that I have what I’ve requested and thank God prematurely for them. However, if I ask that I might live to 100 or at least to have my teeth healed, I am not certain that I will receive these, because they might not be according to His will. In fact, the Lord has taught me to only desire His will. Consequently, I don’t want my ideas or my will anymore. I just pray that His will might be done, and this posture maximizes my joy and peace.

In contrast to this, the prosperity preachers insist it’s God’s will to give us everything and that we have to verbally claim our blessings. (Although God does want to give us everything, this will only take place when our will is perfectly aligned with His, and that will only happen in the next life.) Along with many other TV evangelists, Pat Robertson, claims that we can take hold of our blank check by speaking things into existence as God does:

·        “Pat Robertson states, ‘Most people ask God for a miracle but many omit a key requirement—the spoken word. God has given us authority over disease, over demons, over sickness, over storms, over finances. We are to declare that authority in Jesus’ name.’ ‘We are to command the money to come to us.’” (Michael Horton, The Agony of Deceit, 128)

We do not have the power “to command the money come to us.” We are utterly dependent on Jesus (John 15:4-5). Of course, the prosperity preachers will counter, “Of course, it’s through Christ, and we need to ask with authority.” However, it must be according to His will. Commanding money is not according to His will (James 4:1-3). In fact, we often don’t even know how to pray according to His will:

·        In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. (Romans 8:26-27)

Furthermore, the Spirit doesn’t intercede for us according to our will but according to God’s!

TV preacher, Joel Osteen, claims that:

·        “Our words are vital in bringing our dreams to pass. It’s not enough to simply see it by faith or in your imagination. You have to begin speaking words of faith over your life. Your words have enormous creative power. The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it.”  “Just look in the mirror and say ‘I am strong, I am healthy. I’m rising to new levels, I’m excited about my future.’ When you say that, it may not be true. You may not be very healthy today, or maybe you don’t have a lot of things to look forward to, but Scripture tells us in Romans we have to call the things that are not as if they already were.” (Christian Research  Journal, Hunter)

In contrast, the Scriptures are entirely about truth. We are always supposed to think, speak and walk in His light – His truth (Psalm 51:6). Many of the prosperity preachers illegitimately quote Romans 4:17 to justify claiming things that aren’t:

·        As it is written: "I have made you a father of many nations." He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed--the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. (Romans 4:17)

Although God can “call things [into existence] that are not,” there is nothing in this verse that suggests that we have this power. In fact, James warns us against making this kind of faith-confession:

·        Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit." Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that." (James 4:13-15)

We are just a passing “vapor.” We are in no position to make bold claims about what we will accomplish. What we say has to accord with the vaporous quality of our lives. We have to speak according to our humble condition. We don’t have the authority to call things into existence that aren’t. Instead, our claims have to be according to the One who can make promises that He will fulfill – the One who promises that “if you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:14)!

Well, what does it mean to ask in “My name?” It doesn’t merely mean to pronounce a set of letters: J-E-S-U-S. It means far more – to ask according to Him!

Many verses instruct us to “believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:13). This cannot mean believing in a set of letters pronounced together. Salvation isn’t about having the right letters or pronunciation but about the right Person and Gospel! Therefore, when we ask in His name, we are asking according to Him and His will. No blank check here!

The prosperity preachers will counter:
·        The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21)

They claim that in their tongue resides supernatural power to call things into existence which aren’t. However, is this power supernatural or psychological? Clearly, our tongue possesses psychological power to tear people down or to build them up. Further, this context – nor any other - gives us no basis to believe that the power is supernatural.

Other prosperity preachers claim that we can only have this authority if we have established our credit in heaven first. Joyce Meyers claimed that we first need a bank account from which we can draw:

·        “Unto every man is given the measure of faith, and faith is a powerful force.” “It says in Romans 4:17 that …we have a God who gives life to the dead and He calls things that be not as though they already existed…If there’s something in your way, speak it.” “When I talked with Dr. Roberts today and we talked about this seed-faith thing, he said…when you give you get a receipt in heaven that when you have a need you can then go with your receipt and say ‘You see, God, I have got my receipt from my sowing and now I have a need and I’m cashing in my receipt.” (CRJ, Hunter)

Meyers suggests that we can have such a favorable heavenly account that God owes us. However, such an idea is foreign to Scripture. God is never in a position that He owes us anything:

·        "Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?" (Romans 11:35)

Everything we have from God comes as a gift through by grace through faith. Paul had warned the Galatian church against thinking that they received anything from God because of their good works (or heavenly bank account – Gal. 3:1-5).

Similarly, Jesus warned His disciples against thinking that they were in any way deserving of anything from God:

·        “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable (“unworthy” NASB) servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’”  (Luke 17:10)

Even if we have performed flawlessly, we have no claim upon God! In contrast, the prosperity preachers arrogantly claim that they are “worthy.” Instead, the road to blessing is through seeking the will of God:

·        But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

Receiving “all these things” is not a matter of taking authority, claiming your blessings, or of establishing a heavenly bank account. It is a matter of seeking and trusting Him before all else.


Our Need for Hardships

We often wonder why God hasn’t been blessing us more, at least in the way that we want to be blessed. Well, perhaps the “blessing” is bad for us. Perhaps we can’t handle it. A recent article looked at what has happened to those who have had the “blessing” of hitting the Lotto:

  • Callie Rogers blew a 2003 U.K. lottery jackpot of $3 million on shopping, cocaine, friends and breast augmentation and told reporters two years ago she was working as a maid. William "Bud" Post squandered his 1988 Pennsylvania prize of more than $16 million on houses, vehicles and bad businesses before going bankrupt and serving time for firing a shotgun at a bill collector before his death in 2006.
  • Are these outcomes rare? A recent study of Florida lottery winners suggests no. Economists at the University of Kentucky, University of Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt University wanted to answer a public policy question: What happens when individuals in financial trouble are given large lump sums? So they collected data from nearly 35,000 winners of up to $150,000 in Florida's Fantasy 5 lottery from 1993 to 2002, and cross-referenced this information with state bankruptcy records.
  • Their findings, published last fall in The Review of Economics and Statistics, show that a big lottery score does little to reduce the likelihood of bankruptcy. More than 1,900 winners went bankrupt within five years. That number implies that 1% of Florida lottery players (winners and losers) go bankrupt in any given year, about double the rate for the broader population during the study period.
Before we point the accusing finger at God, perhaps it might be more realistic to humbly  reassess our indictments. Perhaps God knows better what we need than we do. This had even been the case for the Apostle Paul. He often prayed that God would remove an undisclosed physical ailment. However, Paul later learned that what he had regarded as a “curse” was really a blessing:

·        To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. (2 Cor. 12:7)

We tend to become conceited when things are going too well for us. This was even the case with Paul. But by the grace of God, he learned his lesson:

·        That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:10)

We too must learn to rejoice in our hardships. They too are part of God’s grace, however painful they may be.



Monday, March 26, 2012

Kissing Cousins: We and the Octopus

If macro-evolution is a fact, then we should find that the precursors for our organs within our alleged ancestry or within related species and not in totally unrelated ones. If instead, the species of the various phyla reflect the hand of an intelligent Designer, we might instead find these traits spread out among the various living things as unconnected patterns in a patchwork quilt.

Interestingly, evolutionists have a term for this commonly found un-associated mosaic of traits - convergent evolution. Paleobiologist and evolutionist, Simon Conway Morris, reflects on one example:

·        The idea is this: that convergence – the tendency of very different organisms to evolve similar solutions to biological problems – is not just part of evolution, but a driving force. To say this is an unconventional view would be something of an understatement. To start with an example of convergence (itself an astonishing phenomenon), take the “camera eye” – an eye comprising a lens suspended between two fluid-filled chambers, and the kind of eye which you are using to read this feature…If you go to the octopus and, if you’re not too squeamish, dissect it, you’ll find that it has a camera eye which is remarkably similar to our own. And yet we know that the octopus belongs to an invertebrate group called the cephalopod mollusks, evolutionarily very distant indeed from the chordates to which we belong. Cambridge Alumni Magazine (#65 Lent, p. 32)

·        The common ancient ancestor of mollusks and chordates could not possibly have possessed a camera eye, so quite clearly they have evolved independently. The solution has been arrived at by completely different routes.

How is it that we and the Octopus share the same eye? Convergent evolution! How does this explain the existence of this strange relatedness? It doesn’t – not at all! It merely suggests that there must be some undiscovered force that causes nature to replicate itself in entirely different species on many occasions – a “driving force” that directs mindless evolutionary processes to find the identical adaptive solutions. Sounds like design to me!

Morris concludes that the evidences of “convergent evolution” require a radical rewriting of evolution. However, he doesn’t see an intelligent Designer as a necessary ingredient. Perhaps the Designer is just too radical.

Bad Things and Good People

Do bad things happen to good people? For the vast majority of people, the answer would be “yes!” And because of this, many reject the Judeo-Christian God. To restate the problem – If God is all good and powerful, there can be no possible reason for Him to allow holocausts and tsunamis.

This is certainly the way that Job had thought. He was most righteous among humanity. He had done everything that he was supposed to do, and yet the worst of tragedies befell him. He, therefore, concluded that God was unjust and consequently, didn’t deserve worship:

  • "As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made me taste bitterness of soul.” (Job 27:2)
  • “All was well with me, but he shattered me; he seized me by the neck and crushed me. He has made me his target; his archers surround me. Without pity, he pierces my kidneys and spills my gall on the ground. Again and again he bursts upon me; he rushes at me like a warrior…yet my hands have been free of violence and my prayer is pure.” (Job 16:12-17)
However, Job’s assessment changed after an encounter with God. God asked Job a series of questions, and Job couldn’t answer one of them. Finally, Job got the point. He was in no position to judge God:

  • "I am unworthy - how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer--twice, but I will say no more."  (Job 40:4-5)
  • “You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know…My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:3-6)
Perhaps we too need to reassess our indictments against God? Perhaps, like Job, we lack the facts necessary to charge that God is unjust. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t make moral judgments. But we have to bear in mind that certain judgments might be too difficult for us.

The Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, has made an important distinction regarding the question of “bad things.” If we are sent into a pup tent to see if there is an elephant inside, we can be very confident of our answer. However, if we are instead sent into the same tent and asked if there is a microscopic spider-mite inside, our judgment should be very uncertain. Similarly, Job learned that the judgments that he had been issuing were as uncertain as spider-mites.

We tend to talk glibly about both “bad things” and “good people,” but do we really know enough about these things to indict God? While we might know enough about bad things to not choose to vacation in North Korea, we might not know enough to insist that we know better than God how to run our lives. In fact, we are told that we don’t even know what to pray for:

  • We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. [27] And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. (Romans 8:26-27)
Likewise, this was God’s complaint against Job:

  • "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2
We don’t have to be a Bible-enthusiast to see that our judgment is very limited in this area. Surveys show that, while people who win the Lotto had been convinced that the money would change their lives for the better, more often than not, the money destroyed them.

Also, a recent survey revealed that when successful people get the things that they were certain were good, they become less moral and altruistic. Perhaps we don’t know what’s good for us!

So often we see how people who endure great tragedies learn so much through them and become more other-centered. Likewise, tragedy teaches us to treasure the relationships that we now have but sometimes take for granted. Consequently, I enjoy walking through cemeteries and reading the inscriptions on the tombstones. These too remind me to treasure what I have.

Suffering can serve as soul-medicine. Scripture teaches us that it’s a token of God’s love (Hebrews 12:11), an opportunity to become more Christ-like (2 Cor. 4:7-11) and a builder of character (Romans 5:3-5). The prophetic Elihu explained to Job that God used suffering to bring people to repentance and the knowledge of the truth (Job 33:13-28).

Perhaps we can’t see the big picture? Perhaps we don’t even know what are “bad things?” And perhaps we don’t even know who are the “good people?” Job was the best of people, but he finally repented of his ways:

  • "I am unworthy how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. (Job 40:4)
 The New King James Version translates “unworthy” as “vile.” If Job had been vile, what does this say about the rest of us? Perhaps we aren’t the good people we think we are. A truckload of psychological surveys all affirm that we are self deluded about our goodness. (11/9/05; Self-images Often Erroneously Inflated) reports:

·             “In one study of nearly a million high school seniors, 70 percent said they had “above average leadership skills, but only 2 percent felt their leadership skills were below average.” Another study found that 94 percent of college professors think they do above average work. And in another study, ‘when doctors diagnosed their patients as having pneumonia, predictions made with 88 percent confidence turned out to be right only 20 percent of the time.’”

Psychologist Shelley Taylor adds,

·             “Normal people exaggerate how competent and well liked they are. Depressed people do not. Normal people remember their past behavior with a rosy glow. Depressed people are more even-handed…On virtually every point on which normal people show enhanced self-regard, illusions of control, and unrealistic visions of the future, depressed people fail to show the same biases.” (Positive Illusions, p.214)

However, once the psychological torment leaves, self-delusion returns.  Taylor confesses,

·             “When depressed people are no longer depressed, they show the same self-enhancing biases and illusions as non-depressed people.” (p.223)

Perhaps we don’t know much about “good people?” And perhaps we need some “bad things?” More importantly, we might want to reassess our rejection of God.


Can God Do All Things?

Sophists are people who deceptively used logic to derive illogical conclusions. They’d often do this to stump and confuse their opponents. We have no shortage of sophists today. Here’s a popular piece of sophistry:

  • If God can do anything, can he create a mountain so large that he can’t move it?
The “logic” goes like this: If God can’t create such a mountain, then He can’t do anything. If He can create such a mountain that He can’t move, then, here too, He can’t do anything. Conclusion: He can’t do anything!

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any way out of this conundrum. However, there are many of these “logical” conundrums. Take this statement: “I always lie.” If this statement is true, then it refutes itself. If the liar “always lies,” then this statement is also a lie. If this person doesn’t “always lie,” then this statement remains a lie. Consequently, it’s always a lie and can never be true.

Nevertheless, it is logically possible that some people always do lie. And so why can’t the liar ever coherently state that he always lie? Well, he can by rephrasing the statement: “I used to always lie!”

Perhaps the sophist’s challenge against God must also be rephrased so that it makes some logical sense. In fact, the Bible itself would require some rephrasing of the sophist’s challenge. This is because Scripture is clear that, while God can do anything, He can’t do it in any way. He too is bound – by His Word, His promises, His character, and perhaps even by logic. This means that there are certain things that He can’t or won’t do:

  • When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. (James 1:13-14)
Nevertheless, our God can do all things but these will be done in His way. You can trust Him entirely!

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Perfectibility of Humanity, Marxism and Psychoanalysis

During a panel discussion exploring the relationship between Marxism and psychoanalysis, one panelist explained that, for many Marxist psychoanalysts, Marxism provided the necessary optimism that humanity could change. In fact, Marxism had to believe in the perfectibility of humanity! Without this belief, they would have absolutely no rationale to pursue their bloody utopian ideal that cost the lives of 100 million, according to some estimates.

The panelist went on to explain that both psychoanalysis and Marxism deny that we share a basic ego defect that precludes meaningful change. While Marxists believe that we are the product of society, and society is the product of the means of production – and so just change the means of production and humanity is changed – the psychoanalyst believes that when knowledge and insight are changed, humanity is changed.

These observations highlight how a very basic difference in worldviews can effect everything else that we believe. If we believe that humanity is basically good and perfectible, this belief exerts a profound effect upon our politics and the way we view life in general. This is the logic behind promoting the “Arab Spring.” If we can just eliminate those repressive regimes, these Muslim nations will find new life – a virtual spring of luxuriant new growth.

This worldview plays itself out in many different areas. At the Socrates CafĂ© at the Ethical Culture Society, conversation usually centers on dealing with the ills of the world and what can be done about them - having the right government, the right laws, or just the right understanding. Mankind is basically good. If we can only come to understand that we all will benefit if we just work together to do the right thing, we will live in peace and harmony. This, of course, will require the reeducation of the mentally backward – that means us.

I protested:

  • Sometimes we might benefit more by doing the wrong thing. If we tell a little white lie to protect the boss, we might get the raise or promotion we’ve been seeking. If we don’t, we’ll miss out. I therefore don’t think that these pragmatic solutions will work.

According to the others, I was ignorant, and so I added:

  • Besides, you can’t build a better world on sand. You are moral relativists – you believe that there are no higher God-given standards. For the moral relativist, morality is just a matter of how you think and feel when you get out of bed. What reason, then, do you have for doing the right thing? Consequently, the spread of moral relativism is strongly associated with the spread of crime. As a Christian, it is a delight for me to honor my God by doing the good.

The response was thunderous:

  • You have no reason to suggest that we don’t have our own basis for moral thinking.

I agreed with them:

  • Truly, the law is written on the hearts of all of us. We are wired for moral truth, and I’m therefore glad that you know the truth. However, you do not have an adequate logical rationale to do the truth, if it’s just a matter of our feelings – the product of chance evolution.

One participant shook his head, “You have a very low view of humanity.” Another began to attack the Christian faith:

  • Your religion is fear-based. If you don’t do what your God wants, he’ll condemn you to hell. What type of God is that!

I responded that serving my God was the greatest joy in my life. However, later I thought of a better answer:

  • I can certainly see why you’d call Christianity fear-based. Anyone on the outside should experience fear. In fact, this would be a very healthy response, like feeling fear when standing at the edge of a tall building. Besides, your assertion seems to suggest that if there is a Creator, He has no right to judge His creation. But do you have a basis for this assertion?

Once again, this worldview is based upon the belief that humanity is basically good and therefore couldn’t possibly deserve eternal punishment. We’re just too good for that type of thing. The only reason that Hitler had not done what was right was either because he wasn’t raised properly or hadn’t received the right understanding – both of which weren’t his fault. In fact, there can be no real fault, because if we have received all of the benefits of a proper environment, we would naturally be good and loving. Therefore, subjecting Hitler to eternal consequences would show a gross lack of understanding on the part of God.

Interestingly, this “understanding” is mere philosophy/religion. It rests upon nothing any more substantial than cultural bias. In fact, all of the evidence tends to prove the very opposite thing – the more our needs are satisfied, the less we are concerned about moral living. While absolute power corrupts absolutely, absolute satisfaction with ourselves also corrupts.

Ironically, what might look like a high view of humanity might not be so. A high view of humanity:

  • Regards us as moral agents who are fully culpable for the things that we do. We’re not merely the result of formative processes. This idea is demeaning.
  • Does not regard us as the result of a mindless process – an accident, the product of a bloody process of the-survival-of-the-fittest. Instead, we are created in the image of God and now we grow into His likeness “to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephes. 4:24). Consequently, our lives are infused with meaning and purpose.
  • Does not regard us as just another animal, valued for its usefulness alone, to be discarded when we outgrow our social value. If our value comes from the fact that we are basically good people and are perfectible, what will happen to our value when it’s found that we are not perfectible? Likewise, our rights should not depend upon any social equation or a temporary concession made out of expediency. Instead, our rights come from the fact that we are beloved by our unchanging Creator, who assigns great penalties to those who victimize other humans.

Furthermore, if we derive our sense of value by thinking that we are good or perfectible, we are then coerced to go to great lengths to defend this source of value by denying whatever data that suggests otherwise. How can we possibly face the extent of our selfishness and nastiness when our value as a person depends upon seeing ourselves as good?

How then can we face the truth about ourselves and still live at piece with ourselves? While some need to attach themselves to a utopian ideal to derive their sense of self-importance, we can attach ourselves to a God who will always be there for us:

·        For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

It is only this kind of love that can give us the optimism we require.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Genocide, Moderate Islam and Western Silence

The gunman, with reported ties to al Qaeda, and suspected of killing seven people, including three children at a Jewish school, has seemingly confessed to the shootings. Understandably,

·        Dalil Boubakeur at the main mosque in Paris told Europe 1 radio that no one should link the Toulouse events and the Muslim religion, which is "99 percent peaceful, responsible, non-violent and well-integrated into the country".

This assertion raises several questions:

  1. Are "99 percent peaceful, responsible, non-violent?”
  2. If this is so, why are religious minorities in all Islamic nations either persecuted and/or diminished by Shariah law?
  3. If Islam is a peaceful religion, why is the Islamic world so prone to violence and coercive attempts to impose Shariah?
  4. Why aren’t there any examples of Islam coexisting as equals with religious minorities?
Sadly, the French assassin seems to be just one of many instances of Islamic terror. Muslim-turned-atheist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, reports:

  • Christians are being killed in the Islamic world because of their religion. It is a rising genocide that ought to provoke global alarm…In recent years the violent oppression of Christian minorities has become the norm in Muslim-majority nations stretching from West Africa and the Middle East to South Asia and Oceania. In some countries it is governments and their agents that have burned churches and imprisoned parishioners. In others, rebel groups and vigilantes have taken matters into their own hands, murdering Christians and driving them from regions where their roots go back centuries.
  • But a fair-minded assessment of recent events and trends leads to the conclusion that the scale and severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the bloody Christophobia currently coursing through Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other. The conspiracy of silence surrounding this violent expression of religious intolerance has to stop. Nothing less than the fate of Christianity—and ultimately of all religious minorities—in the Islamic world is at stake.
  • As Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, pointed out in an interview with Newsweek, Christian minorities in many majority-Muslim nations have “lost the protection of their societies.” This is especially so in countries with growing radical Islamist (Salafist) movements. In those nations, vigilantes often feel they can act with impunity—and government inaction often proves them right. The old idea of the Ottoman Turks—that non-Muslims in Muslim societies deserve protection (albeit as second-class citizens)—has all but vanished from wide swaths of the Islamic world, and increasingly the result is bloodshed and oppression.
As an example of what Christians are facing in Islamic territories, the latest issue of World Magazine (March 10) cites the 12 northern provinces of Nigeria, under Sharia law since 2000. Boko Haram, the terror organization, meaning “Western Education is Sinful,” intends to drive Christians out of the north and to impose Sharia on all of Nigeria:

  • Christians throughout the Sharia states in the north faced post-election [April 2011] violence. In the Kaduna state [alone], Muslims destroyed 409 churches and pover 2,000 homes, killing 137. In Gombe state, they destroyed 39 churches and 74 homes, killing 20. (54)
  • In a Jan. 25 video on YouTube, Boko Haram leader Imam Abubakar Shekau took responsibility for the Jan. 20 attacks and said: “I am not against anyone, but if Allah asks me to kill someone, I will kill him and I will enjoy killing him like I am killing a chicken”…A Boko Haram posting from late last year says…nine…Christian denominations in the north, “must be bombed and leveled.” It also cites eight pastors, most Muslim converts to Christianity, as targets “to be eliminated.” (52)
In light of the fact that the 12 northern districts are already under Sharia and Christians have been made to submit to Sharia, it is hard to understand why the terror would continue. Already:

  • In those 12 states authorities prohibit Christians from holding office, discriminate against them in property and business activities, and subject them to Islamic law. Some districts in Kano state have Christian majorities, but district governments are run under the state’s Sharia system. That makes Christians subject to the Islamic court system and requires students to take Islamic courses.
Nevertheless, since the imposition of Sharia in 2000,

  • Over 13,000 mostly Christian Nigerians have been killed in religious-related violence, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom…”Boko Haram is not doing anything new,” said Peter Akinola, the retired archbishop of the Anglican Church of Nigeria. “More than terror attacks, this is part of an ongoing attempt to Islamize Nigeria. This country began as a democracy, but now in my own country I cannot live freely.” (52-53)
If world domination is the goal of Islam, perhaps we will soon be saying the same in the West. Even now, those who are doing ministry among the Muslims are facing intimidation and threats of violence. Consequently, if there are peace-loving Muslims who believe in a world where all religions can live at peace in equality, they need to speak up in a meaningful way. It is not enough to merely say, “Well, these terrorists aren’t really Muslim,” especially in light of the Islamic doctrine of “Taquiyya” which authorizes Muslims to lie to the non-believer on behalf of Islam. (See, fatwa 59879, where the Muslim can only have contempt for the non-believer). Therefore, we can’t help wondering if the claim to be peace-loving is merely a ploy.

We have not seen where peace-loving Muslims confront the extremists to insist that Sharia should allow religious freedom. Nor have we seen the Mainstream Western Media
confront those committing the atrocities done in the name of Islam. Mark Lipdo, director of the Stefanos Foundation, claims that,

  • “They have misrepresented violence as a clash when it was an outright attack from the Muslim minority.” Lipdo himself was on hand in 2010 when Muslim gangs raided three predominantly Christian villages near Jos on March 7, slaughtering hundreds of mostly women, children, and the elderly.
Lipdo claims that the Western media – they derived their information from Muslim sources - has wrongly reported that the various attacks were in reprisal for the killing of 150 Muslims. However, none of the media outlets were “able to provide eyewitness accounts of the attacks that killed 150 Muslims.” Instead, Lipdo reports:

  • “We were there when the whole conflict started. We saw the Muslim military commander release people caught carrying out the attacks with their weapons”…Local media reported police on the scene who did nothing to stop the Muslim attackers.” (56)
One victim had commented to the Daily Champion, “As they were killing and burning our homes, they were chanting, ‘Allahu Akbar,’ meaning ‘God is great.’” If this isn’t the real Islam, then the moderates have to publicly reclaim their religion, especially if we are to take them seriously. Likewise, the media, as well as the Western nations, have a responsibility to bring genocide to light. However:

  • The reporting slant shows up in the U.S. policy, as well. The 2011 report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom describes “sectarian violence” in Nigeria driven by “religiously motivated actions” without ever saying that the overwhelming number of deaths involve Christians. (56)
If we are really concerned about peace and deeply troubled by genocide, then we have to speak up and shed light on the evil. If we fail to do this, then our silence speaks in favor of approval.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Christian Growth and Maturity and the Spiritual Disciplines

Today, many are talking about the spiritual disciplines as a means to spiritual growth. This past Sunday, one very accomplished teacher claimed that as we deny ourselves and devote ourselves to fasting or to other forms of bodily discipline, we grow spiritually and are better attuned to God and, consequently, better able to love others.

Although I certainly share this goal, I began to think about a number of verses that seemed to suggest otherwise:

·        The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth… Rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Tim. 4:1-8)

Paul seems to contrast the abstention from food (or only certain food) along with physical training – whether fasting, yoga, or controlling our alpha or beta waves – with “godliness,” insisting on the surpassing value of the latter. Paul goes even further to insist that abstaining from food doesn’t bring us any closer to God:
·        But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. (1 Cor. 8:8)

It seems that there are certain things that open the channel to God, but eating or not eating doesn’t seem to be one of them. Paul also insisted that the severe “treatment of the body” failed to restrain sin:

·        "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Col. 2:21-23)

Although it’s commonly believed that subjugation of normal bodily impulses produces spirituality, Scripture doesn’t support this idea. But do such disciplines produce humility? Not according to Paul, who calls such “regulations” a “false humility.” Perhaps they fail because they are merely superficialities, failing to go deep enough to address the real issue:

·        The gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings--external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (Hebrews 9:9-10)

Clearly, fasting and ceremonial rituals failed to penetrate to the place where real change had to take place – the conscience. Perhaps the present-day emphasis on spiritual disciplines represents a return to the ineffectual Mosaic rituals? I tried to respond to the teacher as gently as I could:

·        Perhaps fasting does produce some sense of humility and receptiveness towards God. When I fast, I think about food more than ever – not God! But it’s not the discipline that humbles me but what I learn about myself through the discipline – that I am fleshly and need my Savior to help me every moment of my life.

However, he insisted that those more advanced in self-denial and the discipline of fasting have been able to achieve a greater level of spirituality. But was there any Scriptural support for such a claim? I therefore began to reexamine the many verses about fasting.

Although it seems that there is much Scriptural evidence that God responds to repentant and humbled people – and this is often manifested through fasting, sackcloth, and self-denial - I could find no verses that indicated that these disciplines were the means to spiritual growth. For example, the wicked King Ahab repented with fasting, and God had mercy upon him:

·        When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: "Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son." (1 Kings 21:27-29)

For Ahab, fasting was not a self-transformational spiritual discipline, but as a humble plea to God for His mercy. We see the same thing with the King of Nineveh:

·        On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish." When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:4-10; also Neh. 9:1-2; Psalm 35:13; 2 Sam. 12:15-23; Joel 1:14; 2:12)

The King of Nineveh and his subjects didn’t fast as a means of self-improvement but as an act of self-abasement before an angry God. Fasting also had to be the expression of a repentant heart. If it merely had been regarded as a spiritual discipline, God would have regarded it as hypocritical. God scorned mere ritual apart from true repentance:

·        For day after day they [Israel] seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.  They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. “Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high… Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:2-6)

Although Israel had put on a good show of humility, they weren’t truly humble. Had they been, they would have been amenable to the commands of God to treat others with love. Their fasting was therefore self-serving, hypocritical and worthless.

We find the same teaching in the New Testament. Jesus taught about two people who entered the Jerusalem Temple. One was a religious leader, proficient in the discipline of fasting. He boasted, “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:12). However, this Pharisee left the Temple without being forgiven.

Likewise, Jesus castigated those who did not fast for the right reasons (Mat. 6:16-18). Fasting for self enhancement wasn’t a fast unto God, as it should have been! The Pharisees even challenged Jesus to explain why He and His followers didn’t fast, while those of John and the Pharisees did fast. He explained to them that new wine must be preserved in new wineskins (Luke 5:30-39); the New Covenant required a new form or packaging - rejoicing.

Interestingly, nowhere in the New Testament is fasting ever commanded. We find the closest facsimile to a command in Jesus’ instructions about casting out a certain kind of demon:

·        He replied, "This kind [of demon] can come out only by prayer." (Mark 9:29; NIV)

However, the King James Version – it’s based upon later Greek texts – reads “by prayer and fasting.” However, our modern English translations omit “fasting.” Nevertheless, the Book of Acts does mention fasting (Acts 13:2; 14:23), but never is it associated with the idea of spiritual improvement. If these disciplines were critical to spiritual maturity, it is surprising that they are not explicitly mentioned as such.

Likewise, it seems that other forms of self-denial are beneficial only when the denial of certain pleasures creates room to obey the more important things - the things of God. I’ve already mentioned Paul’s hesitation about self-denial for its own benefits. Paul inveighed against the possible benefits of food and bodily comfort depravation (1 Tim. 4:1-8; 1 Cor. 8:8; Col. 2:21-23). The Book of Hebrews casts doubt upon the benefit of mere rituals (Heb. 9-9-10; However, rituals can be helpful as aids to reinforce the truth.)

Instead, the Christian life is all about denying our own agenda in favor of affirming God’s agenda. We deny our wants in favor of obedience to His wants. Ultimately, I think that this is the intended meaning of Biblical fasting and sackcloth and can be summarized in this proclamation: “God, I want to fulfill your desires not mine!” We have to be willing to die to our agenda and to live to His:

·        Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

We are not simply called upon to deny ourselves apart from devoting ourselves to a greater ideal. We deny ourselves in order to follow Him! Self-denial is not a virtue in itself. Instead, we might deny ourselves a meal to give it to someone else!

Well, if we don’t grow through these spiritual disciplines, how do we grow and mature as Christians? Although I admit that we can benefit by abstaining from certain foods and drink – and recovering from alcohol addiction is a great benefit – I don’t think that these successes qualify as spiritual growth. Instead, Scripture identifies the source of spiritual growth as God Himself (although we also rely upon His grace to deal with alcoholism):

·        Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)

·        For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? (1 Cor. 4:7)

Consequently, it is God who should be given the thanks for all spiritual growth, even for our hard work:

·        But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Cor. 15:10)

However, this raises two separate questions: “What role do we play in our maturity and what are the means of growth?” First of all, we need to be clear that we cannot do anything without Him. We cannot grow spiritual, even in the slightest way, without Him (John 3:19-20; 6:44; 1 Cr. 2:14). It wasn’t that Paul’s hard work was irrelevant. Instead, Paul recognized that whatever good he had achieved resulted from the fact that God was working through him. Jesus said as much in referring to us as helpless sheep. He also taught:

·        Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)

The fact that we can do absolutely nothing of any real worth without Him is the uniform message of Scripture. This was certainly Paul’s confession:

·        Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. (2 Cor. 3:5)

Scripture is clear that God is the source of spiritual growth:

·        For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephes. 2:10)

·        Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philip.1:6)

·        From whom [God] the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. (Col. 2:19)

If this is all true, then our proper posture before our God must be one of humility. In fact, this is the posture He commands and requires for our transformation. Jesus had warned:

·        "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14)

The Pharisee had sought to enhance himself through his various practices and therefore left the Temple alienated from God. Meanwhile, the man who knew and confessed that he was a rank sinner in need of mercy was “exalted.”

Life must start with dying; the way up is the road down. Humility must precede any real spiritual transformation:

·        Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7; James 4:6)

How does humility work? By humbling ourselves, we confess our sins; we clothe ourselves in prayer because we’ve come to realize that we can’t trust in ourselves; we devote ourselves to His Word because we have come to see that our own thinking and judgment has so failed us; we obey Him because our own pursuits have led us into the killing fields. And so humility is the soil from which grows those vines – trust, prayer, Bible-meditation, and obedience - that connect us to the roots.

However, we too have a role. The Spirit applies His transformative medicine alongside of our trust, prayer, Bible-meditation, and obedience. Although Paul claimed that those under his ministry had been transformed into an epistle of Christ, he gave credit to the Spirit:

·        You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor. 3:3)

While we are the product of the ministry of the Word, even more so are we a product of the Spirit applying the Word to our heart. Paul went on to explain that the Jewish nation also had the Scriptures, but it wasn’t profitable for them because they had a veil over their heart, preventing the truth from penetrating. However, now that the Spirit has removed our hard outer barrier, we have been freed to see the truth and to become transformed by it:

·        Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 3:17-18)

Paul later showed that “beholding…the glory of the Lord” is the same thing as beholding the truths about God (2 Cor. 4:4-6). Transformation occurs when the Spirit applies the truths of God to our heart, as Jesus inferred:

·        "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:31-32)

Similarly, the Bible teaches that we are nourished by the truth (1 Tim. 4:6; Rom. 12:2) – it’s our growth food (1 Peter 2:2; Heb 5:12-14). It is Scripture that keeps us anchored, confident and secure (Eph. 4:14).
Of course, we need to ask:

·        You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)

We also need to obey, to be faithful with what we have already received:

·        In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)

If we don’t use it, we loose it! However, if we do use it, we grow in discernment and wisdom.

Scripture says a lot of things about spiritual growth. However, it says little to nothing about growth associated with fasting or other forms of self-denial. Although these practices aren’t unbiblical, they should be performed with a Biblical understanding.

One last thought – we should never regard our self-denial or sacrifices as earning anything from God. It’s all about God’s grace and our trusting Him for it. When we believe that we have earned something from Him, we deny that our blessings are strictly a matter of grace.

I hope to send the teacher a copy of this response. Please pray that he receives it well.