Monday, September 30, 2013

What we Believe Matters

Ideas are powerful, something we tend to forget in this postmodern age. They can be the fertile seedbed for love and relationship, or they can be a toxic, suffocating brew. For instance, if you believe that a friendly overture is a ploy to use you sexually or financially, this relationship will not bloom. Instead, if you believe that this overture is sincere and caring, there is a much better chance that something will blossom out of it.

The same is true regarding our beliefs about God. Mega-church pastor, Carlton Pierson, had believed that God was eager to throw people into hell, and the best protection against this was going to church. Pierson had placed his faith in an unbiblical, unloving god. Consequently, he rejected this unappealing god in favor of the other extreme – an utterly non-just god who will bring everyone to heaven, without any consideration of their lifestyle.

What we believe about God determines our relationship with Him. There are certain beliefs that undermine this relationship. Paul mentioned one of them – self trust:

·        Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision [to become a Jew and to keep the law, partially trusting in your good deeds to get you into heaven], Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. (Galatians 5:2-4)

Paul warned that if Christ is just one of several objects of our trust, we are not trusting in Him at all! Why such harsh words? Why is it so wrong for the one who trusts in Christ to also trust that his good deeds have secured him a place in heaven? Isn’t God overly picky and demanding?

If relationship and love depend upon right ideas/beliefs, then our Lord has every reason in the world to insist that we understand certain realities.

However, so often theology seems worlds away from our relationships and interpersonal problems. In this case, our Lord wants us to know that salvation comes entirely as a free gift (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:23-28; Isaiah 55:3). But why? Here are several reasons:

If we believe that we, in some small sense, have merited our salvation, it is inevitable that we will boast (Eph. 2:8-9; 1 Cor. 1:26-30). It’s unavoidable. This is what we like doing, even when we don’t realize that we are doing it. I knew enough about the Gospel to know that I couldn’t earn anything from God by my good deeds. However, even though I had been a dysfunctional mess, I had convinced myself that He had saved me because I was more spiritual. This made me feel more valuable and deserving than others, but not in God’s thinking.

Meanwhile, I looked down on others, and this interfered with a genuine love-relationship with them. How can you value, adore and relate to others, if you think you are above them!

My arrogance was also a stench before God (Luke 16:15; 18:9-14). Everything good that I possessed came from Him, but I was claiming them as my achievements (1 Cor. 4:7). If you give me a painting, and then I claim credit for it, you will feel betrayed. We too must give God the credit for our salvation, instead of boasting that we have earned it.

What if you found out that I thought that I deserved the painting you had lovingly given me as a gift? Such a realization would be utterly offensive. It would be the last paining you’d ever give me! Why then should we expect that God wouldn’t be offended if we take credit for his gift of salvation?

Perhaps even worse, if God knew that by giving me His grace, He would simply enable me to continue in my arrogance, His grace would not be grace at all. Instead, through years of painful ordeals, my Savior revealed to me the real ugly truth about myself – that I was no more deserving than anyone else. Beliefs matter!

Knowing the extent of His mercy towards me, I now feel grateful and want to, more than ever, honor my Savior with my life. Paul had counseled his disciple Titus to remind the believers of their abysmal circumstances from which God had rescued them “so that those who have believed God may be careful to engage in good deeds” (Titus 3:8). Gratefulness empowers the Christian life and the knowledge of who we were empowers gratefulness.

Knowledge impacts love! If we don’t know from where we have come and the extent of the Saviors grace in our lives, we will not be zealous for Him. Jesus taught that those who know how much they have been forgiven, will love much” (John 7:47).

The belief in our own merit is so deeply built into us that Scripture gives us many warnings against this notion. Jesus warned that

·        Whoever shall say, “You fool,” shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Matthew 5:21-24)

Even the slightest of sins should have disqualified any hope in receiving anything good from God by virtue of our otherwise righteous record. James revealed the same truth:

·        For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. (James 2:10)

James didn’t mean that some of us might be just one step away from perfection. However, in our arrogance, we are inclined to believe this way about ourselves. Instead, James emphatically warned us against trusting in our own merit, even if we do occupy the top rung of the moral ladder. Consequently, there is absolutely no way any of us could trust in our own performance. We were all under a curse (Deut. 27:26).

Paul affirmed the same message in a different way, claiming that no one has ever earned salvation from God (Rom. 3:19-20). Even the supreme act of dying for a righteous cause would not qualify us (1 Cor. 13:3). Therefore, it’s not about our goodness but about God’s mercy.

Our beliefs will either nurture love or destroy it. I believe that my wife is ever thinking of my welfare. This endears me to her! I also believe this way about my Lord, and this belief makes a world of difference.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Bondage of the Self

In a speech of August 16, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. identified the most powerful and pervasive form of slavery:

  • As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery.
Without a stable and assured source of self-esteem, we condemn ourselves to psychological slavery. This is because we all need to believe that we have value, but we relentlessly pursue this by trying to prove ourselves. In order to believe that we are good and even superior to others, we become obsessed with ourselves, comparisons with others, money, success, popularity, and power – by whatever standard society grants worth.

In the pursuit of these, we deny our faults, rationalize our failures, become dependent on the opinions of society, and ultimately become alienated from both self and others in the process. We convince ourselves that:

  • If I could only have this mate (or house, or job, success or money, or…), I will have arrived and will be able to feel good about myself.
However, this moment will never arrive. The richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller, was asked:

  • How much more money will you have to make in order to be happy? 
His answer was very revealing:

  • Always a little bit more!
We never arrive! We desperately pursue an unattainable goal. Is there any answer to our internal prison, our morbid self-obsessions?

We must find our worth outside of the arbitrary, changing, and often uncaring standards of society, even outside of our desperate selves! As strong as we might be, there is no way that we can lift ourselves off the ground. We need someone else to do this for us, but a someone who possesses the strength, gentleness, wisdom, and authority to define us in absolute and unchanging terms. Jesus assured His followers:

  • "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)
We are enslaved by the need to relentlessly prove ourselves. Instead, Jesus invites us to define ourselves by His unfailing love and forgiveness. Consequently, it no longer matters what we or others think of us. Instead, if Jesus accepts us, we can begin to accept ourselves and find liberation.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Today’s Secularism and the Death of Liberty

We eventually loose what we take for granted. (Which Founding Father claimed that the price of democracy is constant vigilance?). Our liberties require moral responsibility – the very thing that we increasingly find burdensome. Therefore, we reject the source of our liberties and expect to retain them.

The theologian Jurgen Habermas has pointed to the source of our liberties:

  • 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.

This is because God loves us individually and has created us to be like Him (Gen. 1:26-27). This bestows on us great intrinsic value! Even the Deist, Thomas Jefferson, was unable to conceive of these rights without God:

  • 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)

In contrast, the secularist thinks that he can take what he wants from the Bible and reject its Author. He wants to retain the notion of liberties and equal and human rights without its Source. However, history has another verdict. It shows us that pre-Christian humanity has consistently rejected equality. Even the anti-Christian philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche observed:

  • 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)

However, the today’s secularist refuses to acknowledge such a debt. In light of this, it is interesting to note that the most renowned philosophers of the classical world also disdained the biblical assertion of human equality and liberties. Dinesh D’Souza wrote:

  • Aristotle, too, 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)

Well, aren’t human equality and human rights self-evident? Perhaps, but secular materialism, by its very nature, must deny these. How? Materialism is the belief that only what is material – energy, matter, space (the things of science) - exists. If this is so, we are constrained to regard humanity merely materialistically. However, when we do this, we undermine any possible basis for equality, since some people are strong, others weak; some are intelligent and some are not; some are healthy, while others are not; some make positive contributions to society, while some are a burden. Therefore, the materialist is intellectually unable to treat all with the same positive regards.

Consequently, we will loose what can no longer rationally defend. Even now, our freedoms of speech, privacy and religion are being whittled away in favor of a monopolistic, demanding Secular State.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Hiding Place of Paradox

People – even smart ones – say paradoxical things. Take Albert Einstein for example:

  • The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation…There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. (The World as I See it, 29)

While Einstein regards “the harmony of natural law” as a reflection of “an intelligence of such superiority,” he dismisses moral law as “a purely human affair” – a thing we made up! Why this sharp distinction?

The moral law is also harmonious. Just consider several observations:

  • When we live according to the moral law we find written on our hearts (Rom. 2:14-15), we are healthier and happier, as indicated by many surveys.

  • When we violate this internal law, we suffer from guilt, shame, and alienation.

  • When we confess that we have violated this law, we feel relieved and relationships are often restored.

Even atheists or agnostics have traditionally recognized this moral law. Buddhists call it “the law of karma” – what goes around comes around. However, they lack an explanation of any mechanism that explains how justice is fairly delivered. (The delivery of justice is no easy thing. It requires understanding and an appreciation of all the facts.)

Also, we can defy physical laws. While flying in an airplane doesn’t cancel out gravity, it certainly allows us to defy its natural consequences. However, morals laws seem to be even more coercive. It would seem that God is investing them with His own transcendent authority, since there isn’t any way to defy their impact. We not only know that rape is wrong, we also know that there is no remedy, like an airplane overcoming gravity, that will overcome the damage that this act inflicts on us (and others).

Even though Einstein was only willing to attribute “an intelligence of such superiority” to the physical laws, why did he fail to follow through with the implications of his observations? In other words, “What kind of intelligence is necessary to account for these incredible, harmonious laws? Do impersonal forces like gravity possess this kind of intelligence!”

Clearly not! As great and awesome as gravity might be, it can do only one thing – attract! It can’t tie my shoes, write a line of poetry, or even scratch my back. In other words, the laws of nature do not seem to be the place to find this intelligence. Instead, as rain comes from clouds, intelligence comes from personal, willful minds.

Why do we often experience an aversion to thinking further about this subject? A dear cousin told me a story that continued to profoundly trouble her. Ironically, it was a story about a miracle, which she had initially attributed to God, even though she’s an agnostic. Initially, she felt great joy that her problem had been so miraculously solved and also that there was a God who was looking out for her. However, immediately after this, she was overcome by a feeling of great dread. It was this feeling that she couldn’t explain. I gave her my interpretation:

  • You immediately understood that if there is a God who loves you, He also has expectations for you, and we want to remain the captain of our own ship.

The explanation hit home. She recognized that she had been fleeing from God. Her discomfort was the background radiation.

We live paradoxical lives because we prefer paradox to an encounter with a morally demanding, sometimes even punitive God.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Castro’s Cuba: The Communist Poster Boy

The Socialist Workers Party had a book table at the Brooklyn Book Fair. Predictably, they identified capitalism as the prime problem confronting humanity. I was surprised to hear that their representative still held up violent revolution as a possible means to deal with the “injustices and oppression” of capitalism.

I was deeply disturbed by this, but tried to address the communist with a bit of humor:

  • Okay, capitalism has been a source of  oppression. But your “progressive” top-down solutions do not seem to have proved any better. I’m sure you still remember names of Stalin, Lenin, Mao, and Pol Pot.
He did, but countered:

  • Our model is Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Admittedly, it is a poor country, but it is one where there has been a lot of popular participation in government.
This was the first time I had heard of such laurels placed on Castro’s neck. “Why then did so many try to escape this ‘worker’s paradise,’” I countered. He answered that these boat people were those allowed to freely leave Cuba.

Clearly, my knowledge of Castro didn’t measure up to his. I asked about the reports of genocide. The communist responded that these had all been fabricated. However, returning home, I googled many of these “fabrications.” One reported that 85,675 had been the victims his genocide. This number didn’t include the 16,282 additional deaths due to combat or missing in action. adds:

  • Castro's policies imposed poverty and slavery on millions. In 1959, Cuba was the second richest country in Latin America; today, it is the second poorest. Most pharmacies in Cuba do not even have aspirins. Cuba is plagued with a humanitarian catastrophe involving massive and widespread malnutrition and lack of basic goods; death, suffering, and misery is the result. The streets are now choked with scenes of starving peasants frantically pleading for food. In September 2010, Castro admitted that "the Cuban model doesn't even work."
Sadly, this admission can only after the murder of many thousands:

  • Castro has been accused of genocide by Genocide Watch. He has been sued for genocide in Belgium and Spain. The estimated number of deaths attributable to the Castro regime varies according to different sources—but not by much. The number of named, documented victims (with 2 or more sources) established by recent scholarship is 86,000, excluding an estimated minimum of 16,282 deaths in war and combat, for a conservative total of 112,000. R.J. Rummel, in his book Statistics of Democide estimates a range of 35-141,000 killed, which may underestimate the full toll by as much as 50%, since it only covers the years 1959-87. The most comprehensive survey, by Armando Lago, puts the total at 116,730-119,730 killed. The majority (85,000) of these deaths were caused by drowning; the firing squads account for some 30,000. Adding combat deaths to his calculations, we arrive at a total of some 136,000 Cubans killed by the Castro regime. Little effort has been made to calculate boat people deaths in recent years. Cuban exiles claim that as many as 200,000 have been murdered altogether. The death toll from Cuban interventions abroad can be numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
Although decrying imperialism, Castro’s foreign interventions proved costly:

  • Cuban military intervention to save the communist MPLA dictatorship in Angola from collapse led to decades of civil war that cost as many as 1 million lives. Castro also dispatched Cuban troops to fight on behalf of the Communist dictatorship in Ethiopia, which killed 1.25 million people through massacre and forced starvation. Soviet and Cuban support for communist violence caused civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Support from the Cuban government was also given to terrorists from the PLO. 
What human good has come from all of this? (What human good has come out of any communist revolution?) Nevertheless, Castro remains a role-model for the Socialist Workers Party. I guess when you only have Pol Pot, Stalin and Castro to choose from, Castro wins!

However, all of this raises a more fundamental question – “Don’t these educated people have anything better on which to place their hopes for a better world?” What is the source of their blind insanity that prompts them embrace hopeless solutions?

I think that this reflects the fact that, fundamentally, this battle is spiritual and not economic. Had it merely been economic, anyone could have weighed the costs and benefits and concluded that capitalism offers the better hope for the oppressed.

However, this battle is far more than economics! It represents the hidden things of our psyche. The editor of World Magazine and former communist, Marvin Olasky, admitted that jealousy had been a key motivator in his adoption of communism.

Olasky subsequently found liberation through Christ, who enabled him to recognize his enslavement to the hidden things of the heart. How will our own progressives come to this freeing awareness?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Faith in the Face of Perplexity

There are many things that we don’t understand. There are even things that our Lord keeps from us. He tells us that he has His secrets (Deut. 29:29). Strangely, He sometimes even withholds words of comfort.

Abraham knew that it wasn’t going to fair well for Sodom. God was going to judge that city and the surrounding ones that had so utterly rebelled against His truth. However, Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family lived in Sodom, so Abraham interceded for Sodom with Yahweh:

  • “What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?” (Gen. 18:24)

God agreed that He wouldn’t. However, Abraham wanted to make sure that Yahweh wouldn’t destroy Sodom, and so he tried to reduce the minimum number of righteous down to 10:

  • Then he said, "May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?"

To Abraham’s great relief, Yahweh consented that if there were 10 righteous in Sodom, He wouldn’t destroy the city. However, Abraham’s hopes were dashed:

  • Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace. (Gen. 19:27-28)

Sodom and the surrounding towns had been utterly consumed! There weren’t even 10 righteous! However, we have no indication that Abraham ever learned that God had spared Lot and his family. The Bible records no further communication between them. Instead, it seems that after the horrific sight of Sodom’s destruction, Abraham pulled up his stakes and moved out of the area (Gen. 20:1-2) to the land of Gerar, where his faith once again lapsed.

It doesn’t seem that God had given him any indication that his prayer for Lot had been answered, despite Sodom’s destruction.

Why didn’t God ever engineer a joyous reunion between Lot and Abraham? Why hadn’t God informed Abraham of His faithfulness? The secret things belong to God, and therefore, there are many questions we can’t answer.

How then was Abraham able to continue walking in faith in view of a God who seemingly brought such tragedy upon his small and dwindling family? Could he trust such a God for his own life? Evidently, he felt he couldn’t. Despite the fact that God had promised that Sarah would give birth to their promised son next year, Abraham bowed to fear and allowed the King of Gerar to take Sarah for his wife.

However, God was faithful and miraculously restored Sarah to her husband Abraham, and Isaac was born as promised.

It was clear that Abraham wasn’t able to understand all of God’s ways. However, he was learning that God is faithful. Consequently, about 10-15 years later, we find a courageous Abraham. He now believed in his God to the extent that he was even willing to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s bequest.

It is the faithfulness of God that enables us to live with perplexity. However, there is another important piece in the puzzle of living by faith in the midst of great loss and perplexity.

Job had lost everything – family, friends, financial resources, and even his physical well-being. Understandably, he charged God with injustice and unfaithfulness. However, God finally challenged Job’s indictments:

  • Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. (Job 38:1-3)

Job couldn’t answer even one of God’s many questions. Job learned a humiliating lesson. He now understood that his understanding was very limited, so limited that, he had no basis to bring charges against God. Job, therefore, repented profusely:

  • "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)

  • "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. 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 42:2-6)

We too speak of things we don’t understand. We fail to see the entire picture. Our problem is that we think we have a wisdom when we really don’t.

Ironically, it is this blind self-confidence that causes us harm. Because we are convinced that we do understand, when we really don’t, we too bring indictments against God, cause ourselves unnecessary grief, and even shipwreck our faith.

There is much that I cannot understand. My dear and faithful friend, hearing voices and suffering from paranoia, recently took his life. I cried out to God, “How could You have allowed such a thing to happen. You could have healed him!” Lacking the bigger picture, I brought my own indictments against God.

Jesus had received word from Mary that her brother Lazarus was dying and that He should come. However, Jesus purposely delayed two days, allowing Lazarus to die. He could have merely spoken a word and Lazarus would have been healed, but He didn’t.

·        So then he told them [His disciples] plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." (John 11:14-15)

However, Mary was perplexed that Jesus had delayed and charged, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). However, this death had a happy ending. Lazarus was raised up and many believed and faith restored.

However, many of us are still waiting for our Lazarus to be raised, and we see no indication that this will happen. We have signed our indictments, filed our charges, and they remain unanswered. Consequently, we are tortured by doubts, regrets, anxiety, and bitterness. We do not see any possible resurrection; none is in sight. Trust is our only light, but it seems to have died along with Lazarus.

However, after laying out her charge against Jesus, Mary cried out in faith:

·        But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." (John 11:22).

I trust that my precious friend is with our ever-gracious Savior. Nevertheless, I don’t understand why He allowed this to happen, but I am confident that He has his reasons!

·        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)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

God: The Energy Force

So many young people are talking about God in terms of an energy force. For us old-timers, this might sound strange, but there is a rationale motivating this preference. One young man admitted:

·        Forces of nature make no moral demands. This god won’t disagree with us. If our conception about god is uncomfortable, we can just look a little harder until we find a god that feels right to us and will affirm who we are. Your god is just too judgmental for me.

I must admit that I appreciated his candor. In essence, he was admitting that he merely believed what made him feel good. I wondered how long such a god could satisfy him and his searching mind. 

I tried to explain to him some of the problems with this god of his creation:

·        God as impersonal energy can’t explain much. Let’s take gravity for example. It can only do one thing – attract! It can’t write a poem or even scramble an egg. How then can you call a force “god?”

·        An impersonal, non-judgmental god is one who is unconcerned about injustice and victimization. How could a mere “force” feel one way or another?  Besides that, this kind of god must surely be a poor role-model. If our god is unconcerned, then there is no reason why we should be concerned.

He kind-of agreed, but didn’t seem very troubled by these problems:

·        Well, I know that there is something out there. There has to be.

However, there seemed to be a barrier to his thinking clearly on this subject. (The Apostle Paul claimed that God’s creation revealed a lot about the nature of God – Rom. 1:18-32 – like a footprint that reveals a lot about the beast who made it). So I tried to leave him with one more parting thought:

·        As a painting reveals a lot about the painter, the universe tells us a lot about the magnificence of its Creator.

I sensed that, at this point, he wasn’t listening. Sometimes, more is less, and silence speaks louder than words. I wanted to tell him that his impersonal force of nature was unable to answer his prayers, hear his cries, or provide him with any sense of meaning or purpose, but he seemed unconcerned.

No one wants to be judged, least of all by a God who could judge us eternally. When I post an essay about morality in an atheist group, some will respond, “Why are you trying to make us feel guilty?” That’s the way it felt to them!

Naturally speaking, our aversion to God is so great that we hate His message, as Jesus taught:

·        This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God (John 3:19-21).

In other words, the natural, unredeemed human hates God. But why then would this young man even entertain the notion that there might be a God? He had told me that he had once been an atheist, but that this position now seemed to him to be unlikely.

I would like to believe that our Savior is beginning to draw him out of his darkness. However, the light can be dreadful to one who has dwelled in the dark for a long time.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Why Does God seem to Care more about what we Believe than what we Do?

God is often indicted because He sanctions deathbed conversions. The logic goes like this:

  • It is not fair for God to excuse a mass murderer on his deathbed by virtue of a mere confession of sin, while condemning many good people who haven’t repented.

This “logic” suggests that God is unjust in valuing a confession over a life of good deeds. However, there is another way to understand this. Imagine a son who habitually robbed, disgraced, and maligned his parents. He then stole a large sum and left them. What would the parents want most:

  • Reparations from the son? (This would not restore the relationship and would minimize the extent of the wrong.)

  • The return of the son? (A return would merely invite more problems without a change of heart.)

  • To hear reports that the son had done well and had earned a doctorate? (This might merely make it easier for the son to justify his conduct and leave the underlying problems unaddressed.)

Instead, any reconciliation would have to include a sincere and humble confession of sin. Only this would provide a foundation for hope and a real reconciliation. Of course, a sincere confession necessarily includes a determination to change (repentance), and this determination, if real, will produce results.

It is not that God disdains or minimizes a changed life. However, He knows that a changed life must be based on a changed (converted) heart. If not, it will be based on self-righteousness and the arrogance that always follows.

Jesus told a parable – the Parable of the Prodigal Son – showing what happens when our personhood is based on self-righteousness, the performance of good deeds. It produces arrogance and contempt for others (also Luke 18:9-14).

The prodigal son had lived in a way that disgraced his father (Luke 15). However, when the son repentantly returned, the father received him with joy and celebration. Meanwhile, the older son, convinced of his own righteousness, moral superiority, and lack of need of any mercy, resented his wayward brother and rejected his father’s overtures to join the celebration. He was convinced that he was too deserving to humble himself to rejoice with his repentant brother.

For many, this parable is deeply troubling. We tend to identify with the older son and feel that it was unjust for the father to celebrate the return of the prodigal in such an extravagant way. This is only because we are convinced of our moral superiority and entitlement!

But perhaps we are morally superior and therefore more deserving? However, not according to Jesus! Instead, we live in the deepest denial, always ready to judge others but unwilling to see that we are only superficially different (Mat. 7:1-5). Consequently, salvation is humanly impossible even for the “best” of us (Mat. 19:26). Consistent with this fact, Jesus informed the religious leadership that the mercy of God, through faith in Him, was their only hope (John 8:24; 6:29).

Real change must begin from the inside (Mat. 23:26). We must be born again (John 3:3-5). Anything short of this represents an unwillingness to engage the truth about oneself and an entitlement mentality.

What am I Worth and who Determines it?

Responding to the way our culture exalts its ideal images of the attractive and sexy, one female commentator responded:

  • Every woman is beautiful!
Actually, I agree. It’s not so much because every woman is physically beautiful, but rather because each woman is endowed by her Creator with an inalienable inner female beauty that no amount of aging can diminish.

I therefore wondered how this commentator could justify her secular assertion. Did she have physical beauty in mind? If so, I don’t see how she could make such a case. Physical beauty fades! Did she have inner beauty/character in mind? If so, it is patently obvious that some women have a more winsome character than others.

However, the Bible teaches that what we are transcends human appraisal and our comparative assessments. However this worth is an invisible worth that perhaps only God sees. It is only on here that we are freed from the ruthless assessments of society and the clawing opinions of others.

Without this freedom, we remain enslaved, co-dependent, and undermined by the way others treat us and confer value upon us.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Logical Case against Naturalism

Science has been co-opted by philosophical naturalism – the belief that everything originated naturally, operates naturally, and is sustained naturally apart from a Designer. However, there is not one stitch of evidence to support such a notion. Yes, we all agree that there are laws and that they operate predictably. However, there is no evidence that these laws operate naturally. Instead, there are numerous considerations that would lead us to believe that God created and sustains everything.

Here are some logical reasons I offered to an atheist:

  1. There is no evidence that natural, unintelligent forces exist. Although we all agree that objects are subject to laws and respond in formulaic and predictable ways, there is no evidence whatsoever that these laws are natural, unintelligent in origin and independent of one another. Besides, natural causation cannot be invoked to explain them, since the natural hadn’t been in existence to cause the “natural” laws. It is more likely that they find their origin and unity in the single Mind of God.

  1. Reason, logic, and the laws that govern this universe are unchanging. In an ever expanding universe of molecules-in-motion, naturalism can’t account for them. Only an omnipotent, immutable God can!

  1. Reason, logic, and the laws of science are uniform, wherever we look and in whatever historical period. However, for a force or law to be natural, it must have a location from which it exerts its influence. (At least, that’s our experience with the “natural.”) The sun attracts the earth because it is in proximity to the earth. We find that this gravitational influence diminishes as the distance increases. Likewise, I’ve found that I can’t pick up the WQXR radio signals, which beam from NYC, when I’m in Pennsylvania. However, the laws of science seem to operate uniformly and universally, transcending the material constraints of location, matter and energy. Naturalism can’t explain this, but supernaturalism can.

  1. The laws require an adequate cause. Naturalism is unable to postulate such a cause. And there are so many other things that naturalism can’t adequately explain (life, DNA, fine-tuning of the universe, freewill, consciousness, moral absolutes, the unchanging physical laws). In order to theorize about the origins of these things, naturalism must make many wild theoretical leaps into muliverses and the emergent properties of matter. This violates simplicity and Occam’s razor. In contrast, ID need only postulate the Creator to explain all.

  1. Our experience with causal agents informs us that the cause is always greater than the effect. If the effect was greater than the cause, it would suggest that some aspect(s) of the effect is uncaused - a scientific impossibility! However, the Creator is certainly greater than His creation.

  1. Naturalism cannot account to the elegance of the laws of science. However, ID can!

In response to this, the atheist will point to the body of “natural” explanations we have for all forms of scientific phenomena, and they’ll say:

    • Look at all of the understanding that naturalism has produced. Therefore, naturalism is clearly supported by this evidence.
However, this claim can only be made by slight-of-hand. The explanations do not provide any support for naturalism, even though we call them “natural” explanations. Instead, they are explanations that invoke the various laws of science, without consideration of whether they are natural or supernatural. Therefore, calling them “natural” explanations is highly misleading. Instead, it would be better to call them something neutral like “scientific” explanations.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Disembodied “Truth”: Self-Forgiveness

I ask people, “How do you handle your guilt?” One friend – an atheist – confessed:

  • I have rejected the idea of freewill. This has done wonders for my guilt feelings!

However, this comes at the price of denying what is patently obvious – that we make freewill choices all the time, and society holds us morally responsible for them. A young, New Age woman responded:

  • I’ve learned to forgive myself. That works for me. Evidently, it doesn’t work for you. Religion is your answer, and that’s okay!

Both of these answers represent disembodied solutions, alienated from both evidence and broader worldview considerations. In contrast, the Houston Baptist professor Micah Mattix attempts to embody truth into the context of our lives:

  • Does anyone who has taken a humanities course at a secular college or university in the past 10 years doubt that instead of teaching us who we are, many humanities courses teach that identity is constructed; that instead of teaching the classical and cardinal virtues, they recommend the self-serving virtues of moral relativism and egalitarianism; and that instead of helping students to become better husbands, wives, and citizens, the real focus is on making them more autonomous.

Moral relativism is the idea that in the absence of moral absolutes, we are not morally responsible to anyone. By granting us moral autonomy, moral relativism has alienated us from family, friends and even society. Instead, we have gloriously become “captains of our own ship” and have nothing to show for it but shipwrecked marriages and communities.

Self-forgiveness is a child of moral relativism. When we deny objective, higher moral truth – the law that transcends our own thoughts – forgiveness becomes relegated to emotional self-management. There is no consideration of whether or not I’ve committed a moral wrong that needs to be addressed. Instead, it’s all about managing my guilty feelings.

Let’s do a thought experiment. A wife discovers that her husband has been cheating on her. However, when confronted, he responds by merely saying, “Well, I’ve forgiven myself, and now I feel okay about it!”

This response represents a denial of any real guilt or of any need to address a real and destructive moral transgression. It disembodies the denier, not only from his marriage, but also from the truth that he has committed an objective moral wrong.

Such an understanding of guilt can justify anything. Hitler also could practice self-forgiveness, and why not, if there isn’t any higher moral order.

Interestingly, this way of looking at things doesn’t even work, at least, not for long. This is the strategy promoted by secular psychotherapists. It comes in many forms and always represents a form of self-stimulation or masturbation. We are told to:

  • “Love yourself…Believe in yourself… Trust yourself…Imagine yourself as a infant and surround yourself with hugs…Give yourself what your parents failed to give you…Forgive yourself…”

Although these admonitions do address real needs, they ultimately fail to scratch the itch – the need to feel okay about ourselves. They are short-sighted and disembodied from the rest of our lives and moral truth.

Instead, we are so constructed that there is no substitute for the genuine forgiveness that comes from another human being. This of course is the real thing and not the masturbatory process of self-forgiveness.

When our eye observes a car heading towards us, what we experience is not merely a bio-chemical reaction we call “vision.” It’s that and more! What we see also represents an external reality. Therefore, we must deal appropriately with this reality or the reality will deal painfully with us!

Perhaps our moral sense also alerts us to external danger – the danger inherent in doing wrong. And perhaps our wrongdoing not only hurts the other person but also the One who wired us to know when we have done wrong. If this is so, this breach must be addressed. Not doing this would be like driving without paying the slightest attention to what our eyes tell us.

There is a great joy and freedom in knowing that our Savior has forgiven and cleansed us from the guilt of our sin. The alternative is costly self-preoccupation – ceaselessly waving the wand of self-forgiveness that can never drive the guilt away. Instead:

  • He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)

I have been greatly blessed by His mercy!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Guilt and Shame That Don’t Go Away

Guilt and shame are life-controlling emotions. Psychologist John Bradshaw warned:

  • The internalized feeling of being flawed and defective as a human being…shame [or guilt] which should be a healthy signal of limits, becomes an overwhelming state of being, an identity if you will. Once toxically shamed, a person loses contact with his authentic self. What follows is a chronic mourning for the lost self.

However, few find their way free from this emotional bondage. Why? We tend to regard guilt and shame as no more than feelings that should be either denied, justified or medicated away.  We convince ourselves that once we get rid of these feelings, we will be free.

However, it might be more realistic to regard guilt and shame as truth-tellers or even fire-alarms. We would certainly laugh at the idea of a drug that promised to remove all sensory discomfort. We need to feel pain! Without this sensory feedback, we would pick our pimples until they became infected, or maybe we would take our time before removing our hand from a hot stove.

Instead, we need to regard pain as necessary – something that gives us essential feedback about reality. Likewise, a fire-alarm is not simply a disturbing noise. Rather, it is a necessary noise alerting us to a reality that requires appropriate action.

Perhaps guilt alerts us to a reality that requires our attention. However, this idea is contrary to the way we tend to think.  The late Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner, wrote:

  • The specific evil of the modern history of thought…is the fact that modern man does not understand guilt, that the problem of guilt hardly interests him, with the exception perhaps of the guilt of war, that is, where he is not guilty himself. (The Scandal of Christianity, (91)

Consequently, the revelation of the Cross of Christ and its promise to eradicate our very real guilt is offensive to humankind. It informs us that we are objectively guilty, deserve condemnation, and require the forgiveness of the Savior. Many therefore find it more comfortable to regard guilt as no more than an annoying feeling. Brunner writes:

  • Goethe…says that he does not want to hear of the cross; it is just ugly…It is his moral self-esteem which revolts against the cross. He does not want to hear that this had to be done for him…he does not want to bend his head beneath this yoke by complete humiliation. He does not want to receive, he is too proud to receive divine mercy. (92)

Goethe regarded guilt as no more than a pesky feeling. Sometimes we are unable to find the right answer because we are unwilling to ask the right question! What happens when we regard our guilt and shame as objectively reflective of our moral plight before God? We can turn to the right Person to find relief!

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Philosophy of Suffering

The late British philosopher C.S. Lewis declared that he believed in Christianity for the same reason he believed in the sun. It was not merely because he could see the sun, but, by the sun, he could see everything else.

Does the Bible enable us to see and understand everything else? I will confine myself to one instance of this principle. The Bible enables us to understand and embrace suffering and to live meaningfully with its unavoidable embrace. In contrast to this, secularism regards suffering as a useless encumbrance. Consequently, when the secularist suffers, he experiences a double whammy – a virtual knockout punch:

  1. The suffering itself and…
  2. …the debilitating understanding that suffering is a negative, meaningless and costly burden, lacking any redemptive value.

Secularism deprives suffering of its meaning. This doesn’t mean that secularists don’t talk about meaning. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche did:

·        “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” 

Although this is very true, it is not adequate to simply create our own “why.” We have to know that meaning is intrinsic to reality itself and connects us to something higher than merely our changing feelings.

The late American novelist Norman Mailer was cognizant of this problem:

·        “We are healthier if we think there is some importance in what we’re doing…When it seems like my life is meaningless, I feel closer to despair.”

It seems that Mailer realized that he could not merely create his own meaning. Instead, it has to be discovered within the fabric of objective reality.

Even worse, secularism slams the door on meaning, according to sociologist David Karp:

·        “Cosmopolitan medicine banishes that knowledge [of the necessary purpose for suffering] by insisting that suffering is without meaning and unnecessary… [Suffering is] secularized as mechanical mishaps, and so stripped of their stories, the spiritual ramifications and missing pieces of history that make meaning." (Speaking of Sadness, pg. 191) 

Without meaning, we shrivel and die in the face of suffering. The late psychiatrist Victor Frankl observed, during his internment in a National Socialist death camp, that:

·        “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future…was doomed.”

Faith in the meaning of suffering and of life itself is essential. It is precisely this meaning that the Bible enables us to see (and have)!