Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why Does God Let People Suffer?

How can a benevolent God include pain in the universe He has created? This question has led many to doubt in a higher authority. David Hume argued for an uncaring universe in his essay Why Does God Let People Suffer? His position, essentially, is that because of the pain in the world there cannot be a benevolent God. Hume’s view of God and benevolence are false as it lacks understanding of the God it attacks. I'm not saying that you will have all the answers after this, or even that I'm completely right, but here are some thoughts from a bearded theologian. 

What brings a person more pleasure: service and praise from an inanimate object that experiences no pain and has no choice to do differently, or a creation that despite hardships, chooses to serve and praise anyway? Any being with the slightest emotional depth will choose the latter over the former. So God finds His greatest joy in His human creations, man and woman, whom he calls “very good” because of one thing: their ability to choose Him. This is a debated topic, as many do not consider themselves to be complete agents of “free will”. There is no doubt that significant scholarship supports this opposing view. Granted there is strong scriptural and philosophical support for both sides, the idea of God’s complete joy is the reason this paper argues for humans having free will. This single factor plays heavily into the concept of a benevolent God that also allows suffering.

Why does God need praise? He is the most high and ultimate being in the universe and made the very universe over which He reigns. We applaud great accomplishment and no other being has done so much as to deserve it. God is furthermore just. Every society has some standard by which it assesses its inhabitants. We are drawn towards justice, because a just God created us. God commands praise, but gives humankind the choice to do so. There are clear cases in scripture where God must punish those who go against His will, because He is just. This is not to say that He is not a God of grace and mercy, for He possesses those attributes as well, but He is most assuredly a God of justice. Humankind often fails at administering this dual system of justice and grace, because we have fallen and are very inadequate compared to an Almighty and Infinite God. Our failures in life need not be projected onto God, however. The idea of justice need not be the explanation for pain and suffering. For if this were the reason, then one would be quick to call God cruel and uncaring, which is not at all the case. It is important though to understand that God’s justice is very real and something to be desired; but it is not always well received, especially when it is being self-directed. Humankind needs direction at times, even to the point of correction.

One might ask why God would use pain and not some varying degrees of pleasure to direct us, as Hume does. Perception is everything in the idea of correction. A person might say that he or she is starving, but this feeling does not at all compare to the hunger felt by those in a much poorer culture or simply down the road sleeping under a bridge. Another person might say they feel cold, when really that person is simply feeling less warmth than another person. In reality, cold is the complete lack of heat. No person has ever felt the complete lack of heat, only less heat than on other occasions. With these examples in mind, one can think of certain degrees of pain he/she have felt. Hypothetically, in a world where complete comfort is the norm, anything less than that is considered uncomfortable. In a world of lush, leather recliners, a wooden chair would be considered torture. Give that wooden chair to a person who has been in a prison made of stone, however, and the prisoner sits in complete luxury. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed person is king.

At this point a person must begin to refine the idea of suffering. And from the last argument, the concept of that person who does actually starve in a third world country comes into the debate. Here is where the concept of free will really begins to shed light on the idea of suffering. If a person looks at the suffering in the world, they will see that a large portion of it is due to people enacting their will on others. Anyone who has ever been offended or hurt by a friend, spouse, or acquaintance has experienced that person’s free will taking a toll on his/her happiness. We don’t question these small incidents, but the same principles apply to larger situations. Most people love having the freedom to choose what they wish to do; the problem arises when the interests of different people collide. Violence ensues from these two conflicting interests. God remains just throughout all of these conflicting interests and will enact His justice on those who oppress the weaker in His own time. However, one can take a look around their home and see other people’s decisions affecting those around them. A person can complain that there is pain and suffering in the world, but drive a $100,000 dollar car to his or her three story home and think nothing of how his or her lack of compassion affects those around them. Certain people directly forcing their free will upon another is not the only cause of suffering, it comes from those who stand by idly with the resources to remedy it. A benevolent God desires no less of His creation. We are made for community.

There is still one more being that has an effect on all the creatures of the earth in a negative way and that is the opposing force to a benevolent and caring God: Satan. Entertaining the idea of the God of the Bible automatically gives way to entertaining the idea of Satan. A person cannot choose the Christian God without choosing the Devil. This being is, like all other creations, under the dominion of God; however, like all other creations, he also has the power to choose. Scripture teaches that Satan chose to leave God and has been cursed ever since. Just as we are able to affect each other with our own selfishness; Satan also has this ability. Satan is a much more powerful being than any human and has some power over creation. He wishes for nothing more than to inflict pain and misery on God’s creation, causing them to stumble and fall. Scripture clearly cites several instances where Satan is the direct cause of pain and misery. God permits, but is never absent. God allows Satan to work in this world, which the Biblical story of Job makes clear. When God’s creation withstands this testing, He strengthens His creation and gives them rest. In this way, God is never absent, and is always able to help those who choose to call on Him. This does not eliminate all of Satan’s schemes, but it ensures that those who reside in God will never be tempted past what they can bear.

Slowly, these ideas start to make sense, but questions still remain. Why do natural disasters cause pain when no human acts upon another? Part of this answer resides in the idea of Satan. Far less powerful than God but much more powerful than any person, Satan has the ability to manipulate nature if it means causing people to doubt in God. The second part of this answer resides in the fact that we live in a fallen world according to the Genesis account. Once again, Satan allured God’s creation to break God’s law and because God is just, consequences followed. No longer would the earth be perfect as it had been, but now would cause toil and pain. Not an uncaring world, because for every negative and troublesome element in the world there exists many wonderful and enjoyable elements, but an imperfect world.

The last and possibly most important issue that Hume fails to address in his narrow perspective is that of the Christian mindset. It has already been stated that when dealing with the concepts of pain and suffering, perspective is vital to understanding. The Christian perspective distinctly gives joy in the midst of trials and afflictions, because we can read encouraging words such as “in this world you will have trouble, but take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The true disciple considers it all joy when he or she falls into various trials, because in that testing, completeness is found (James 1:2-4).
It has been shown that God is both benevolent and just. Humankind often has trouble seeing this because our perception is not that of God, nor will it ever be. Faith in God does not need to be shaken by pain and suffering, however. Suffering only makes those in Christ stronger disciples and ultimately makes them all the more joyous because the end prize is so much greater than anything that could ever be imagined, worth the woe here below.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Faithful Savior

Paul wrote in Galatians 2:16, "yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified."

I spent the better part of a semester researching this verse and writing about it. Without getting boring, there is an alternative reading of the Greek phrase pistis Christou (often translated "Faith in Christ") which would offer this simple change: a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith of Jesus Christ (and again later in the sentence). The difference lies in that Christ is now the subject possessing the faith instead of the object that Christians put their faith in. Both are grammatically possible, and scholars split on the issue; many reputable people take each side. I tend to agree with the translation "faith of Christ" or possibly "faithfulness of Christ" for more reasons that I can mention here.

So what is the significance of this translation of the text? Paul is battling false teachers who are saying that the Galatians need the Law of Moses to fulfill Christ's sacrifice. These words then direct our attention towards what is truly important: Christ's sacrifice as the single saving act for all humanity. Paul's word's remind us that there is truly nothing we can do to earn salvation, and that it's not even our own faith, but rather that we have a Savior that was faithful to death on our behalf.

It is easy to get caught up in what we do. As an example, let us consider baptism. A person's action in baptism does not save him or her, Christ's action does. Being raised in newness of life is passive; it is not something we do. Let me be clear on this, I hold baptism as one of the most important events in the Christian's life; by it we come in contact with the blood of Christ and are washed clean by that blood as well. We also are given the gift of the Holy Spirit in this event. However, an act can never save, Jesus does. Christ is our salvation - there is nothing else. Paul's words do not negate personal faith, or the necessity for obedience to Christ's commands. What his words do, however, is remind us of where our focus should be: We have a faithful savior; we are justified by the faith of Christ

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bread of Life

What is the most common thing for friends to do together? I've been thinking about it, and I think what we do with company more than anything else is eat. "Hey, want to grab lunch tomorrow?" "Have dinner plans?" And the ever so infamous, "Just bought a stick of cookie dough, ready to party?" Jesus was no different really; He used banquets as illustrations, Last Suppers as special times of fellowship, and minimal amounts of food to attract and feed very large crowds.

In John 6, Jesus calls himself the "Bread of Life", saying that whoever partakes in Him will never go hungry or thirsty. He's said these types of things before, such as to the Samaritan woman at the well. In these occasions, Jesus uses very real and tangible concepts (hunger and thirst) to illustrate how He is in fact the only constant source of sustenance.

Jesus tells a crowd He is teaching that "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness-they will filled."(Matthew 6:6) In that day, hunger was a real thing. If you're reading this, chances are you haven't gone hungry for more than a few hours, because you have access to a computer. However, think of what that means, to long for righteousness the way that the hungry long for food. I think this illustration could very possibly be lost on us too often because we don't know what it means to hunger for something. 

Before Jesus even ends this lesson though, he touches on the idea of food/hunger one more time in the very next chapter. "Here is the bottom line: do not worry about your life. Don't worry about what you will eat or what you will drink. Don't worry about how you clothe your body. Living is about more than merely eating, and the body is about more than dressing up...So do not consume yourselves with questions: What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?...Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be given to you." (Matthew 6:25, 31, 33) So here is another idea almost completely, this idea that we aren't to worry about food, drink, and clothing, but are instead to seek the kingdom of God (you might even say, Hunger for God). We're promised that if we do that, then we won't have to worry about the other things. What a promise! Do you believe it?

Sometimes certain texts don't make sense to us, or at least are hard for us to swallow. Part of this is because we live in a completely different culture than those in these biblical accounts did. However, think about the culture that these people are apart of - it's a patriarchal culture - one where people often relied on a patron to meet their needs, whether that be the head of the household or even more of a business relationship where one takes care of the other (I've touched on this idea before in my "Friend of God" blog post, check it out for more detail). 

Reading these passages through that type of cultural lens helps us see more clearly what Jesus is saying and promising. We are commanded to not worry, but to lean on God for all of our needs. The other thing we are to do is to seek/long/hunger for His kingdom and to better bring it about. That can be such a hard thing to do. Trusting God to take care of you no matter what the circumstances is FAR easier said than done. I realize that I'm kind of calling most church going people out, but stop and think: How much have I worried this week alone? As the Bride of Christ, the church is called to nothing less than what would be expected of a wife in that time and culture: trust the husband to meet all of her (our) needs.

God calls us for a change of trust and also a change of focus. One of the key ways He does that once again uses the idea of food. Fasting is a very neglected discipline. More often than not, people who "fast" do so because they are trying to get rid of a gut or simply feel guilty (and bloated) from the incredible amount of food they had during the previous meal. Fasting, however, is far more than a health decision or a guilt trip, it is the giving up of the physical in order to better long for the spiritual. Prayer accompanies this spiritual discipline, and one of the reasons they go so well together is because every time you feel hunger pains, you remember to stop and pray. Even more though, when you feel those hunger pains, you remember who you are truly suppose to be hungering for: God. That is why fasting is such a respected discipline, because it reminds us to long for God and it also reminds us that God is ultimately our food source in every possible physical and spiritual way. 

I challenge you, dear reader, to be called blessed because you hunger and thirst for righteousness. I challenge you to fast, pray, and seek out God's direction. I also challenge you to drop the individualistic mindset that we all fall prey to and truly trust God for all your needs, physical or otherwise. Hear and believe God's promise: Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be given to you.

Be filled with the Bread that gives Life and never go hungry again

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Love Wins

I put this disclaimer up front so that you can be disappointed now versus later. This is not any kind of opinion about Rob Bell (I do have one, this is just not it). This instead will focus on another invaluable topic and also serve to distract me from what I really should be doing: packing.

I have been bombarded as of recent with this idea of "The Culture Wars". That being, the war that seems to be going on between those who proclaim Christ and those who would seem to be against Him. This has always been a topic in some form or another in my life I'm sure, but two major events have really got it on my brain and so I thought I would share. The first event was a personal viewing of the movie Lord, Save Us From Your Followers which takes an intense look at the question "Why is the Gospel of Love dividing America?" The movie is well worth the watch and I recommend it as an incredibly valuable discussion piece about our role as Christians in society.

The second event was one which we are most familiar with at this point, and that is the division being caused by a delectable Chicken Sandwich. The owners of Chick-Fil-A came out with a statement that put them supporting the Biblical family unit and sets them against same-sex marriage. I keep reading more about this issue and so I don't claim to know enough to inform you about what ALL is going into this. Once again however, the "culture wars" are at play and there are very angry people on both sides of the issue. Homosexuals are mad that their lifestyle is not supported and certain Christians are mad because the homosexuals got mad. Interesting mess it would seem. From what I can tell, Chick-Fil-A is far from being prejudiced in their service and the way that they treat people, I mean, they almost always say "my pleasure" to me after I say thank you.

So what about the question that the movie poses: why IS the Gospel of Love dividing America? The word used for Gospel is literally translated "Good News". We are to be about the business of telling people the "Good News" that Jesus loves them, died for them, and that there is hope! Instead, one of the most uniting things we seem to have done recently is to buy more 8 count chicken nuggets.

If you went to Chick-Fil-A to support them, good for you (I'm personally feeling that a milkshake would be quite heavenly myself). I am not trying to say that supporting a business with Christian ideals is wrong by ANY stretch of the imagination. However, is that ALL that you've done recently? I fear it could be easy for us to feel like we're living out the Gospel of Love by buying chicken sandwiches and that we're not telling people from all walks of life that Jesus loves them.

I personally am finding it difficult to find the balance between following Christ's example in calling people out as He did when He said "You wicked and perverse generation" (Matt 17:17) and loving them extravagantly and selflessly as He did. I find there to be a difficult balance between being hated for the sake of Christ and seeking respect that comes from open and loving conversations with those I don't agree with. Despite my minor uncertainty in how to best be Jesus in these situations, I say with confidence that I'm seeking this ideal out as I feel we all should.

One thing I know: Love Wins. We do NOT need people on street corners hitting people over the head with a large KJV telling other people that God hates them and to repent before they burn forever (for any reader who really just prefers to get down with a King James Bible, no disrespect intended). Does that really sound like Gospel to anyone? What is the "Good News" in that message? Yet all too often Christianity is defined by such things.

We NEED to love everyone more. And we also need to start at home and in the Church. There's enough back biting and bad mouthing in the world, choose not to let it enter our Christian family. Do not let the evil, bad mouthing, combative style of the world infiltrate our homes and churches. Let us instead infiltrate the world with GOOD NEWS that JESUS loves immensely and died to make ALL people free.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Friend of God

James 2:23b
‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him righteousness’ and he was called a friend of God.”

           What comes into your mind when you hear the word “friend”? Our meaning of friend today is somewhat different than how the audience hearing this letter would have understood it. Today, friends are generally thought of as people that we do things with. Whether it is playing, shopping, or eating, we tend to do these things with our “friends”. James would have had something very different in mind. Cultural study tells us that the relationship between “friends” of that day would have been much more similar to a benefactor/clientele relationship. Friendship meant that you depended on someone completely to meet your needs or vice versa.

James expounds on this idea later in the letter. “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever might wish to be a friend of the world is rendered an enemy of God.” (James 4:4) This rather harsh language stresses the danger of relying on the world for our needs. Later in the chapter James goes on to exhort members of the church (likely merchants) concerning reliance on the world and their own plans for success (vv. 13-14).

Ultimately, James poses the question, “Who are you relying on to meet your needs?” Even the best friends in your life can let you down because we're all human. God is not that kind of friend. Abraham trusted in God completely by offering up his son because God promised him descendants as numerous as the sand on the beach. I am not trying to negate plans or intelligent preparation. What I am proposing is that we (the church) can get caught up in worry and fear about our future and fail to trust in the most powerful being in the universe to meet our needs. I wonder what our lives might look like if we truly believed the words of Jesus in Matthew 6 when He said “do not be anxious about your life” (v. 25) but instead focused on “seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (v. 33).

So to you, dear reader, I pose the same question: Who or what are you relying on to meet your needs? This world and all that is of this world, although tangible, will ultimately fail us. Let us instead strive to be a friend of God and keep in mind an acronym that was very popular in my youth: F.R.O.G. which was a reminder to Fully Rely On God.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

In Essentials, Unity. In Opinions, Liberty. And in All Things, Charity.

The church I am working at this summer just finished up a series on Church History, ending with several weeks on Restoration History. Before you click the "back" button because I said the word "history", I promise this will not be a history lesson.

The great thing about history is that it helps us see where we've been, where we are, and where we're going. I've grown up in Churches of Christ (this post need not be strictly read by those in this movement) and learning a little bit about our history has really helped me see where we've been, where we are, and where we're heading. We truly started off as a unity movement, one designed to bring people together with Christ and His Word as our center. There have been rough patches along the way because of one factor that always seems to mess things up: people. I was once told something that is not entirely accurate, but struck me very deeply and does have an amazing amount of truth in it: "Churches do not divide over doctrine, churches divide because two people with big heads desire power and come up against each other." There are most definitely exceptions to this, but the truth is that most splits happen because of strong and misguided opinions disguised as doctrine.

We do two things that are truly tragic. The first thing we do is allow preferences to become matters of disfellowship. The second thing we do is allow sometimes obvious truths to slip by as preferences. It's quite a messy deal. There are most assuredly things addressed in Scripture that I believe we should cling to ever tightly, while being very respectful of those who might see it differently. There are also things very much not addressed at all in Scripture that might have validity in the arguments for either side, but mostly come down to a matter of preference.

As far as our future in churches across the board with every kind of name and background, I hope that we do all things in love. I pray that we study diligently and find out what our lives should look like according to Scripture. I also pray that we come to a point where we can honor and respect each other's opinions and preferences and seek to find where we are the same, not where we are different.

I end this post with a quote that when googled, does not seem to have a definitive author, but could not be more appropriate a charge for the church today.

"In Essentials, Unity. In Opinion, Liberty. And in All Things, Charity."

Friday, June 8, 2012

Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend

Today, I buy a new (old) car. I finally found a car yesterday in my price range that still meets all the criteria: Runs great, looks like crap. The experience was one to remember. I by no means am a car expert, and so I took a youth deacon who does know a thing or two with me. We ended up "talking the guy down" $300, but this can by no means be credited to myself. I am in fact quite possibly the WORST "wheeler and dealer" in North America and probably the Western Hemisphere. I end up feeling so bad for the person that I would almost give them a little extra. Horrible experience. My accomplice claims to have almost lowered the price another $100 when I completely caved, tears welling up (metaphorically speaking).

This story is two-fold however, if you know the piece of crap that I've been driving since I was 16 - The Jackpot. With nearly 400,000 miles on it, The Jackpot has lived a good long life. At one point I named the car "The Bumblebee" because nearly everything in the car vibrated to the point of back massage. This problem has persisted, but a new set of problems arose. One day, nearly every light in my dash started flashing and enough bells for a sleigh started going off. No apparent reason for this commotion, none at all really. This is the day my car earned the name "The Jackpot". A while after that, my headlights started not working on me unless I would hold my "brights" on with my hand. After a few dark and mysterious convenience store runs in which the only time I had lights was to warn other people I was there, I extended the name of my car to "The Batmobile Hit The Jackpot" or just "Batman Hit The Jackpot", I can't remember which. Eventually this phase of my car ended (on its own I think) and it went back to just being "The Jackpot". These days, The Jackpot smokes and leaks profusely, dies intermittently, only cools the passengers occasionally, and sometimes takes five minutes to even start up!

Yesterday as I drove out with my car-knowledgeable-friend, The Jackpot did none of these things. No smoke, amazing AC, no lights or dinging, started up the first time EVERY time - it was truly a model car. It knew I was looking at something else, I swear it. My car hasn't run that well in months. But I made an offer to pay and pick up the new car today for I know these things will not last. As I was exiting my car to go inside for the night, just as I shut the door my car started making a siren type noise (only from the inside and the first time for the day) as if to yell, "PLEASE DON'T SELL ME TO A JUNKYARD". The Jackpot has a mind of its own. I shall indeed miss it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Introduction

Well, this shall be somewhat of an informal intro. I have been thinking for quite some time that I need a place to share some thoughts that doesn't require my hand cramping from pencil use or the constriction of thought to 140 characters or less. I've always enjoyed (or hated) looking back at things I have written and seeing what I was like and how I have changed. Blogging (although a rather unpleasant term) appears to be a rather accepted practice these days and thus seems like the best solution to my predicament.

Every now and again I just get on these topics in my daily life that I would like to share my viewpoints with my peers and get feedback from whomever might take the time to read and respond. I think mostly about God and what it looks like to serve Him best. A. W. Tozer said that, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us."

I'm starting this to do just that: share the things that come to mind as I work in ministry and walk with God. Perhaps there'll be a few fun detours along the way where I talk about a different kind of experience or a new flavor of gum or something. We shall see. Until then, it's late and I have to practice the discipline of summer reading before I go to sleep.

Live in the light of the Son. εἰμί Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. "I am of Jesus Christ"