God

The Nature of God (Pillars of Faith Series)

Lots of peoplel have lots of ideas about God. Are all the ideas true? Simply saying "I believe in God" isn’t enough. In order to have faith in the God of the Bible, we have to believe in the right God. To explain this, I need to talk about God’s essence That may sound weird, but I bet you’re familiar with the concept.

Coffee could be weak, cold, decaf, sugar, cream…  Espresso? Folgers? But what about Pepsi? Does that count as coffee? There is a difference between the characteristics or attributes of coffee vs the essence of coffee. What is the essential essence? At what point is coffee not coffee? Reducing something to that which is necessary, or essential, leaves us with essence.Essence is  the defining characteristic of a thing. Coffee must come from coffee beans. This is not picky or mean - it’s just the truth!

We think about attributes and essence all the time without knowing it. Think about all the conversations you have had with organic eaters. They are all about purity - nothing unnatural - nothing unknown. They’re looking for purity through the entire food chain as well as the production. They feel it is vitally important to get this right. How do they do it? It’s not something they just know. It requires reading labels, studying blogs, talking to others… It’s a full-time commitment that never ends.

Do we take our theology this seriously? Can we elaborate what we believe about God and why? Can we do it as well as health care, coffee, diets, superheroes, computer, phone, sports… We should be able to, because what you think about God touches everything. When it comes to theology, we should be reading at least as many labels, talking to at least as many people, studying at least as many books, etc. I’m talking about pursuit, not perfection. It’s impossible to have 100% pure water, but imperative to aim for it. It’s impossible to have 100% perfect theology, but imperative to aim for it. We should always be seeking to find our false beliefs, and correct them.

I’ve heard the claim, “Relationship more important than proper theology.” Let’s try a parallel to see if that’s true. Can I relate to my wife, Aubrey, properly if I do not know who she is? You might ask her after the service. She’s the tall, redhead, loves summer, hates going north, can’t stand farms or ships… That’s not true, of course. And if I thought it was, you would rightly say, “You don’t know your wife.” In the same way, can I relate to God properly if I do not know who he is? Theology is important!

Some questions we’ll be looking at: What are the characteristics of God? What is essential about God? Figuring out these answers will help us tell the difference between true and false gods. Knowing who God is helps me spot the impostors. There are some very popular teachings that have God all wrong:

  • A “god” who is “in everything” is not the God of the bible
  • A “god” who created the world then walked away is not the God of the bible
  • A “god” who will do whatever you say is not…
  • A “god” who approves of whatever you do is not...

 So, how do we know about God? Well, only God gets to declare who he is. Our speculations and opinions don’t matter. God uses General revelation (nature) & special revelation (the Bible and Jesus) to show who He is. We don’t get to define God. What we think doesn’t matter if it doesn’t square with scripture. We learn about God, from God. His revelation in the Bible is not complete, but it is sufficient. It doesn’t tell us everything there is to know about God, but it tells us everything we need to know about God. He is knowable, yet incomprehensible. We can know him truly, but we cannot know him fully. Much about God is unfathomable, but the mystery begins after we’ve looked at all we can know, not before.

There is a God (evident from nature and scripture) Hebrews 11:6  says, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists.” If you don’t believe that, you can’t be a Christian.  A Godless Christianity cannot save. Believing God exists is the beginning of our theology.

God is simple. There is a doctrine called Divine Simplicity. (It simply means not uncomplicated, or without parts). We describe people by attributes that exist outside of them, but God’s attributes are things that do not exist apart from him. When we talk about things like love, mercy, justice, holiness, wisdom, and wrath - we are observing things that do not exist apart from God.

God has characteristics, and they cannot be taken away. In fact, nothing about God needs to be, or even can be, stripped away. Everything about him is essential. One way of putting it is, “God is pure essence”

God is one. “The Lord is God and there is none other besides him”  (Deuteronomy 4:35). Christians are monotheists, which just means we believe there is one God. This belief is essential to Christianity, but it is not complete. Muslims believe in One God, but are going to hell. Mormons believe in many gods, but going to hell. “Believing in God” is not enough, because only the God of the bible can save. So it is imperative that you get the right one.

 God is a trinity. Here’s a topic that has confused many people. The Bible sometimes refers to God in plural (“Let us make man in our image” Genesis 1:26; “In the beginning, God…” Genesis 1:1  - Elohim is plural). Many other times, the Bible refers to God in singular (“Tell them I AM sent you” is a notable example). How do we reconcile this? As we saw above, the bible is adamant that there is only one God. So where does the plural come from?

Let’s go back to essence. God has only one of those, yet the Bible speaks of the Father/Son/Holy Spirit as all having this essence. The plurality spoken of is personhood. So, God is one in essence, three in person (1 ‘what’ and 3 ‘who’). Rejecting the trinity is heresy because of where it takes you. Historically, the church has been very creative in ways to reject trinity:

  • modalism (shape shifter) Problem: Who was Jesus praying to?
  • docetism (illusion/hologram) Problem: An illusion can’t suffer, bleed, and atone for our sins.
  • tritheism (three Gods)Problem: Destroys monotheism
  • partialism (three parts) Problem: Destroys simplicity. Not fully God, each is only ⅓ God.

Why do I think this is important? Because I don’t want to see your faith shipwrecked. Timothy was a pastor that the apostle Paul was mentoring. Paul’s letters to Timothy were the last things he wrote. In these letters, Paul gave Timothy instructions and warnings. He told him that people would leave the faith because they would follow teachers who opposed God and his commandments. He repeatedly encouraged him to teach sound doctrine and avoid false. He told him that his own people would want him to teach the things they wanted to hear rather than the truth. What does that mean for us? Are there things we want to hear that are not true?

  • "I know God says not to do this, but he'll forgive me so it’s ok."
  • "If I do this for God, he'll do this for me."
  • "I may not be perfect, but I'm better than most people. Plus I go to church and give money to homeless people sometimes. God will count that toward my account."
  • "If I find a promise anywhere in the bible, I can claim it for myself and God has to honor that promise for me. "
  • “God is love, so he wouldn’t send people to hell or tell people who they can’t marry”

Are these things that the Bible says are true about God, or are they things that we want to be true about God? The Bible describes God. These are the attributes I referred to earlier. If we say anything about God that contradicts the Bible, we are using God’s name in vain. And doing that is making a God to our own liking. A God of your own making cannot save you.

Paul gave Timothy a pretty good rundown in the opening of the first letter he sent him. The law is good. It is good because it condemns sinners and shows them their faults. But God doesn’t leave them there. He sent Christ to save sinners. Those who pervert or twist that are wrong, so fight the good fight! Those who turned to another gospel have shipwrecked their faith.

Much more must be said that I don’t have time to say. Knowing God is a terrifying privilege. He is love but he is also just. He is mercy but he is also wrath. He is all of these things simultaneously. He will not be mocked. So while the one who himself is love will win, that doesn't mean it will be sunshine and happiness for everyone. The judgment that comes when God wins will be a bitter and fearsome day for many, many people. That's why learning proper doctrine is so important. Unless you truly know God, you have shipwrecked your faith and you are dead in your sins.

Scripture is clear. God does not save the whole world. He does save, but he does so on his terms. We must understand that in every sin, he is the one chiefly offended. Our hearts are wicked and depraved, and we deserve nothing. However, in his mercy, he has provided a means of salvation. He has given his son - Jesus, who was God himself - to die in our place and spare our souls. He is preparing a place for those who accept his offer of forgiveness. He has also described the plans he has for those who reject it. Only this God can save you. A God of your own making cannot save you. Knowing this God will change your life. If you know this God, you cannot help but worship him. Proper knowledge of this God will drive you to repentance, to worship, and quite likely to an emotional response. It is a certainty. But it doesn't work the other way. None of these things will lead you to God.

If you weren’t aware of him before, now you are. And that puts you in a tough spot. Repent. Place your faith in Christ. Get to know God as he really is instead of the popular myths you have made up or heard from someone else. God is good, but he is just. And that is both good and terrible news.

GCengage: Do Pain and Evil Disprove God? (A New Testament Perspective)

Scripture never assumes that God must explain to us why He brings about or permits the things  He does (read Job, for example). However, the New Testament writers spend quite a bit of time talking with the early church about how to understand how God uses the presence of pain and suffering in the world to bring about good in His Kingdom.

 Paul writes a lot about the intersection of life with God in the midst of suffering. He was certainly qualified:

“To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless.  And we labor, working with our own hands.  Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat.  We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13).

As we read Paul's letters in the New Testament, we see a number of principles unfold. Paul does not ask, "Why?!" Paul simply assumes that in this world we will have trouble; he was looking for they ways in which Christ helps us to overcome the worst the world can throw our way. 

God uses pain to build our character.

  • “…tribulations work patience, and patience experience, and experience hope” (Romans 5:3-4).  
  • God used Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12), to fight pride and self-sufficiency,
  • Peter talked about the “genuineness of faith” as it is “tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:7)

Suffering molds us more into the image of God. In order for us to experience patience, compassion, mercy, grace, and sacrificial love—both to see them in God and develop them in ourselves—don’t we have to experience evil and suffering? How could it be otherwise? These attributes, once developed, can last forever—long after evil has disappeared. 

 God uses pain to develop a desire for relationships with God and others.  

  • Jesus “withdrew to a lonely place” to mourn a loss (John 11:34), was filled with anguish (Matthew 26:38), and was acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).  Perhaps that is why Psalm 34:18 says he is “near to the brokenhearted.”  He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7) because he has been there.
  • Paul said his suffering was “for the sake of the body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).  They enabled him to “comfort those who are in trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
  • Our suffering enables us to more fully “bear another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).  

 Phillip Yancey has noted that asking  “Where is God?” is not as important as asking, “Where is the church when it hurts?” This is a great question. If the church carried out its mission effectively, people would probably not be asking this question of God quite so much. Our pain in broken world should be met with the comfort of Christ and His people.

 God uses pain to help us focus on the life to come.  

  • “Do not lose heart,” said Paul, “for our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but the things which are not seen.  For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
  • “Our present suffering are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

 Suffering reminds us of life’s brevity and our closing window of opportunity to get right with our Creator.  Hardship can help us to trust God  in ways we are not prone to do when life is smooth and easy. One day, God will wipe all tears from our eyes; one day, there will be no more sickness, sorrow, or death. One day, we can experience life in its fullness. When creation groans, we long for redemption.

God uses pain to “make known the riches of His glory” (Romans 9:23; 2 Corinthians 4:7).  

  • After Joseph was sold into slavery, he told his brothers years later, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19-20).
  • Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  

 This is not saying that God makes bad things happens so he can show up and be amazing. As both Joseph and Paul note, God's glory is seen when He is able to bring beauty from the ashes of our circumstances. 

Jesus’ Death and Resurrection show His love and power (Romans 9:23; 2 Corinthians 4:7).  

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only son, so that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but will have eternal life. For God did not send His son into the world to condemn, the world, but to save it.” (John 3:16-17).

We see in two verses the response to those who questions God's love, power or knowledge.  Because God is love, He is willing to endure the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the world.  Because He's omnipotent, he can save the entire world, offering a total and complete redemption. Because He is omniscient, He knows what it will take to give us new life now and eternal life in the future.

Though God has revealed a tremendous amount of His character and wisdom, by no means can we expect to grasp the depth or immensity of the ways of God on this side of Heaven.  The potential goodness of specific instances of pain may not seem easily matched to the reasons listed above, and one should not expect them all to be.  However, we have hope that one day they will be understood.   

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, then I will know fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

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Recommended Resources:

Intellectuals Don’t Need God, by Alister McGrath

The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis.

Evidence for God, edited by William Dembski and Michael Licona.

Where Is God When It Hurts? Phillip Yancey

“A Good Reason for Evil,” by Greg Koukl.

“No Other Name: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Salvation Through Christ,” by William Lane Craig.

“Do Evil and Suffering Disprove the Existence of God?” by Michael Horner.

GCengage: Do Pain and Evil Disprove God? (Three Talking Points)

(Read Part One: Do Pain and Evil Disprove God? Two Skeptical Challenges) 

#1 Everyone has to deal with the problem of evil

Everyone seems to agree: something has gone horribly wrong. Existence could be different; maybe it even ought to be different. Wherever we look in the world, and in every corner of the past we find suffering, and we don’t like it. In other words, the problem of evil is a universal human issue. Christians are often challenged with the presence of evil, but we are not the only ones who need to give an answer.

If we leave God and accept atheism, has our problem gone away? Not at all! In this case, evil, pain and suffering still exist, and we still don’t know why! Well-known philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said, “No one can sit at the bedside of a dying child and still believe in God.” This is an understandably difficult situation. But William Lane Craig has some questions of his own. He asked:

“What is Bertrand Russell going to say when he is kneeling at the bed of a dying child?" … 'Tough luck? Too bad? That’s the way it goes? That’s all that’s left for him...'  You see, as an atheist, Russell has nothing to offer. Because if there is no God then we are trapped in a world filled with senseless and unreadable suffering with absolutely no hope from deliverance of evil.”

Atheism does not provide an answer to the problem; it merely eliminates one of the solutions. Children still die, forests still burn, and hurricanes still destroy. Atheism doesn’t remove suffering; it merely removes hope.

 Eastern religions believe that pain and suffering are illusory. They don’t exist. We’re just floating in the Matrix and merely have perceptions of pain and suffering. Their answer is to ignore it because it isn’t real. That hardly sounds helpful. Anyone who has experienced pain and suffering knows how absolutely real it is. Can you imagine telling the parent of a dying child that their child only appeared to be in pain? 

 Humanity is presented with what often looks like a long, dark tunnel. Atheism asks us to accept the tunnel. Eastern religions tell us that the tunnel may seem dark, but it isn’t real. Christianity admits that he tunnel is sometimes dark, but there is a light at the end. The tunnel is real, but it is not permanent. It can be painful, but it will end – and in the meantime we are not alone. In short, Christianity offers one thing no other worldview can: hope.

#2 Natural forces are not evil.

In the Christian worldview, God set up the world – and it was good. Since then, entropy has taken over. Everything dies. Iron rusts. People age.  So we have this tension: we live in a world that is both beautiful and broken. Both these states occur through the simple unfolding of natural events in a very complex world. This hardly makes the events themselves evil.  For example, trees, picnic tables, computers, guns, money, and bicycles are neither good nor bad – they just are. However, the events which they precipitate can be experience in very different ways. If a tree falls, is that good or bad? I suppose that depends on whether I wanted firewood or shade. Is rain good or bad? That depends on whether I am camping or farming.

These are minor example, but many things we call “acts of God” are simply a description of the natural order unfolding on a much larger scale. Natural disasters can be emotionally devastating because people are effected by them. We grieve the impact on those we love, as we should. We do our best to prepared for natural calamities. These response are clearly appropriate, but the condemnation of the God behind the creation of the world is more of a stretch. After all, the same forces that bring suffering are the ones that bring about astonishing beauty. Think about the following…

  • Is it possible to make electricity that does not electrocute?

  • Is it possible to have a system of plate tectonics without the possibility of earthquakes and sinkholes?

  • Can you have water without the possibility of drowning?

  • Can you have wind without the possibility of tornados?

  • Can you have oceans without occasional hurricanes?

  • Can you have gravity without the possibility of falling?

  • Can you have fire that burns wood in fire pits but not homes?

The God of cyclones is also the God of sunsets. In both instances, God created a world in which the wildly creative potential of the habitat would not be possible if it did not contain within it the possibility of incredible destruction as well. 

#3 We need to understand the nature of God’s Will

Is God responsible, then, when tragedies happen? Was it His will? If we are to understand what we (or others0 mean when talking about God's will for life, we need to understand two aspects of God’s will: things he commands and things he desires.

 God commanded the universe into being. Nothing could oppose him. God commanded his incarnation, death and resurrection, and no one could stop it. The fancy name for this is God’s decretive will (He decrees it).

 The other category of God’s will is his desires. He doesn’t want anyone to sin. It is not his will that any should perish. He has given us instructions that explain what we should and should not do. This is called God’s prescriptive will (he prescribes, like a doctor prescribes medicine). 

Command (Decretive Will)                                        Desire (Prescriptive Will)

God decrees it; it will happen.                                         God prescribed it; it should happen

We don't need to understand                                           We are helped to understand

Plans that can't  be thwarted                                           Instructions that can be thwarted

God's sovereignty  causes them to happen.                    God's restraint allows them to happen.

God caused the universe to begin to exist (decretive will), but he allows history to unfold in a cause/effect reality (prescriptive will). God caused people to be created in His image; He permits them to exercise free will. The unfolding of natural events and the consequences of our bad choices have impacted us from their inception. This is what we would expect in a meaningful world. 

GCengage: Do Pain and Evil Disprove God? (Two Skeptical Challenges)

The problem of suffering and pain in a world that the theist claims has been created by an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God has long been a flashpoint in the debate surrounding God’s nature and existence. The argument about the mere presence of evil pushes the limits of human history (i.e. Job), but the escalated horrors of the 20th century, specifically the Holocaust, have brought the debate about the magnitude of the problem to the forefront now more than ever. Interestingly, the problem of pain was not a serious threat to Christian thought until the last several centuries; suffering has only recently been seen as a ground for final skepticism rather than an incentive for inquiry. 

Christian theologians have responded in a number of ways. In the next post, we will look more closely at three important talking points when having this conversation. In the final post, we will look at how the Apostle Paul dealt with the suffering in his own life. In this post, we will look at two logical challenges that highlight the Problem of Evil.

Two Skeptical Challenges

The Logical Problem of Evil: God and evil are logically incompatible.

Critics of Christianity have dealt with this a few different ways. One is to say that if God is all-knowing, this wouldn’t have happened. If he was all-powerful, he could prevent it. And if he was all-loving, nothing would keep him from doing so.

 In response, Christians typically talk about free will. The Free Will defender argues that it was good for God to create people who had genuine choices. Humans were created to be able to make ethical choices in a morally significant way, and this ability makes this world more valuable than a world that does not contain free action. 

Much of the suffering in this life is our own making, either directly or indirectly, and the only way God could prevent us or our ancestors from disrupting the order he created would be to take away our free will. We have a dilemma. Which is more important: risky freedom or coerced happiness? A world in which nothing we do matters because there are no consequences, or a world in which everything we do matters, sometimes to the extreme, precisely because there are consequences?

 Though this is a complex subject with a rich history of debate, few philosophers today see the Logical Problem of Evil as a valid argument against God’s existence.

The Evidential Problem: There is so much evil that God’s existence is unlikely.

While the logical approach said that God and evil could not exist simultaneously, the evidential problem looks at the fact that it sure seems like God would fix things – especially the things that humans don’t seem to have caused. Why do animals die in forest fires? Why do babies get sick and sometimes die? If there were a God who loved us, he would not allow unexplainable and meaningless suffering.  

Philosopher William Rowe stated the argument along these lines: 

  1. If there are times of gratuitous suffering which an all-powerful, all-knowing, completely good being could and would prevent, then this being (the Christian God) does not exist. 
  2. These times clearly happen. 
  3. Therefore, the Christian God does not exist

 

G.E. Moore provided a response to Rowe’s logically phrased argument:

  1. If there are times of gratuitous suffering which an all-powerful, all-knowing, completely good being could and would prevent, God does not exist.
  2. God does exist.
  3. Therefore, there are no times of gratuitous suffering.

 

If there is a God who loves us, the suffering we see is not without explanation or meaning. Maybe God exists and he allows things to happen that we don’t like or understand. This doesn’t mean there is no God. At most, the problem of evil is not an attack on God’s existence, but an attack on his character.

The Christian worldview claims that we live in a world with an overwhelming, intrinsic good (Free Will) that and gives it worth in spite of the pain that accompanies it. It is a legitimate answer for the skeptic who thinks this is a challenge to God’s existence.

GCengage: Is God A Monster?

Richard Dawkins famously wrote: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

That kind of accusation makes sense coming from someone who wants to discredit Gd and the Bible. However, it's not just the atheists who struggle with the Old Testament. I was raised in a pacifist Mennonite community, and there were just large sections of the Old Testament that nobody talked about in polite company. We read the story about David and Goliath with as much detachment and inner condemnation as we could. We wondered how much we should cheer for David’s mighty men, who were the elite forces of their day. We cheered when Sampson brought the temple down, but with some guilt.  So what do you think we did with all the God-ordained wars in the Old Testament?

Nothing.

We loved Jesus when he said “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek,” but God? God in the Old Testament was sometimes treated like the crazy uncle who shows up at family reunions. Nobody really knows how to interact with him or explain him to others.

From a Christian apologetics standpoint, this issue is important. I think many Christians remain as confused as I was. But this is an crucial topic to address because those outside the faith aren’t letting this one slide – and rightly so. How could God be “good” if he commanded so much evil? This is the question we must be prepared to answer.

So how do we understand a sometimes confusing Old Testament God, and how do we respond to critics such as Dawkins? Let's tackle this issue by looking closely at this critique of God. In the process, we will see that the God of the Old Testament is not a God for which we need to apologize, but is rather a God who loves the world.

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The accusation: "God’s actions as seen in the Bible are incompatible with his character as described in the Bible (with genocidal wars, etc). Either he doesn’t exist, the Bible is hopelessly muddled, or God is a monster.”

First Response: “Is it possible that God knows things and/or has reasons that our beyond our ability to understand, but would make sense if we knew them?”

Sometimes we read stories about alleged police brutality or wartime atrocities, then find out later that the police were justified in what they did. We didn’t have the whole story. Of course, we get in trouble in a lot of situations precisely because we are not God – we don’t have perfect knowledge, and justice, and mercy, etc. But if God has all these things (which is the Christian claim), isn’t it possible that if we knew what God knew, we would understand? This is a modest point, but an important one.

Second Response: “Let’s clarify what we are talking about before we go any further. What do you mean by good and evil?”

The most popular atheist writers today are very outspoken about things they think are wrong, while at the same time claiming there either is no such thing, or that morality is just a personal or cultural preference.

  • “Morality is a collective illusion of humankind put in place by our genes in order to make us good cooperators.” – Michael Ruse
  • “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect of there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”  - Richard Dawkins
  • In an interview with Skeptic, Frank Miele asked Mr. Dawkins,“How do you determine whether something is good or not, other than by just your personal choice?” Dawkins responded, “I don’t even try.”

In other words, atheists are criticizing God for being evil when compared to some sort of universal standard - which they don’t believe in. I point this out not to belittle the people holding this position, but to highlight the problem with the criticism. Not liking what God does is very different from God being evil.

Third Answer: "When the Old Testament is read properly, it becomes clear that God in not a monster at all."

Paul Copan has written a book called Is God A Moral Monster? In it, he notes some key things to remember as we think of God in the Old Testament, specifically when it comes to the issue of war. I have written on this in detail at TC Apologetics, but I will summarize here:

  •  There were justifiable reasons for cultures to be judged.
  • God waited and warned the people involved (for example, the high priest Mechizadech lived in Canaan in the city of Salem).
  • The Jewish nation exercised lex talionis (a principle which says that punishment cannot exceed the crime). What other nations had done to others was now being done to them.
  • Biblical “war texts” record a dispossession of people and destruction of worldview centers. God was destroying sinful cultural strongholds and their perpetrators (priests and military) while dispersing the population.
  • God commanded the Israelites to accept immigrants from these nations, clearly showing God was not interested in genocide.
  • We continue to see favorable references to people from all nations living in Israel after the wars.

This is not a history of genocide, but of the salvation of an area of the world from specific cultures that were some of the most brutal on record in human history. In an interview with Lee Strobel, Paul Copan quoted Miroslav Volf, a Croatian who lived through unspeakable violence during ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia. I think his perspective contains great insight into the nature of God:

“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days!

How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”

This is one of the messages of the anger of God in the Old Testament: God is not indifferent with respect to those who suffer human cruelty. Is it possible to conceive of a being who embodies love but does not become outraged at injustice? And while not every injustice in this life is addressed immediately, God’s plan offers at least a hope that justice will have its day, if not in this life then the life to come.

“Human anger at injustice will carry less weight and seriousness if divine anger at injustice in the service of life is not given its proper place. If our God is not angry, why should we be? That God would stoop to become involved in such human cruelties as violence is…. not a matter for despair, but of hope. God does not simply give people up to experience violence. God chooses to become involved…so that evil will not have the last word.” – Terence Fretheim

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Recommended Resources

Tactics, Greg Koukl

Is God A Moral Monster? Paul Copan

“How Could God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?” Justin Taylor, at the Gospel Coalition

“Killing The Canaanites,” Clay Jones

TC Apologetics: God of War Series (tcapologetics.org)

TC Apologetics: The Shape of Reality (Identifying Evil)

GCengage: Do All Roads Lead To God?

Religious people generally choose one of four different positions when talking about God: exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism or universalism. 

  •  Exclusivism (particularism). There is one true religion. An exclusivist follower of Christ claims Christianity is the only true religion, and salvation is impossible without explicit trust in Christ. 
  • Inclusivism. Others can experience the benefits of the one true religion in spite of following a false religion. An inclusivist follower of Christ claims there is no salvation outside of Christ, but God will extend grace to those who have partial or distorted knowledge and implicitly - perhaps unknowingly - believe in him. God can be sought and found in other religions in spite of their flaws, and that will be salvatory.
  •  Pluralism. All religions are capable of leading to God (think Life of Pi). This is the basic idea behind the imagery on bumper stickers like “CoExist."
  •  Universalism. Eventually, all will be saved no matter what they believe.

The claim that all roads lead to God is a pluralist position, though some forms of inclusivism may claim this as well. There are two basic claims that the religious pluralist makes: All of us are right because we know something about God, and what we see will be sufficient to lead us to God.

The first claim is often explained by using The Parable of the Elephant.

Some disciples went to the Buddha and said, "Sir, some are saying that the world is infinite and eternal and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever, and so forth. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?"

The Buddha answered, "Once upon a time there was a certain raja who said to his servant, 'Gather together all the men of Savatthi who were born blind... and show them an elephant.' 'Very good, sire,' replied the servant, and he did as he was told. To one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.

"Then the raja went to each of them and said, ‘Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?'

"The men who were presented with the head answered, 'Sire, an elephant is like a pot.' And the men who had observed the ear replied, 'An elephant is like a winnowing basket.' Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.

"Then they began to quarrel, shouting, 'Yes it is!' 'No, it is not!' 'An elephant is not that!' 'Yes, it's like that!' and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.

"Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing....."

 (paraphrased from cs.princeton.edu) 

Unfortunately for the pluralists, the parable doesn’t support their position. It requires one person to be in a position to judge whether or not all the other competing claims are true. So, it requires a qualified judge who sees all and knows all.  In fact, this parable is compatible with a Christian view of God. Sure, other people know some true things about God. Christianity simply claims to be the religion that offers a unified perspective of the Big Picture.

In addition, this parable shows a misunderstanding of what religions actually claim. Pluralism claims all religions are superficially different, but fundamentally the same, but that’s not the case at all. Religions are often superficially the same, but fundamentally different.

Here are ways in which religious claims around the world are different:

  • Jesus’ Death and Resurrection: he didn’t die (Islam); he didn't rise (Judaism); it was spiritual enlightenment (some Eastern religions); he did both (Christianity)
  • The Afterlife: We functionally cease to exist (Buddhism); we are reincarnated (Hinduism); we are snuffed out (Jainism) continue in  personal existence (Christianity)
  • God: We are god (New Age); God is everything (pantheism); God is Unitarian (Islam and Judaism); God is Trinitarian (Christianity); God is Many (Hinduism); God is a Force (some branches of Buddhism)

Stephen Prothero,author of God Is Not One, does not profess to be a religious person. Nonetheless, he wrote a book after he became increasingly frustrated with the shallow cultural conversations about religion. In an interview with The Huffington Post, he said, 

“I don't think pretend pluralism is the way to go. All religions are not one. They are neither the unified beauty the multiculturalists want them to be nor the unified ugliness the new atheists insist that they are… As any ordinary Muslim in Indonesia or Christian in Nigeria can tell you, Islam and Christianity are not one and the same. It is just as false to say that all religions are poison as it is to say that all religions are beautiful and true.” 

The inclusive “all roads lead to God” pluralist wants to take the people of all religions seriously, but this is done at the expense of the claims. Hard-line exclusivists (if they are not careful) can take the claims seriously at the expense of the people.

Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except by me." This message must be said with grace and humility. The goal of Christianity is to take people seriously (treating others with honor and respect as image bearers of God) while taking their beliefs seriously – which requires affirming or challenging what people believe with honesty, boldness, and a commitment to truth.

GC:engage - Does God Exist?

header_GCengage.jpg

(Part 1: Becoming An Effective Ambassador For Christ)

Christian theologians often cite three classic reasons for believing the Christian God exists. Theologians do not claim that these arguments lead to final, complete truth, only that their cumulative impact (through the use of abductive reasoning) presents a reasonable, compelling case for God’s existence.

1) The Cosmological Argument

Why is there something rather than nothing? Cosmological arguments have to do with the origin of the universe. Not the universe as in planets and stars, but the universe as in everything that is. It is often presented in this simple syllogistic style:

  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  • The universe began to exist
  • The universe has a cause

In short – something outside of the universe caused the universe. As Greg Koukl likes to say, “a big bang needs a big banger”.

2) The Moral Argument

What is the foundation of morality?  C.S. Lewis wrote one of the most well-known summaries:

   “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” 

In a more formal syllogism, the argument takes this form:

  • If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  • Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  • Therefore, God exists. 

3) The Teleological Argument

How does one explain the overwhelming impression of design? You may have heard the terms teleological argument, argument from design, or the fine-tuning argument. These have to do with the likelihood that anything exists, the likelihood that any life exists, or the likelihood that humans exist.

It seems incredibly unlikely – and perhaps impossible – that undirected processes would result in human life. Take an aquarium, for example. There is a range of acceptable salinity that is quite narrow. The same applies to light, temperature, food, air, size of tank, etc. The human living environment on earth and in the universe is almost unimaginably more complex: Gravity, temperature, nuclear forces, atmosphere around us, distance from sun and moon, ozone layer, existence of water, etc…. Roger Penrose, the Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, recently noted:

“The likelihood of the universe having usable energy (low entropy) at its creation is ‘one part out of ten to the power of ten to the power of 123.’ That is ‘a million billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion.’”- as quoted in “Why Some Scientists Embrace the Multiverse,” by Dennis Prager

The syllogism looks like this:

  •   The universe appears to be designed (specified complexity).
  •   This happened either by chance, necessity, or design.
  •   Not chance or necessity.
  •   Therefore, it was designed.

 These arguments, as well as others Christian theologians have presented, have certainly not convinced everyone. Antony Flew* once raised a challenge in the form of a story called The Parable of the Gardener. Here is a version cited by Flew in “Theology and Justification”:

 "Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Skeptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” 

In response, John Frame wrote the following parable in “God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence”:

 Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. A man was there, pulling weeds, applying fertilizer, trimming branches. The man turned to the explorers and introduced himself as the royal gardener. One explorer shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries. The other ignored the gardener and turned away: “There can be no gardener in this part of the jungle,” he said; “this must be some trick. Someone is trying to discredit our previous findings.” They pitch camp. Every day the gardener arrives, tends the plot. Soon the plot is bursting with perfectly arranged blooms. “He’s only doing it because we’re here-to fool us into thinking this is a royal garden.” The gardener takes them to a royal palace, introduces the explorers to a score of officials who verify the gardener’s status. Then the skeptic tries a last resort: “Our senses are deceiving us. There is no gardener, no blooms, no palace, no officials. It’s still a hoax!” Finally the believer despairs: “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does this mirage, as you call it, differ from a real gardener?”

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*Antony Flew late became a Deist, citing design as a compelling reason to believe that God in some fashion existed. He never embraced the beliefs of any particular religion.

 

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

  1. Origins: “A Bigger Story”, Ravi Zacharias
  2. Cosmological Argument

               Chapter 3, Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig

               Chapter 4, On Guard, William Lane Craig

               Chapter 1, The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Mark Mittelberg

                Chapter 5, Is God Just a Human Invention, Sean McDowell (Geivett)

                Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Craig & Moreland

                The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe, William Lane Craig

                Overview of the Cosmological Argument, William Lane Craig

                Cosmological Argument, William Lane Craig

                 Kalam Cosmological Argument, JP Moreland

                 The Thomist Cosmological Argument, Peter Kreeft

                 What is the Kalam Cosmological Argument?, Craig and Conway

          3. Moral Argument

                     True for You, but not for Me, Paul Copan

                      The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis

                      A Refutation of Moral Relativism, Peter Kreeft

                      Chapter 3, Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig

                      Chapter 6, On Guard, William Lane Craig

                      Chapter 1, The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Mark Mittelberg

                      Chapter 15, Is God Just a Human Invention, Sean McDowell (Linville)

                      God, Naturalism and Morality, Paul Copan (in “The Future of Atheism”)

                      Why I Am Not a Moral Relativist, Francis Beckwith

                      The Moral Argument for God’s Existence, Paul Copan

                       Did Morals Evolve?, Greg Koukl

                       Debate: Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?, Craig/Harris

                       Why I’m Not an Atheist, Ravi Zacharias

                       Grounding Morality, Greg Koukl

                        What is the Moral Argument for the Existence of God?, Craig/Conway

          4. Teleological Argument

                          Natural Theology, William Paley

                          Signature in the Cell, Stephen Meyer

                          Chapter 4, Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig

                          Chapter 5, On Guard, William Lane Craig

                          Chapter 1, The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, Mark Mittelberg

                          Chapters 6-7, Is God Just a Human Invention, Sean McDowell (Rana, Richards)

                           Fine-Tuning For Life In The Universe, Hugh Ross

                           Dr. Stephen Meyer at Cambridge

                           Why is the Universe Fine-Tuned, Guillermo Gonzalez

                           Dr. Fuz Rana discusses the beauty and elegance of biochemistry

                           What is the Fine-Tuning Argument for the Existence of God?, Craig/Conway

       5. General Resources

                            tcapologetics.orgapologetics315.comstr.orgreasonablefaith.org

Letter to a Corinthianized Church

About 2,000 years ago, Corinth was a financial, religious, and cultural mecca.

  • It was a major commercial hub located on a four-and-one-half mile wide isthmus of land. Sailors wanted to avoid the danger of sailing around Malea, so they would move their ship across the isthmus on a series of log rollers. If the ship was too large, the cargo was unloaded and loaded onto another ship on the other side of the isthmus.
  • “Corinthian brass” (a mixture of gold, sliver and copper) was widely renowned. 
  • Athletic contests known as the Isthmian Games - second only to the Olympian Games - were held at the temple of Poseidon in Corinth every two years. 
  • Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes, Isis, Serapis, and Asclepius, among others, had temples to their honor in Corinth. It was common to have feasts in those temples – they were very much a center of community.
  • Aphrodite had more than 1,000 hierodouloi (female prostitutes and priestesses) in her service. The present museum in Corinth boasts a large number of clay emblems offered to Aphrodite for healing of a particulular part of the body ravaged by sexually transmitted disease. 
  • The name “Corinthian" had become synonymous with sexual immorality and drunkenness. Aelian, a Greek writer, noted that Corinthians in Greek plays were always drunk.

     Gordon Fee summarized it well: "All of this evidence together suggests that Paul’s Corinth was at once the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world: Intellectually alert, materially prosperous, but morally corrupt.”
     They had money, business, athletic prowess, temple worship involving sex and free food – it was just one big party in Corinth.
   The book of I Corinthians was written to a church living in a culture similar to ours. When the Apostle Paul wrote to them, their primary problem was not persecution. They were a church in lap of luxury, full of people who had been Corinthianized from birth, but who were now trying to begin a new life in Christ.
     Why am I not surprised that, only five years after he left, the Corinthians wrote Paul a letter asking for advice.
1 Corinthians records his response.

1 Corinthians 1:1-3 

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

     Paul begins by reminding them that they have been sanctified (hagios – “called out”) and called to holiness (agios – once again “called out”). God had pulled them from darkness to light, from being like Corinth to being like Christ. They clearly weren't to leave the city or shun their neighbors, but they were different now in attitudes, priorities, passions, loves, hopes and dreams.
     It’s not easy to be the “called out” counter-cultural ones, so Paul reminds them that they are not alone: they are part of the ekklesia, the assembly, the church. They are not alone.
    Then Paul gives a blessing that we read numerous times in Scripture.

  • Grace (favor, joy, pleasure. The image of God “leaning in”).  God is for them.  God is not anxious to judge, or petty, or requiring them to self-destruct in order to worship like they had before. They did not need to merit this kind of favor.  Because He loved them, God was interested in and engaged with their lives. In the midst of a city where favor was earned and pleasure was fleeting, Paul says, "May God give you grace."
  • Peace (wholeness; unity; quiet and rest).  In the midst of where business, chaos, idol worship and temple revelry brought fragmented souls and shattered lives, Paul says, "May God give you peace."

     "Grace to you" was a standard Greek greeting; "Peace" was  the Jewish blessing of "Shalom." Though the church contained both groups, Paul didn't say, "Grace to you Gentiles, and peace to you Jews." The entire church community was to receive God’s grace and peace.
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1 Corinthians 1:4-6 
"I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus, For in Him you have been enriched in every way —with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge — God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 

     Apparently when God through His grace “leaned in,” He spoke a lot through His Word and His people. The knowledge they had gained in the five years since Paul had visited has  thoroughly confirmed what Paul said about Christ.

   
God had enriched their lives by filling them with the knowledge of Him. But knowledge was not the point:
     Because of God's grace, He has enriched them and confirmed Himself to them. For that reason, they did not lack any spiritual gift.
     That’s quite a statement. (We will see later in 1 Corinthians why Paul makes this point at the beginning. A lot of division had begun within the church as people followed one particular leader or wanted one particular gift).  Paul begins 1 Corinthians by saying, “How amazing is it that you, as a unified church, the ekklesia, have been so blessed by God (grace) that you are rich and lack nothing (peace)?”
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1 Corinthians 1: 8-9 
He will sustain you to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

     While reading and re-reading this opening in preparation for a sermon, I couldn't get rid of the nagging thought that more was being communicated here than simply a reiteration of facts. After all, the church apparently heard plenty of speeches and had gained a lot of knowledge. They knew this. Why would Paul need to remind people:

  • that there will be a day when they are blameless? 
  • that God is faithful?
  • that they are called into fellowship with Jesus Christ?
  • that they are holy and sanctified?
  • that there are others like them?
  • that they are spiritually rich?
  • that they have spiritual gifts?
  • that Jesus is returning?

Because they are people. They are just like us. In spite of being given grace and peace, they didn’t always feel God “leaning in.” They didn't always feel whole, complete, and at peace.  We are not so different today, in the modern American Corinth full of business, money, luxury, ease, and 21st century gods of sex, pleasure, and indulgence.

  • We don’t live like we are “called out,” and we're not sure we want to ignore those alluring cultural sirens.  
  • We think money = wealth.
  • We think pleasure=happiness.
  • We think sex=love.
  • We know we are not blameless, and we wonder how we ever will be.
  • We don’t feel “in fellowship” with Jesus. God seems distant, or even absent. 
  • We wonder if God will give up on us, because so many people around us have rejected us. 
  • We feel like we are alone in the world. 
  • We wonder, in the midst of overwhelming despair, if God will ever make things right. 

     In his letter to the Corinthian/American church, Paul with a hopeful yet poignant reminder: “You truly do have fellowship with Christ. In spite of your weariness, He will sustain you;  others may forsake you, but He will “lean in” with gifts of grace and peace; your sins may seem insurmountable, but one day you will know what it is like to never be worthy of blame, and you will be truly free.”
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For those of us who are tired.

For those of us who struggle to be holy in the Corinth of our time, so easily distracted and engaged by the American gods of money, sex, and entertainment.

For those of us who are covered with shame and blame.

For those of us who feel alone and unwanted.

For those of us who feel like we have nothing to offer because God has given us nothing.

For those of us who don’t feel like God is near.

For those of us who lose sight of the hopefulness of Christ’s return, because so many things are broken that it’s hard to believe that one He will make all things new.

Grace and Peace. 
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Jason Gray, “Remind Me Who I Am”



The Potter and the Clay (Part 2)

In the previous post, we looked at how the Potter pulls the clay from the ground and prepares it for His use. He "wedges" it to get rid of air holes, then throws it into the center of the wheel. After that, of course,  the shaping begins.

“Opening the form” happens after centering.  The potter puts his finger into the very center of the clay to create a well. As He pulls the clay towards him, the clay begins to respond.  Re-centering happens throughout this entire process. We are constantly in need of aligning ourselves with God and his ways. There is an interesting incident in Jeremiah18:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”  So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me.  He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”
      We all get marred by others:  cruel words, physical abuse; emotional manipulation.  We call them scars.  But sometimes we mar ourselves – we make choices that catch up with us.  And it’s not that the Potter has to throw us away, but there is a re-centering, and maybe a new well, a new direction in the plan.  The Potter is not stumped, but the pot may take on a different shape on the way to fulfilling the Potter’s purpose.
    Sometimes our lives take a path we don’t expect.  We had this plan – we were going to do THIS with our life – but we got marred, and something about that marring changed the shape of our lives.  And we still have the same purpose we always did, but now we might get there a different way.  
Pulling up the wall (the sides of the pot), the Potter's hands no longer fully surround the clay.  The hands change position to one hand on the inside and one on the outside and the wheel speed slows considerably.  Gentle pressure inward forces the clay upward.  Again, pressure must be steady or the form will shift off center.  God is doing something inside us, but He’s also working on the outside.  When this happens to us, there are things happening that no one else can see – but there are also things people can see.  God doesn’t just work on what we do [external]; God doesn’t just work on who we are [internal]. He works on both.
     The Potter does not need to use much pressure to make the clay take shape.  The clay is very sensitive to the touch.  The Pot has a sure foundation; the grains are aligned with the Potter’s plan; the pot is still near to the Potter.  In the same way, the believer is grounded in the truth, aligned with the will of God, and confident that the work God is doing is making something beautiful.
Once the walls are lifted then the potter begins to apply a pressure to specific places on the wall to create a shape. The wheel is turning much slower now.  The potter is now using small nudges that make big changes to the pot.  Centering really is not needed any longer at this point; just a balancing of the form.
      This is the gentle nudge, but it is HUGE in shaping the pot.   Question: Do we believe God speaks to us?  Are we sensitive to His touch?  Are we so surrendered and submitted to God that we are living in the awareness of His presence in our lives – His purpose, His plan? If we want our lives to really take shape we must be sensitive to His nudging – prayer, the Bible, godly friends, and our conscience.
The pot is removed from the wheel and set aside to dry before it is returned to the wheel for final trimming.  Re-centering occurs before trimming the foot of the pot.  Usually, if the potter is good, a few gentle taps move the pot on center.  The potter trims a "foot" on the pot.  Another foundation for the pot to sit on. 
 It is important that there is a consistency of thickness throughout the pot, or it will crack in the drying process.  There is a balance to the Christian life. Faith or works?  Intellect or emotion?  Long-term planning or in-the-moment response?  Well, yes. For example,  if we rely only on scripture and never learn to "know" God spirit to spirit - hearing his voice, feeling conviction, becoming spiritually discerning - we will not be able to be used as the potter intended.  But if we neglect the word(truth) and only rely on what we discern we will not be used as intended. Balance is crucial in forming the life of the believer.
     The drying process is a good analogy of the times when we know we are waiting on God.  The pot remains confident that the potter will return to finish the work he began (Philippians 1:6) This is Joseph as he languished in prison…Ruth as she waited on Boaz…Jesus as he waited for his ministry…. the disciples as they waited between Jesus's ascension and the feast of Pentecost…this is us as we wait at times when all we see happening is that we are drying, when actually we are being prepared for the next step in God’s process. 
The pot is fired.  Once the heat of the kiln reaches a specific temp. the clay is transformed and is no longer able to go back to the earth as soft clay.  The actual chemical composition has changed.  In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist said: “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire.” 
If the pot never experiences the fire, the heat, the clay will never mature.  It will never be able to be fully used for the Potter’s purpose.  Trials change us. This is a pivotal point in the life of the believer.  We have to be careful that we don’t reach a place anywhere in the pot making process where we fear the fire of refinement.  Again, it is all about surrender.  
The Glazing is the final adornment process. Glaze is actually clay that has melted to make glass. Its purpose is to enhance the look of the pot, to make it attractive. 
   There is an importance placed on having a glaze that "fits" the clay body you use.  The two need to mature together in the kiln at the right temperature  and will hopefully fuse with no imperfections.   
   This sounds a lot to me like our testimony of forgiveness, grace, and hope. .  It comes from us, the clay, but it’s made possible by the Potter.  

Then the pot is filled. That’s the purpose of a vessel – to hold something. 

  • Romans 5:5 “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
  • Acts 1:8 “you shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come on you: and you shall be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem…”
Now, we are ready to be poured out in the service of others.  God molds us for His purpose; God fills us with the love and power of His Holy Spirit, and now God’s vessel pours God’s life and truth into the world, to the glory of God.
And through it all, we have The Potter - steady, unchanging, trustworthy, faithful, a solid rock, a firm foundation. 
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to [us] …We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6 )

A Christian's Achilles Heel

In February of 2006 I  ruptured my Achilles’ Tendon at a men’s retreat.  In one sudden burst of pain I found that I had a great difficulty walking – and you really don’t want to do that if you have a choice. 
I remember vividly sitting in the doctor's office a day or two before the surgery, getting the low-down on what I would be facing both during the surgery and in the weeks of recovery  that followed: Six weeks in a cast followed by six weeks in a boot.
After going over a lot of details, Dr. Licht looked squarely at me and said,  “I’m good at what I do.  I can repair this tendon perfectly one time!  If you follow my instructions things will go well!  If you don’t follow my instructions to the letter, and you rupture this tendon again, I won’t be as successful, and you’ll likely walk with a limp for the rest of your life!  I want your leg elevated every waking moment unless you are in the bathroom or brushing you teeth.  Do you understand?"

 For  twelve weeks I did exactly what he said.  Today, my Achilles tendon is perfect and I have no limp and no limitations.  What made the difference?  I chose to trust someone who knew far more than I. 
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Here’s a painful truth: we are headed down a road of destruction because we have trivialized the Word of God.  We bend and manipulate the Word, trying to make it to say whatever we choose; whatever suits our weak behaviors.  We don’t regard it as what it truly is: the unalterable Word of God. 

We view this book as an accumulation of interesting stories, and we assign those stories whatever value we deem appropriate.  We don’t view this as being a book of Words that were divinely inspired, coming from God, revealed by His Holy Spirit to man, and intended to be received and accepted as authoritative.  

Oh, sure, we still check out God’s thoughts on a range of topics - and we blend His thoughts with ours.  It’s not just that it’s wrong thinking, and as such an offence to God.  This kind of worldview tears apart the very safeguards that God established to protect us.  The church at Thessalonica received and accepted what Paul said AS THE WORD OF GOD,"...which also performs its work in you who believe." (Philippians 2:13)


Is it any wonder that the world around us is falling apart?  We have substituted our thoughts for His thoughts, and our ways for His ways! Even worse, some of us in the church of Jesus Christ are falling apart because we’re toying with the Word of God.
Matthew Henry (1662 – 1714), an English Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister, said this about the Bible: We should receive the word of God with affections suitable to its holiness, wisdom, truth, and goodness. The words of men are frail and perishing, like themselves, and sometimes false, foolish, and fickle; but God's word is holy, wise, just, and faithful. Let us receive and regard it accordingly.
When we receive and accept and believethe Word of God, it changes us.  We begin to be transformed into the image of the very One who saves us: Jesus Christ Himself.  Believing is the key to becoming like Christ!  And this happens when His awesome power empowers my humble consent.

Philippians 2:13 also suggests that those who do not believe will not see the transformative power of Christ and His word in their lives! "For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure."

What is “belief” in God really about?  It is when I humble my arrogant self to His glorious Lordship of my life; when I give my humble consent to Him bringing a new governmental structure in my life and my world. When I was a child, our church used to sing this hymn:

When we walk with the Lord in the light of his word, what a glory he sheds on our way! While we do his good will, he abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey. Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus,but to trust and obey.

The foundational premise for “trusting and obeying" lies in having a profound realization of the one in whom I have place my trust and obedience!  Is this God or not?  

It is no surprise that unbelievers ignore God.  They have not experienced the amazing miracle of forgiveness, and they do not possess the Holy Spirit living inside of them.

But when we say we love and follow God, ignore or twist or compromise His word, all while expecting that we’ll still reap His blessings because we’re in the Club, we're in trouble !


If I’ve truly come to trust Him over my years of following Him, then why on earth would I question his Words – His wisdom – His instruction?

- Ted Smith, at Church of the Living God, on Sunday, April 22, 2012

Between Crucifixion and Resurrection: A World Without God

      Cormac McCarthy wrote a post-apocalypse book called the The Road that was turned into a movie last year.  In his vision, we see a world where few people have survived, the planet is dying, and the few people who remain are cruel. It’s hell on earth.   The main plot involves a dying father trying to get his boy safely across America to what he hopes will be safety.  He fails. One of the quotes from the movie could be the tagline for the story:


 “There is no God, and we are his  prophets.”
Here are some of those prophets in a world without God:
We must build our lives upon “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” – Bertrand Russell
“Modern man does not feel the chasm that unceasingly surrounds him and that will certainly engulf him at last...”  -  Ernst Bloch
     But the prophets are not just philosophers in universities. There are plenty of prophets in pop culture too. Smashing Pumpkins’ 1994 “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” voted as one of the top 100 Rock Songs of All Time by VH1, states:
And I still believe that I cannot be saved
Despite all my rage am I still just a rat in a cage
Linkin Park wrote “In The End” in 2002. (It was the second Most Successful Rock/Alternative song between 2000 and 2010).  Their conclusion about a relationship gone wrong seems symbolic for a world equally daunting:
I tried so hard and got so far
But in the end
It doesn't even matter
I had to fall to lose it all
But in the end
It doesn't even matter

     McCarthy also wrote a play called The Sunset Unlimited (recently made into a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones).  In it, a ex-convict Christian stops an atheistic college professor from throwing himself in front of a train. The rest of the play involves the Christian trying to provide hope to the atheist. It ends badly. The atheist concludes:

 “The shadow of the axe hangs over every joy. Every road ends in death, every friendship, every love. Torment, lost, betrayal, pain, suffering, age, indignity, hideous lingering illness... and all of it with a single conclusion. For you and everyone and everything you have ever chosen to care for… Perhaps I want forgiveness, but there's no one to ask it of. And there's no going back, there's no setting things right, there's only the hope of nothingness.”
And at the end of the play, he leaves to kill himself, engulfed at last by the chasm.  In the end it didn’t even matter.
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DESPAIR IS A SHARED HUMAN EXPERIENCE.  I know this is grim, but the Bible doesn’t shy away from recording despair.
  • Solomon in Ecclesiastes sounds like he understood Bertrand Russell’s “firm foundation of unyielding despair.”
  • Job wanted to die, and the Bible records it all.  I can almost hear,  “I tried so hard and got so far, but in the end it doesn’t even matter.”
  • Gideon, a great warrior, gave up and hid on a farm until an angel went and got him.  Despite all his rage he was still just a farmer in a barn, hiding while his nation was dying.
  • Naomi said to Ruth, “It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me!”  Sounds like she felt something of the chasm that she believed surrounded her.
     We know these stories have happy endings because we read the biblical stories in hindsight.  Solomon finds true wisdom; Job’s life and health are restored; Gideon leads God’s people out of bondage; the story of Ruth and Naomi has become one of the great stories of love, companionship, and hope.   I think it’s easy for us to forget that they didn’t know at the time how the story would end.

I grew up in the South. I spent my formative years listening to spirituals, and it’s a style of music that doesn’t look away from these seasons of life. “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on and help me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn….”

I love that music to this day because I think it’s honest.  Life is hard.  There are times when we are tired, weak, and worn, and we don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight to tell us how the story is going to unfold.


(Part 2: "Between Crucifixion and Resurrection: Two Kinds of Roads"

Sovereignty and Prayer

“Instead of making these great plans as if you have everything under control by your own power, you ought to say what you have been taught:  “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
 – James 4

There are things we pray for already knowing God’s will.   Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Goodness, Kindness, Self-control, Holiness, Purity, Faith, Hope, Forgiveness, Humility. You don't have to pray, “God, do you want me to have these??!?!”

James warns against "double-minded" prayers, prayers that waver when we doubt that God’s plan for our character is really the best option.

“Purity? Really?  Self-control?  I have to forgive her? I have to love him? That can’t be right. I’ve seen the gods of this world and they are self-indulgent, tough, and certainly not pure.  And look what a good time they are having on Jersey Shore!”

Then there are things we pray for without knowing God’s will: A new job…a spouse….College….. money…. government leaders...vacation plans….business decisions…. amajor purchase…health.

We may not know these with certainty – maybe we’re not supposed to.  We would never have to “step out in faith” if we knew with certainty.  We waver here when we doubt that God is sovereign no matter what we choose.

“How could you have let me do this?  I don't see a why out! Why did you let this happen to me?” 

Do we believe that God is truly in control, or are we confident that our perspective is the one that should win the day?  This prayer of faith is one in which we say, alongside Christ in the Garden, "Not my will, but yours be done."

FREEDOM

 But whoever studies and knows God’s perfect law of liberty that brings true freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard and seen about themselves, but actually changing because of it—they will be blessed as a result of their honesty and obedience.  Real faith, the kind that honors God, expresses itself: it reaches out to the homeless and alone, and works to keep itself pure in the midst of a godless world.         (James 1:25-27)


   Ever watch kids play when one of them makes up the rules as they go along? Their freedom with the rules has robbed the others of the freedom to enjoy the game, and usually of their good attitude.  This in turn robs us parents of the freedom to talk with little Bobby’s mom or day while the kids play.  That’s not perfect liberty, that’s chaos.

   Ever driven with someone who apparently has no sense of the rules of the road?  Stop signs are pause signs, speed limits are silly, merging is an opportunity to show people you aren’t scared, double yellow lines are mere suggestions, maybe even blood alcohol levels are irrelevant.  Their freedom is robbing others of the ability to drive free from the worry of accidents.  It might rob their family of money if they have to pay a fine.  It might even rob somebody of their life.  That’s not perfect liberty, that’s chaos.

   Or perhaps you know someone or have experienced yourself what happens when addictive behaviors result from freely chosen decisions.

   When your freedom destroys you and hurts those around you, you need a different definition of freedom.  A true exercise of freedom simultaneously brings life to us and brings life  others.

    As followers of Christ we are freed from the bondage of sin. We are released into the “perfect law of liberty,” not into the perfect lawlessness of liberty.James’s perfect law of liberty does not mean, “Do what you want.  You now have free access to the world without having to think about anybody but yourself. ”  It means you had once been a slave to things that were breaking you down and ruining you and those around you, but God in his mercy has shown you how to be released from that bondage and live in such a way that God is seen in and through you.