It is ours to submit to deprivations with patience, seeing the cold is his cold. That which God sends, whether it be heat or cold, no man can defy with impunity, but he is happy who bows before it with child-like submission. When we cannot stand before God we will gladly bow at his feet, or nestle under his wings.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 1834-1892, The Treasury of David, Psalm 147:17 (Henderickson Publishers,Volume 3, p. 419)
How should a Christian respond to suffering? What things can help us to respond this way?
One of the ways to try to look at God is to see Him as filling in the gaps that cannot be explained by science. Many atheists want to turn this around and question whether, if science has explained things so far, should we not expect it to fill in the gaps? Now there are indeed some huge gaps that science cannot explain. How anything came into existence at all. How life developed out of non-life. How conscious thought developed out of the purely mechanical. These represent, not just minor difficulties, but huge fundamental complications. But there are more basic problems. We need to be clear on what science does and does not explain. Science tells us that, given certain rules operating on certain events, we can expect predictable results. But science cannot tell us why the laws and events are what they are or where they come from. The rules of grammar and spelling can tell us how letters come together to convey meaning. But they do not tell us if these letters were arranged by William Shakespeare, a third grader doing their homework, or an explosion in a print shop. Nor do they tell you why the rules are that way in the first place.
We would expect an orderly God to do things in an orderly manner. Therefore, the fact the universe has orderly laws does not prove that He does not exist. Even if we had a universe with no unexplained gaps and no miracles, it would not prove there was no God, merely that He had chosen not to intervene. What I see is exactly the opposite, that an ordered universe implies a Creator. It makes sense that God would incorporate into the creatures He made some limited ability to adapt to their environment. But to produce a new type of animal from an existing one, even with radiation to speed up the process, has proved fruitless. This is not surprising; it is like hitting a watch with a hammer and expecting to get a better watch. If you did it with enough watches, you might find something that was an improvement, but it would be very rare and limited. The idea that something as complex as living creatures could have been put together by chance is like throwing a batch of parts out on a plain somewhere and expecting that over time they would become a factory. But even if we had an airtight explanation of how living things came into existence, it would not prove whether this came about by chance or the will of an intelligent Creator. And we, as Christians, need to beware of seeing God merely at work in the gaps, as if the universe normally carried on, on its own, without Him. For science cannot explain the existence of the orderly rules that make science possible, but the existence of an orderly Creator can.
What should we be committed to? We should be committed to Christ, that is clear (Romans 12:1,2; Colossians 2:6,7; 2 Corinthians 3:18). But what about other people? We need to recognize we are related to other members of the body of Christ (1 John 4:7-11; Romans 12:3-5; Ephesians 4:3-7). This means being involved in the lives of other believers to help and encourage them (Hebrews 10:24,25; James 5:13-20; Philippians 2:1-11). (We must avoid the attitude of Linus Van Pelt of Peanuts: "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand.") This is not always easy. When you are involved with real people, they can hurt you. They can let you down. But God requires us to take the risk. We should not be like ships passing in the night, knowing people on the superficial level, but never getting involved in their lives. Even less should we take the approach of drifting from one congregation to another, never really committing ourselves to any group of people at a deep level. We should also not confuse this with commitment to an organization, a methodology, or a program. Such things are good as long as they help to reach and build people. But it is to God and to people that we need to be really committed.
Some would depict the life of obedience to Christ as easy. Or at least seem to imply that. Some would advocate formulas for instant spirituality. Follow their set of steps, and you will be spiritual. Others would claim that if we really repented in the first place, we would lead lives of nearly unbroken spirituality. And if we do not, it is questionable if we are even saved at all. Some may recognize the need of more long-term disciplines, such as Bible study and prayer. They may even add in other spiritual disciplines as important. But they still give the impression that if we just get with the program, we will have everything under control. Others will emphasize membership in a congregation (or other Christian organization) and imply that if you are a committed member and are part of the program, participate in the sacraments, and give for the upkeep of the organization, you will be spiritual. And we can then get into the discussion of which is the right organization. But while many of the things listed here are good things, do they really fulfill the role that is commonly given them? What does the Scripture say?
Scripture says that we are saved when we put our faith in Christ (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; Philippians 3:9). It also says that this should result in a change of life (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14; 2 Corinthians 3:18). But nowhere is this pictured as something simple and easy. It is likened to a battle (Ephesians 6:10-20; 2 Timothy 2:3,4; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6) and an athletic contest (Hebrews 12:1-3; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 2 Timothy 2:5). We are told that though we have not attained to perfection, to press on (Philippians 3:12-16; Galatians 5:16,17; Romans 7:14-25). Further, we are warned not to be too sure of ourselves, but to be on guard against temptation (1 Corinthians 10:12,13; 1 Peter 5:8-10; 2 Corinthians 2:11). Now Scripture does call us to genuine commitment (Romans 12:1,2; Matthew 16:24-26; Ephesians 5:18). But nowhere is this presented as an easy or quick procedure. In fact, it is presented as something that requires long, deliberate practice (Hebrews 5:11-14; 1 Timothy 4:7.8; 2 Peter 1:5-11). Now we can only accomplish these things by the power of the Spirit of God working in us (John 15:5: Philippians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:3,4). But it is not something that comes about automatically.
This is important because it does not allow us to become complacent, feeling that we have arrived spiritually. It also helps keep us from becoming discouraged because we feel we cannot live up to this standard. It allows us to be honest with ourselves and others. It is hard to realistically deal with our or others' sins if we do not dare admit to them because it would undermine our belief we have reached a certain level of spirituality. But if we realistically face our sins, we can make progress over time in dealing with them.
Accordingly the Mediator, who was stronger than the angels, became weak for man's sake. So that the pride of the Destroyer is destroyed by the humility of the Redeemer; and he who makes his boast over the sons of men of his angelic strength, is vanquished by the Son of God in the human weakness which He assumed.
Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 AD, On Original Sin, Book II, Chapter 46 (translated by Peter Holmes and Rev. Robert Ernest Wallis, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff, First Series, Volume 5, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishers, 1997, p. 254)
How does the idea of strength vanquished by weakness conflict with our normal view of things? How does it apply to our lives?
When is the Kingdom of God? And does it matter? Some see it as being primarily in the present time; others see it as being primarily in the future (frequently connecting it with the millennium). Those who see it as being primarily now can end up emphasizing building a Christian society in the present time. Those who see it as being primarily future can end up seeing the present time as something we need to withdraw from and escape. But what do the Scriptures say?
What I find interesting is that people on both sides end up making some concessions to the other view. Those who hold the kingdom is yet future find it hard not to interpret some passages as referring to the present day, commonly calling it the kingdom in mystery form (Matthew 13:24-46; Luke 17:20,21; 1 Corinthians 4:19,20). Those who hold that the kingdom is here and now are forced to admit there is a greater realization coming in the future (Matthew 8:11,12. Acts 1:6,7; 2 Timothy 4:18). But then both attempt to interpret as many passages as possible to fit their viewpoint, even if it not the obvious way to understand them. But if we see the kingdom as starting to break in at the first coming, but nonetheless only being fully realized at the second coming, it fits all the data.
We can then interpret the passages involved in their most natural meaning, because both timings for the kingdom are true in their own way. We do not have to come up with complicated ways to get around the obvious meaning of the passages that say the kingdom is at hand (Matthew 4:17; 10:7; Luke 11:20). Nor will we be forced to somehow totally reinterpret the Old Testament promises of peace and prosperity to apply to the present day (Isaiah 11:6-10; 65:17-25; Amos 9:11-15). Further, full credit is given to the fact that the kingdom is not just the present time or just the millennium, but forever, with war never being learned again. (Daniel 7:27; Isaiah 2:1-4; Luke 1:33). Now one of the chief things said about the millennium is that it ends in a war (Revelation 20:1-10). I do believe in a millennium, because it seems the most straightforward way to interpret this passage. But I do not believe the kingdom of God can be confined to that period.
What I would conclude is that there is a sense in which we should work to build God's kingdom in the present day. But it is also true we will never be fully successful until Christ Himself intervenes to bring about His kingdom in full measure. We should neither be totally withdrawn from this present world nor set our hopes in it. It is only the actual intervention of God that will set things right. But we are called to do what we can to make this earth reflect the one that is to come.
Should Christians be casting out demons today? And when is this the appropriate reaction? In this, there seems to be two extremes. One is to see demons behind very sickness, calamity, or sin. The other is to ignore any idea of demonic influence altogether and act as if they have no relevance to us today. Jesus and His disciples did cast out demons (Matthew 8:28-32; Acts 16:16-18; 19:11-17). There is no Scriptural basis for saying this has been done away with. But there is also no basis for saying that the key to dealing with every sin or every disease is to cast out the demon. Even in diseases, demonization is put as one member of a long list of the things Jesus cured (Matthew 4:23-25; 10:1; Luke 7:21). Nor is casting out demons ever put forth as the standard way to deal with sin. Now I believe there are cases where Christians may be called to confront demonic powers in the power of Christ. But we must be careful of making this a one-size-fits-all way of dealing with every situation and every problem.
One of the most common principles found in theology is the pendulum swing. Someone will take one aspect of the truth of God and carry it to an extreme. Others will see the problems with this view, made obvious by its extreme nature, and jump to the opposite extreme to avoid the error. And both sides will stand, picking out the obvious errors in the other's extreme view and using them to justify being extreme themselves in the opposite direction. And the truth may lie somewhere in between. Someone comes from a rigid, legalistic background and takes to extremes the claims of Christian liberty. Another feels that the current Christian church is too lackadaisical in its zeal for God and pushes for strict obedience to the rules. Some react to an other-worldly Christianity that goes to great lengths to avoid contact with the world and end up being conformed to the current culture. Others react against the evils of the current culture and end up withdrawing into their own little Christian ghetto. And both sides stand at opposite ends, throwing stones at each other and using the most extreme examples of the other side to justify their actions.
Now I am not saying the truth always lies in the middle (though I find real extremes to be suspect). Sometimes it may be on one side or the other. Sometimes it may even be at an extreme. What I am suggesting is that we avoid reaching conclusions simply by reacting. That we carefully weigh out the pros and cons of the positions before reaching a conclusion, rather than merely trying to get as far as possible from some extreme view of the opposite position. I am convinced that most errors exist because they minister to a legitimate human need. Otherwise there would be nothing to make them attractive. But what they do is isolate that particular need and blow it out of proportion, ignoring other legitimate needs. There is a real virtue in being self-controlled and calmly thinking things though. There is a virtue is in having genuine feelings, of caring deeply about other people and being able to enjoy life. You press either to the extreme, and they can get you into trouble. And using the weaknesses of either position to justify doing this is a mistake. For reaction is a bad basis to build any position on.
Whatever I say about avoiding offences, I wish to be referred to things indifferent. Things which are necessary to be done cannot be omitted from any fear of offence. For as our liberty is to be made subservient to charity, so charity must in its turn be subordinate to purity of faith.
John Calvin, 1509-1564, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Third Book, Chapter XIX, Of Christian Liberty, 13 (translated by Henry Beveridge, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1973, Volume 2, p.139)
How do we decide what things are indifferent and in what cases to limit our liberty? Where do we draw the boundaries?
Paul Zechariahson walked out of the brick and glass building that housed the old knowledge. He glanced about carefully to make sure he was unobserved. The unbelievers hated the old knowledge, and even many of the congregation regarded it as suspect. He moved gingerly, flattening himself against the wall, until he was well away from the building. He almost stumbled over the old women sitting in a circle, chanting. They were seated around chalk marks drawn on the sidewalk, obviously casting some sort of spell. Perhaps a medicinal spell against the sweeping death. The unbelievers feared the old cities and stayed away from them as a rule. But they considered them magical places and came there to cast important spells.
As he walked, he contemplated the old knowledge. It was dangerous, but he believed that all truth was ultimately from God. It had taken a long time of study to understand it, looking for more elementary books, even children's books, to explain the more difficult books. But he felt he was making progress.
As he headed down the main street he ran into a procession of young women in ornate, provocative clothes. From their dress, what there was of it, he concluded they were worshipers of Isis. It was time for various spring-rites, Isis among them. One of the young women glanced at him and smiled seductively. Then she saw the cross and fish on his belt and jerked away, averting her gaze.
There were many theories, even in old times, as to where the old knowledge came from. Paul was convinced that it originated from his own beliefs. He believed in an orderly God who had created the world and that therefore the world could be studied and made sense of. More importantly, he believed in a God who had become a human being. And not just any man, but a carpenter, a man that works with his hands. This had moved people away from the idea of abstract thinking to the idea of testing things directly. This had proved a better approach to understanding nature. But over time, the old knowledge itself had seemed to take first place in people's heart over the God who created it.
As he left the city he crept slowly through the undergrowth, trying to maintain a low profile. He was going through the territory of the hunter tribe, and they had severely abused several of the sisters. He was not at all sure his own gender was a safeguard. He had run into their hunting parties before, but had made it into the bushes before they saw him.
The old knowledge had produced many good things, but it also had made great evils possible and had had unintended consequences. It also, after being detached from God, had become mechanistic and ended up denying the existence of genuine humanity and leading to the idea that truth was relative. Then came The Great Revolt, where people rebelled against the old knowledge and rejected it as evil.
Paul made his way into his own hut and hurried to the workroom he had built hidden in the back. The smell of the mold he had cultured pervaded the room. On the corner of the table sat a crude hypodermic needle with a liquid in it that could change everything. It could help heal the sweeping death and various other diseases. But it would also be letting the genie of the old knowledge back out into the world. He had thought and prayed about it, but he felt he not could just sit by and watch people suffer and die. He grabbed the syringe and headed for the door.
Grace is confused with indulgence, but the two are not really the same thing. Indulgence allows people to get away with things. It is the description of a father who spoils his children and cannot tell them "no." This is not normally the result of real love, but of indifference or guilt. God is not this type of father. Many people want this type of God because He allows them to get away with whatever they want. Further, He automatically forgives anyone who oversteps His suggestions for how they might live. But is this the type of God we really want? Do we really want a God who looks down on professional criminals and tyrannical dictators and pats them on the hand and says, "Boys will be boys"? If the moral center of the universe has no convictions, can we really claim anything is wrong? And if moral convictions are wrong , how come we cannot seem to shake them? Even those who hold openly to the idea there are no moral standards will then turn around and condemn others for violating their standards.
But grace is based on genuine love, which looks at what is good for people, not just what they happen to want. Grace does not just leave us where we are, but works to forgive and change us. It involves God the Son becoming a man (Philippians 2:5-11; John 1:1-18; Hebrews 2:10-18) to pay the price for our sins (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). The goal of this is not to leave us where we are, but to change us into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29,30; 1 John 3:2). But it offers this as a free gift to anyone who puts their faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). This is not the benevolent indifference of indulgence. It is a positive love which reaches out to genuinely help people out of the situation they are in. It is like the rescue worker who goes to great lengths to rescue a drowning swimmer. It is like the policeman who risks his life to free the hostages of a dangerous criminal. But I suspect the reason many of us prefer the indulgent God is that we do not really want to believe we need to be rescued. We want to believe we are fine just the way we are. But this is not the Scriptures' verdict on us. We are told we all live in clear disobedience to God and His commandments (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). The reason we do not see this is that we water down God's standard to fit our behavior. But if we look at God's standard, it is easy to see how we fall short (Matthew 5:21-48; 6:1-24; James 4:7-17). An indulgent God is not what we need. We need to be rescued and we need to be changed. And only the positive power of grace can accomplish this.
For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, Orthodoxy, The Ethics of Elfland (Dover Publications, 2004, p. 52)
Does the order in nature show it is mechanistic? How should we look at it?
What is faith? Many people believe faith is believing what is contrary to reason. And there are those who would at least seem to affirm this type of faith. Faith is seen as a leap in the dark that is against reason. I do not at all believe this is the biblical understanding. Faith is trusting in the promises of God (Romans 4:18-21; Hebrews 11:13-16; 2 Corinthians 5:1-8). This, of course, implies that God exists and has made such promises. But it is not opposed to examining the evidence for holding to these things. It is not opposed to reason, but to possession. I do not now see eternal life. I must believe it based on God's promise. But that does not imply there is not evidence to support it. Now faith implies not just a conclusion based on evidence, but a willingness to commit our lives to that conclusion. I may believe intellectually that an airplane can fly, but if my fear of flying prevents me from getting on board, I am not putting my faith in that airplane.And if that airplane is to take me anywhere, I need to have the faith to get on board.
But Christians are encouraged to maintain faith in spite of challenges. Is that not faith against reason? But as C. S. Lewis points out, the chief enemies of faith are not reason, but feelings, difficulties, and temptations. Now evidence and real intellectual arguments are genuine issues and need to be dealt with. But faith stands against the feeling that God is not really present. Or that the difficulties of life mean God does not care. Or that I desire to do something morally improper, so I question the existence of the Lawgiver. It is only by holding on to God in the teeth of these things that faith can be maintained. Also, it is important to remember that once we have faith, it goes from being an opinion on a subject to trust in a person. Faith then becomes a matter of personal loyalty. That does not mean that there is no evidence or that we can ignore the evidence. But once I have formed a relationship with a person, I cannot simply desert them at the first hint of opposition. If I have a friend, who I have good reason to believe is my friend, I do not jump to the conclusion he has turned against me the first time I hear him accused of something. If I believe there is good evidence there is a God who loves me, I do not deny Him on the first hint that there are arguments on the other side. It is to resist this that faith is required.
It is often asked why God seems so hidden. Why do we sometimes not see God's presence clearly in our lives? Why do we not always clearly know what God wants us to do next? I have had times when I felt God was definitely leading me to do something. But I have had other times when I was not that clear on what God wanted me to do. Why does this happen? I do not claim to know all the answers, and certainly not the answer for every situation. But one of the basic reasons is that God wants us to be willing to learn to trust Him (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 37:3-6; Hebrews 11:6). It should be noted that God does not want us simply to believe He exists, but to trust Him and follow Him. In previous times when God has more openly manifested Himself, there have been those who have followed Him simply for the external benefits it gave them (John 6:26; Numbers 11:4-6; 1 Timothy 6:5). So one of the things God does to encourage us to trust Him for who He is, is to remain hidden. For it is often during the difficult seasons of life that true faith is built.
One of the dangerous temptations in a sinful world is the temptation to trust in power. This can be physical power, verbal power, or political power. The idea is that if you are strong enough, you can force people to do what you want. But whenever Christians attempt to use power to promote Christianity, it inevitably fails. The reason for this is, we are not interested in intimidating people into going along with what we teach. We want to convince people to genuinely put their faith in Christ and honestly want to serve Him. This cannot be produced by force. Now there is a place for Christians to work for justice in the world and to work for good laws. But this is a thing that is very limited in scope. Martin Luther likened it to a muzzle on a wild animal. It does not change the nature of the animal, but it keeps it from biting you. There is a need for the existence of a certain degree of muzzling in society. It keeps back chaos so people can go about their business. But it cannot produce real Christianity. It has been said that you cannot legislate morality. Now part of the problem with this statement is that morality can be understood two different ways. If by morality we mean justice, basic principles of right and wrong, it is hard to see what else we do legislate. We believe something is wrong, and we make a law against it. But if by morality we mean true character that does what is right intentionally, it is true we cannot legislate that. Now there is a disagreement on whether some moral principles are a matter of justice or character. But we can only force external obedience.
God has and has always had unlimited power (Luke 1:37; Jeremiah 32:17; Romans 4:17). But in order to accomplish redemption, God the Son had to humble Himself and become a human being and undergo a criminal's death (Philippians 2:5-11; John 1:1-18; Hebrews 2:9-18). As result, He paid the whole price for sin (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21) and offers salvation to all those who will humble themselves and trust totally in His work for them (Philippians 3:2-11; Romans 4:2-5; Ephesians 2:8,9). This fits into the broader Scriptural theme that to be humbled is to be exalted and that loss is gain (Luke 18:9-17; Matthew 16:24-26; Mark 10:42-45). And the question comes, are Christians approaching the world in this way, or are we more interested in the exercise of power to enforce our point of view? And if we try to play the world's game by its rules, can we expect to win? And if we do nothing but try to uphold justice, we ourselves will be condemned by that justice. But instead, we need to reach out to people with God's love, for only it can truly change people (1 John 4:7-21; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Galatians 6:9,10).