How to deal with the evil in the world is a hot potato. And there are no easy answers. But we need to look at the options. We can say that everything is basically good and that evil is something simply superficial. But the presence of some sort of real evil seems one of the most obvious things about the world as we know it. We can say that evil exists, and that this is just the way it is and we should just deal with it. We can even claim that the whole idea of evil is a delusion and that there is nothing really wrong. But then we have to ask, why do we find this idea so abhorrent? If evil is not real, where did we get the idea of evil from? Or we can believe we live in a evil world that will eventually become good. But unless we have a real basis for this, is it anything more that blind faith? And how can we have a basis for it if there is not transcendent good that exists now, despite the evil?
But the idea that makes the most sense to me is the Christian idea, that we live in an originally good world that has gone awry. There is therefore an original standard for good: the character of God (James 1:17; Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17). But we as human being have chosen evil (Genesis 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-14; 1 Corinthians 15:21,22) and have as a result became sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). Further, since we were given a position of authority over the rest of the earth (Genesis 1:26-28: 2:15; Psalms 8:5-8), this results in our pulling it down with us (Genesis 3:17-19; Romans 8:19-23). Now we need to be clear that this does not mean all suffering is in proportion to our sin (Job 1,2; John 9:1,2; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). But it is human sin which, in the beginning, let loose these evils upon us. I know there are problems with this view. There are problems with every view. We can face complicated questions such as, could God not have made it so people would always freely do what is good? But it still is the best answer to the question. It explains why there is an original standard of good we cannot wholly get rid of. And it explains why we and the world do not live up to that standard. It means there is a God who created the originally good world and who can fix the problem. It explains why we, as Christians, cannot simply condemn everything physical (Colossians 2:20-23; 1 Timothy 4:1-5; Titus 1:15), but must avoid becoming conformed to the world as it is now (1 John 2:15-17; Romans 12:2; James 4:4). We are the Resistance; we serve the rightful King in the realm of the usurper (2 Corinthians 4:3,4; Hebrews 2:14,15; 1 John 4:4). And we must have this in perspective to have the world in perspective.
Let us then take the yoke that is not heavy nor irksome, of the Truth that rules us, and let us imitate His humility, to Whose glory we wish to be conformed: He Himself helping us and leading us to His promises, Who, according to His great mercy, is powerful to blot out our sins, and to perfect His gifts in us, Jesus Christ our Lord, Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
Leo the Great, 400-460 AD, Sermon XXIII, On the Feast of the Nativity, III, V (translated by Rev. Charles Lett Feltoe, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, Second Series, Vol. XII, p.134)
What is meant by Christ's easy yoke? How does it differ from other approaches to moral living?
As C. S. Lewis states, there are two, somewhat contradictory, reasons for believing in democracy. The one is to believe that all people are basically good and deserve a voice in government. The other is to believe that we are all seriously prone to evil, and it is dangerous to give anyone too much power. I would agree with Lewis in endorsing the second answer. But underlying both of these is the idea that on the level of basic moral principles, we are all on an equal footing and should be allowed to make our own decisions. This does not mean there is no place for bringing in an expert to deal with technical questions. But on the basic moral issues, since all of us are morally imperfect, there is safety in making this decision in numbers.
There is more than one source for the democratic mindset. Mine comes from Protestant Christianity. It holds that there are basic moral and theological principles that every person has the obligation to interpret for themselves. It also holds that we are all sinners and need to be held accountable to one another. But one can reach a democratic position from a more humanistic point of view. This will generally adopt the approach that we are basically good and all have a part to play in government. The views that tend to oppose democracy are those with a strong philosophical and moral elitism and contempt for the ordinary person. When we start to hold to the idea that a few people are the authorities on all moral matters, there is little room left for genuine democracy.
This is one of the reasons it can be difficult to export democracy. It involves a specific kind of mindset. It is something a nation needs to embrace voluntarily, and cannot be imposed by force. Therefore, while we should encourage democracy, we should be careful not to assume everyone will automatically adopt it. I also think we may be in danger here in the United States if certain philosophical ideas come to dominate. We cannot choose our basic philosophy based on a preference for a political system. But we do need to realize that ideas have practical consequences.
Now our relation to other nations is similar to that of our individual relationship with our neighbors. We can encourage and instruct them in the right direction. We can act to protect ourselves and others, if someone acts in an aggressive manner. But we have no authority to rule them or act as a policeman in the full sense in relation to their behavior. This is true even if we happen to have bigger weapons. Therefore, while we can promote democracy, we cannot force it on people.
What can we really expect in terms of community? And what should we settle for? Scripture paints a picture of a harmonious body, where all the parts work together to build each other up (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:11-16). And we are called to a deep unity and sympathy with one another (Philippians 2:1,2; Romans 12:15,16; 15:5-7). But we are sinners, who fall short of that (Romans 7:14; Galatians 5:17; 1 John 1:8-10). And part of real love and unity is bearing with those who are weak (Colossians 3:12-14; Romans 15:1,2; 1 Peter 4:8). What then should we settle for? I believe we should settle for nothing less than the Biblical ideal. But we should be patient with ourselves and others in reaching that ideal. In this way, growth in community is like general spiritual growth. We should see ourselves as people in process, who are on the path but have not reached the final goal (Philippians 3:12-16; Hebrews 12:1,2; 1 Timothy 4:7,8). For we do not want to become complacent and simply settle for the status quo without ever trying to improve the situation. Nor should we become so impatient that we are critical and destroy the very thing we are trying to produce. It is hard to find the way between these dangers, but we need to attempt to navigate the straits.
What is the relationship of faith to prayer? Scripture makes it clear there is a connection between faith and answered prayer (Mark 6:5; James 1:5-7; Matthew 15:28-31). But is faith, then, a method to twist God's arm to get what we want? First, we must we must ask with the right motives and not simply for selfish gain (James 4:3; Psalms 106:15; Isaiah 59:1,2). This alone prevents us from seeing faith in God as a giant vending machine to give us what we want. But even when the faith and attitude are right, there times that God does not do things because they are not according to His will (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Matthew 26:39-46; Jeremiah 7:16). Faith is a factor in God granting answers to prayer, but it does not guarantee the result.
However, we are told that if we have faith as a mustard seed, which is known for its smallness, God will grant our requests (Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6; Mark 4:31). And the Greek word for doubt means to waver; it is a strong word. It should be taken as more than the occasional doubt passing through our head, but as real hesitation in trusting God. In fact, God helps beyond the measure of our faith (Acts 12:3-17; Mark 9:23,24; Romans 8:26,27). Often what God does and what prayers He grants are beyond our understanding (Romans 11:33; Isaiah 55:9; 1 Corinthians 3:18).. Why was Peter saved and not James (Acts 12:1,2)? Why did Jesus pick one man (and one who does not show much evidence of real faith) (John 5:2-9)? Why does God heal one leper and not another (Luke 4:27).
There are no easy answers. But whatever is happening, it is not simply a matter of whoever has the most faith getting whatever they want. Rather, we need to be ready to trust God even if things do not go the way we want them to (Proverbs 3:5,6; Habakkuk 3:17,18; 1 Timothy 6:6-8). For there are two kinds of faith: faith to trust God for miracles and faith to trust God even if the miracles do not come. Depending on the circumstances, we need to be willing to have both. Therefore, we should always pray to God, trusting Him that He will give us what is really best (Matthew 7:9,10; 1 Peter 5:7; Ephesians 3:20).
What do you see so wonderful, and able to fix your eyes upon them? these gold-harnessed horses, these lackeys, partly savages, and partly eunuchs, and costly raiment, and the soul that is getting utterly soft in all this, and the haughty brow, and the bustlings, and the noise? And wherein do these things deserve wonder? what are they better than the beggars that dance and pipe in the market-place? For these too being taken with a sore famine of virtue, dance a dance more ridiculous than theirs, led and carried round at one time to costly tables, at another to the lodging of prostitute women, and at another to a swarm of flatterers and a host of hangers-on. But if they do wear gold, this is why they are the most pitiable, because the things which are nothing to them, are most the subject of their eager desire. Do not now, I pray, look at their raiment, but open their soul, and consider if it is not full of countless wounds, and clad with rags, and destitute, and defenceless.
John Chrysostom, Homilies of the Epistle to the Romans, Homily 4, 1:26,27 (translated by Rev. J. B. Morris and Rev. W. H. Simcox, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff, T& T Clark, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Series 1, Vol. XI)
How do we distinguish between the impressive-looking things of the world and what God wants us to do? Is this always an easy distinction to make?
John Chrysostom was considered a great preacher and teacher of the ancient church. He ended up being the bishop of one of the chief cities, Constantinople. This was despite his preference for a quiet life of contemplation and study. And he ended up going into exile. Ostensibly it was over a doctrinal issue: the teaching of Origin. This was a hot potato in the Christian church at the time. But the real issues were much more over politics than substance. I cannot agree with the teachings of Origen, but the issue seems to be less over affirming the teachings of Origen than whether there was anything valuable in his writing and whether one could associate with someone who would not totally condemn Origen. The whole argument seemed to be not so much an argument of substance but of over-scrupulousness. But the real reasons were even more petty.
There were those who found John's preaching too pointed for comfort, particularly those of the emperor's household. From what I have read of John, he does not strike me as simply a petty legalist. While he puts more emphasis on works than I would be able to agree with, he does have an idea of God's grace and forgiveness. I would conclude that he had problems with the frivolity and extravagance of the court because there were problems with the frivolity and extravagance of the court. In the end, facing exile, he seems to have lost his temper and insulted the empress. This was not the right thing to do, but it was understandable.
There were also problems of church politics. These are difficult to unravel at this distance. We cannot really get a balanced presentation of all views. But on the whole, John's opponents come off as biased people who were bent on attacking him for minor reasons. The fact that they were the ones attacking him seems to me significant. I am not saying he always reacted perfectly, but his opponents seemed to take any slight as a major issue. On the whole, John looks like a good-willed though not perfect person, who was attacked by those who simply wanted their own way. But at this distance it is hard to be sure.
So I would see John Chrysostom as an example for staying the course, howbeit with perhaps some lack of concern for the feelings of others. John may not have handled the situation perfectly, and we may learn to do better, but we should not just cave to external pressure. We should also learn not to be those who involve ourselves in petty political squabbles, but to be more interested in following Christ and the welfare of His church than in getting our own way.
Most faiths show respect for their founders. Yes, they may change over time, but they do so slowly. No one seems to question that Buddha taught Buddhism or that Muhammad taught Islam. But it seems to be consistently questioned whether Jesus Christ taught Christianity. However, there seems no basis for this whatsoever. The New Testament is the best preserved document of all antiquity in terms of numbers of documents, closeness of their date to time of writing, their geographical distribution, and external attestation. Also, people were being put to death for being Christians within about 30 years of the crucifixion and resurrection. Now people will die for a lie. It is dubious that they would die for something they knew to be a lie. But who would die for a vague legend not fully developed yet?
It needs to be recognized what we are looking at here. We are not considering the mere growth of a legend. Legends grow up easily around the main point of the story. It is easy for a great warrior to have it attributed to him that he killed nine hundred people single-handedly. But what people want to claim with Jesus Christ is that His followers totally changed His core teaching over a short period of time. Most belief systems have one or a small number of founders who set their basic tenets. The idea of the faith slowly growing up in the community rather than being set by the actual leaders has no historical parallel. Does this seem plausible in the case of the New Testament?
The problem that we face in terms of the New Testament is that its message is fundamentally supernatural. The supernatural is not an extra, added aspect that can be simply dispensed with. The heart of Christianity is that God became a human being, died to pay the price for sin, and rose again on the third day. If this is what Christianity originally taught, then Jesus Christ was either a con-man, a madman, or who He is claimed to be: God come in the flesh. But there are those who find this inconvenient. So they claim that Jesus was something else, usually a moral philosopher. But we need to ask if that really makes sense.
The Apostle did not leave us a faith which was bare and devoid of reason; for although a bare faith may be most mighty to salvation, nevertheless, unless it is trained by teaching, while it will have indeed a secure retreat to withdraw to in the midst of foes, it will yet be unable to maintain a safe and strong position for resistance. Its position will be like that which a camp affords to a weak force after a flight; not like the undismayed courage of men who have a camp to hold.
Hilary of Poitiers, 300-368 AD, On the Trinity, Book XII, 20, (translated by Rev. E. W. Watson and Rev. L. Pullan, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997, Second Series, Vol. IX, p. 223)
Is it important to have a reasoned faith? Why or why not?
Ed's pleasure meter stood at slightly below neutral. He looked up from the dial on his wrist and shook his head. He had tried everything he could think of, and it had barely moved. He had thrown himself into his favorite vids, activities, and hobbies, even pornography. Almost nothing. Maybe he needed a vacation, but the thought of a vacation bored him. He supposed he could go to the doctor and have him prescribe some sort of happy pill. But that did not feel like what he wanted. He did not get it. He had an interesting and well-paying job. He had a nice house, a sporty hovercar, and most of the toys he wanted. But they did not seem to make him happy.
The front door opened, and Sandy came barging in. She was his current significant other, but all the excitement had ebbed. Maybe that was what he needed, a new significant other. But the whole idea of going back into the dating scene left him cold.
"Joe and Sue are having a party," she said. "Why don't we show up?"
Not another monotonous party, Ed thought. "So we can see if Sue has developed any fashion sense?" he asked.
"What do do you mean, she has no fashion sense."
"She dresses like a color-challenged hobo, and we will be regaled with every moment of their last vacation that they posted on facebook. We'd do better just getting drunk here."
"They are not that boring," she returned.
"Sure they are," he replied. "And Joe will probably start talking about golf - as much fun as watching paint dry."
"Sue and Joe are my friends, and I'm going to their party without you, if that's the way you feel," she said, stomping out.
He had enjoyed that. He looked at the meter, and it had spiked higher than it had in a long time. But he also saw the red warning dial blinking angrily at him. The dial was designed to promote the greatest pleasure for the greatest number. It blinked red when you caused pain to someone else. Was that what he enjoyed - hurting people? He thought of things he could do to irritate other people, and it made his meter go up. What was he, some sort of sadist? He went outside to clear his head.
Most of the people he passed seemed to be just like him. They had a vacant look in their eyes. He peeked at their meters, and those he could see were just a little off neutral. This was not how the meters were supposed to work. They were meant to maximize your pleasure without hurting others. The idea was that if you could accurately measure it, you could achieve it. Granted, it sometimes created paradoxes. He remembered the woman he knew some years ago who was way more committed to him then he was to her. But knowing exactly the pleasure produced by something ought to make it easy to maximize pleasure. It did not.
As Ed walked along, he noticed a man walking forward in confidence, with a spring in his step. And as Ed was looking closer, he noticed something almost unheard of. He was not wearing a meter.
"Excuse me," said Ed, "but I notice you are not wearing a meter."
"You cannot truly gain pleasure by pursuing pleasure," returned the man. "What gives us pleasure depends on our philosophy of life and our attitude toward life. If we make pleasure our goal, it loses all its significance."
One of the issues involved in finding God's will is how far we can trust our feelings and impressions. I know that for myself there have been times when I very clearly felt I was being led by God in a certain direction. But there have been other times when I thought I was being led by God, and in retrospect I was clearly wrong. There have been still others where I am still scratching my head, wondering what was really going on. The thing we need to do is not to trust our feelings (or our intellect or our common sense), but to trust God (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 37:3-6; Isaiah 40:31). It is easy to start trusting in ourselves rather than God. One problem comes when we start to trust in anything as a magic formula to find God's will. We need to be willing to test things to determine whether they are from God (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1; Acts 17:11). We do this through prayer (Philippians 4:6,7; Ephesians 6:18; Matthew 7:7-11), knowing God (Jeremiah 9:23,24; Ephesians 3:18,19; Philippians 3:7-9), and knowing His Word (Colossians 3:16; Psalms 19:7-14; 2 Timothy 3:16,17). God can lead us using anything He wants to use. But we need to use care and experience to learn to identify His leading in our lives.
Ideas are dangerous. And as G. K. Chesterton points out, ideas are most dangerous to the person who is unfamiliar with them. Such a people is liable to pick up the first idea they are exposed to and take it to an extreme. Chesterton pictures the person who is familiar with ideas as a lion-tamer who makes their way among various competing ideas and is not driven to extremes by any one of them. I think the same thing is true of emotions. Emotions are dangerous. But they are most dangerous to the person who is unfamiliar with them and who gets carried away by any feeling they happen to encounter. The same thing may be said for rules. I am convinced that what we need in the Christian church is more lion-tamers. People who are unlikely to be blown off course by some extreme, because they understand the territory. And who can help others gain perspective on the issues involved.
Now one of the problems we face in the Christian church today is an unwillingness to let people think for themselves. We are afraid if we do so they will reach the wrong conclusions. There is a real danger here. But the idea we can preserve people's faith by sheltering them from contrary ideas or feelings has long ago become unworkable, if it ever was workable. And there is no way that we can avoid people having their faith challenged. To not prepare them for it is to set them up for the first person who challenges their faith. It is better to have them hear the issues from us, so at least they can hear both sides. Being challenged is a way to grow faith. But we all have to make our own choices. If someone's faith is challenged, they may choose to desert it and walk away. But I frankly I have to ask, if a faith evaporates when it is challenged, how much of a real faith was it in the first place? It is the faith that has faced challenges and has come through that is prepared to stand for Christ in every circumstance.
But there is also a problem that we have so nailed down every detail of belief that we do not dare let people think for themselves, I am not convinced this is a good thing. I would rather a person disagreed with me on details but understood why they held their view, then someone simply following what I told them. And it is only those with general familiarity with a broad number of positions who can have a firm understanding of why they hold what they hold. And it is only with broader experience that people can become lion-tamers. Those who can deal with ideas, emotions, and rules, and put them all in perspective.
So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word "progress" unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals.
G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, Heretics, On the Negative Spirit, (Barnes and Nobles, 2007, pp. 14-15)
Does program require a definite goal? Why or why not?
Sin looks good in the beginning. But it ends up becoming a chain that enslaves us (John 8:34; Romans 6:16-20; Hebrews 2:14,15). This is true not only of obvious things like drugs and alcohol, but also of subtle sins like anger, jealousy, and pride. But I want to speak here of one of the obvious ones that our culture wants to paint as acceptable. That is sexual behavior. There is no greater conflict between the traditional Christian view of morality and our current culture's view. The contention of our culture is that sexual expression of almost any kind is good. It is the traditional Christian contention that sexual expression should take place within the lifelong commitment of marriage. Now there should be forgiveness for those who do not live up to this ideal. But that does not mean it is not the ideal. And it is my contention that sexual freedom is forging a chain to enslave us. Something I am personally aware of, having battled pornography since I have been old enough to battle pornography.
Sexuality can be a beautiful expression of a real commitment between a man and a woman. Or it can be a way to gratify your urges, using another person as an instrument. Marriage puts around sexual expression a hedge of agreed-upon commitment. But without that hedge, sexuality easily slips into pure selfishness. Nor does it help that we have make sex into an idol, the basic goal of life. And we have made being in love the ultimate experience that excuses any behavior. The pursuit of this leads to enslavement. Ironically, making sex into an idol works to destroy the committed relationship that is the legitimate expression of sexual desires. For no real relationship can produce this supposed ultimate experience. And it is difficult to maintain a committed relationship when constantly confronted with contrary ideas from the culture. Further, there is nothing that can ruin legitimate pleasures more than expecting them to be a panacea for all your problems. Only God can really take the central place in our lives. Anything else put there will ultimately destroy us. And our culture's trail of broken relationships, between men and women and between parents and children, bears witness of this.
Am I then in favor of censorship? I believe that trying to solve such things by passing laws is fairly futile. Laws are only useful when there is a general consensus as to what the standard should be. Now I do think there is a difference between speech which expresses an opinion and that which directly causes harm (such as slander or yelling fire in a crowded theater). I would consider pornography to be in the second category. However, we should not be trying to change laws but to change hearts. And we need to start by recognizing in our own mind that sexual license is not freedom; it is slavery. Then we need to help those caught in its grip to escape, rather than just condemning them. For only then can we break the chain.
I think most of us are haunted by one or the other of two opposite fears. Or sometimes a mixture of both. One is the fear of authority. The fear of someone bossing us around and telling us what to do. Particularly if that person is harsh and unreasonable and not really interested in our welfare. I think that conspiracy theories and government paranoia thrillers originate in this fear. We are afraid a heartless despot is really in control of our life. But there is a powerful and opposite fear of anarchy. A fear that all the protective sanctions of society are in danger of breaking down or already have broken down. There is the fear that there is nothing to protect us from people behaving in a lawless or harmful manner. This view can advocate strict order in society and see any departure from that order as a serious danger.
While both of these views are unreasonable extremes, the answer is not to pooh-pooh both and claim that there are no problems and everything is okay. There have been cases of serious abuse of authority, and the evils of totalitarianism are very real. Also, there has been real suffering in times of anarchy, when some catastrophe has caused society to break down. We are sinners and capable of considerable evil (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). Rather, we need to remember there is a God who loves us (John 3:16-18; Romans 5:6-8; 1 John 4:9,10), and if we put our faith in Him, He will bring us through the difficulties we face and use them for our benefit (2 Corinthians 4:17,18; Romans 8:28; Genesis 50:20). Therefore, we can trust Him, whatever other people may do (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 37:1-6; 147:10,11). There is, I think, a proper balance between freedom and authority that is hard to maintain. But totally giving in to fear on one side or the other only gets in the way.
There is a danger in trying to make things into an allegory. Granted, there are works that are allegories and are meant to be. But to read allegories in where none are indicated is dubious. Further, it is particularly questionable to read in an allegory containing ideas that are foreign to the original work. A work means what its author intended it to mean. And when legitimately asking if it is an allegory, we need to ask if its author could have originally meant it to one. If not, there is no possible way that this could be a legitimate meaning of that book. And it is unfair to the author to read it in. Also, if the new meaning is something foreign to the author's own way of thinking, it is totally implausible. How could an author be writing about something foreign to his own thought? This is even more problematic when the philosophy that is read in is from an era later than the author. How could the author be writing about an idea that did not exist yet?
It is possible by allegorizing to read any idea into any work. It destroys all possibility of finding the real meaning of the work. Now symbolism is quite common in various kinds of literature. And sometimes it can be difficult to know what an author meant by the symbol. But all symbols should be interpreted in the context of the original work and the context of the original author. Reading in symbolism that is contrary to the work again opens it up to be changed into anything, however contrary this may be to the author's thought. There is a strong temptation to want to find some deep, hidden meaning no one has ever seen before in a work. But we need to realize that the reason no one has ever seen it before is most likely because it is not there. There may be layers of meaning in a book. But we need to ask if this is the author's meaning or something we have read in.
So far I have not even mentioned Scripture. It is my contention that it is not only that Scripture should not be treated this way, but no book should be treated this way. I do not think we should use such a procedure on Homer's Odyssey. Now I know that there are broad differences of opinion about the presence of typology in Scripture. I am dubious on much of it, but I do not object when it is used in the context of the clear statements of Scripture. There is, after all, some Scriptural warrant for it (Galatians 4:21-31; Hebrews 7:1-3; 11:17-19). But we must be careful of being too dogmatic about these things. And reading in meanings that are foreign to the text is baseless.