Friday, November 27, 2009

Staying Out of the Whale

Jonah was a prophet who rejected the will of God for his life (see Jonah). God told him to go to Nineveh, and he ran off in the opposite direction. Nor did he do it with the best of motives. He did not want the Ninevites to repent; he wanted God to destroy them. Then we read that Jonah had only God's second best and was miserable for the rest of His life. Well, no. Maybe God appeared to some other person and told them to go to Nineveh. Not quite. God sent a storm, and God sent a sea creature (possibly a whale), and Jonah went to Nineveh.

But often we see finding God's will put forward as a mysterious, complicated thing in which well intentioned Christians can go astray if they do not use precisely the right method. Scripture rather pictures the will of God as something it is difficult to get out of. An even more extreme case is that of Balaam (see Numbers 22-24). Balaam was offered money if he would curse Israel, and he wanted very much to do so. But God threatened him with an angel and rebuked him through a donkey, and he ended up blessing Israel rather than cursing them. Ultimately, he was not willing to give up; he came up with a scheme to corrupt Israel through sin, and God put him to death (Numbers 31:8, 16). But even in deliberate disobedience it took work for him to get out of the will of God.

Part of the problem is we expect God to lay His whole will out before us at once. Based on Scripture, God very rarely does that. Elijah was fed by ravens at the brook Cherith until the brook dried up and he was led to a widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:2-16). Paul was forbidden to preach the word in the province of Asia and sent to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10), but later Paul spent 2 years preaching the word to the province of Asia (Acts 19:10).

What I am forced to conclude is that if we will trust and obey God (and quite possibly even if we won't), God will direct us into His will (Proverbs 3:5, 6; Psalms 23:3; 31:3; Romans 12:1, 2). These promises are not conditional on our past obedience, let alone our having figured out the proper way to find God's will. That does not mean there will be no hard decisions or that we should make those decisions foolishly, but we can make them in the confidence that God is at work in our life, guiding us to where He wants us to be. We should also remember that the most important part of God's will is obedience to His written word (1 Thessalonians 4:3; Hebrews 13:21). Even if we disobey, though, God has ways to bring us back. But who wants to go the long way around, in the belly of a whale?

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Evangelical Christians are those who genuinely believe in miracles--that God can objectively intervene in history. But while we agree that miracles have occurred, we differ greatly on whether they persist today, particularly those of healing.

There are those who see the occurrence of miracles in their lives as a proof of their faith or spirituality. Now Scripture does make a connection between people's faith and God's working miracles (Matthew 8:10, 9:22, 13:58, 14:31). But it is not quite that simple; there are cases where God works miracles when little or no faith is exhibited on the part of the recipient (John 5:1-15; Luke 7:11-17; Acts 3:1-10, 14:8-18). Scripture promises miracles in response to an imperfect faith (Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6; Mark 9:23-25). God also refuses to grant miracles even to those whose faith is not in question (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Matthew 26:42). Nor are miracles the result of or a proof of the spirituality of the people who work them (1 Corinthians 13:1-3; Matthew 7:21-23). Samson possessed miraculous strength, but his life was characterized by bad moral choices. While it ultimately caught up with him, it did not happen immediately (see Judges 14-16).

Also related to this is the question of whether God always heals. Jesus walks into a area full of sick people and heals one man (John 5:1-9). Paul is healing people at least to the end of the book of Acts (Acts 28:8,9), but he does not seem to have been able to heal himself (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-27), Trophimus (2 Timothy 4:19) or Timothy (1 Timothy 5:23). Ultimately, God's working miracles always was and always is according to His will (1 John 5:14, 15; Ephesians 1:11; Matthew 26:42).

However, I also do not see any clear basis for saying miracles or certain types of miracles have passed away. (Hebrews 2:4 does not seem to me to prove this.) Also, while I do not want to deal here with the whole complex issue of spiritual gifts, I do not see a basis for saying that an individual could not have (within the Scriptural limits mentioned above) a gift or ministry in which God uses them to ask for miraculous things (1 Corinthians 12:9-10). This does not mean necessarily accepting any particular person's claim to have such a gift. It particularly does not mean accepting such unscriptural practices as charging for working miracles (Matthew 10:8) or engaging in any form of deception (1 Thessalonians 2:3).

There are undoubtedly those who, holding miracles to be a proof of faith or spirituality, may see miracles where no miracle has occurred. But it also seems to me that if faith is a factor in the miraculous, there may be those who, having dismissed miracles as irrelevant for today, may not see miracles because they are unwilling to trust God for them. This is a difficult balance to find, but I do believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Departure from Christianity

In the United States in the 1960s, it seemed our culture suddenly threw off all respect for Christianity. But was this upheaval as abrupt a turnaround as it seemed?

The adoption of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine was a foxhole conversion. The Roman Empire was fast disintegrating in its decadence and needed something to give it stability. For the western half of the empire it proved too late, as it continued to crumble to its eventual fall. But in the chaos that followed, it was the Christian church that was the glue that held society together and worked to preserve literacy and civilization.

But the church paid a high price in terms of its own corruption through conformity to the world and departure from Biblical teachings. Also, as its representatives became rich and powerful in the secular realm, this prestige had a destructive influence. While there were those who attempted to reform the church and recall it to its original purpose, it continued to deteriorate.

Once European civilization was reestablished, it began to depart from the belief it had embraced in its time of desperation. It searched for a replacement in Greek philosophy, ultimately ending up in modern science. It was furthered in this by the evident decay of the organizational church, which had departed far from its moorings. Despite attempts such as the Protestant Reformation to recall Europe to traditional Christianity, it continued in its downward spiral.

Many of those who wished to seriously follow God left the Old World and its lukewarm state churches for what was to become the United States. But while there were those who came here for religious liberty, there were many others who came simply to make a profit. Both strands were part of our history from the beginning and have continued to fight each other ever since. But in spite of many attempts from the Great Awakening to Billy Graham to call us to follow God, the general trend has been the erosion of Christianity until what was left in many cases was a shell, an outward profession of Christianity with no depth of belief. Then in the 1960s many gave up the pretense and threw off the shell.

I do not want to say the results were inevitable. But I do think that it was the natural course for things to follow without a decisive return to God. Western Civilization embraced God at a point of desperation and deserted Him when the calamity was over. The clear implication of this is that we cannot simply go back. Rather, we need to let go of the past and accept we are Christians in a pagan society and rebuild from there. I do not want to limit the power of God, but I am convinced we need to be prepared for the long haul of impacting a hostile culture for Christ. Trying to go back, though, will only lead to frustration.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Breaking the Warning Light

Suppose I am driving down the road and a warning light comes on on the car's dashboard. There are several things I could do. I could ignore it and keep on driving. Worse yet, I could try to find a way to break the light so it does not light up any more. Or I could take the car in to have it looked at to find what is wrong with it. The last is the only wise option. Granted, warning lights can malfunction and light without reason, it is unwise to assume this without having the car checked out.

Guilt is the warning light on the human vehicle to warn us of the existence of sin in our lives. Unfortunately, due to our being sinful people in a sinful world, there is a much higher tendency for our guilt "warning light" to malfunction than our car's warning light. How do we deal with this?

It is clear that the answer of our society to this is to break the warning light. To take the position there is no right and wrong and no reason to feel guilty. We claim everyone should accept himself and that any wrong thing we do can be blamed on how someone else has treated us.

This is not the Biblical position. The Bible says that ultimately we feel guilty because we are guilty (Romans 3:23, Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). But God has provided the solution in Jesus Christ. He is the one who has paid the entire price for our sins (Romans 5:8, 2 Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 53:4-6), and we can be declared righteous before God by faith in Him (Romans 4:5, 6; 3:28; Philippians 3:9).

But what about those who have already trusted in Christ--how do we deal with guilt? We need to honestly admit our sins to God (1 John 1:9; Proverbs 28:13), trusting in His forgiveness, and then press on with God, putting our sins behind us (Philippians 3:13,14) and trusting Him to work in our life to change us (Romans 12:1, 2; 2 Corinthians 3:18) into who He wants us to be. But how do we decide if guilt is legitimate? A helpful passage on this is 2 Corinthians 7:9, 10. It is speaking of sorrow for sin (guilt) and says proper guilt leads us to come to God and admit our sins (repent) and accept His forgiveness. The wrong kind of guilt leads us to try to hide or deny our sins. Then it says this repentance should be without regret. This does not mean we do not wish we had not sinned or try to avoid the same sin in the future, but it does mean we should put it behind us and go on. Beating ourselves up over old sin already repented of is counterproductive. Guilt, therefore, is good when it drives us to Christ, who is the only mechanic who can truly fix the problem. But breaking the warning light solves nothing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Use of Science

For many years (though some have come to doubt it) there has been a naive faith in science. It was thought science could solve all our problems and answer all our questions? But is this really true?

I want to make it clear that I am not opposed to science. I have no desire to go back to warming myself and cooking over an open fire. But it is not opposing a thing to ask how it should be used.

Science is an attempt to make generalizations about how things happen in nature. It can tell us what will happen and why it happened that way and how it could be made to happen differently. But it cannot tell us what should happen. Science allows us to do whatever we do more efficiently. It allows us to save lives--and destroy lives--on a grander scale than was ever thought possible before. But it needs something beyond science to inform it as to what the goals should be. What works is not an adequate criterion. Atomic bombs work quite well, but we need to consider carefully before dropping them.

Another issue is whether science is the only source of truth. The answer to this is that science cannot deal with all the questions. Science tells us about what will happen in the normal course of nature. But it cannot deal with unique events. If you want to know if Washington crossed the Delaware, you cannot answer it by doing an experiment and having a group of similar people with similar equipment try to cross. You have to check the historical record. If you see science as the only source of truth, than you end up with the absurd position (following Dave Hume) that a person who lived his entire life in Southern California is reasonable not to believe in snow because he has never seen it. You also make science impossible because every scientist would have to repeat every experiment and observation for himself before he could believe it. This sheds light on the question of whether science disproves the existence of miracles. Whether there is something beyond nature that can intervene in its normal course is not a subject science can even deal with. Science tells what will happen if nothing intervenes. It cannot tell if something will intervene.

In the final analysis, science cannot by itself solve all our problems and answer all our questions. It needs to be informed by something beyond itself. It is my assertion that at least part of what science needs to be informed by is Biblical Christianity. That the two are not contraries but complementary aspects of truth. But whatever you add to it, science by itself is not able to deal with all the issues. This is not an insult to science. It is not an insult to a screwdriver to say it is a poor tool to pound nails with. Everything has its proper use.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Where Is the Power?

God has promised us power to do His work through His Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). How do we obtain this? If we look at the Book of Acts, we find that the disciples were not filled with the Spirit of God as a one-time thing, but that the same people could be filled again to meet new situations. Now there are two words translated "filled". One, in Ephesians 5:18, refers to God's enabling us to obey Him. But the one used in Acts refers to God's empowering us for service. At Pentecost, those present are filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4). But later Peter and John are filled again (Acts 4:8) when faced with opposition by the Jewish leadership. Paul is filled at his conversion (Acts 9:17), but later was filled in a new way to handle an opposing sorcerer (Acts 13:9). "Filled" is in the passive, and while one time it was in answer to prayer (Acts 4:31), it is pictured as something God does to us. The ultimate case of this was John the Baptist, who was filled and acted on that filling in his mother's womb (Luke 1:15, 41). But is this filling connected at all to what we do?

Let us look at the case of King Saul. Saul was told by Samuel to go to a certain oak and receive two loaves of bread from the people there. Then he was to go to a certain hill and meet prophets playing music, and the Spirit of God would come upon him (1 Samuel 10:1-13). No one that I know of claims the way to be empowered by the Spirit today is by doing these things. Later, God took the Spirit away from Saul because of two acts of disobedience (1 Samuel 16:14). Now he was not told, "You have two strikes and you're out," but God knew Saul's heart and decided that was it (1 Samuel 15:22-31). Later, King David committed two more serious sins (adultery and murder; see 2 Samuel 11), but he prayed that the Spirit would not depart from him (Psalms 51:11) and He did not. But later, Saul is in pursuit of David with murder in his heart. He is as far from any truly spiritual state of mind as a man can be. And the Holy Spirit comes upon him, causing him to prophesy so David escapes (1 Samuel 19:18-24).

The empowerment of the Spirit is given by God to fulfill His purpose, even in ways we would not anticipate. But if we are attempting to follow God, if we are trusting in Him and praying for His assistance, God will provide us the power we need to accomplish His purpose in our lives. But it is His purpose, not necessarily what we want (Romans 8:28, 12:2; Ephesians 1:11).