I invite you to look at--

My Website where you will find: ordering information and chapter summaries for The Beauty of God for a Broken World; audio sermons; a few poems and hymns; and some other essays.

My Videos where you will find a few two-minute videos on various subjects related to The Beauty of God for a Broken World.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Brittany Maynard

The moral schizophrenia of our society has never been more obvious. As a nation, we agonized over the suicide of Robin Williams in August. Now we are applauding the bravery of Brittany Maynard who intends to kill herself in a few weeks. His suicide was a tragedy; hers will be a triumph.

Many of us who loved Robin Williams’ public persona were shocked and saddened to learn of his private inner torment. If you have watched Brittany’s video and you were not deeply stirred, you must have a heart of stone. We are human beings made in the image of God. Therefore, if God weeps over human suffering (and He does), so ought we.[1]

What ought we to think about suicide? How ought we to react? That word “ought” implies that some answers correspond better to the facts of human existence than others do.

A number of years ago, I stood beside a woman whose husband had suffered a massive heart attack. The attending physician was asking her to make end-of-life decisions for him since at that point he was not capable of making them himself. She asked the doctor for his recommendation, and his reply shocked me: “If he were my dog, I know what I would do.”

“If he were my dog….” That is the crux of the matter. If human beings are dogs, mere animals, then we may, without blame, agonize over one suicide and applaud another, depending on our emotional reaction to the individual circumstances. I cannot give any compelling arguments against suicide to those who think we are dogs.

On the other hand, if human beings are immortal souls, who will one day come face to face with their Creator, then it makes sense to find out how He wants us to respond to horrendous suffering. What is our Creator like, and what does He want of us? There are two basic ways of answering this question. The first is the great American way—to invent a fairy-tale god who conforms to the way you think God ought to act. To those who are satisfied with their own idea of God, I have nothing to say. You can make up a god who likes what you like and hates what you hate, and that’s the end of it.

The second way to discover what our Creator is like is to listen to what He says about Himself and about us. The Bible claims to be the message of God to us. Rather than defending that claim, which I can do, I want simply to draw your attention to some of its basic teachings about suffering.[2]

First, the human being who has suffered more than any other is Jesus Christ. The Son of God became man to suffer and die for the sins of those who believe in Him. His physical and mental suffering on the cross was horrible beyond our capacity to imagine it, but it was not unique because the Romans crucified many people. While Jesus hung on the cross, God poured out the full extent of His wrath against sin on the human soul of His Son. Jesus endured the agonies of hell as if He were all manner of sinners rolled into one agonizing bundle of spiritual pain. No one else has ever felt the wrath of God to such an extent. No sinner in hell will be condemned for such a weight of sins as Jesus bore. Each unredeemed sinner will feel the weight of his own sins. Jesus was weighed down by the sins of multitudes.

Second, because Jesus rose from the grave, He is able to transform the sufferings of His people into the gold of heavenly glory.

If [we are] children, [we are] heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:17-18).

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

In Paul’s case, those “light afflictions” included imprisonment, numerous floggings, being stoned and left for dead, three shipwrecks, and frequent physical deprivations (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation (1 Peter 4:12-13).
And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right (1 Peter 4:18-19).

The reasons for suffering are many, but the result of suffering for a patient believer in Jesus Christ is that we shall share His eternal glory. He suffered and rose again to bring us up out of suffering into joy.

We do not belong to ourselves. We do not have a right to do with our bodies as we please. We belong to Another, and it is His right to do with us as He pleases. If we submit to Him, we shall find that the lead of great suffering here is transmuted by the alchemy of the cross into the purest heavenly gold.

So glory in heaven is a reason for bearing suffering, but what about here and now? The apostle Paul suffered from a physical affliction, which the Lord refused to heal.

And He [Christ] has said to me [Paul], "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me  Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

The apostle testified that experiencing the presence and power of Christ in a greater measure was worth enduring the pain that humbled and weakened him.

Apart from Christ, there are only a limited number of responses we can give to people contemplating suicide. We can talk about the effect of their decision on their family, on their friends, and on society in general. We can mumble some vague platitudes about God. Sometimes these responses, along with love and compassion, are enough to thwart a planned suicide. I am glad for that, but we really ought to give these poor people more.

People in despair need more than a reason not to die. They need a reason to live. That is what Jesus Christ offers. For those who, by trusting in Him, endure great pain, He offers great glory in heaven, and He offers the power of His own presence in the midst of their trial.

Let us, therefore, bear with patience and trust the measure of pain that is our lot. The Great Sufferer, will lend us His strength in order that, as we suffer in imitation of Him, so with Him, we shall rise again.

[1] For God’s tears see Isaiah 15:5; 16:9, 11; Jeremiah 9:10; 48:31-32; Luke 19:41; John 11:33-35. In all of these examples except the last, the Lord weeps over nations that He is judging for their sins.
[2] For a more complete discussion of suffering, see my book, The Beauty of God for a Broken World: Reflections on the Goodness of the God of the Bible.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Women in the Bible

The Apostles Creed, begins, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” Over thirty years ago, I read a book that suggested updating the creed to, “I believe in God the Mother Almighty,” or better yet to “I believe in God the Parent Almighty.”

Our biblically illiterate and sexually confused age needs to be reminded that the Bible teaches God’s children to regard Him as their Father. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” “My Father” is the way Jesus regularly spoke of God.

This does not mean, as some have charged, that the Bible is patriarchal, misogynistic, and indifferent to the abilities and needs of women. Quite the contrary. Even in the passages modern people find most distasteful, we can see God’s deep concern for women.

When God chose the nation of Israel to be His Covenant people, He began to lift them out of a surrounding paganism that was horrible in the extreme. Against some forms injustice, such as child sacrifice, He spoke with fierce condemnation. Other kinds of injustice He softened and moderated. He moderated but did not abolish slavery; He waited until Jesus had come before He taught us that slaves and free men, men and women, are all one in Christ.

In ancient Babylonia, a woman who had become a slave-wife of her master could be sold to another man if her master was displeased with her. In ancient Israel, she had to be set free. The Lord was compassionate toward these poor, abused women.

The Bible honors and exalts women. Men and women are equally made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Because women are in God’s image, the Lord occasionally uses feminine imagery to describe Himself: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; and you will be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:13).

Mothers share equally with fathers in the instruction of their children: “My son, observe the commandment of your father and do not forsake the teaching of your mother” (Proverbs 6:20). Scripture praises godly wives and mothers: “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22). “House and wealth are an inheritance from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the Lord” (Proverbs 19:14).

The last chapter of Proverbs describes the “excellent wife” whose “worth is far above jewels.” She is a strong woman who rules her extensive household well. She is a diligent and astute businesswoman, who invests her money wisely. Martha Stewart would have to hurry to catch up to her. She is such an impressive woman that her reputation enhances her husband’s standing in the community (v. 23). “She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (v. 26). “Her children rise up and bless her; her husband also, and he praises her, saying: ‘Many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all’” (vv. 28-29).

The New Testament also honors godly women. The rabbis frowned on teaching women, but Jesus praised Mary for sitting at His feet to listen instead of fussing over an elaborate dinner (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus’ first appearance after His resurrection was to a different Mary (John 20:11-18). The first convert to Christ in Europe was a businesswoman named Lydia (Acts 16:14-15). Paul’s young helper, Timothy, learned the Scripture from his mother and grandmother.

On this Mother’s Day, if you were raised by a godly mother, rise up and call her blessed. If you are a woman, I encourage you to center your life around the Lord Jesus Christ so that those around you may see Him shining out of your life and be drawn to Him. And if you are looking for a wife to be the mother of your children, seek a woman who loves Jesus.

(This post is an article I published in the Allentown Morning Call on May 10, 2014.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Putting Sin to Death

Death is an essential part of the Christian life in at least three ways.

Ø  First, there is a death that we share with Christ when we are united to Him by faith. “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). This death is more fully described in Romans 6 where the “old man” is the old “I” that has died. (The “old man” is not the so-called “old sin nature,” an error which has led many believers into despair.) Our union with Christ in His death means two things: first, the penalty of sin has been paid; second, we are free from the tyrannical domination of sin.

Ø  Second, there is a death that we have accomplished: “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). If all Christians have done this, it must have happened at conversion. What do we do at conversion that is like death? We repent of our sins; we turn from sin to Christ. Our lives have taken a new direction. Even though sin still nips at our heels, and causes us painful wounds, we are headed toward our Savior. We have turned our back on our old way of life.

Ø  Third, there is a daily death that is our constant battle. Jesus said that we must take up our crosses daily in order to follow Him (Luke 9:23). So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:12-13 NASB).

This third kind of death is my subject for the next few paragraphs. Note the present tense of the verbs, “are living” and “are putting to death.” Unfortunately, most of the popular English translations do not clearly indicate the progressive action that is so clear in the NASB. They simply say, “if you put to death the deeds of the body.” This may imply, as one man said to me, “If you put a sin to death isn’t it dead and gone?” As a corrective to that notion, I offer a parable.

Sin is like a boa constrictor that is squeezing the life out of you. Some people think that killing sin is like chopping off the head of the snake with a machete. It is dead. It can’t bother you anymore. Here is a better picture.

The boa constrictor is trying to squeeze the life out of you. You have your hands around its neck, but you are not strong enough to save yourself, so you cry out to the Holy Spirit to help you. Then the invisible hands of God are placed over your hands, and you begin to strangle that snake. The Spirit doesn’t strangle the snake apart from your hands being on its neck. He only does it through your hands. Finally, it goes limp, so you let go and push it off from you.

Now you are walking down the trail glad and happy, but that snake is not dead. It begins to recover, and it slithers along the trail behind you and up into a tree. Then it drops down on top of you and begins to choke you again. It is not as strong as it was before because it feels the effects of being strangled, but it is still stronger than you are. You would surely die and become its prey except that you cry out to the Holy Spirit who puts His hands over yours so that you can strangle the snake again.

This process happens repeatedly. Each time you cry out for the Spirit’s help, the snake becomes a little weaker. It is not killed all at once, but you are gradually putting it to death by the help of the Spirit. There may come a day when that particular sin truly is dead in your life, but you can never let your guard down, and it is not the only snake in the jungle.

You cannot put sin to death by yourself, and the Spirit will not do it without you, but with His hands covering your hands you can strangle the snake so that it dies a bit at a time. If it does not die completely in this life (and few things do), sin and Satan will be utterly crushed under your feet when the Spirit raises your body to share in the glorious resurrection of Christ (Romans 8:9-11; Romans 16:20).

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Stupid Stevie and Saintly Sally: A Parable

Sally and Stevie attend the same church, but they are not part of the same set. They greet one another in church and occasionally exchange a few pleasantries about some banal subject—the weather, the church picnic, or the general depravity of the nation. That’s about it.

Sally’s set is the Bible-reading, long-praying, bold-witnessing set. She teaches Sunday School, memorizes Scripture, and shows up with her family every time the doors of the church are open. She has a smile for everyone, never becomes angry, and runs her family efficiently. Her children and her husband rise up and call her blessed. Though she pretends not to know it, her friends call her Saintly Sally.

Stevie’s set? Well, Stevie doesn’t really have a set. Though he always hopes to be included, he is socially ungifted. When he manages to back a conversation partner into a corner, his victim typically glances frantically around, looking for a kind soul who will sacrifice himself by distracting Stevie’s attention. It is a vain hope.

Sally has gotten into the habit of mentally referring to him as Stupid Stevie. His lack of social grace carries over into the workplace, which has cost him several jobs. Stupid Stevie. When he gets a little money, he spends it because he deserves a vacation or a new toy. Therefore, his family is always dangling over the brink of insolvency. No one at church can understand how they manage to hang on. Stupid Stevie.

At home, Stevie insists on being the center of attention. Fortunately, he is not a violent man, but he exercises his power in other ways. He says “no” to his wife and children at every opportunity because it feeds his ego. He has never learned the power of “yes.” Stevie complains endlessly that he doesn’t receive the respect he deserves. If he would listen, the folk at church would like to tell him that he has not earned the respect of his family. Stupid Stevie.

Sally sometimes wonders what kind of place Stevie could ever fill in heaven. “Maybe the Lord will assign him the task of cleaning the toilets,” she says to herself with a chuckle. “I think he might manage that if the toilets in heaven never get dirty.”

How does Stevie see his relationship to God? His connection to the Lord feels like a greased grapevine. He swings through the jungle of life always just a few feet above the hungry lions. Hand over hand, hand over hand—Stevie tries to climb up to Jesus. He believes in Jesus. He wants to be near Jesus, but whenever he makes a bit of progress, fate squirts a little more grease on the grapevine and down he slides. His great fear is that he will reach the end of the vine, his faith will fail, and the prowling beasts below will tear him limb from limb. He does not know that underneath him are the everlasting arms. He does not recognize the many times those arms have lifted him up, and His Father has whispered, “Your faith shall not fail.”

One day, the angel of death came calling, first at Sally’s house, and then at Stevie’s.

Sally lay on a clean white sheet under a flowered coverlet. Her family were ringed around her bedside absorbing her final blessings—a word of hope and confidence for each one. At last she said, “I think I’ll be going now,” and she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, it seemed that her bed had become an open boat garlanded with blossoms and guided by a shining being across the wide river of death. On the other shore glorious angels greeted her with shouts of joy and conducted her to the throne room of the King of kings.

“Welcome to My home. It is good to have you here, my child,” He said. Awestruck by His beauty, Sally said nothing.

“You have served me long and diligently, Sally. My angels will conduct you to a changing room. There you will find your new garments and the accessories, which are your reward. Do not tarry long because someone you know will be arriving shortly.”

A few minutes later, Sally reappeared, robed in white with a golden circlet around her forehead. Jewels sparkled in her in her hair and on her crown. Her robe was trimmed with golden braid. Sapphire earrings and a matching sapphire necklace set off her blue eyes to perfection. She was very pretty. She knew it, and she was very pleased.

As she stepped out of the changing room, she followed the watching eyes of the assembled heavenly beings. There, up in the air, a long way off flew a shining angel carrying a wriggling, flopping bundle. What was it?

The bundle was Stevie. On the last day of his earthly life, Stevie felt himself inexorably slipping down his grapevine. The hungry beasts were growling below, but he no longer had the strength to struggle back up out of their reach. He wailed. He cried. He begged for mercy, “Pease, Lord, just one more day, just one more hour.” Then he came to the end, and he fell. The lion looked up and opened his mouth in greedy anticipation, but just then a strong hand latched on to the back of Stevie’s nightshirt and bore him off into the heavens.

After a few seconds, Stevie gathered up enough breath and enough courage to look back over his shoulder. The shining face of the angel was too bright for him to bear, so he looked away, back down toward the rapidly receding earth. “Who are you?” he managed to croak.

“I am the angel of death.”

“I thought you were supposed to be dark, ugly, and holding a sharp sickle,” said Stevie.

“I appear in that guise to some people, but never to the beloved ones. Here we are. You are home.”

With that, the angel swooped past the gates, towers, and walls and deposited Stevie on the floor in front of the King’s throne. He landed on his hands and knees with an awkward thump. “Stupid Stevie,” thought Sally. “He can’t even enter heaven in a proper fashion.”

After Stevie had managed to scramble to his feet, the King said, “Welcome. It is very good to have you here, my child.”

“Am I... am I actually in heaven? Are you going to let me stay?”

“Yes, indeed. You belong to Me. This is My home, and where I am, there you are to stay for all eternity.”

“But I have been so bad. I’ve made a mess of my life. I haven’t done anything for You, as Sally has. She deserves to be here, but I don’t.”

“No one deserves to be here, My child. I have forgiven all your past because you believed that I died for sinners and rose again. I was your only hope and you clung to me. Many times when you were about to fall into the lion’s mouth I lifted you up. I kept you, and I have brought you home.”

Stevie’s eyes shone with adoration and wonder. “You are amazing, Lord! I love You. I love You. I love You.”

At that moment, there was such an explosion of light that Sally had to close her eyes. When she opened them again she saw Stevie, but what a change had come over him! He was robed in a white so brilliant that she could hardly bear to look at him. He had not a single reward of gold or gem, but he was standing much nearer the throne than she. Sally looked down at her own gown. It was still white, but his shone like the sun.

She looked up at her Lord, and He answered the question in her face that she dared not utter.

“Did you not know that closeness to Me in heaven depends not on what you have accomplished, but on how much you love Me? Some have done great deeds out of a small love, and they shall receive a small reward. Others have done small deeds, according to their ability, out of a great love, and they shall receive a great reward.

“The great deed of some exceedingly weak ones is that they kept clinging with their feeble faith to Me. When at last they come into My presence and see how I have upheld them, their hearts fairly burst with love. He who is forgiven little loves little. He who is forgiven much loves much. So Stevie is here close to Me.”

“Oh, my Lord,” cried Sally. “In my heart I have despised this one that you love, and with my mouth I have made many a snide remark to my friends about this glorious son of Yours. I even called him ‘Stupid Stevie’ when the angel dropped him down before Your throne. I never saw the wickedness of my heart as I see it now. Can you ever forgive me? Can Stevie ever forgive me?”

Sally bowed her head and tears began to fall in a little pool at her feet. God’s shining son, Stevie, turned around, came toward Sally, and put an arm around her shoulders. “Of course, I forgive you Sally. I have always admired you. I used to think you were wonderful, and I still do.”

Suddenly, a blinding light flashed out from Him who sat on the throne. Sally closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again, she and Stevie were standing side by side close to the throne. She looked down at her gown and saw that it was gleaming white, as bright as the sun.

And so the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Human Suffering (3)

I ended my last post on suffering with a comment about “the mysterious will of a personal, powerful, just, and compassionate God.” I can just about hear a critic responding, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! You Christians always take refuge in mystery, but you won’t let us do it. Your insane ideas are mysteries while the difficulties with our materialism are contradictions. Well, I think that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

This is a reasonable response given the way many believers do retreat into mystery whenever they cannot explain something. The oft-heard reply, “It’s a mystery; you just have to believe it!” means something like, “I’m scared of facing hard questions, and you are an evil person for asking them.”

By way of contrast to the carping critic and the befuddled believer, I think it is helpful to distinguish two legitimate uses of “mystery.”

First we may speak of a mystery when the general principles of a matter are tolerably clear, but the details and specifics far exceed our comprehension. Quite a few laypeople have a basic grasp of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. They know that as an object approaches the speed of light, its mass approaches infinity; they know that gravity bends space and slows clocks. They may even appreciate how Minkowski’s space-time interpretation of Special Relativity helped Einstein to formulate his General Theory of Relativity. Not many laypeople, however, can make any sense out of the series of partial differential equations that express Einstein’s theory in mathematical form. Those equations are a mystery.

That is what I meant by “the mysterious will of God.” The Bible’s general explanation of human suffering is clear. The Bible explains the origin of human suffering; several of the purposes suffering serves in the lives of believers and non-believers; what God has done and will do to end suffering; and even how suffering fits into God’s comprehensive plan for human beings. These things are not, properly speaking, mysteries. I have written quite a bit about them elsewhere.

The mystery of suffering lies not in the general picture. It lies in the specifics of the countless happenings in the lives of the billions of human beings who inhabit our planet. It would be, in principle, impossible to write a book that would explain everything about everybody. Of course, people are always making guesses about such things: “This happened to me because….” I can’t prove it, but I suspect that these guesses are totally wrong ninety percent of the time and less than half right even when they are partially correct. What God is doing in our individual lives is mostly a mystery to us.

Second we may speak of a mystery when we have clear evidence that two apparently incompatible things are both true. With careful thought, we may be able to define and describe them in such a way that they no longer appear contradictory, but we still have trouble putting them together in our imaginations.

Light is a good example. By the mid-19th century, it was clear that light acted like waves on the surface of water, but in 1905 Albert Einstein showed that it also acted like bullets shot from a gun. How can light be both waves and particles? Our minds have trouble picturing such a thing. We can, however, speak of these two behaviors of light in a non-contradictory way. Light propagates as a wave, but it is absorbed as if it were a stream of particles. In other words, light behaves in different ways in different situations.

Light is like the doctrine of the Trinity. God is both three and one, but He is not three in the same way that He is one. He is one essence and three persons. Although it is difficult to define essence and person, it can be done in a non-contradictory way. The mystery arises from our inability to find any exact parallel to the Trinity in creation. There is not another being to whom we can adequately compare Him. In other my writings, I have explained why many of the common illustrations of the Trinity are more misleading than helpful, and I have provided some other illustrations (and explained their limitations). My point is that the Bible’s statements about the Trinity are clear enough, but our world lacks a suitable analog that would enable us to understand how God experiences His threeness and His oneness. The great mystery is not in the doctrine of the Trinity, but in God’s inner being.

(It is worthwhile pointing out that the so-called trinity of the great gods in Hinduism is quite different from the Biblical picture of God. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva do not act together with one purpose and one energy in every divine work, as the Father, Son and Spirit do.)

Why does it make sense to accept one mystery, but not another? The wave-particle nature of light suggests two criteria. First, there is compelling evidence that both aspects of light’s behavior are true. Second, the mathematical equations that bring these two behaviors together also describe many other phenomena as well. The result is Quantum Mechanics, one of the two most powerful theories of the twentieth century. (The other is the General Theory of Relativity.) We can fruitfully apply these two criteria to the doctrine of the Trinity.

First, compelling evidence. The compelling evidence for the Trinity is, in a word, Jesus. As I suggested in my previous essay, the New Testament consistently shows us God interacting with God. God in human flesh speaks to God as His Father. And yet this God in human flesh insists that there is but one God. An acceptance of the Trinity begins with the FACT of Jesus. The biblical Jesus has been often distorted or denied, but it has not been found easy to get rid of Him. He is too powerful a figure for that. In every age, there have been those who tried to remake Jesus into something easier for the human mind to digest, but if we leave Him as we see Him in the New Testament, we have the embryo of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

“Trinity” is not a biblical word. It was made up in the third century by a theologian who wanted a shorthand way of expressing what the Bible teaches. The tri-unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit leaps off the pages of the New Testament. There we see three who act together in distinct ways, but they penetrate each other so fully that they are one Being, one life.

A Christian is someone who has found the New Testament portrait of Jesus so attractive and compelling that he has cast himself on Jesus as Savior and committed himself to Jesus as Lord. Therefore, the very best way for a non-Christian to hold on to his unbelief is to avoid reading the New Testament with a seeking heart. As soon as one is committed to following Christ, if He should prove Himself true, then that person is in real danger of becoming a convert. Jesus said, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17).

Second, explanatory power. It took a little over three centuries for the early church to come to grips with the amazing data of the New Testament. It was clear from the beginning that Jesus was divine, but it was very hard to come up with ways of speaking about God that did justice to the full scope of the Bible’s teaching. Every possible aberration of the biblical picture was tried and found wanting. As soon, however, as suitable terms and definitions had been agreed upon, the church began to realize that it had been given an inexhaustible treasure. Like quantum mechanics, the doctrine of the Trinity provided answers for all sorts of problems it had not been devised to explain.

For example, philosophy has been unable to solve the problem of the one and the many: Is reality ultimately one (Hinduism) or is reality ultimately a set of disconnected facts (materialism)? If reality is one, are the particulars illusory? If reality is many, is there any overarching purpose toward which all the individual things are moving?

The doctrine of the Trinity insists that ultimate reality is both one and plural. Individual people really do exist, and history has a unified direction and goal set by the one God. Both of these truths are essential for making sense out of suffering. If our individual existence is an illusion, so is suffering. If history has no goal, our pains are real but meaningless.

The earlier essays in this series pointed out that we cannot adequately explain why we are outraged by suffering if ultimate reality is impersonal. We might not want to suffer, and by placing ourselves in another person’s shoes, we might feel sorrow at the sufferings of others. Even animals sometimes appear to grieve the loss of a companion. Aversion to pain, sorrow, and grief are not problematic. Outrage, however, arises from a sense of injustice, a sense that a great moral wrong has been committed. As that old atheist, Friedrich Nietzsche clearly saw, (and as some of the “new atheists” seem determined to ignore) true moral wrong depends on true moral righteousness.

Moral righteousness is always personal and relational—one person can be rightly related to another. Two stones cannot be rightly related to each other. In the Bible, righteousness is not a standard above God, which He must obey. Neither are right and wrong determined by God’s arbitrary command (which appears to be the case in Islam). God’s righteous character consists of the right relationships between the members of the Trinity. The Father loves the Son and gives Him all that He has; the Son loves the Father and obeys Him perfectly; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son together uniting them in perfect harmony. (See my The Beauty of God for a Broken World, chapter 10).

The foundation for our moral outrage at suffering reflects a deep sense of a broken relationship, a sense that a covenant between persons has been violated. That is exactly what the Bible claims has happened. God’s covenant with man has been violated; man’s covenant, under God, with other men has been violated. But God’s inter-Trinitarian covenant insures that these other covenants will eventually be put right.

Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity turns out to be essential for understanding—
Ø        our own personhood,
Ø the nature of righteousness,
Ø the reason for our outrage at suffering,
Ø and the reason for our hope that all that is broken will be made whole.

When we accept the mystery of the Triune God, a great light shines into our darkness. That is the reason the church treasures this marvelous doctrine.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Human Suffering (2)

My previous post explored human suffering in the light of four non-Christian worldviews. All of them are fundamentally flawed because they are untrue to our deepest intuitions about life. In this post, I turn to the Christian Scriptures. The Bible’s teaching on suffering is broad and multi-faceted, so all I can do is present a few of its more important concepts.

I must begin with a disclaimer. The Bible will not tell you why you are afflicted with cancer, poverty, or loneliness. It will not tell you why God allows a human monster to push a lighted cigarette repeatedly into the flesh of his girlfriend’s baby before he drowns it in the toilet. Only an infinite mind is capable of encompassing all the individual horrors that human beings have experienced in all the days of earth’s long history.

The Bible is clear that human sin brought suffering into the human race, but it is equally clear that many of those who suffer horribly are relatively innocent compared to those who torment them. How can we begin to make sense of these things? The Bible alone can help us.

Suffering is real, and it is wrong. It is not an illusion of the mortal mind as much eastern thought insists. Disease, disaster, mayhem, and murder are not natural, at least for human beings. Something is wrong with the world. There is such a thing as injustice and our hearts cry out for the crooked to be set straight. God Himself is outraged by man’s inhumanity to man, and He will see justice done. See Amos 1:1-2:8 for a sample.

God is sovereign. Some people, in an effort to get God off the hook, limit God’s control over the world. They attribute all suffering to the devil, to evil men, and to nature. “God didn’t cause you to suffer,” they say. “This pain did not come from Him.” To save God from Himself, they propose to un-god God. Certainly, the Bible recognizes these secondary causes of suffering. It insists that God Himself does not do evil, but He permits it, and He is able to stop it if He wills.

Lamentations is a lament (what else could it be) over the destruction of Jerusalem. The men were slaughtered, the girls were raped, the pregnant women were ripped up with the sword, and the survivors were driven away like cattle to become slaves. In these pages, the prophet weeps because all he has known and loved is gone. Strangely, he does not blame the Babylonian warriors. Neither does He blame God. He blames his people for their sins, and he ascribes the disaster to God’s hand.

The Lord has done what He purposed;
He has accomplished His word
Which He commanded from days of old.
He has thrown down without sparing,
And He has caused the enemy to rejoice over you;
He has exalted the might of your adversaries (Lamentations 2:17).

God is passionately involved with His creation.
He is not a distant deity, aloof and uninvolved with His creatures. His wrath is passionate, but so is His love. He sings and shouts and celebrates with joy over people who repent and come back to Him (Isaiah 62:5; Zephaniah 3:17; Luke 15:7, 10).

God grieves over human suffering—even when it is deserved.
Say to them, “As I live!” declares the Lord GOD, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:11)?

My heart cries out for Moab [one of Israel’s enemies];
His fugitives are as far as Zoar and Eglath-shelishiyah,
For they go up the ascent of Luhith weeping;
Surely on the road to Horonaim they raise a cry of distress over their ruin….
Therefore I will weep bitterly for Jazer, for the vine of Sibmah;
I will drench you with my tears, O Heshbon and Elealeh [places in Moab];
For the shouting over your summer fruits and your harvest has fallen away (Isaiah 15:5, 16:9).

When He [Jesus] approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41).

Every Surah (chapter) in the Qur’an (except Surah 9) begins with the phrase, “In the name of God [Allah], the Compassionate, the Merciful,” but according to Muslim theologians, Allah cannot be touched with our infirmities. Furthermore, He has done nothing to inspire our confidence in His compassion. He has not revealed Himself as a pardoning God (compare Micah 7:18), but as one who weighs good and bad deeds (Qur’an 23.102-103).

The big question: Is it conceivable that an infinitely powerful, infinitely wise, infinitely holy, infinitely loving God might have a plan in which horrendous suffering has a good and just place? If you say no, you are left with the hopelessness of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Materialism. If you respond with a tentative “yes,” you may properly ask what God has done to justify our trusting in Him. The answer in a word is Jesus.

The claims of Jesus are outrageous (if they are not true). Here is a sampling. He claimed divine power to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). Although He scathingly denounced the Pharisees for evading God’s commandment to honor our parents (Matthew 15:1-9), He said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). The Old Testament prophets pointed the people to God where they might find rest, but Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). After God gave the Sabbath commandment to the Jews, the first recorded Sabbath-breaker was stoned (Numbers 15:32-36), but when the Pharisees accused the disciples of Jesus with breaking the Sabbath, He claimed that He was “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). As His earthly ministry was drawing to a close, He repeatedly predicted His death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19). Not only that, but He said that He was going to “give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). To top it all off, He claimed that after His death and resurrection, He would eventually come again with power and great glory to rescue His people and to judge the earth (Matthew 24:30-31, 37-39).

The Buddha never made such claims; neither did Muhammad or any other major religious teacher or philosopher. Certainly, no one else in history has predicted his own death and resurrection and then pulled it off. Such a thing has never even been claimed for any other historical figure. The disciples of Jesus claimed that they saw Him after His death in several widely separated locations and that on one occasion more than 500 people saw Him at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6).

Now set aside for the moment the question of whether the Bible is inspired by God. Set aside for the moment the question of the general historical reliability of the New Testament (for which there is ample evidence). If the gospels are only works of fiction produced by a believing community, the world has not seen another creative genius—much less a group of men—audacious enough to make such claims within the living memory of a well-known teacher. (And, by the way, most of the apostles gave their lives, not for preaching a noble ideal, but for claiming the Jesus rose from the dead.)

So what has this to do with suffering? In the death of Jesus as a ransom for many, we see exactly what we need in order to trust God in the face of horrendous suffering. Jesus, according to His own testimony, was more than a man. He was the Son of God. No one can make God suffer, so Jesus insisted that no one was going to take His life from Him, but that He would lay it down voluntarily (Matthew 26:52-54; John 10:14-18).

As the apostle Paul summarized Jesus’ teaching about Himself, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). In the cross of Christ, we see God’s passionate hatred of sin and His passionate love for people. God was willing to become a man for the specific purpose of suffering to redeem sinners from His own wrath. Furthermore, the resurrection of Christ is God’s answer to our plea for evidence that He is able to defeat death, decay, and despair.

What Christianity offers to a suffering world is a God willing to suffer with and for His suffering creatures, a God who does not make light of suffering, a God who is powerful enough to end suffering when His plans are complete, and a God who calls us to trust in His goodness when we cannot see it.

Only in the God of the Bible do we find the ultimate reality that makes human life anything but a bit of flotsam cast up on the vast impersonal shore of the universe. Only in Jesus Christ do we find adequate evidence that this God exists. Suffering presents us with mysteries that seem insoluble, but we can live with mysteries if we have enough evidence to warrant accepting them. We cannot live humanly with an ultimate reality that dehumanizes us.

My heart can rest in the mysterious will of a personal, powerful, just, and compassionate God. It cannot find rest anywhere else.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Human Suffering (1)

Human suffering is very great. Much of it seems senseless. Much of it is so evil that I cannot comprehend it. Vile violence against women and girls, perhaps more than anything else, pierces my heart like a knife.

What anchors my faith in Christ in the face of senseless suffering and brutal inhumanity? In The Beauty of God chapter 8, I have explored some of the reasons for God permitting pain and evil to afflict His good creation. Scattered throughout other chapters I have provided some analysis of various alternatives to the biblical worldview. In this post I want to bring the major alternatives to biblical revelation together. When my heart is burdened by suffering in the world, I run through them in my mind, and I see afresh how impossible they are.

There are really only four major worldviews (aside from Christianity) that are viable candidates for adoption by all people. My purpose is to show that they are all fundamentally flawed in their approach to human suffering. I am well aware that people are often either better or worse than their theoretical convictions. I am not criticizing the adherents of these views. I am critiquing their understanding of the ultimate foundation of life.

In subsequent postings, I hope to give an analysis of the Bible’s teaching on suffering and why it succeeds where the others fail. Whenever I think through the options available, I realize afresh that there really is no other place to turn except the Triune God of the Bible.

There is no hope in Hinduism. The doctrine of Karma insists that your lot in this life is your well-merited fate because of sins committed in a prior existence. Hindus (by the grace of the true God) are often better than their religion. Tens of thousands protested the gang rape of a young woman on a private bus in New Delhi in 2012, but their doctrine should have taught them to say, “No doubt, she deserved it.”

Furthermore, the suffering of the body does not really touch the soul. In the Indian holy book, the Bhagavad-Gita, the god Krishna encourages Arjuna not to feel guilty about killing his wicked cousins in battle because death is only an illusion: “As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones. The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon, nor can he be burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.... It is said that the soul is invisible, inconceivable, immutable and unchangeable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body” (2.22-25). Therefore, logically, the rape of this young woman did her no harm. If we believe Krishna, we should say that we are outraged at her rape because we cannot see past the outer shell of the body.

The more refined forms of philosophical Hinduism may say that the Atman (the self) is Brahman (ultimate reality) “within” and Brahman is the Atman “without.” The individuality of the self is an illusion. The self and Brahman are one. The goal of life is to escape reincarnation by acquiring good Karma. Then the tiny drop of individual consciousness will be dissolved in the great ocean of impersonal, universal Brahman. This sounds very noble until one realizes that pain and pleasure or God and the devil are therefore only names for our misperceptions of the all-encompassing, impersonal Being. The horror of rape and the pleasure of a good dinner with friends are equally illusory.

There is no blessedness in Buddhism. The Buddha traced suffering to desire. If one can quench self-centered desire, he will no longer suffer. This is the enlightenment that Buddha achieved. Setting aside later developments that virtually deified Buddha and other enlightened beings, we are left with a set of psychological techniques for achieving a state in which one is not bothered by the vicissitudes of life. After enlightenment, the flame of an individual life will no longer have to pass through the weary round of suffering, death, rebirth, and suffering. Instead, it will enter Nirvana. Nirvana is not a place. It is the impersonal, ultimate reality. Buddha would not describe Nirvana, except to say that it is bliss. The problem, however, is that bliss is a personal trait which is inconsistent with the impersonality of Nirvana. Bliss and the extinction of desire (the blowing out of the flame of life) are fundamentally incompatible.

Of course, some eastern philosophers claim not to be bothered by logical contradictions. In their view A and Non-A may be equally ultimate, but this is only a mind game. They do not and cannot live as if the real world is ultimately contradictory. No Buddhist or Hindu philosopher will act as if being run over by a car is the same as escaping such a fate.

In the end, Buddhism, which began with Buddha’s distress over suffering, offers only an anesthetic.

There is no inspiration in Islam. Islam claims to be based on revelations given to Muhammad (d. AD 632) by the archangel Jibril. Its references to biblical characters and events are clearly only a mishmash of stories picked up by Muhammad from contact with Jews and Christians and various cults in his travels as a trader. The Qur’an says that Muhammad never read or wrote a book. His followers wrote down his sayings on any material that was handy. After his death, his sayings were collected to form the Quran. The Qur’an encourages Christians to read the Injil (the gospel) because then they will see that Muhammad is a true prophet. However, the Injil, as it exists in manuscripts from the second century onward, clearly contradicts the fundamental teachings of Islam. For example, the Qur’an specifically denies that Jesus is the Son of God and that He was crucified on the cross. Islam is simply the most successful Christian cult, and like all the major cults, it denies the deity of Christ.

The doctrines of Islam offer no comfort for those who suffer. Everything that happens is according to the will of Allah, and submission to His inscrutable will is the essence of Islam. Allah is utterly transcendent. He has never revealed himself. All we can know is his will. We cannot know him or have a personal and intimate relationship with him (though some later developments may have softened this conception). The Muslim answer to suffering is simply, “Allah has willed it.” We can neither question his decree, nor understand its purpose. Has a woman been gang raped? We must punish the evil-doers, of course, but she must submit to the inscrutable will of God without any comfort from the presence of God.

There is no meaning in materialism. As Friedrich Nietzsche clearly realized, the death of God entails the death of ultimate meaning and morality. Man without God must move on beyond good and evil. For the consistent materialist, suffering is simply a fact, a meaningless datum. Of course, materialists (by the grace of the God they deny) do become outraged at injustice. In their hearts, they know that the gang rape of a woman is different from a pack of dogs climbing one after the other on top of a bitch in heat. In their proper moral outrage, materialists improperly rage against God, who alone can give meaning to their sense of morality.

Ø      Hinduism. Learn to regard suffering as an illusion.
Ø      Buddhism. Train yourself to ignore your suffering. Extinguish your individual, self-centered desire.
Ø     Islam. Submit to suffering. It is the inscrutable will of a remote Allah.
Ø    Materialism. Suffering is a fact of evolution. No suffering is truly evil because good and evil are value judgments made by individuals or by their particular communities.

These are all of the viable alternatives to Christianity that there are in the world. My heart can rest in none of them because I know that good and evil are neither illusions of the mortal mind nor inventions of self-replicating mud. I know that generosity and kindness reflect ultimate Goodness and that cruelty is an aberration. I know that a rose is more beautiful than a pile of horse manure. I know that we were designed for love and for beauty and for the fulfillment of every holy desire. The extinction of desire (Buddhism), the dissolution of individuality in the great ocean of being (Hinduism), and the unreachable transcendence of Allah—all of these deny the fundamental fact of our humanity: we were made for relationship.