Who has standing to bring a charge against God?

May 23, 2015

My friend Tom, a lawyer in Dallas, made a point about suffering in my previous post that reminds me of something I read in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Rowan Williams, wrote an op-ed in an English newspaper saying that whenever a natural disaster like this tsunami strikes, it shakes our faith, causing us to question our faith in God.

One popular British columnist wrote a response to the archbishop: “Who is he kidding? Churches were full the Sunday following the tsunami!” We Americans saw the same phenomenon in the weeks following 9/11.

In my own experience ministering to sufferers and the people who love them, I more often see people’s faith in God strengthened during these times. Yet, when it comes to questions of theodicy, skeptics often become indignant toward God, not on their own behalf, but on behalf of others.

As Tom observes, the indignant skeptics don’t have proper standing to do so:

Also, another point you make, i.e., that we have to ask, “Is this unfair to ME?”, as opposed to, “Is this unfair to somebody else?”, is similar to the legal doctrine of “standing.” Generally speaking, you can’t bring a challenge to a law that does not affect YOU in some way. It is up to some other person who is affected by the law to bring up the challenge, if any. Too many people who bring charges against God look at “the people in Africa.” Let those in Africa make such charges. From their perspective, they may not believe they have any more grounds to charge God with “unfairness” than we do based on our own experiences. Especially if they are Christians to begin with, i.e., to have any God to challenge in the first instance.

Assessing the “problem of pain” with Dallas Willard

May 22, 2015

I’ve talked and blogged a lot recently about theodicy and the problem of evil—I even enjoyed a lunch conversation yesterday with a clergy colleague on that very subject. As if on cue, on his blog this morning, Scot McKnight summarizes the late Dallas Willard’s argument from The Allure of Gentleness. Willard is addressing the David Hume argument that if God were both all-good and all-powerful, he wouldn’t allow people to suffer.

Willard answers this argument, in part, by appealing to freedom—as everyone must. But his words about the necessity of freedom are powerful. They include:

They overlook the fact that by surrendering responsibility they surrender freedom and the capacity for virtue as well. The person who cannot be blameworthy cannot be praiseworthy either (121).

So what we must look at is the question: Did God do well to create a world in which there is free personality and natural law, such that it includes the possibility of a kingdom of God as well as the possibility of evil? (122)

A world that permits the development of moral character—one that makes it possible for persons to become the immeasurably precious and even glorious beings that they sometimes do become—is of much greater value than any world that does not (126).

But the moral development of personality is possible only in a world of genuine freedom (126).

This seems exactly right to me.

Here’s a thought I’ve been playing around with: At the risk of being self-centered, suppose that God wanted me to exist and to become this person that I am—understanding, of course, that I haven’t fully arrived as the person God wants me to be, nor will I until resurrection.

Still, if God wanted me to exist, this world, through which God has shaped me (and is shaping me), would also have to exist as it is. Otherwise, I would either not exist, or I would be an entirely different person. Therefore, if the world were any different, I wouldn’t be in it. Since I’m grateful to be here, how loudly should I complain?

Maybe somebody smarter than me can properly frame and defend that argument.

McKnight concludes Willard’s argument as follows:

Hence, many things happen that on their own cannot be good; God is not the author of these things; a world like ours is better than a world not like ours when it comes to pain; and there is no sorrow on earth that heaven cannot heal.

If your God is big enough there is no problem with evil — he claims here to be re-expressing David Hume (133).

Predictably, some commenters on McKnight’s blog dislike even attempting a justification for suffering and evil. We should remain silent, they say, and concede that it’s a mystery. I’ve blogged against that idea plenty of times. One commenter put the objection like this:

This is pretty standard Christian apologetic (free will, suffering somehow is “good” for us) and IMO it’s pretty weak. For starters, tons of suffering has nothing to do with free will. How is a 2 year old with bone cancer engaging in or the recipient of any free will? And how is that suffering “good” for her or her family? What about the wide majority of others who will never undergo such pain? Did they not receive the relative “benefit” of that suffering? Gapaul is right . . .trying to rationalize theodicy away just makes the problem worse.

My response? I would first ask this person if, in his own experience, suffering has “somehow” been good for him. If he’s honest, he would say, “Of course it has,” at least in many cases. We are often shaped in beneficial ways by our suffering. If his suffering had been any different—remember—he would be a different person (and remember, God wanted him to exist). It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that if his suffering were any different, someone else besides him would be experiencing it.

He then says, “tons of suffering has nothing to do with free will.” While I’m not sure how to quantify “tons,” especially relative to the rest of the suffering that happens in our world, I would first say we can’t know to what extent that child’s cancer is related to free will—and I’m not speaking of the child’s free will (to which he wants to limit the conversation) or even necessarily the parents. For example, we probably can’t say with certainty what causes someone’s cancer, but there are often environmental factors that likely contribute to it. Some of these factors are caused by the free choices of human beings, aren’t they? Air and water pollution, diet, pharmaceuticals, radiation… you name it.

Moreover, since I’m a Satanic realist, I don’t discount the role of demonic beings who have some measure of freedom to influence our world and cause great harm. God gave these angelic beings freedom, which they in turn abused, just as we have.

Finally, the Bible describes Creation, in general, getting out of joint because of initial human sin, and giving rise to pestilence, for instance. Again, this initial sin was freely chosen.

He asks how suffering could be good for the child or her family. Let’s first be humble and admit that we can’t know. For one thing, we can’t foresee the consequences on the world if the child hadn’t gotten cancer. I’ve been close to enough to people who have suffered and died with cancer—including my father—to know that God can and does bring good from it.

And as for our loved one who is suffering and dying, there is nothing that they’re going through in this life that won’t instantly be redeemed by heaven.

When we talked about theodicy in seminary, we tended to leave heaven out of it—as if it were “cheating” to smuggle that consolation into the discussion. Without heaven, I completely agree that the problem of evil can’t be solved. But since our hope for resurrection is the central tenet of Christian faith, why would we justify suffering on any other basis?

He goes on to ask: “What about the wide majority of others who will never undergo such pain? Did they not receive the relative ‘benefit’ of that suffering?”

Whether we undergo the same kind of pain as someone else, does any of us make it through life without a considerable amount of it? If so, I’m unaware of it. There are all kinds of pain, after all, and physical pain isn’t always or usually the worst, right? Regardless, I’ve experienced enough pain to know that God can redeem it.

Finally, every one of us will face our own death sooner or later. No one escapes it. Death is ultimately the worst kind of democrat. Is there potentially any crisis more potentially painful than that?

The early Christians used to be deeply concerned about “dying well.” Our generation would do well to recover their concern.

God bless you, David Letterman

May 21, 2015


A couple of nights ago, I caught up with David Letterman’s show for the first time since he announced his retirement, near the end of the victory lap he’s been running for the past few weeks. How could I not watch? Bill Murray, my favorite comedic actor, was his guest, and Bob Dylan, my favorite… um, person I’ve never met, performed. Last night, of course, was Letterman’s last show. It awaits me on my DVR.

I haven’t watched Letterman regularly in years. But for about 15 years, up until the time I started having kids, his show was an important part of my life. Even after I stopped watching regularly, I continued to root for him in his perennially losing campaign to dethrone rival Jay Leno in the ratings. While I preferred the quirkier edge of NBC’s 12:30 Letterman to CBS’s more mainstream 11:30 version, he was still a million times better than Leno. In fact, people like me who watched Letterman’s NBC show in the early days remember that Leno, then a young and hungry stand-up comic, would come on Letterman’s show and kill—which made us wonder how he became so bland and innocuous once he started guest-hosting for Carson in the late-’80s. Leno was a people-pleaser who fawned over his celebrity guests.

To Letterman’s great credit, no one could accuse him of doing that! In a recent interview, Howard Stern got it right when he said that playing second-fiddle to Leno “freed him up in some way. He probably could have dumbed it down and done a long meaningless monologue that would have made for better ratings, but he stayed true to himself. That takes an unusual strength.”

I began watching Letterman around the age of 14, when his 12:30 show was the hippest thing on television. The sole virtue of the snowy little rabbit-eared TV in my bedroom is that it had a earphone jack. I could plug in the earphone (in one ear, remember?) and my parents, unable to hear that 17- or 18-kHz buzz emitted by cathode-ray TVs, were none the wiser.

Everyone knows about Stupid Pet Tricks and Top Ten Lists, but I remember the early days being surreal at times. For instance, Chris Elliott’s “Guy Under the Seats”:

Or—perhaps my first Letterman-show memory—Andy Kaufman’s announcement that he had recently adopted three underprivileged kids?

Or who could forget the utterly bizarre appearance by Back to the Future‘s Crispin Glover, which prompted Letterman to abruptly walk off the set and break to a commercial?

You can read about many other highlights of Letterman’s 33 years in late night all over the internet this week. Two more highlights I’ll mention: His post-9/11 show was surely one of the best moments in television history. Even his on-air confession several years ago that a blackmailer was threatening to reveal that he had slept with staffers—which thereby disarmed the blackmailer—made for gripping television.

These moments and many others reflected a kind of honesty that we don’t often see from celebrities—which is surprising given how famously he guards his privacy. With Letterman, the distance between person and persona never seemed very wide.

But here’s why I mention him on this church-related blog: I owe Letterman a debt of gratitude, and not merely for the good times over the years. Years ago, my best friend from high school—like me a huge Letterman fan from back in the day—visited the worship service I was leading. He said, “Don’t think I didn’t pick up on your Letterman-esque mannerisms! The way you talked to your congregation… When you turned and spoke to your worship leader—it was like Letterman talking to Paul Shaffer!”

Was it that obvious?

In my defense, there is an emcee quality, at times, to being a pastor in worship and at other public events. You have to keep things running smoothly! Often, when I speak extemporaneously, make a timely quip or joke at my expense, apologize when something goes wrong—that’s when my Letterman shows through.

I’m proud to say so! He was a good teacher!

Even more, since Letterman is likely as insecure a person as I often am, I’m impressed, as Stern is, by his “unusual strength” to be true to himself. To his credit, he was about as authentic as the medium of television allows.

Like television but on a much smaller scale, the pulpit presents a potentially powerful barrier to authenticity. After all, will my people still love and respect me if they know their pastor is a sinner just like everyone else?

So that’s my struggle. I don’t want to be phony. I want the man in the pulpit to align as closely as possible with the man outside of the pulpit. I want people to say, “With Brent, what you see is what you get.”

I’ve got a long way to go, I’m sure. But inasmuch as I achieve authenticity in my public life, I owe at least small debt to David Letterman, whose own struggle in this area inspired me.

So, thank you, Dave, and God bless you!

Here’s Bob Dylan’s Letterman performance of a Frank Sinatra standard, “The Night We Called It a Day.”

Wilson on homosexuality and the church: “Which way have you gotten to that conclusion?”

May 19, 2015

Pastor and theologian Andrew Wilson explains why homosexuality is the issue these days.

Pastor and theologian Andrew Wilson explains why homosexuality is the issue these days.

“This is part of… sort of the bullshit that really pushes people away,” said Rob Bell, toward the end of a debate with Andrew Wilson on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? podcast a couple of years ago.

Bell became indignant after Wilson and host Justin Brierley began pressing him to clarify his view of homosexual practice. After an hour-long discussion in which he and Wilson agreed on many other matters related to Christian faith—including the bodily resurrection of Jesus—why is Bell’s view on homosexuality a litmus test for Christian or evangelical orthodoxy? Why hasn’t Brierley pressed Wilson to clarify his views on matters of faith over which they disagree?

I suspect many of my fellow United Methodist clergy wonder the same thing about people like me, who support our church’s traditional stance on sexuality.

Why is this issue such a big deal when we agree on so many other things? Why are we theologically conservative Methodists willing to die on this particular hill?

Good question!

Andrew Wilson offers an answer that I wish all my colleagues on the left-wing of our denomination or in the “Methodist middle” could hear. Wilson gets it exactly right, as far as I’m concerned.

For anyone who wants to know why I’ve become a stick in the mud on this issue—why I’ve proven to be a disappointment to erstwhile friends and supporters over this issue—here it is. I can’t improve upon what Wilson says. I can’t say it any better or more succinctly. (Wilson’s response begins around the 19:00 minute mark in the video below.)

The question is why is the issue there, isn’t it?… It’s how you got to that position? In some ways, what I’m trying to establish is, if you got to the position of saying, “I affirm this because I genuinely don’t believe that anything in the Bible indicates that it’s sinful, and therefore I think we should celebrate it because God does, because Jesus does, because the apostles did, because the prophets did. This is just a great thing. And two thousand years of church history have been wrong—they’ve been reading it wrong. And here’s a whole bunch of scholarship to support that position.

If that’s how you got there, I’d say, “Well, I disagree, but I’d love to see the evidence. I’d love to work through it.”

If you’re saying, “The world’s moved on. God’s going to get left behind if we don’t change it, even though, to be honest, I’ve got a sneaking feeling that there might be a lot in scripture that speaks against this. But I just don’t think we can afford to keep sticking with that because it looks boring and retrograde and backward and intolerant. So we will drop what Jesus or Paul or the apostles or anyone else were saying in order to make ourselves more adaptable to the age.

That doesn’t mean you’re not a Christian—of course it doesn’t… But it does mean that there’s something quite fundamental that might be switching, which is saying, “I don’t think I can hold this text as being the high standard for behavior and morality, and that’s a big enough deal to people like me… And I think if you shared my view on those texts you’d probably feel similarly. So it’s really, which way have you gotten to that conclusion?

You may watch the video below:

The tense relationship between grace and good behavior

May 15, 2015

"St. Paul in Prison" by Rembrandt.

“St. Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt.

In the comments section of my previously posted sermon, my friend Tom wondered whether I had gone too far in emphasizing that we do nothing in order to be saved—that even after we’re saved, it’s all grace and no works.

I admit this is tricky. 

I certainly don’t mean to say that since we’re saved by grace, works don’t matter. In fact, if we have no works to show for ourselves—if our lives bear no evidence of God’s saving grace—I’d say we were in danger of hell! 

I am saying, however, that our works are always a response to a prior grace. And our works play no role in saving us.

Tom also wondered if I wasn’t affirming “eternal security”—once saved, always saved. I hope not—I am a Wesleyan, after all. He’s Baptist, so he’d probably be happy if I were! 

No, while I don’t affirm eternal security, I believe it must surely be difficult for a believer to backslide and forfeit a gift of salvation that they have at one time sincerely received.

But let’s not get too comfortable: this Sunday I’m preaching a text that includes 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, which is a warning that believers who engage in sinful behavior persistently, without repentance, risk being excluded from God’s kingdom. Why would Paul warn us in such strong language if he were speaking only hypothetically? “Of course you would exclude yourself from God’s kingdom if you persistently committed these sins without repentance, but since you’ve been saved, that’s not really possible, so don’t worry about it.”

In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Gordon Fee tackles this question briefly:

For Paul there is to be the closest possible relationship between the experience of grace and one’s behavior that evidences that experience of grace. Paul himself is as concerned as anyone that the latter (right behavior) should not be perceived as coming first or as leading to the former (the experience of grace). But those who concern themselves with grace without equal concern for behavior have missed Paul’s own theological urgencies by several furlongs. It is precisely for these reasons that the warning texts in Paul must be taken with real seriousness. Security in Christ there is, to be sure, but it is a false security that would justify sinners who have never taken seriously “but such were some of you.” That is to whitewash the sinner without regeneration or transformation; Paul simply would not understand such theology.[†]

I’m sure Tom would agree, whether eternal security exists or not, that we should live our lives as if it didn’t!

Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 273-4.

Preschool commencement homily: “Let the Children Come to Me”

May 14, 2015

I did something this week I’ve never done before: I preached the gospel at a church preschool commencement ceremony. 

Since 2007, I’ve been asked to pray and offer a word of welcome at more than a dozen preschool events—but until this week I had never used the event to do the main thing I’m supposed to do: to share the gospel. 

Why? Most parents, grandparents, and friends who attend these events are not connected to our church. Many of them, I’m sure, haven’t yet made a decision to receive God’s gift of eternal life through Christ. Moreover, they are a captive audience. What better opportunity? They’ve enrolled their children in a church preschool, for heaven’s sake! It’s hardly inappropriate for me, a pastor, to take advantage of that! Don’t most churches say they have preschools for the sake of outreach or evangelism? If we never speak evangelistic words, what are we doing?

So… shame on me for being derelict for all these years! I repent. The following is the homily I preached on Tuesday night:

Homily Text: Mark 10:13-16

Jesus was a very popular teacher, preacher, and healer. Wherever he went, he drew large crowds, and people in the crowds would bring their children to Jesus, so that Jesus would bless them. And Jesus’ disciples didn’t like this: It says they “rebuked” these parents. They did not approve of having all these kids around. It would be much easier, the disciples figured, to do ministry without worrying about kids!

And before we come down too hard on these disciples, let’s sympathize with them for a moment: Kids are incredibly difficult. Aren’t they? Parents, do you agree with me? Kids make everything you do so much more complicated!

We’re fast approaching summer, which means summer vacation… Going to the beach. Do you remember vacations B.C. Before Children. You would do wild and crazy things on vacation Before Children… Like sleeping until you wake up. Parents of young children, let me ask you: When was the last time you slept until you woke up? But Vacations Before Children, you used to do that! Or… Now this is really crazy… You would take naps on vacation! Or read books. Or work on your tan while drinking those drinks with the little umbrellas in them… without a care in the world! You didn’t have to worry about anyone drowning, or eating sand, or asking you to help them build a sand castle. And you could go anywhere you wanted to eat and stay out as late as you wanted. Now it’s like, “We gotta find a place with chicken fingers on the menu!”

Kids are hard, let’s face it! They require us parents to basically put our lives on hold for 20 years. We sacrifice in so many ways. For instance, financial priorities change: You don’t have discretionary income anymore. You have to pay for diapers, for piano lessons, for braces, for Little League, for smartphones, for prom dresses…

Then there’s the time, the energy, the worry you invest in your children… We exchange our interests for our children’s interests. We also talk on our children’s illnesses and problems and burdens upon ourselves…

Someone said a parent can never be happier than their least happy child. Isn’t that true? We suffer when our children suffer. But we do so gladly, if doing so means their health and welfare and happiness.

When my first child was born, I knew immediately what it meant to want to lay down my life for someone—to step in front of a bullet, jump in front of a speeding locomotive, to fight off a hungry lion if necessary.

I certainly don’t want to be in a situation where I have to do that, but if I were, you better believe I’d do it. And if I did so it would be totally worth it! 

What wouldn’t we do to save our kids? Because we love them that much!

And if it’s true that even we fallible, imperfect, sinful human parents love our children with this kind of self-sacrificial love, how much more true is it for our heavenly Father, who, unlike us, loves his children perfectly, completely.

Talk about sacrifice! God came to us in the flesh, in his Son Jesus, and he lived and suffered and died the most excruciating death on the cross—suffered hell for us—so we wouldn’t have to. God the Son was scourged, beaten, mocked, and nailed to a cross for us, on our behalf, so that our sins would be forgiven, our debts would be paid, and we could have eternal life and live with God forever.

That’s the greatest sacrifice anyone could ever make. But from God’s perspective, guess what? It was totally worth it! Because he loves you and me that much.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Receive the kingdom like a child. That means, just as our children depend on us parents for everything in order to survive and be safe, so we trust in our heavenly Father for everything—including trusting in his Son Jesus for our salvation.

My prayer for the children in our preschool—and all of the parents, grandparents, and friends who love and support them—is that we would all learn to trust in the Lord in this way. Amen?

Sermon 05-03-15: “Warts and All, Part 3: Tested by Fire”

May 12, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

The foundation of the church, Paul says, is Jesus Christ and him crucified. Unfortunately, in one way or another, we often forget about the cross and fall back into “works righteousness”—the idea that we can be good enough to earn salvation. Are you living your life on the foundation of the cross? Watch or read this sermon and find out.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 3:10-23

[Want to listen on the go? Right-click here to download an MP3 file.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Back in 1999, an almanac was published, which ranked cities in the U.S. and Canada from best to worst. They used criteria such as crime, job outlook, climate, and culture. According to this book, the city of Kankakee, Illinois, won the distinction of being America’s worst city—a distinction which might have been quickly forgotten, if not for late-night television personality David Letterman, who featured a Top Ten list related to Kankakee: “Top Ten slogans for Kankakee, Illinois.”

Number ten: “You’ll come for our payphone, you’ll stay because your car has been stolen. Number nine, ask about are staggering unemployment rate. Number eight, we put the ill in Illinois. Number seven, we also put the annoy in Illinois.” Number one: “Abe Lincoln slept here… by accident.”

You get the idea… But the jokes at the town’s expense didn’t end there. For weeks, Kankakee became a running joke on the show. Not long afterward, Letterman called the mayor of Kankakee during the show; he interviewed him; and then, with cameras rolling, Letterman’s people unveiled a new gazebo in the town square, which the Letterman show was donating to the city—hoping, he said, that it might spruce up the town and make it a more livable city. And not long after that, he gave them another gazebo.


So for the past 15 years, Kankakee has had two gazebos in the town square, which were given to them by Letterman, as a joke… Until a few months ago Some students in a high school civics class learned the history of these gazebos, and how they were used to make a joke at their city’s expense. And these students love their city. Sure, like a lot of U.S. cities, they lost some manufacturing jobs back in the ’80s and ’90s, but they’re doing O.K. now. So these students organized a publicity campaign to tear down the gazebos. They even had a carpenter take the wood from a gazebo and build a rocking chair for Letterman as a gift, for him to enjoy during his retirement, which of course will be happening soon. Read the rest of this entry »

A word about tragedies (part 2)

May 7, 2015

Blogger Ryan Dueck offered a thoughtful reply to my previous post. Among other things, he said the following:

I realize full well the force of your argument with respect to intervention, providence, answered prayer, etc. I’ve wrestled with these questions for years. For my part, I’ve simply come to the point where I am unwilling to sacrifice my conception of God’s goodness for my conception of God’s power and/or knowledge with respect to sovereignty…

Re: falling victim to the “sum of suffering” argument… No, I don’t think so. I feel exactly the same about one instance of suffering as I do about massive large-scale suffering. A five-year-old girl being sexually assaulted evokes the same response in me as an earthquake in Nepal. And this is where I think the “God has a reason for your suffering” falls short, whether we want to claim that suffering is God’s tool to punish rebellion or forge character or whatever. At least on some kind of one-size-fits-all level. Could you or I honestly tell a little girl that God has some pedagogical purpose for allowing her to be raped? And even if, inexplicably, we could say such a thing, the question of whether or not we should seems laughably absurd.

To which I responded with the following:

I sensed that you had wrestled with these questions. I appreciate that. One thing I’m arguing is that the difference between God’s “causing” (as in a highly Calvinist, deterministic way) and God’s “permitting” (as most of the rest of us believers affirm) isn’t as great as we may want it to be. To say, “God permits or allows,” doesn’t let God “off the hook,” if you will.

In other words, unless or until he articulates his conception of providence and sovereignty, I believe his conception of God’s goodness remains at risk. The only “out”—to which “process theologians” resort—is to say that God doesn’t have the power or knowledge to do much about suffering, evil, or death. But obviously this can’t be a Christian viewpoint.

What kind of God would allow, under any circumstances, a child to be raped? Well… a God who knows, perhaps, that the consequences of intervening to prevent that evil would be worse. Right? Only an infinite God can know these consequences. We can’t. We’re not surprised by our epistemic limitations. So we trust God, who doesn’t share our limitations.

Regarding the child rapist, I don’t know what else we can do except to affirm three things simultaneously: (1) The rapist’s action is evil and will be judged and punished by a God who has justifiable anger toward sin. (2) Nevertheless, in the interest of God’s good purposes for our world—among which is a desire for maximal human freedom (which is a great, if terrifying gift)—God has decided to allow this evil to take place. And (3) God will be working to redeem this evil, if not fully in this present world, then in the word to come.

I agree with Hart that bad stuff doesn’t happen because God needs it to happen to accomplish his purposes. (In his book, Hart talks about this at length.) But it’s not a question of God’s “needing” it to happen. A more helpful way to look at it is that bad stuff happens for any number of reasons: we live in a fallen, sin-filled world; our actions have consequences. The question is, What’s God going to do about it now? How’s God going to use it? And this is where a healthy understanding of God’s providence and sovereignty comes in.

As an Arminian, I find it helpful to think in terms of God’s “antecedent” and God’s “consequent” will. In a world in which humanity (and angels) hadn’t fallen into sin, then by all means, suffering and death would have no place, and they would be against God’s will. But given that we live in this world, here’s what God wants; here’s what God will do; here’s how God will use suffering and death. If God can transform the worst evil—the death of his Son—into the greatest good, then it’s not hard to imagine that God can make the same transformation with “lesser” evil. I believe he does so all the time.

How does Hart or Micheli imagine that God is off the hook by saying it’s all meaningless? Although, as I say, Hart contradicts himself. It doesn’t matter whether suffering and death have meaning, per se. Maybe they don’t. But if, as even Hart allows, God can redeem it, then we’re back to meaning and purpose.

Whether suffering actually produces “good effects” for the people suffering depends, in large part, on that person’s response. Suffering can and will destroy a person’s soul sometimes, as we all know. I take it that this is in part what James is getting at in chapter 1 of his letter. Will this suffering prove to be a helpful test or a temptation to sin? It depends. But I think we can affirm Jesus’ promise to Paul, who knew a thing or two about suffering: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

For a fascinating, deeply moving, and fairly “secular” account of this point, read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl, a psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor who stood on the highest moral high ground imaginable—besides Jesus himself—says that every instance of suffering offers us a choice: will this suffering crush our souls or enable us to grow spiritually. In many cases, he conceded that suffering crushed his fellow inmates, but he didn’t believe that it needed to. It’s a choice.

After one particularly difficult episode in the death camp, his fellow prisoners were committing suicide in large numbers. He said that he gathered his colleagues and gave them a speech (I’m paraphrasing), “You want to kill yourself because you don’t expect anything more out of life. But life still expects something from you! Even if it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high.”

We’re Christians! How much more true is that for us? God expects something from us! As Frankl quotes Dostoyevsky: “My greatest fear isn’t suffering—only that I wouldn’t be worthy of my suffering.”

I don’t deny that we “pick our spots,” pastorally, when we communicate words about God’s sovereignty or providential care, but it isn’t the case that we never say anything or, in my opinion, resort only to saying, as so many of our fellow mainline Protestants do, “It’s a mystery.” Well, it may be a mystery to us in our finiteness, but it isn’t to God. And it’s perfectly okay to affirm some things about suffering, preferably before we’re in the midst of it.

A word about tragedies

May 6, 2015

hartI can always count on fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli to write something that gets under my skin. He did so again—although I suppose David Bentley Hart deserves more of the blame this time. Micheli was using Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea to make a point about suffering. I disagree with that particular point, as I made clear in the comments section of his blog and on a fellow WordPress blogger who commended Micheli’s post.

In response to the latter, I wrote the following:

I left a similar comment over at Micheli’s blog, but I won’t hold my breath that he’ll respond. (We have history.) I’ve read Hart’s book, and for a while I was enamored of it, not because it made much sense, but because he wrote with such force, such extreme self-confidence, such derision, how could he be wrong? But if so, how do we explain this very sentence that Micheli excerpts?

Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends.

How is this not a remarkable concession on Hart’s part—one which contradicts much of what Hart says (or what Micheli says he says)? If this is true—that God “can certainly” turn even suffering and death providentially “toward God’s good ends” (I would say “will certainly,” per Romans 8:28, but that hardly affects my point), then that implies that suffering has meaning: God is using it for his redemptive purposes. If there’s a purpose in allowing it, then that implies meaning.

Or think of it this way: If we believe that God responds to and at least occasionally grants our petitionary prayers (it’s hard to argue against this point on biblical grounds), then what are we to imagine when God doesn’t grant our petition? There are three options, as far as I can see: (1) God is powerless to grant the petition; (2) God is capricious about granting our petitions; or (3) God has a good reason (whether we know what it is or not) in not granting this particular petition.

Is there a fourth option? I don’t know what it is.

I had a clergy friend tell me, “Maybe God sometimes just lets nature run its course.” Yes, but why? If there are times when God doesn’t “just let nature run its course,” as my friend conceded that there are, then surely God has a good reason in those cases. And if he has a reason in those cases, there is, therefore, meaning in all cases.

Think about the nearly infinite sequence of cause and effect that is set in motion in all directions by even one small event, never mind an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami. Even one person’s death affects hundreds, or thousands, throughout history—people born, people unborn, people who may not even exist because of this person’s death. One “small” death changes the world. God can’t simply “let nature run its course” without intervening in some way—if in fact God loves us the way scripture says he does.

Also, I wonder if you’re not falling victim (as so many of us do when it comes to such large-scale tragedy) to “sum of suffering” arguments. What I mean is, the scale or extent of a tragedy adds nothing to the argument for or against God’s goodness. As C.S. Lewis said, “The sum of suffering doesn’t exist because no one suffers it.” In other words, the worst suffering in the world is the one person who suffers the most, and no more. The worst suffering that existed in the wake of that earthquake in Nepal was one person suffering. No one suffered more than that. While that suffering was obviously terrible, each of the dozens of people who died in traffic accidents while driving home today suffered nearly as much as anyone suffered in Nepal.

My point is, whether God lets one person die in a car accident, or one-hundred thousand in an earthquake, God is no more or no less off the hook for human suffering.

Finally, at the risk of sounding glib, heaven does balance the scales of justice. We need an afterlife for justice to be fully and finally done. That is part of our Christian hope.

Sermon 04-26-15: “Warts and All, Part 2: In Fear and Much Trembling”

May 5, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

We often judge ourselves against the standards of this world. And when we do, we often find that we don’t measure up. In today’s scripture, Paul talks about a different standard: the “foolishness of the cross.” How would our lives be better if we lived according to that standard?

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:26-2:5

[To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3 of this sermon.]

Have you heard the news? According to no less an authority than the Wall Street Journal, God is not dead after all.


Some of you were around back in 1966, when Time magazine had its infamous cover story asking, “Is God Dead?” By the way, I liked what Billy Graham said to a reporter when asked if God, indeed, was dead: “Of course not!” he said. “I was talking with him just this morning!”

The point is, fifty years ago the conventional wisdom of well-respected “experts” assured us that science would soon prove that God doesn’t exist, or at least as we learned more and more about our universe, we would outgrow our need for God to explain things, and belief in God would soon disappear.

And now, as I just learned a few weeks ago, a Wall Street Journal opinion piece published late last year, entitled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God,” has become the most popular, the most widely forwarded article in the history of the paper. Among other things, the author, Eric Metaxas, convincingly argues that, far from showing that God doesn’t exist, astrophysics increasingly shows how incredibly unlikely it is that a universe such as ours, with a planet like ours that supports life the way it does, should exist at all. When I say “unlikely,” I mean this: astrophysics shows that in order for our universe to exist, it would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row—that’s a million million times in a row. Read the rest of this entry »


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