Posts Tagged ‘C.S. Lewis’

What’s right with “everything happens for a reason”?

October 28, 2015

This blog post, “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,” is making the social media rounds this week. The blogger, Tim Lawrence, is only the latest to attack the oft-repeated aphorism “everything happens for a reason.” Like a good politician, I’ve been both against it and for it—not the expression itself (which, like all platitudes, should be used sparingly if ever) but the meaning underneath it. Do you remember when I attacked Laura Story’s song “Blessings” before deciding, a year later, that it was profoundly good?

Isn’t that funny? What can I say? I’m a work in progress.

Regardless, with proper qualification, I now endorse the belief that “everything happens for a reason.” I believe it’s an inescapable consequence of God’s sovereignty, it accords perfectly well with the witness of scripture, and, personally, I find it immensely comforting, as I’ve blogged and preached several times before (including here). For my fellow Christians, I always recommend three books on the topic: C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Timothy Keller’s recent masterpiece, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

If you want to know why I changed my mind on the subject, start with those three books. They blew me away. They exposed how shallow my thinking on the subject of suffering and God’s providence and sovereignty had been.

Would they make any sense to someone who isn’t already a Christian? I don’t know. (Frankl was a Jewish survivor of Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. His is a “secular,” non-sectarian book, but, in my opinion, it’s premised upon a God who must be there to give meaning to our suffering.)

With that in mind, I don’t know if Lawrence is a Christian, or even a religious person. He uses the language of blessing, as you see below, which is religious language. I read in his bio that he suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy. His blog aims to encourage people who are experiencing pain and suffering.

He writes:

I now live an extraordinary life. I’ve been deeply blessed by the opportunities I’ve had and the radically unconventional life I’ve built for myself. Yet even with that said, I’m hardly being facetious when I say that loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in many ways it’s hardened me.

His own loss, he says, has not in and of itself made him a better person.

That seems right, as far as it goes: No loss, no suffering, no pain, in and of themselves, can make us better people. As Frankl observed from his experience in the death camps, the suffering that his fellow inmates endured often did destroy their souls. But—and here’s the key point—he didn’t believe that even the most intense amount of suffering necessarily would. As he writes:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate…

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.[1]

Lawrence, by contrast, is unwilling to put the responsibility of that decision on the person who is suffering. Ever. He’s indignant at the suggestion:

Let me be crystal clear: if you’ve faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life.

While I sympathize, one consequence of Lawrence’s thinking is that the suffering person can only ever be a victim, or, as Frankl puts it, a “plaything of circumstance.” Does Lawrence want that to be the case?

I don’t. Although I recognize that wanting something to be otherwise doesn’t make it so.

Still, if Lawrence is right, let’s concede that much of what the Bible tells us about suffering is also nonsense. I’m thinking, for example, of Joseph’s profound words to his brothers after their reunion in Genesis 50: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Or Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12: This thorn, whatever it is, is both a “messenger from Satan sent to torment” Paul and a gift that “was given” by God (notice the divine passive) to keep Paul from “becoming conceited.”

In both Joseph’s and Paul’s cases, therefore, we see God transforming a genuinely evil event or circumstance into something good for them and for the world.

Does God work like this all the time? Is their experience universal?

I think so, at least for us Christians. I’m thinking of the apostle James’s words about the trials we endure, in James 1:2-4, and how they are for our good: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness…” Or Paul’s words in Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Even Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5 to “give thanks in all circumstances” only makes sense if God is working providentially through everything. It’s also worth noting that when Paul wrote his “epistle of joy” to the Philippians, telling them to “rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice,” he was enduring a brutal imprisonment that he wasn’t sure he would even survive.

My point is, while it’s true that pain and suffering in and of themselves can’t make us better people or the world a better place, the good news is that we don’t experience anything in the world in and of itself! There’s no corner of the universe untouched by God’s grace. There’s no place in this world where the Holy Spirit isn’t actively at work. There’s no evil more powerful than God’s redemptive love.

If God can take the greatest evil imaginable—the cross of his Son Jesus—and transform it into the greatest good imaginable, can he or will he not do the same with lesser evils in our own lives?

Lawrence replaces one aphorism (“Everything happens for a reason”) with another: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

That’s true, although we can trust the Lord that whatever we’re “carrying,” we’re carrying because God wants us to, that it’s good for us, and that we’ll receive the grace we need to do so.

1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 66-7.

Lewis: “Attempts at worship are often 99.9 percent failures”

October 2, 2015


“Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.” So begins Psalm 103, the psalm to which my “Fight Songs” sermon series takes us this Sunday. One thought I’ve had as I’ve studied the psalm is how impoverished our praise is in a typical worship service—nearly any worship service in my experience.

C.S. Lewis, in his book Reflections on the Psalms, doesn’t disagree. At all. In fact, one doubts he’d ever worshiped outside of some stodgy Anglican parish (not that they’re all stodgy!). Still, he says, we shouldn’t on this account lose heart. He writes:

For our “services” both in their conduct and in our power to participate, are merely attempts at worship; never fully successful, often 99.9 per cent failures, sometimes total failures. We are not riders but pupils in the riding school; for most of us the falls and bruises, the aching muscles and the severity of the exercise, far outweigh those few moments in which we were, to our own astonishment, actually galloping without terror and without disaster. To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God—drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds. The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.

Meanwhile of course we are merely, as Donne says, tuning our instruments. the tuning up of the orchestra can be itself delightful, but only to those who can in some measure, however little, anticipate the symphony. The Jewish sacrifices, and even our own most sacred rites, as they actually occur in human experience, are, like the tuning, promise, not performance. Hence, like the tuning, they may have in them much duty and little delight; or none. But the duty exists for the delight. When we carry out our “religious duties” we are like people digging channels in a waterless land, in order that when at last the water comes, it may find them ready. I mean, for the most part. There are happy moments, even now, when a trickle creeps along the dry beds; and happy souls to whom this happens often.[1]

1. C.S. Lewis, “Reflections on the Psalms,” in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1987), 180.

Sermon 09-20-15: “The Pursuit of Happiness”

September 30, 2015

Fight Songs

Psalm 1 teaches us what we need to be truly happy in life. But it looks nothing like our “American dream”-version of happiness. Indeed, as much as I revere our Founding Fathers, they were wrong: the right to pursue happiness, at least for its own sake, is a dead end street. As C.S. Lewis said, “Aim for heaven, and you’ll get earth thrown in. Aim for earth, and you’ll get neither.” Unfortunately, too many of us have spent far too much time “aiming for earth.” Instead, this psalm tells us, the key to happiness is to fall in love with the Lord. This sermon invites us to do just that.

Sermon Text: Psalm 1:1-6

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

If you were a child of the ’60s or ’70s, you have no doubt seen classic live-action Disney movies such as Herbie the Love Bug, That Darn Cat, and The Shaggy D.A. And if so, you’ll know who actor Dean Jones is. Jones died two weeks ago at 84. When he was at the height of his success in the late-’60s and early-’70s, Jones had more money than he knew what to do with—and spent it on lavish homes, fast Italian sports cars, and exotic vacations. And women. Even though he was married at the time, every night he would have a different Hollywood starlet on his arm—and just as often in his bed.

Actor Dean Jones, who died earlier this month.

Actor Dean Jones, who died earlier this month.

For years, he said, he had deceived himself into believing that the Hollywood lifestyle would satisfy him, but it had only left him depressed and suicidal, especially after his wife finally divorced him and he was estranged from his children. He began to see life as a pointless exercise in futility, to be managed by copious amounts of alcohol and a parade of one-night stands.

Later, after he nearly died in a drunk-driving accident, he cried out to God: “I’ve done everything in this world I thought would make me happy and it doesn’t work. I have everything and I have nothing. I have no choice but to believe [in you, God]. If you don’t exist, then I’m a dead man.” And he surrendered his life to Christ, and he was never the same.

But I like this insight: “I’ve done everything in this world I thought would make me happy and it doesn’t work. I have everything and I have nothing.” You and I probably don’t quite have everything, but, like most Americans, we’re probably a lot closer to “everything” than to “nothing.”

But are we happy? Read the rest of this entry »

Prayer Service Homily 08-23-15: “Faith into Action”

September 1, 2015

I preached the following homily at our church’s most recent prayer and healing service, on Sunday evening, August 23, 2015.

Homily Text: 1 Samuel 17:40-48

The following is my original manuscript.

My mother was a collector of Lladró porcelain figurines. Do you know what I’m talking about? They were these beautiful, delicate little knickknacks that she put on a shelf behind glass in a hutch in the “living room”—which was a strange name for it, since no one ever lived in the living room—unless we were entertaining Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles. But that was only once in a blue moon. The point is, these figurines lived in this room in which we kids were never allowed to play—a room where few people ever ventured, a room where everything collected dust from lack of use. These figurines were for decoration only; they weren’t action figures.

Even though, to a four- or five-year-old kid they looked deceptively like action figures.

But the point is, if you played with them—which is to say, if you used them—you got into big trouble. They were not to be used; they were to be put on a shelf, where they looked pretty and collected dust.

I confess that I want my Christian faith to be like these Lladró figurines. I want to put my faith on a shelf—where it looks good, and it’s there if I ever need it—but I never want to need it. You know what I mean? Life never seems to work out that way, does it? You can’t go very long without being put in a situation where circumstances demand that we put our faith into action.

In a letter C.S. Lewis wrote a Benedictine monk in 1938, on the eve of war with the Germans, he said:

I have been in considerable trouble over the present danger of war. Twice in one life—and then to find how little I have grown in fortitude despite my conversion. It has done me a lot of good by making me realise how much of my happiness secretly depended on the tacit assumption of at least tolerable conditions for the body: and I see more clearly, I think, the necessity (if one may so put it) which God is under of allowing us to be afflicted—so few of us will really rest all on Him if He leaves us any other support.

So he’s saying that he’s ben very worried out about the possibility of war. The extent to which he’s worried has surprised himself. After all, he’s already been to war himself—he fought in World War I, and got injured. And he’s been a Christian for a long time. Why, after all these years of being a Christian, can’t he heed Jesus’ words about “not being anxious” about anything and not worrying. Why doesn’t he have more courage and strength after all these years?

His anxiety about war has made him realize how much his happiness depends not on his faith in God, but on physical safety and physical comfort and physical security. Which is why, he says, it’s necessary for God to “allow us to be afflicted.” Because so few of us will “really rest all on God,” he says, “if He leaves us any other support.”

If you’re worried about something tonight, then it’s likely because you, like C.S. Lewis, have been leaning on something or someone other than God for support. You’ve been trusting in something or someone other than God for support. And it’s as if God has knocked that pillar out from under you now. And you’re scared, you’re worried, you’re fearful.

If so, the good news is that the Bible is filled with heroes who are just like you—who are filled with excuses about why they shouldn’t be the one to face what God has asked them to face; to do what God has asked to do; to endure what God has asked them to endure. Moses was called, and he said, “God, I’m a man who’s slow of speech—I stutter or stammer. I’m not an effective speaker. Who am I to stand up to the most powerful man in the world and say, ‘Let my people go!’”

Or think of Gideon, when he’s called to lead an army against Israel’s enemies. He says, “God, I’d be happy to do what you ask, but can you pass this little test first…” [Fleece]

Or think of Esther. Her cousin Mordecai says that she needs to go to the king and talk him out of destroying the Jews in Persia, and she’s like, “If I approach the king without being summoned, he’ll kill me!”

There are always good reasons for avoiding facing the thing that God is asking you to face, or doing the thing that God is asking you to do, or enduring what God is asking you to endure. There are always perfectly good reasons why you, of all people, shouldn’t be the one to face it, do it, endure it. “Why has this happened to me of all people?” you might ask.

Well, if you’re asking that question this evening, then you can be sure that it’s because God believes in you more than you believe in yourself. The apostle Paul probably asked the same question: “Why is this happening to me?” when God let the devil afflict him with this thorn in his flesh, whatever that was, as he describes in 2 Corinthians 12. Yet God tells him, in so many words, I’m going to give you the grace that you need to handle this. I’m not going to take this thorn away from you—I’m not going to make you all better, the way you want—but I am going to use this thorn in the flesh to accomplish something even better: You see, not only will I give you the grace that you need to endure this affliction, I’m going to make you a better, stronger, more faithful person through this affliction. “For my power,” Jesus told Paul, “is made perfect in weakness.”

God says, “You’re going to be more powerful if I don’t take this thorn away—or maybe I should say, I’m going to be able to work more powerfully through you if I don’t take this thorn in the flesh away. Trust me, Paul. You’ll see.”

Sometimes God afflicts us with something he wants us to learn to live with, to cope with. Sometimes God wants us to defeat this challenge, to overcome it. Either way, it’s going to require us to do what we normally don’t want to do: which is, to take our faith down off the shelf where sometimes it collects dust from lack of use and put it into action.

In other words, it’s time for you and I to go to go down to our river bank, pick up some smooth stones that look good for slaying giants, take dead aim at our enemy, and hurl that stone as hard as we can. God will make sure it hits the target!

What giant are you facing tonight?

Is apologetics a four-letter word?

August 19, 2015

When did I become such a “fundamentalist”? ;-)

I was hanging out on a relatively conservative, evangelical-friendly Facebook page for United Methodists. Someone asked us what additional classes should seminaries offer that they’re not currently offering—or at least requiring. I said that we should be required to take a course in apologetics. To which a fellow clergy said the following:

Apologetics is a fundamentally flawed discourse, that too easily reduces the faith to the lowest common denominator under the guise of defending it. The faith doesn’t need defending, it needs proclamation.

Another pastor agreed, saying that intellectual objections are merely a smokescreen for an inward, “heart”-related problem. Presumably, once we deal with the underlying spiritual or emotional problem, the intellectual problems take care of themselves. Besides, he said, no one comes to faith through logic or reason.

While I agree that no one comes to faith through logic or reason alone—apart from the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit—Christianity is a rational religion. How could reason and logic not play an important role in evangelism? Otherwise, why bother with language at all? We may as well speak in tongues to unbelievers. (Actually, the apostle Paul has something to say about that very problem in 1 Corinthians 14!)

Besides, the concern is not merely with unbelievers, as I said in this comment thread: What about the intellectual doubts of the already converted? After all, nearly every day we pastors have to be able to reconcile our world of suffering and pain with our proclamation that God is good—that God really does love us. If we pastors haven’t worked that question out, intellectually, we’re doomed! And having read testimonies from pastors who lose their faith, I know that theodicy is Reason No. 1.

It won’t do to say, as mainline Protestant seminary often teaches us to say, “It’s all a mystery.”

I continued:

Or what about the intellectual doubts of young Christians going off to college and being exposed for the first time to ideas that directly contradict what they’ve learned in church? That happens all the time. Are we not supposed to equip young Christians to handle these questions?

Because they constantly hear things such as: Jesus never existed; the resurrection motif was borrowed from other myths and legends; the resurrection was a legendary development that happened over decades; Paul “invented” Christianity by distorting or ignoring the teachings of the historical Jesus; Jesus didn’t say or do most of the things attributed to him in the gospels; we have no contemporaneous accounts of the historical Jesus; science is irreconcilable with Christian faith; evolution disproves Christianity; Stephen Hawking has shown how “quantum gravity” accounts for creation out of nothing; the existence of evil proves God doesn’t exist.

I could go on, obviously.

Are we not supposed to furnish answers to these questions—or just let these intellectual doubts fester? The moment we attempt to answer them, however, we are doing apologetics. So we may as well learn to do it properly.

My concern, therefore, is not merely evangelism. It’s also bolstering the faith of Christians, all of whom experience intellectual doubts from time to time. In other words, it’s not only a “heart” problem.

I could point to Paul’s preaching in Acts 17 as an example of apologetics. But also: his words at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15 are incomprehensible if he’s not appealing to evidence for the resurrection: the resurrection is a real historical event, Paul says, and here’s how we can know. In our own way, we ought to be equipped to do the same. Not to prove it scientifically, but to show the reasonableness of it.

Fortunately, in our own day, we are blessed with serious scholars who are doing this good work: Alvin Plantinga, Peter Kreeft, Alister McGrath, John Lennox, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, et al.

Obviously, thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Chesterton did the same in their day.

No less a late-modern theologian than Wolfhart Pannenberg believed that the work of theology was inseparable from apologetics.

Have I made case? Why would fellow clergy have a problem with apologetics? What am I missing?

Lewis: God allows us to be “afflicted” out of necessity

August 13, 2015

My devotional Bible reading this morning included Psalm 62, which includes words such as these: “He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.” The C.S. Lewis Bible, from which I was reading, included this excerpt from a letter Lewis wrote to a Benedictine monk in 1938.

I have been in considerable trouble over the present danger of war. Twice in one life—and then to find how little I have grown in fortitude despite my conversion. It has done me a lot of good by making me realise how much of my happiness secretly depended on the tacit assumption of at least tolerable conditions for the body: and I see more clearly, I think, the necessity (if one may so put it) which God is under of allowing us to be afflicted—so few of us will really rest all on Him if He leaves us any other support.[1]

I’m not currently afraid of war, but I have something equivalent: a fear that has knocked all other supports out from under me, forcing me to depend on God alone for the answer. Mercifully, this happens from time to time. It’s never the path I would choose, but now that I’m in this place, it’s a good place to be. Thank you, God.

1. C.S. Lewis, “My Refuge Is in God” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 614.

Sermon 08-02-15: “Love Never Fails”

August 10, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

1 Corinthians 13 is among the most beautiful poems about love ever written. It’s also countercultural today, since we often think of love in sentimental terms. Paul, by contrast, emphasizes that love is mostly action, not feeling. This is true not only when it comes to loving our neighbor, but also God. When you compare your own love to this poem, how do you measure up?

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

[To listen on the go, click here to download an MP3.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript. The sermon as delivered may differ slightly.

Do you know what a “mondegreen” is? It’s a word that’s used to refer to song lyrics that are often misheard. So, for example, you know that love song by the Beatles, “Michelle”? Paul sings some of the words in French: “Michelle, my belle”—which means, “my beauty.” Then he says, “sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble.” Which means, literally, “Michelle, ’my beauty,’ these are words that are well suited for one another.” Or, as he says in order to make it rhyme: “these are words that go together well.”

The problem is that “Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble” was often misheard as as “Some day monkey play piano song, play piano song.” Maybe that’s an extreme example, but we have a far more recent mondegreen: The song is “Blank Space,” on Taylor Swift’s most recent album. And the line is, “All the lonely Starbucks lovers/ They tell me I’m insane.” Or at least that’s what I and many others, including Taylor Swift’s own mother, thought she said. What she really said, however, was, “Got a long list of ex-lovers/ They tell me I’m insane.”

taylor_swiftThere are many other examples, which you can look up online. The point is, we do often mishear song lyrics.

Now… 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t a song, it is very lyrical, very poetic—surely the most famous poem about love in ancient literature, and one of the two or three most well-known passages of scripture alongside Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer. And like a mondegreen, we have a problem hearing it correctly. We often treat 1 Corinthians 13 as if there aren’t twelve chapters preceding it and three chapters following it. My point is, Paul did not say, “Wouldn’t it be great to write a sweet poem about love right here in the middle of this letter. No, he’s writing these beautiful, powerful words about love to address the main problem that the Corinthian church was having: they were failing to love one another! Read the rest of this entry »

Face it, Reverend: you make prayer mostly about you

July 30, 2015

lewisMy prayer life is incredibly selfish. I’m either proud of myself for doing my “duty” of prayer; or I feel sorry for myself that God expects me to attend to prayer when there are more urgent demands impinging on my time; or I’m obsessed with whether prayer is “working,” by which I mean, is God doing anything in response to my petitions—or worse, is prayer producing the requisite feelings of “love” or “peace” or “holiness” that I’m supposed to feel when I pray? Then there’s the ever-present temptation to look over my shoulder: Is prayer working as well for me as it is for others? Why am I worse at it than others?

Plus, don’t get me started on the public prayers I must do as part of my day job: that devilish voice in the back of my head, praising myself: “You’re really nailing it, Brent—you’re perfectly expressing what the people are feeling!” Or: “You’re performing, Brent. You don’t really mean these words; you’re just trying to sound eloquent.” Or: “People can see through you, Brent. You’re such a phony. If they knew what was really in your heart, they wouldn’t stand to listen to you.”

Or don’t get me started on the prayers I offer for my church. I pray for lives to be changed. I pray for souls to saved. But what’s underneath these prayers? Too often, it’s a selfish concern for professional success. If my church “grows,” after all, I’ll look good to my colleagues, my district superintendent, my bishop; I’ll get ahead; I’ll secure a better appointment in the future! Or, I’ll be able to hold my head high and not be shamed by the success of colleagues whose churches are growing, whose stars seem to shine brightly. What about my star?

So you see I’m a mess. God help me!

All these sinful thoughts turn me away from the Object of prayer. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, this is precisely what our Enemy wants; he’s as skilled as any magician in the art of misdirection. (Please note that when Lewis uses “Enemy,” writing from the perspective of Screwtape, a demon and senior tempter, he’s referring to our heavenly Father.)

Whenever they are attending to Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.[†]

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 195.

Lewis: “All events are equally providential”

July 30, 2015

lewisI wanted to provide an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’s Miracles (actually, from Appendix B of that book) as a follow-up to yesterday’s post about prayer and God’s foreknowledge—and I will, perhaps tomorrow.

But first this: I re-read Appendix B just now, and I’m reminded how these few pages dramatically changed my thinking about the doctrines of Providence and God’s sovereignty. In a way, I’m hardly exaggerating when I say that these words changed my life. What I mean is, Lewis’s crystal-clear reflection on how God normally works in the world—providentially, through the (somewhat) predictable course of physical history—enabled me to affirm an idea that my half-baked, vaguely Wesleyan seminary education caused me to resist up to that point: that God, indeed, is in control—of everything. Indeed, that everything happens for a reason.

Let me qualify this immediately: I’m not a determinist. God can be in control without directly controlling everything—without necessarily determining the behavior or overriding the free will of free creatures. But since God foreknows what these free creatures will do under any circumstance—and even what they would do under other circumstances—God can create the world he needs to create in order to get the outcome that he desires: in this case, nothing less than the redemption of the world and the salvation of as many as will place their faith in his Son Jesus.

Granted, we finite human creatures struggle to understand how this is possible. But with God all things are possible.

On this blog I’ve often defended the aphorism, “Everything happens for a reason.” (See this recent post as one example.) I’m reminded that my logic comes directly from Lewis, who begins Appendix B, “On ‘Special Providence,'” talking about two, and only two, kinds of events in the universe: miraculous events and providential events.

But you might object: “To say something is ‘providential’ is to imply that God’s hand is at work in it—for example, when an event is in answer to prayer. I don’t deny that. But what about that third class of events: those things that happen in the ‘normal’ course of physical history, when God simply lets nature run its course? Sure these are neither miraculous nor providential. They’re just normal events.”

No, Lewis says, there are no normal events that aren’t also providential:

Unless we are to abandon the conception of Providence altogether, and with it the belief in efficacious prayer, it follows that all events are equally providential. If God directs the course of events at all then he directs the movement of every atom at every moment; ‘not one sparrow falls to the ground’ without that direction. The ‘naturalness’ of natural events does not consist in being somehow outside God’s providence. It consists in their being interlocked with one another inside a common space-time in accordance with the fixed pattern of the ‘laws’.[†]

Are you still not convinced? Go back and read the post that I mentioned above: everything hinges on what Lewis calls “the belief in efficacious prayer.” If we believe God answers prayer even sometimes, then we are compelled by logic and our firm belief in God’s goodness to also believe, as Lewis says, that “if God directs the course of events at all then he directs the movement of every atom at every moment.”

The upshot of Lewis’s ruminations on Providence and answered prayer was my realization—better late than never—that God, more than merely being with us, is always and everywhere at work in every part of our lives; through every circumstance—even through our suffering; even through our sin. It’s not that our sins are somehow good—perish the thought! It’s that God has the power to redeem them and use them for good. The universe is alive with God’s grace at every moment if we have the faith to comprehend it.

Without this understanding, how else can we say, alongside St. Paul, “give thanks in all circumstances” and “rejoice in the Lord always”?

And just think: I got all that from reading six pages!

C.S. Lewis, “Miracles” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 456-7.

Wright on “treasure in heaven”

July 17, 2015

More than any other contemporary Christian thinker, N.T. Wright has reminded us that at the center of our Christian hope is future resurrection into God’s renewed, restored, and re-created world on the other side of death, Second Coming, and final judgment. Merely going to “heaven when we die,” he says many times over, pales in comparison and doesn’t do justice to the biblical message.

I agree for the most part, although popular Christian thinkers from previous generations—I’m thinking of Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis, for instance—often had this full-bodied vision even when they used the word “heaven”—as many do today.

Nevertheless, Wright is right that the popular imagination often pictures heaven as an escape from this world—as a place where we’ll float on clouds in some disembodied, ethereal place far, far away. This picture of heaven pervades many 19th century hymns that remain popular today—not to mention many dumb Hollywood movies.

I find these words from Wright about “treasure in heaven” in the story of the Rich Young Ruler helpful:

When Jesus says ‘You will have treasure in heaven’, he doesn’t mean that the young man must go to heaven to get it; he means that God will keep it stored up for him until the time when, in the Age to Come, all is revealed. The reason you have money in the bank is not so that you can spend it in the bank but so that you can take it out and spend it somewhere else. The reason you have treasure in heaven, God’s storehouse, is so that you can enjoy it in the Age to Come when God brings heaven and earth together at last. And ‘eternal life’, as most translations put it, doesn’t mean ‘life in a timeless, otherworldly dimension’, but ‘the life of the Age to Come’ (the word ‘eternal’ translates a word which means ‘belonging to the Age’).

Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 135.


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