Posts Tagged ‘C.S. Lewis’

The cross is not incidental to Christ’s mission

April 17, 2014

Last December, in these two blog posts, here and here, I wrote a response to Jason Micheli, a popular fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, who argued in a series of posts that Christmas doesn’t need the cross: the purpose of the Incarnation was not in order to save us, and even if humanity had never fallen into sin, God would still have sent his Son into the world.

Needless to say, I vehemently disagreed, which you can read about above.

But at least my fellow pastor is consistent. Now that we’re nearing Good Friday, he’s recycling the same arguments again, arguing that the cross isn’t necessary for atonement; that the Father would never send his Son to die on the cross; that the cross is merely the world’s equal and opposite reaction against anyone’s faithfulness to God; and that the cross is therefore completely incidental to God’s saving purposes. Presumably, our Lord could have died of old age—had the world allowed him to—and that would have been no more or less salvific.

I don’t think I’m misrepresenting his viewpoint. I tried to engage him on the topic last December, and he wasn’t interested.

I understand the motivation to want to argue that the Father doesn’t send his Son to die on the cross. By this way of thinking, if suffering is always only a consequence of human sin or the accidental outworking of cause-and-effect—rather than something that God might also will—then God is off the hook for it, and all those moral objections to God are neutralized.

In some temple of pure thought, I can see the appeal of such a god. For one thing, such a hands-off god wouldn’t get so worked up over my sins and make so many demands on my life.

As always, however, we have the Bible to contend with. There are too many scriptures I could cite in my defense from both Testaments, and you probably know most of them yourself. But even if we restrict ourselves to Jesus: When he prays, “Not my will but thine be done,” we are right to infer that God willed Jesus to suffer death on the cross.

Does the cross also reflect the free will of civil, religious, and military authorities such as Pilate, Caiaphas, and the Roman soldiers, not to mention the bystanders in the crowd who cheered them on? Of course. They didn’t need God to “give them a push” to send Jesus to the cross. It was both the consequence of human free will and the chosen means by which God atones for our sins.

Also, as I’ve said a dozen times before on this blog, the Son isn’t an unwitting victim either of his Father’s or the world’s schemes: out of love for us, Jesus chooses to go to the cross. The Son wants what the Father wants.

All that to say, where the god of the philosophers conflicts with the God of the Bible, we side with the Bible. Fortunately, the God of the Bible is not only more interesting, he’s also much worthier of worship.

For one thing, the God of the Bible loves us so much that he lets us suffer, when that suffering will be for our good. And the suffering of his Son Jesus was for the greatest good of all: our salvation.

For another, with the God of the Bible, we get to believe, alongside C.S. Lewis, “What God sends us must be sent in love and will all be for the best if we have the grace to use it so.”[†]

“The Ultimate Law” in The C.S. Lewis Bible NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1106.

Lewis: “The diagram of Love Himself”

April 16, 2014

C.S. Lewis on the love revealed in Christ’s death on the cross:

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing… the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a “host” who deliberately creates His own parasites, causes us to be that we may exploit and “take advantage of” Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the invented of all loves.[†]

C.S. Lewis, “Herein Is Love” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1105.

Another worthy David Brooks column, this time about suffering

April 10, 2014

Last fall, as I was shoulder-deep in Tim Keller’s profoundly good book about suffering and providence, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, I might have mistaken this column from New York Times‘s David Brooks for an excerpt from it. Brooks begins:

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

“People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.” Exactly right! This experience of feeling formed is better and deeper than mere happiness, as most of us know, even if we wouldn’t ordinarily choose it. We would choose formation by some easier path than suffering, but God knows suffering is what we usually get. Jesus speaks to this paradoxical truth when he talks about “finding our life by losing it,” denying ourselves, and choosing the narrow, difficult path that leads to life. Jesus promises and delivers us an abundant life, it just doesn’t come the way we want or expect.

As C.S. Lewis put it in probably the best book about Christianity I’ve read:

I have seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers. I have seen men, for the most part, grow better not worse with advancing years, and I have seen the last illness produce treasures of fortitude and meekness from most unpromising subjects. I see in loved and revered historical figures, such as Johnson and Cowper, traits which might scarcely have been tolerable if the men had been happier. If the world is indeed a ‘vale of soul making’ it seems on the whole to be doing its work.[†]

But as Lewis and Brooks both know, the same potentially soul-making action of suffering can, for some people, be soul-crushing. As Brooks writes,

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

What determines whether it’s one or the other? I agree with Viktor Frankl, whom Brooks also refers to. Frankl said that all suffering—and by all, this Auschwitz survivor means all—can potentially be an opportunity for spiritual growth: it only depends on our response.

How does suffering do its soul-making work? Brooks offers this insight:

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

Who can’t relate to this?

In my recent experience as a Christian, a renewed awareness of my own sinfulness and God’s judgment—which might seem either depressing or terrifying to some—had the effect of thrusting me “down into these deeper zones” within myself—at which point I found a gracious God waiting for me.

Isn’t it interesting that Brooks describes sufferers as coming to grips with their own lack of control? That’s what I found, too: through sinful pride, I tried to wrest control of my life from God, and the results were disastrous. A part of repenting and turning back to God means surrendering control. Like the Prodigal Son, we surrender our rights as a son or daughter—”I am no longer worthy to be called your son”—only to receive them back again: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.” Repentance is a kind of death and rebirth.

Brooks refers to a “divine process beyond individual control,” a “larger providence,” and a “call” that comes from suffering. That’s right: the reason suffering is, or can be, good for us is because God is working in the midst of it, providentially.

Brooks concludes by saying, “The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined.”

Imagine: David Brooks just told a secular audience in our present age that suffering is a gift fully equal to happiness. Could he have said anything deeper or more countercultural than that?

Regardless, it has the ring of gospel truth.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 108-9.

Love isn’t less than a feeling

April 8, 2014

This past Sunday, I preached from James 4:1-12. I focused on vv. 4-5 (including James’s words, “You adulteresses!”), and the analogy of our relationship with God that those verses imply: that God is our husband and we are his wife. If that’s true, then, in some sense, God loves us in that intimate and passionate way described in Song of Solomon and Ezekiel 17:7-8. I made reference to the Book of Hosea, in which God tells Hosea to marry an adulterous woman (“a wife of whoredom”) so that he can know how Israel’s unfaithfulness makes God feel.

Similarly, our worldliness, James says, is spiritual adultery: it’s cheating on God. It breaks God’s heart.

That sounds very emotional, doesn’t it? Yet, this is the kind of language that the Bible uses all the time: God is in love with us. God is angry with us. God is jealous for us. God is proud of us. God is disappointed in us. These words express emotions. Love is more than a feeling, of course, but it isn’t less than that. By all means, our feeling of love toward our neighbor ebbs and flows: if we aren’t feeling love toward our neighbor, we love them anyway—through our actions. But this inconstancy is our problem, not God’s!

But this very biblical idea that God experiences emotion—that God is affected by what human beings do—comes into conflict with philosophical-theological ideas about God, specifically God’s immutability (God doesn’t change) and God’s impassibility (God is incapable of being affected by anything outside of himself)Theologians who hold fast to these ideas reject all biblical language about God’s experiencing emotion as mere anthropomorphism: the biblical writers are speaking of God in human terms because that’s the only way we can make sense of him.

I don’t deny the reality that God far transcends our ability to describe him and that the Bible portrays God anthropomorphically at times. But I can’t buy into any philosophical-theological system that rejects so much of what the Bible says. When given a choice between what the Bible says and the tidy logic of a philosophical system, I’ll choose the Bible every time.

There are plenty of Christians who prefer philosophy. Take, for instance, my fellow United Methodist pastor who said the following in a recent blog post (he likes carriage returns):

God isn’t loving; God is LOVE with no potentiality. No room for any addition of anything. No cause, as the FIRST CAUSE, to be affected by anything.

God, for good and for ill, is not affected by us at all.

God just loves. Us. God’s creatures. Gratis. Just as we were created. Gratis. The gift never ceases to be given.

Which begs the question:

How is it possible that God is ‘offended’ by our Sin?

How is God’s mind, disposition or will changed by anything we do or don’t do?

The Bible speaks of God in the masculine, which we all recognize is an anthropomorphism made for communication’s sake.

Is it possible God’s anger, wrath, jealousy is also a necessary anthropomorphism made for very urgent, compelling reasons within the life of God’s People? To narrate their experience of the world and with God?

I understand the above will strike many as overly metaphysical, the oft-repeated if ill-informed indictment that metaphysics represents a Hellenization of the Biblical God. Understanding such a disagreement, I nonetheless assert that mine isn’t a solitary perspective but is one with at least half of Christian history behind it.

Keep in mind: this same pastor supports changing our denomination’s stance on human sexuality, in which case he disagrees with 99.99 percent of Christian history. I’m not sure why he thinks “at least half of Christian history” should carry much weight with anyone!

Also, metaphysics alone—which is what all of us engage in when we talk about a God who transcends time and space—isn’t the problem: it’s metaphysics that relies too heavily on Greek philosophical ideas at the expense of scripture. If it’s true, as he says in his defense, that he’s merely reflecting the theology of Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics, well… I guess that’s what Protestant Reformations are for!

Be that as it may, I can’t reconcile his understanding of God with the Bible, and I’ll bet you can’t either. For one thing, we are made in God’s image. Whatever else that means, it means that we’re like God in many important ways. When God blessed humanity and called us “very good,” that included our ability to experience real emotion (in a self-conscious way that no other creature can). It’s beyond belief to think that we possess something in our humanness that God doesn’t also possess. Wouldn’t that make God less personal than we are?

One theologian I admire, Roger Olson, wrote about this very issue last week. 

I have remained faithful all these years as an evangelical Christian theologian to what I learned in Sunday School and from my pastor and other spiritual mentors of my youth: God is faithful to himself and to us and always keeps his promises and cannot be anything but good, but he is affected by what happens in our world and by our prayers…

To believe that God cannot change or be affected by his creation, he writes, is to ignore or explain away the entire book of Hosea, among other scriptures:

The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.

From Olson’s (and other theologians’) point of view, God is “our superior, faithful covenant partner who voluntarily allows himself to be affected deeply by us (‘changeable faithfulness’).”

So, to put it in theological terms: God, I believe, could have remained fully God without lack or need, without any creation. However, creation out of love (the overflowing of the innertrinitarian love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the most understandable thing because of God’s great love. Just as a married couple want (not need) a child to share their “couple love” with, so God wanted (not needed) a creation and beings created in his own image and likeness with whom to share his/their love. But because God is personal love, the history of creation affects God inwardly and not only outwardly. God’s emotional life is affected by what creatures do because God is love. But through it all God remains who he is and always has been and always will be. God’s relation to creation does not take anything away from God’s being or character or add anything to it—ethically or ontologically. Emotionally, however, creation does affect God. And God experiences new things in relation to creation. But all this is by God’s free choice; not necessity.

I must admit that I tend to think any other view tends to elevate philosophy over the biblical revelation of God and therefore is, in the most important sense, unorthodox.

Amen to that last sentence! We shouldn’t elevate philosophy over the biblical revelation of God. If our philosophy doesn’t gibe with the Bible, our philosophy is wrong.

I’ve shared this in a blog post before, but it pertains to this discussion. C.S. Lewis, with his usual crystal clarity, puts forward an orthodox understanding of God’s “impassibility” as follows:

[W]e (correctly) deny that God has passions; and with us a love that is not passionate means a love that is something less. But the reason why God has no passions is that passions imply passivity and intermission. The passion of love is something that happens to us, as ‘getting wet’ happens to a body: and God is exempt from that ‘passion’ in the same way that the water is exempt from ‘getting wet’. He cannot be affected with love, because he is love. To imagine that love as something less torrential or less sharp than our own temporary and derivative ‘passion’ is a most disastrous fantasy.[†]

C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 148.

C.S. Lewis on the “duty” of submitting to God’s will

March 11, 2014
C.S. Lewis, the amateur theologian, could teach the pros how to write with clarity—especially, as he put it in a letter, "that awful theologian" Karl Barth.

C.S. Lewis, the amateur theologian, could teach the pros how to write with clarity.

Just yesterday, one of my clergy colleagues on Facebook posted the following:

Ok thoughtful people… I hear people say this phrase a lot “It’s ok. God is in control.” So answer for me: A. What do you mean by this phrase? or B. What do you think of when others use that phrase?

Since I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about God’s providence recently, I felt compelled to offer my two cents. After complaining about how Methodists, in general, have a deficient understanding of God’s providence, I said:

God answers our prayers or God doesn’t, and if he doesn’t, then we can assume that God has good reasons not to. When God allows bad things to happen, then we can assume God has his reasons and that these things are serving God’s good purposes.

If not, it’s hard to see how we aren’t left with a deistic God. It’s also hard to see, for instance, how Romans 8:28 is possibly true.

C.S. Lewis has influenced my thinking on this subject. I’ve written about the Appendix to his book Miracles before, and I’m returning to it here. In the following excerpt, he’s writing about how, since God knows from all eternity the prayers that we would pray, he enables our prayers to influence the outcome of history inasmuch as our prayer requests are congruent with his will. Often, in order for the thing for which we’re praying to come to pass, God has to set events in motion before we actually pray for that thing. This, of course, is no problem for God, since he’s outside of time. Lewis writes:

The following question may be asked: If we can reasonably pray for an event which must in fact have happened or failed to happen several hours ago, why can we not pray for an event which we know not to have happened? e.g. pray for the safety of someone who, as we know, was killed yesterday. What makes the difference is precisely our knowledge. The known event states God’s will. It is psychologically impossible to pray for what we know to be unobtainable; and if it were possible the prayer would sin against the duty of submission to God’s known will.[†]

Did you catch that? Although what Lewis writes is completely consistent with what I learned about providence in Systematic Theology class, Lewis writes with a clarity that would be unbecoming of a professional, as opposed to amateur, theologian. (Lewis was strictly an amateur, which is why the pros don’t think they need to pay attention to him!) What he’s saying is this:

What has happened in the past is God’s will. 

I know, I know… Our minds immediately go to worst case scenarios. Reductio ad Hitlerum. “What about this [insert unspeakably evil event here]? Are you saying that God willed even that?”

Yes…

In the following sense: Given that we live in a universe in which God usually allows predictable physical forces to run their course; honors human (and angelic) free will; and permits these free agents, human and demonic, to do evil if they choose, then God wills even evil events to happen when he knows that any other alternative would be worse.

Only God can possibly foresee all consequences of an event either happening or failing to happen.

Theologically, we know God doesn’t cause evil. Am I suggesting that God wills evil? All things being equal, certainly not! But all things aren’t equal: In his providence God often chooses between nearly infinite shadings of bad, worse, and worst.

Whatever ends up happening, therefore, does reflect God’s will—because we understand that God wants more than one thing. For instance, God wants people to live in peace, but not (usually) at the expense of overriding human freedom (which I hope we can agree is a good thing).

One day it will be perfectly clear, even to our finite human minds, that our Lord has governed our universe wisely. In the meantime, our duty is to trust that the Lord knows what he’s doing.

Not only do I believe this to be true, I find it far more pastorally comforting than to throw up my hands and say, “It’s a mystery why this happened, but God really, really feels bad about it!”

C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 292-3.

Methodists aren’t allergic to God’s sovereignty (or shouldn’t be)

February 12, 2014
I'm on the right track if Lewis agrees with me, or vice versa.

I’m on the right track if Lewis agrees with me, or vice versa.

In my previous post, I took issue with a fellow Wesleyan Christian’s low view of God’s providence. My friend disagreed “wholeheartedly” with William Lane Craig’s statement that providence “rules all of life, even down to the smallest details,” and “nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event.” If this is true, he said, God is “nothing more than a puppeteer… trampling over any conception of free will.”

I hope I offered good reasons why this isn’t true: that human free will is compatible with a high view of providence. I think my friend confused Craig’s saying that God “ruled all of life, even down to the smallest details” with saying that God determined all of life, including every detail. If that were true, as I implied in my post, then God has a strange way of “determining”: since he usually does so by letting the laws of physics run their course—”letting the universe be the universe.”

No: to me, there’s an incredibly important difference between saying that God rules over the universe (the very definition of God’s sovereignty) and God determines everything.

Notice my friend wasn’t saying that providence doesn’t exist, only that there are some things that happen outside of providence—like the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl or an occasional boulder falling and flattening someone. As I tried to show in my post, however, it seems unlikely that God could afford to be so “hands-off” about certain things while at the same time fulfilling, for example, Paul’s words about providence in Romans 8:28. There are way too many consequences associated with events such as these for God not to enfold them within his providential care of the universe.

Pastorally and personally, I find it far more reassuring, when some tragic or evil event occurs, to believe that God allowed it for a reason—even, indeed, that he willed it—than to throw up my hands and say, along with so many mainline Protestants, “It’s a mystery.”

Well, I agree it’s a mystery that we don’t usually know why God allowed something to happen. But we can be confident that God has his reasons, and God allowed it to serve his good purposes.

What’s the alternative? As Christians, we already believe that God transformed the world’s greatest evil, the cross of his Son Jesus, into the world’s greatest good. Does God not also have the power to transform lesser evils in our lives and world into something good? That seems like a strange limit to place on God’s power!

Even as I write these words, some younger version of myself is objecting: “How can this [Tragic Event X] be God’s will?”

Here’s my answer: It can be God’s will because God wants more than one thing. As my friend and frequent commenter Tom Harkins often reminds me, it’s the Law of Competing Principles: God doesn’t necessarily want some tragic or evil event to happen, all things being equal. Nevertheless, given that these are the circumstances in which the world finds itself at this moment (based in part on the free choices of human beings and God’s desire, most of the time, to “let the universe be the universe”), God clearly wants this tragic event to happen more than God wants something else to happen. If not, he would have either created a different world or intervened with a miracle.

We finite human beings may certainly desire some other alternative, but what do we know? Unlike God, we’re not omniscient. We can’t begin to imagine how much more harmful our favored alternative would be than the one that God allowed to happen. So, yes… God willed Tragic Event X to happen because letting it happen beat any other alternative. So let’s trust God: he knows what he’s doing!

Does holding this high view of providence make me a Calvinist? (I suspect that this was the unspoken fear of my fellow Methodist friend.)

Why would it? Wesley himself held a high view of providence. Please remember: We’re not Wesleyans because we don’t believe in God’s sovereignty, only that this sovereignty doesn’t preclude a human being’s free choice—enabled as it is by the Holy Spirit—to accept or reject God’s gift of salvation. There’s only a very narrow kind of freedom at stake in the question, and if it weren’t for God’s prevenient grace, even that freedom wouldn’t exist. We Wesleyan-Arminians would all be nodding in agreement with our Calvinist brethren when they talk about the “T” of TULIP and five-point Calvinism. Apart from prevenient grace, Wesleyans agree that human beings are all “totally depraved,” unable to do anything to save ourselves.

My thinking on this topic, reflected in these two posts, has been greatly informed by C.S. Lewis’s appendix “On Special Providence” in his book Miracles. Like me, Lewis rejects the idea that some events are providential while others aren’t (which my friend Geoff was seemingly saying). Among other things, Lewis writes:

Many pious people… speak of certain events as being ‘providential’ or ‘special providences’ without meaning that they are miraculous. This generally implies a belief that, quite apart from miracles, some events are providential in a sense in which some others are not. Thus some people thought that the weather which enabled us to bring off so much of our army at Dunkirk was ‘providential’ in some way in which weather as a whole is not providential. The Christian doctrine that some events, though not miracles, are yet answers to prayer, would seem at first to imply this.

I find it very difficult to conceive an intermediate class of events which are neither miraculous nor merely ‘ordinary’. Either the weather at Dunkirk was or was not that which the previous history of the universe, by its own character, would inevitably produce. If it was, then how is it ‘specially’ providential? If it was not, then it was a miracle.[1]

So, Lewis says, we face a choice: abandon providence altogether, and with it a belief that God answers prayer, or figure out how all events are providential. So, Lewis writes,

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.’[2]

It’s then Lewis’s burden to show, in greater detail than I’ve gone into, how God can direct without determining, and without ever abrogating human free will or the efficacy of prayer.

In a nutshell, Lewis argues, since God stands outside of time and knows all the prayers that human beings would offer under given circumstances—in what Lewis calls the “eternal Now”—God is creating a world that has built into it as many of these answers to prayer as will serve God’s good purposes.

I especially like this:

When the event you prayed for occurs your prayer has always contributed to it. When the opposite event occurs your prayer has never been ignored; it has been considered and refused, for your ultimate good and the good of the whole universe. (For example, because it is better for you and for everyone else in the long run that other people, including wicked ones, should exercise free will than that you should be protected from cruelty or treachery by turning the human race into automata.)[3]

1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 283-4.

2. Ibid., 284

3. Ibid., 294.

Nothing happens outside of God’s providence

February 11, 2014

In the comments section of my provocatively titled blog post a couple of weeks ago, “God cares who wins the Super Bowl,” my friend and fellow Methodist Geoff disagreed with me—at least in part. He wrote:

On the other hand, I whole-heartedly disagree with William Craig’s idea of providence as that which “rules all of life, even down to the smallest details. Nothing happens without either God’s direct will or at least his permission of that event.” This, in my mind and reasoning, goes the opposite direction of deism, reducing God to nothing more than puppeteer and trampling over any conception of free will (something as a Arminian-Wesleyan I have trouble swallowing). If this is pushed to the radical extreme, it gets into “God caused tragedy X because Y” territory.

I understand where he’s coming from: we Wesleyans are so keen to defend human free will against all deterministic threats that we tend to mistake even good things—like the biblical doctrine of God’s providence—for such threats. And we react. It’s as if we have a spiritual autoimmune disorder. (Sorry, I watched way too much House.)

Geoff writes: “If this is pushed to the radical extreme, it gets into ‘God caused tragedy X because Y’ territory.” If you’ve read any of my reflections on Tim Keller’s latest book, you may have noticed that I’ve emphasized two points: First, there’s an important difference between God’s allowing something to happen and causing something to happen. He allows human beings to make free choices, for example, even when those choices cause great harm.

What’s God’s alternative? A world without human free will is a world in which love is impossible. God wanted his image-bearers to love, even though the price of love was sin and evil. To God’s infinite credit—praise God!—he paid this price in full with his own life on the cross.

I’ve also said that while the difference between “causing” and “allowing” is important, it doesn’t let God off the hook for evil. Every time something evil happens in our world, God chooses to allow it to happen. God could always intervene to stop it. In fact, at any moment in which an evil event is happening, there are likely people praying that God would intervene to stop it, and he doesn’t.

What are we to make of God’s decision not to intervene?

And here is the second point I’ve emphasized throughout my posts on Keller’s book: Unless we believe that God makes arbitrary decisions, we must believe that God has good reasons for allowing some tragic or evil event to occur, even if we have no idea what those reasons are. Moreover, it stands to reason that we can’t know all or most or even a tiny fraction of the reasons. Remember Keller’s analogy using the “butterfly effect”?

With this in mind, I don’t find the following illustration from Geoff persuasive:

So, theoretical case. Rain waters spend centuries beating against a cliff face, loosing a boulder through erosion. Gravity pulls on that boulder over time, and eventually the combination of the two sends the boulder plummeting towards the earth and strikes a person, who dies. Total random accident from a human perspective. Now, the view of providence above says that God caused or allowed this to happen because of reasons we don’t know. Omniscience says God would know that rock would fall and kill that person. Ominpotence suggests God could have just stopped that rock in midair if God wanted to. What if God’s reason for not stopping the rock is that it fell simply because of the laws of physics that God set up in the first place? In other words, God’s purpose in that moment is for the universe to be the universe.

My first objection to Geoff’s illustration has to do with the butterfly effect. If God is going to be “hands-off” about one boulder falling on someone, is God also going to be hands-off about the many consequences of this event? As I wrote in my reply back to him,

That person who gets struck by the boulder doesn’t get struck by the boulder in a vacuum. Like the famous butterfly effect, who can imagine (except God) the nearly infinite sequence of cause and effect this one event triggers? It’s so much more than God letting one boulder fall. Even limiting the scope of this thought experiment to the effects it has on the lives of this person’s immediate family and friends, for example, imagine how significant this one person’s death might be. When does God’s providential care kick in? At what point does God intervene to do something other than merely let the laws of physics run their course?

In other words, if God has any providential role in our world, it’s hard to see how he can let even one event—like a boulder falling on someone’s head—occur outside of his providence.

One problem with people like John Piper or Pat Robertson telling the world why God allowed some horrible event to happen is not only that it’s pastorally unhelpful in that moment, it also shows a lack of humility: How can we possibly know why God allowed this or that to happen—why he granted this petition but not that one? We see through a glass darkly. Isn’t it enough, instead, to simply assert, when the time is right, that God is in control, that he is enfolding even tragic or evil events into his good purposes, and that he is always transforming tragedy and evil into good.

Given that God transformed the greatest evil imaginable—the crucifixion of his Son—into the greatest good imaginable—the redemption of this sinful world—no lesser evil in our world is any match for God.

My second problem with Geoff’s illustration is that it overlooks the fact that God can have more than one purpose in allowing that boulder to fall. Yes, by all means, one of God’s purposes in that moment is to let “the universe be the universe”—to let the laws of physics run their course. God usually “lets the universe be the universe,” doesn’t he? Otherwise, miracles would happen all the time! “Letting the universe be the universe” says nothing about God’s providence.

For example, God could have fashioned the world in such a way that an unnoticed pebble in the man’s path would have tripped him up before he reached the spot at which the boulder hit the ground, thus saving him from being crushed. In either case, whether the man lived or died, God would be “letting the universe be the universe,” all the while respecting the man’s free will, except in one case the man’s life would be saved. Saving his life would be no miracle—the laws of physics weren’t countermanded, after all—yet we can say that God’s providence saved it.

But make no mistake: even if the man were crushed, his death would not happen outside of God’s providence—even though God didn’t directly cause that boulder to fall; God was merely “letting the universe be the universe.” Nevertheless, because of providence, the man’s death would serve God’s good purposes.

As C.S. Lewis argues in an appendix of his book Miracles, God’s providence is at work in every event. (I’ll have to say more about Lewis’s argument in a later post.)

So, getting back to my original point: the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl because of God’s providence. And the Denver Broncos lost because of providence.

Sermon 01-05-14: “My Father’s Business”

January 13, 2014
Here I am on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem back in 2011. The Holy Family made an annual pilgrimage here during Passover, as we see in today's scripture.

Here I am on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem back in 2011. The Holy Family made an annual pilgrimage here during Passover, as we see in today’s scripture.

In today’s scripture, Jesus does something unexpected, causes a lot of stress in the lives of people who love him, and tells them something that they don’t understand. When it comes to following Jesus, what else is new?

We want the Lord to fit into our plans, to operate according to our calendars, and to follow us. Fortunately for us, the Lord gives us what we need, not what we want. His way is always much better!

Sermon Text: Luke 2:41-52

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Back in 2008, a newspaper columnist in New York made national headlines after telling her readers that she left her nine-year-old son alone at the original Bloomingdale’s department store in New York City. She gave him nothing but a subway map, a transit card, a twenty dollar bill, and some quarters in case he needed to use a pay phone. She didn’t even give him a cellphone. And she said, “Have fun. See you later.” And she went home and left him there. The child wanted to be left alone. He’d made this same trip across town with his mom dozens of times, and he assured her that he knew his way home.

Besides, if he got lost, she said she trusted him to ask a stranger for help. “And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, ‘Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.’”

Long story short, she said, he got home safely, “ecstatic with independence.”

Parents, how does that make you feel? Uneasy? Nervous? Angry? She said some of her critics wanted to turn her in for child abuse!

I can relate to their concerns. Is there anything more frightening than having your child get lost? Not being able to find your child? I’ve only had fleeting moments when I was separated from one of my children in a public place and it was scary! My heart dropped.

So we can probably all relate to the panic and fear that Mary and Joseph felt when they realized, at the end of the first day of a three-day journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth, that Jesus wasn’t with them! Imagine how they felt for the next couple of days, frantically retracing their steps searching for him. Read the rest of this entry »

“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one”

December 4, 2013

grinch1

In The Screwtape Letters, the demon Wormwood warns his nephew to nurture his human patient’s burgeoning apostasy very slowly, lest he awaken within him a “sense of his real position” and cause him to repent. For that reason, small sins are often better than large ones.

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.[†]

I’m thinking about this in relation to the Grinch, the subject of this Sunday’s “Reel Christmas” sermon. Why does the Whos happiness bother the Grinch so much? He complains about all the noise they make in their revelry, and he might have a point: For all we know, the Whos are inconsiderate neighbors. If they can’t keep the noise down, can they at least invite the Grinch to celebrate with them?

And we can sympathize with the Grinch for other reasons. After all, the humanoid Whos have one another for company. Except for his faithful, put-upon dog, he’s alone in the world. Where are the other Grinch-like creatures? It’s easy to imagine that he’s faced hardship, adversity, and injustice, which have helped to shape him into this creature. So let’s walk a mile in his shoes before we judge him too harshly.

Still, just think: some tiny seed of righteous indignation took root in his soul and blossomed into a devilish kind of anger. While it will soon motivate him to commit the “big” sin of stealing the Whos‘ Christmas presents, it started out small—small but sinful.

This resonates with me: As I’ve said on this blog and in a recent sermon, I’ve been coming to grips this year with the extent of my own anger. I used to wear it like a badge—like it was a wellspring of hidden strength. Now I see it for what it is: pure, ugly, destructive sin.

I am the Grinch.

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 220.

Sermon 11-24-13: “Thank-You Note, Part 4: Rejoice in the Lord Always”

December 4, 2013
"St. Paul in Prison" by Rembrandt.

“St. Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt.

In this Thanksgiving-themed sermon, Paul urges us to rejoice in the Lord always. Does always really mean always? Is that possible even in the midst of pain, suffering, and trials? If so, Paul would know: he suffered more than most Christians have, and he was writing this joy-filled letter to the Philippians from a harsh imprisonment.

Paul wants us to know that it is possible. “I have learned the secret,” he says, of being content under all circumstances. We also need to learn this secret.

[Please note: No sermon video this week. Yours truly accidentally deleted it from his iPhone!]

Sermon Text: Philippians 4:2-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

For Braves fans, this book, published in 1997, is depressing on so many levels!

For Braves fans, this book, published in 1997, is depressing on so many levels!

I was rummaging through my closet and I found a book that I salvaged from my mom’s house last year. It was published in 1997 with great optimism and fanfare. It’s called Turner Field: Rarest of Diamonds, and it’s a book about the new home of the Braves, Turner Field. The book jacket says the book “pays fitting tribute to the greatest baseball team of the ’90s and the new home it so richly deserves.”

That is depressing on so many levels. Do you think I could get anything on eBay for this—or would I have to pay someone to take this from me?

The lesson here, of course, is that one of the few things you can count on in life is that there are few things you can count on in life. Do you know Melissa and Glenn, the owners of the Jailhouse Brewery across the street? They have a child in our preschool, and they recently gave me a tour of their brewery, which is called Jailhouse Brewery. The names of all their beers and the labels on all the bottles have a criminal justice-related motif. I asked why: Because, as many of you longtime Hampton residents know, their brewery occupies the same space that was occupied by the old jailhouse in town! Read the rest of this entry »

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