Posts Tagged ‘C.S. Lewis’

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 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.

Is it “just not true” that suffering is God’s will?

July 9, 2015

I hate to let good writing go to waste…

A colleague preached a sermon on suffering last Sunday. (Read it and see what you think.) While I could take issue with many of his points, I made the following comment on Facebook. It summarizes many things I’ve discussed on this blog. Is my response adequate? Would you add or correct anything? Am I missing something?

You write: “We want a reason for everything, and we have this tendency to say that because God is in control, all things that happen, even suffering, are God’s will. And it’s just not true.”

I understand the impulse behind saying this, because God is not the author of evil. But I disagree for two reasons. First, in Arminian theology there is an understanding of God’s “antecedent will” (what God would want in a world without sin, before the Fall) and God’s “consequent will” (what God wants, given that we live in this fallen world of sin, suffering, and death). Events that happen in this world represent God’s consequent will.

But I’m sure you’re not convinced, so consider this thought experiment: If we believe that God can answer prayer—more accurately, that God will, even occasionally, grant our prayer petitions—then what are we to make of those times when God doesn’t grant our petitions?

There are three alternatives, as far as I can see:

1) God heard our request but doesn’t have the power grant our petition.
2) God heard our request and has the power, but whether he does or doesn’t is completely arbitrary. In other words, God is capricious.
3) God heard our request, but chose not to grant our petition for good reasons that may only be known to him. After all, God has foreknowledge. Only God can foresee all possible, even eternal, consequences of granting one petition and not another.

Is there another alternative for those of us who believe in the Christian God? I can’t think of one. Clearly, #3 is the only one that makes sense.

And if that’s the case, then it’s no exaggeration to say that “everything happens for a reason”—even when that reason is to prevent something worse from happening that we can’t foresee.

I would also challenge you to consider the difference between God’s “allowing” something to happen and God’s “causing” something to happen. We often draw a sharp distinction between the two—perhaps in an effort to “let God off the hook for suffering”—but is this distinction really so great? Surely Job would disagree, among others!

Or what about Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians? He describes it as both a messenger from Satan and something that comes from God, to be used for his own spiritual growth. This is not a contradiction. As Joseph said in Genesis, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”

Besides, in your own experience, isn’t suffering often good for you? In my experience it certainly is! This is why a (mostly secular) book like psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” has proven so helpful for 50 years. Frankl was literally a Dachau and Auschwitz survivor. No modern person has stood on higher moral high ground when he says that when we suffer, we always have a choice: to let suffering harm or destroy our souls or to use it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. By all means, in his experience, he usually saw suffering destroy people’s soul, but not always. And he argues that it never need to—for anyone.

In one moving scene in the book, he talks about a particularly difficult season of suffering and death in the concentration camp. Suicides among the prisoners were very common (they could easily run into the electrified and die instantly). He huddles his fellow prisoners together and says, “I know many of you want to kill yourselves because you no longer expect anything out of life. But life still expects something from you!”—even if, he says, it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high. He quotes Dostoyevsky, who said his biggest fear wasn’t suffering; it was that he wouldn’t prove worthy of his suffering.

Frankl, a Jew, isn’t speaking from a Christian perspective (interestingly, while his wife died in a separate concentration camp, he married a Catholic woman after the war), but his words are very consistent with Paul’s words, for instance, when he tells us to rejoice in the Lord always—words written when Paul himself was languishing under a very harsh imprisonment, yet seeing God’s providential hand at work all around him.

So I’d recommend your reading Frankl’s book. But also Lewis’s profoundly good Problem of Pain and Tim Keller’s recent masterpiece, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

All that to say, I find it immensely comforting to know that God has a reason for whatever I’m going through. I like being able to pray, “God, what are you trying to show me? How are you using this? Why is this happening now?” In fact, far from the ivory tower of mainline Protestant seminary, most people I know do as well.

Sermon 05-10-15: “Who Is Our Judge?”

May 26, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court,” said the apostle Paul. How many of us could say the same thing? We usually think it’s a very large thing to be judged by others. And we often make ourselves miserable because of what others think of us. This sermon is all about the sin of pride and how our “puffed up” egos can be healed.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 4:1-13

To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3 file.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

worcesters

Worcester’s National League team once played before a hometown crowd of six people. Unsurprisingly, their franchise license was sold the next year to Philadelphia, where the team that eventually became the Phillies was started.

 

A couple of weeks ago, in Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles set a new major league record, which had previously stood for 123 years. In 1882, there was a National League team from Worcester, Massachusetts, called the Worcester Ruby Legs—I’m not making this up. And the Ruby Legs played another National League team from Troy, New York, called the Trojans. On September 28, 1882, these two National League teams played in Massachusetts before a crowd of six fans. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Easter Sermon 2015: “He Has Risen—He Is Not Here”

April 16, 2015

easter_sunday_2015

My Easter sermon for 2015 is one part apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and one part proclamation of what that resurrection means: forgiveness and reconciliation with God, eternal life, and God’s putting the world to rights (as N.T. Wright often says). This is the first time I’ve preached Mark’s version of the resurrection in nine or ten years—although I would hate to re-read my sermon from back then!

Sermon Text: Mark 16:1-8

[To listen on the go, download an MP3 of this sermon by right-clicking here.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

When I was a child, to my great shame and embarrassment, I was a crier. For whatever reason, when I was a kid, I cried easily and often. This fact embarrassed me greatly. I know I know There’s nothing wrong with crying, but I was mortified at the thought of crying in front of my classmates in elementary school. The prospect filled me with dread. Yet somehow it still happened, year after year. Year after year, from first grade through sixth grade, something would happen—I’d get in a fight, I’d get in trouble, teachers would yell at me—and tears would flow. I would cry at school, and I felt like the whole world saw me.

Here’s the worst incident: It was literally the last day of sixth grade. I had gone the entire year without crying even once. A new record. And back in those days no one did any work on the last day of school. We spent most of the day in class parties or on the playground. What could go wrong? It was such a happy day. What could happen that would cause me to cry? Well, we were on the playground. By one of the jungle gyms. And I said or did something to cross Doug Smith—the class bully, my nemesis, my enemy—and he punched me in the gut. Cold-cocked me. Knocked the wind out of me. And I promise you, it was as if my skin turned green; it was as if muscles grew and ripped through my shirt and pants. It was as if I transformed into the Incredible Hulk. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 12-14-14: “Amazed, Astounded, and Astonished”

December 23, 2014
This is the third part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton's new book.

This is the third part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton’s new book.

Much of this message is aimed at parents. In Luke 2:52, we’re told that Jesus “grew in wisdom” and in the “favor” of God. Among other things, this means that God’s plan was for Jesus to grow and learn and develop much like other children. If even Jesus—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—needed godly parents to shape him into the faithful person that he became, how much more do our children need us! 

Another part of this message relates to making Christ our highest priority in life.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:41-52

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In his new book about Christmas, Not a Silent Night, pastor Adam Hamilton shares a frightening experience to which many of us parents can relate: the experience of losing a child temporarily in a crowded public place. For him it happened at Disney World. They were at a gift shop inside a Disney resort, waiting for the bus to take them to one of the parks. When the bus came, Hamilton and the rest of his family got on—or at least he thought they did. The bus pulled out and went about a half-mile down the road before they realized that their six-year-old daughter was not with them. Hamilton’s wife screamed. The bus driver stopped the bus, and Hamilton said, “I jumped off and ran like an Olympian back to the store to look for our daughter. There were thousands of strangers all around and I had left my little girl behind!”[1]

He said he found her in the gift shop, “totally oblivious of the fact we weren’t there.” He grabbed her by the shoulders and said, “What were you thinking? Didn’t you hear me say, ‘Come on let’s go’? Why are you still here? Don’t you know what could have happened? Don’t you ever do that to me again.”[2]

Of course, he’s the 30-something-year-old parent; she’s the six-year-old child. Should he be the one upset? But as I am myself a “yell first, ask questions later” kind of person, I can totally relate to Hamilton’s words! Read the rest of this entry »

Glenn Peoples asks, “What makes you doubt?”

October 17, 2014

Glenn Peoples, to whom I’ve referred often on this blog, is one of my favorite Christian bloggers, apologists, and theologians. In his most recent post, he asks his readers—both believers and atheists—to step into the “public confessional” and say what makes them doubt either their belief or lack of belief in God. It is surely for the benefit of “professional Christians” like me that he writes the following:

Don’t worry that you might be “giving away” too much [if you admit that you doubt]. If you think that non-believers really accept that you have no doubts at all, you’re kidding yourself. A lot of them, I am sure, think that really you know the whole thing is nonsense, but you pretend to believe it in order to dull your fear of death. The admission of one real doubt then is hardly going to be a great revelation. You may even demonstrate to people that you have honesty and humility after all, and that you are secure enough in what you know that you can admit what you do not know. What’s more, as a public defender of Christianity, your admission that you have some doubts will be encouraging to other Christians, who will be able to say “I’m not the only one! I don’t just lack faith after all. It’s OK to have doubts.” Lastly, while you might worry that admitting your doubts gives away too much information, any intellectually honest atheist who has spent much time thinking about the God question will have at least as much doubt about their view that God isn’t there. Anyone who can look you in the eye and say that there is absolutely no reason for pause at all, and that every piece of information that we have supports their believe that God does not exist is either a worse liar than our hypothetical scientist or else far, far more deluded than anyone suffering from what Dawkins called “The God Delusion.” C. S. Lewis recalls his own moments of doubt:

Now that I am a Christian, I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.

Dr. Peoples confessed that he doubts that petitionary prayer accomplishes anything—that what happens is what would happen anyway, regardless whether we pray or not.

Here’s what I wrote in the comments section:

Great post, Glenn! My biggest doubt has to do with this question: Why is God as difficult to believe in as he is? What I mean is: why doesn’t he offer more direct evidence of his existence—theophanies like those, for example, given to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, or Isaiah? I understand that nature bears witness to God; that there is excellent historical evidence for the resurrection, which itself confirms the truth of the gospel; that we have lots of good arguments for God’s existence, etc. I even have much personal experience that confirms my strong intuition that God is real. But believing still requires a lot of faith on our part. I trust that God knows best, but why should it be so?

Even as I write these words, I feel a need to defend my faith—to argue myself out of this doubt—but, in the spirit of Glenn’s post, I’ll let this question stand for now.

The point is, it’s O.K. to doubt. What did Tennyson say? “There lives more faith in honest doubt,/ Believe me, than in half the creeds.”

Sermon 08-31-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 4: Barak”

September 10, 2014

superhero graphic

One of the most difficult truths of scripture is that God permits suffering in our world, whether he causes it or not. The good news is that he redeems suffering too. He constantly uses it for our own good. He did so in the case of Israel at the beginning of today’s scripture, and he did so in the case of Barak. Suffering, as C.S. Lewis famously observed, is like a megaphone by which God wakes us up. But victory is always waiting for us on the other side of hard times, if we can only trust in the Lord.

 Sermon Text: Judges 4:1-22

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

The best-selling new atheist writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins got some bad publicity a couple of weeks ago from some remarks he made on his Twitter account. One of his followers said, “I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma.” It was no dilemma for Dawkins. He tweeted back: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Dr. Dawkins received a ton of well-deserved criticism for this tweet, including from a thoughtful writer named J.D. Flynn in the Christian journal First Things. Flynn wondered on what basis Dawkins believed that knowingly bringing Down Syndrome children into the world was “immoral.” Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 08-24-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 3: Jacob”

September 1, 2014

superhero graphic

Jacob was afraid on the night before he reunited with his brother, Esau. Twenty years earlier, when he fled his home to settle far away with his mother’s people, Esau had vowed to kill him. Was Esau still angry? Was he still willing to keep his promise? Jacob had no idea. To his credit, however, in spite of his fear, he resolved to risk his life to meet his brother. That night, however, he risked his life for a different reason: to receive God’s blessing. Jacob resolved to hold onto God, even if it killed him!

What about us? Are we willing to hold onto God, even if it kills us?

Sermon Text: Genesis 32:22-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

sane_godI have a friend named John Alan Turner who’s a theologian and author, and his most recent book is about the seemingly crazy stories of the Bible, and he includes today’s scripture in that category. Since John and I are kindred spirits on most matters related to theology and the Bible, I was surprised and disappointed by the way in which he begins his description of this story. He writes:

I hate Jacob, and I hate this story. ¶ I’m not supposed to say that, am I? It’s true, though. Jacob was a schemer, a swindler, a manipulator, and a cheat. Frankly, it’s surprising to me that people still name their sons after him.[1]

Now, if you or someone you love did happen to name a son after Jacob, let me say that I disagree with my friend John. I love Jacob. And I call him a Bible hero because I sincerely believe that’s what he is! Yes, it’s also true that Jacob is a schemer, a swindler, a manipulator, and a cheat. But let me explain!

Back in ancient times, you had something called the law of primogeniture. This meant that the first-born son was entitled to inherit most of his father’s estate. I know this doesn’t seem fair to us now, and it didn’t seem fair to Jacob then, either. Jacob was the second-born fraternal twin of his older brother Esau. And on two occasions in his early life, Jacob schemes, swindles, manipulates, and cheats his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac. First, he steals his brother’s birthright. Then, when his father is on his deathbed, Jacob and his mother conspire to trick the frail old man into thinking he was blessing Esau when he was really blessing Jacob. Read the rest of this entry »

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