Archive for July, 2013

Suffering and Satan

July 15, 2013

In my sermon yesterday, I took a necessary swipe at that soft but pervasive form of Calvinism that says, “Everything happens for a reason.” As I said yesterday, I’ve encountered this bit of bad theology in many pastoral care situations: “I don’t know why this [bad thing] happened, but I know that everything happens for a reason”—as if, for example, God willed a child to die, although his reasons for doing so are not entirely clear to us.

When taken to an extreme, the way John Piper and our Young, Restless and Reformed friends always do, the idea grosses me out. But I understand the appeal of softer versions of this theology: it reaffirms the idea that God (in some sense) is in control. When life is out of control, it’s good to know God isn’t.

Having said that, the equal and opposite mistake—rampant among my fellow United Methodist clergy, I’m afraid—is of a “hand-wringing” God whose only response to tragedy is to suffer alongside us. Well, yes… God “suffers” alongside us—doesn’t the cross of his Son make that clear?—but God is not so squeamish about it that he won’t also use suffering for our good.

Also—just because it’s painful doesn’t mean God doesn’t cause it. In other words, sometimes God may want us to suffer, and he will cause it. On this point both the Bible and John Wesley are clear.

Sorry for this preamble. My main point for this post is to talk about the devil—again. I’ve obviously been talking about him a lot recently. Maybe it’s penance for practically refusing to talk about him for years. I think I have a recent convert’s zeal on the subject.

But my question is this: when we attempt to defend God’s goodness in a world that often isn’t good, why do we let Satan (and his minions) off the hook? The world makes much more sense when we reemphasize the role of the demonic.

As I said yesterday:

I suppose it’s true that everything happens for a reason, but that reason isn’t necessarily God! It might very well be the devil, but it isn’t necessarily God! Brothers and sisters, we live in a fallen world in which evil is a real force—in which people, including you and me, under the influence of Satan, do evil in our world. We live in a world in which Creation itself—again, under Satan’s influence—is corrupted. We pray each week in the Lord’s Prayer for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven because we recognize that God’s will often isn’t done here—at least on this side of the Second Coming and resurrection, when God will redeem our world and make everything all right.

These words are informed by C.S. Lewis’s words from Miracles. While he believes that the imperfection of Nature is in part by design—and that a certain degree of “evolutionism” or “developmentalism” is inherent in Christianity—imperfection alone can’t account for the “positive depravity” of Nature.

According to the Christians, this is all due to sin: the sin both of men and of powerful, non-human beings, supernatural but created. The unpopularity of this doctrine arises from the widespread Naturalism of our age—the belief that nothing but Nature exists and that if anything else did she is protected from it by a Maginot Line—and will disappear as this error is corrected. To be sure, the morbid inquisitiveness about such beings which led our ancestors to a pseudo-science of Demonology, is to be sternly discouraged: our attitude should be that of the sensible citizen in wartime who believes that there are enemy spies in our midst but disbelieves nearly every particular spy story. We must limit ourselves to the general statement that beings in a different, and higher ‘Nature’ which is partially interlocked with ours have, like men, fallen and have tampered with things inside our frontier.[1]

That last sentence is especially helpful to me: this “higher ‘Nature'” is “partially interlocked” with ours.

1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 196.

The Fall of humanity explained

July 12, 2013

Miracles was reissued as part of a beautiful series of Lewis paperbacks from HarperOne in 1996.

In case you haven’t noticed, blogging for me is mostly about writing things down before I forget them. So here I go again…

Earlier this week, I wrote that C.S. Lewis finally helped me understand a doctrine (God’s impassibility) with which I had struggled for years. And now he’s done it again—this time with the Fall of humanity.

Of course I know what the Fall is. Once sin enters the world through the first humans, death follows on its heels. Man’s harmonious relationship with God is ruptured, as is his relationship with Nature. I blogged about this second part of the Fall a while back.

But how does sin bring death? What changed within man after the Fall that he could no longer live forever? How does the spiritual ruin of sin lead to the physical ruin of death? Of course, it’s more important to understand that it does than to be able to explain how. But Lewis, as always, gives us one plausible account. So here he is once again, ladies and gentlemen: Mr. C.S. Lewis…

The spirit was once not a garrison, maintaining its post with difficulty in a hostile Nature, but was fully ‘at home’ with its organism, like a king in his own country or a rider on his own horse—or better still, as the human part of a Centaur was ‘at home’ with the equine part. Where spirit’s power over the organism was complete and unresisted, death would never occur. No doubt, spirit’s permanent triumph over natural forces which, if left to themselves, would kill the organism, would involve a continued miracle: but only the same sort of miracle which occurs every day—for whenever we think rationally we are, by direct spiritual power, forcing certain atoms in our brain and certain psychological tendencies in our natural soul to do what they would never have done if left to Nature.[1]

Earlier in the book, Lewis said much more about this “miracle which occurs every day”—which is rational thought. He argues that if Naturalism explains everything without recourse to anything beyond Nature, then the “certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since” is nothing more than a “feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them.”[2]

Thus a strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.’ (Possible Worlds, p. 209)[3]

The Christian (not to mention common sense) response to this is to say, “No, we have this intangible, spiritual thing above our merely physical brains—namely, our minds—that directs and superintends our thoughts, words, and actions.” To be sure, we Christians (along with nearly everyone else who’s ever lived) could be wrong about this. But if we are wrong, consider what we lose: If strict materialism is true, then our experience of mind and self-consciousness is an illusion created through the cause-and-effect of particles colliding in the mushy stuff inside our skulls. There is no “mind” that isn’t itself the product of unthinking—literally irrational—processes. Therefore reason itself is meaningless.

Since we have minds, however, we already have within us an example of a spiritual force that has the power to subject at least one part of the physical world (namely, our bodies) to itself—as Lewis says, “forcing certain atoms in our brain and certain psychological tendencies in our natural soul to do what they would never have done if left to Nature.” Now imagine, prior to the Fall, possessing this spiritual power so thoroughly and completely that the natural process that leads to death (without the spirit’s intervention) would forever be impeded.

Make sense? It does to me.

If that seemed a little heavy, here’s some music to lighten our load. I do believe in miracles—and one of them is surely Colin Blunstone’s voice!

1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 204-5.

2. Ibid., 21.

3. Ibid., 22.

Sermon 07-07-13: “Summer Vacation, Part 2: Set a Course for Adventure”

July 11, 2013
In part 2 of our series, we're going on a cruise with Jonah.

In part 2 of our series, we’re going on a cruise with Jonah.

The prophet Jonah doesn’t get a lot of respect from most of us. But why? If you simply look at what he accomplished, he might be the most successful prophet in the Bible—however reluctant he might have been at first. In this sermon, I talk about the surprisingly good news of God’s wrath toward Jonah’s disobedience and what that means for us today. Curious? Watch the sermon!

Sermon Text: Jonah 1

Ed. note: I’m aware that it looks like my head is floating above the altar in the video! We’ll fix that next time!

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Like many of you, I was inspired last week by the examples of those 19 firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who gave their lives fighting a dangerous wildfire in Arizona. As President Obama rightly said, “They were heroes… who, as so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect… fellow citizens they would never meet.”[1] Read the rest of this entry »

Speaking of faith, here’s a nice insight from Tippett

July 11, 2013

I thought I had previously said an unkind word or two about Krista Tippett’s NPR show On Being (formerly Speaking of Faith) on my blog. I typed her name in the blog’s search box, however, and didn’t come up with anything. Still, what I have said to friends over the years is that the show seems more interested in religion as a sociological curiosity than as something that most people in the world actually practice. Maybe that’s unfair since I’ve only heard it a handful of times.

Regardless, I like the insight that she shares in this interview with Christianity Today. It corresponds to my own limited experience talking to people of other faiths. Interfaith dialogue doesn’t happen best when we minimize or relativize the differences that separate us.

I make no apologies for the fact that I have a religious life of my own. I’m speaking as a Christian because I’m speaking as myself.

When I first started this, there was a young Catholic reporter who was excited about the show. I’d just done something with the Dalai Lama, and she said, “Do you feel you get converted by talking to these amazing religious leaders?” The truth is, I don’t.

When profound encounter happens, it has paradoxical effects. At one and the same time, you are able to appreciate and even to learn from this other person and their tradition. But the other thing that always happens—and I’ve honestly never heard of a story that it hasn’t happened in—is that you become more richly planted where you are. You become a better Christian.

I think that some of the most deadly phrases in the English language are ecumenical and interfaith. They’re so boring, but the experiences people have are not boring, and the experiences are transformative, and they’re not relativistic.

God “isn’t affected with love, because He is love”

July 9, 2013
Today's edition of "What C.S. Lewis said."

Today’s edition of “What C.S. Lewis Said”

I’ve struggled with a concept for years that C.S. Lewis just helped me figure out. It’s the orthodox (lower case “o,” as in, accepted by all churches at all times and in all places) doctrine of God’s impassibility. It’s not popular these days—at least in the West, although I read that the the Eastern Orthodox tradition has always been more comfortable with it. Who knows?

Anyway, to say that God is impassible is to say that God is unchanging. He isn’t temperamental. He isn’t affected by external events. He isn’t controlled by passions. He is, in a way, without passion. The Latin root of “passion” means to suffer.

This says nothing about the Incarnation. Jesus enjoyed or endured different emotions like any other human, as the Gospels report. He suffered real pain and anguish on the cross—more than anyone, I imagine. This is why we refer to the events leading up to and including the cross as Christ’s “Passion.” God’s impassibility, by contrast, applies to God in eternity.

I’ve had misgivings about the doctrine because, for human beings, being passionate means that we feel something intensely, or believe in it strongly, or love it deeply. If God isn’t passionate, does that mean his love, among other attributes, is less than we imagine. Worse, is he vaguer, more ethereal, less substantial than his Creation?

Quite the opposite, Lewis writes.

[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.

Belief or unbelief often follows lifestyle choices

July 9, 2013

I said something in my previous post that might have seemed harsh, but I believe it was completely true. In relation to questions related to inerrancy and the authority of scripture, I wrote, “Skeptics haggle over questions of historicity and science so they can avoid dealing with the God revealed therein, who they hope doesn’t exist.”

My point is that very few people reject Christianity primarily for intellectual reasons; they do so for emotional reasons and look for intellectual justification after the fact: “Well, science has pretty much proven that God doesn’t exist, right?” Therefore, if someone like me—whose tendency is to “live inside my head”—imagines that I will dazzle skeptics with my most well-reasoned, well-articulated arguments for the Christian faith, I will be disappointed.

Dr. Glenn Peoples, a theologian and apologist from New Zealand, picks up this theme in his latest podcast and goes much further with it.

In the Bible, in the Old Testament as well as the New, the rejection or denial of God’s sovereignty, or goodness, or worthiness of worship is always associated, not with intellectual slowness or stupidity, but with immorality, with wrongdoing. Listen to what the psalmist said in Psalm 14, verse 1: ‘The fool says in his heart there is no God. They are corrupt. They do abominable deeds. There is none who does good.’ You see the immediate leap there from the rejection of God to the embracing of evil. Ephesians chapter 4, St. Paul has some things to say along a similar line…

Now you might be thinking, That kind of sounds like propaganda: People who aren’t believers are bad, and you don’t want to be bad, so you should be a believer. That’s not really the point. I’m bad, too! On a bad day I’m really bad!… The fact is that human beings tend to rationalize. We’ll find ourselves justifying, defending, and eventually just liking the outlook on life in terms of metaphysics, religion, and so on, that suits the way that we wish to live. And this may override the fact that there may or may not be good intellectual reasons to accept or reject the view in question.

You find yourself wanting to live a certain way, all of a sudden you start thinking, ‘Uh, maybe this Christian faith isn’t true. Maybe these arguments that people have been using against it, maybe they’re quite good! Wouldn’t that be convenient?'”

Peoples goes on to back up this biblical insight with contemporary research and data.

Peoples is hardly alone in drawing a connection between our lifestyle choices and our acceptance or rejection of Christian faith. At a recent conference, Timothy Keller raised some eyebrows by making a similar point:

Drawing on his experience in urban, culture-shaping Manhattan, Keller responded that one of the biggest obstacles to repentance for revival in the Church is the basic fact that almost all singles outside the Church and a majority inside the Church are sleeping with each other. In other words, good old-fashioned fornication…

Others might not be surprised at the sheer amount of fornication but might still be asking, “Sex? Really? That’s the big hang-up? What about intellectual objections from science, or post-modern philosophy, or the church’s history of violence, or our consumerism and greed?”

Those are all there, absolutely, but just ask any college pastor and they’ll tell you the same thing. Just as C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity all those years ago, there are few of Christianity’s teachings more offensive, unpalatable, and likely to drive people away from hearing the Gospel than its sex ethic. Many college students and young adults don’t want to turn to God, or at least not the kind of solid God you find in the Gospel, because He has opinions on sex we find restrictive…

Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic, one that he admittedly said was almost too cruel to use, that an old college pastor associate of his used when catching up with college students who were home from school. He’d ask them to grab coffee with him to catch up on life. When he’d come to the state of their spiritual lives, they’d often hem and haw, talking about the difficulties and doubts now that they’d taken a little philosophy, or maybe a science class or two, and how it all started to shake the foundations. At that point, he’d look at them and ask one question, “So who have you been sleeping with?” Shocked, their faces would inevitably fall and say something along the lines of, “How did you know?” or a real conversation would ensue. Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience. Honestly, as a Millennial and college director myself, I’ve seen it with a number of my friends and students—the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more “doubtful” for some of them once they’d had sex.

Some fellow Wesleyans get the Bible’s authority right

July 8, 2013

Maybe I should become a Nazarene? Nah, just kidding.

But a small, recent doctrinal change to that Wesleyan denomination’s view of the authority of scripture mirrors my own quite nicely. Apparently, before the change, their statement read that the Bible is “inerrant throughout, and the supreme authority on everything the Scriptures teach.”

The tricky word there is “inerrant.” My problem with the word is that it represents a thoroughly modern concept, alien to scripture itself, and beholden to a post-Enlightenment view of the world. According to an inerrantist view, the Bible pays for the privilege of being our authoritative guide because it contains nothing that our modern world would call an “error,” at least in the original autographs.

So if the world wasn’t created in six literal days, then that’s an “error.” Never mind that Genesis 1 is a poetic description of Creation that conveys theological rather than scientific truth. Except even distinguishing theology from science is modern. Thomas Aquinas called theology the “highest science.” Regardless, I wouldn’t say that Genesis 1 is in error, even though I don’t believe the world was created in six literal days. See what I mean?

So why not avoid the term altogether? The Bible has nothing to prove. Skeptics haggle over questions of historicity and science so they can avoid dealing with the God revealed therein, who they hope doesn’t exist. It’s not like anyone comes to faith in Christ because the Bible’s truth has been proven to them. As the Nazarene report says, “We know that we are not brought to faith by having the inerrancy of the Bible proved to us, but that our faith in Christ is what leads us to trust his messengers, the prophets and apostles, and all who wrote the Holy Scriptures.”

Another problem with inerrancy is that it locates the miracle of scripture somewhere in the past—when the Holy Spirit first guided its authors to write down its words. While I agree that the Spirit inspired and guided the words of scripture as they were written, the miracle of scripture is ongoing: when we read it today, the Spirit continues to speak to us through it. I believe this is in part what Jesus means when he tells his disciples on Holy Thursday that he has “much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13a).

But if you’re going to use the word “inerrant” to describe the Bible’s authority, you ought to use it the way the Nazarenes now use it: The Bible “inerrantly reveal[s] the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation.”

This statement uses “inerrant” to emphasize the classic Protestant doctrine of the “sufficiency of scripture,” with which I wholeheartedly agree: the Bible perfectly (infallibly, inerrantly) reveals the way of salvation in Christ and nothing beyond the Bible ought to be taken as an article of faith or dogma.

“If we were as much like Christ as Jonah”

July 5, 2013
Phillip Cary wrote a razor-sharp commentary on Jonah. You should read it!

Phillip Cary wrote a razor-sharp commentary on Jonah. You should read it!

The usual way we read Jonah—the subject of my next sermon—is to stand in judgment of him, but on what basis can we possibly do that? Because you and I have never heard the word of the Lord and then done exactly opposite of what that word said? I agree that at his worst Jonah is pretty bad (again, who among us isn’t?), but at his best he’s not bad at all. In fact, he’s positively Christ-like. Jesus thought so, too.

Phillip Cary, in his amazingly good Brazos Theological Commentary, agrees. He says that Jonah’s despair is much like Job’s, who wished he had never been born.

And yet in handing himself over to God in this way, Jonah is also at his most Christlike. He gives up his life so that others might live. He propitiates the wrath of God by submitting to it himself so that others may be freed. We would all be doing well if we were as much like Christ as Jonah is. Though Jonah may give himself up in despair, he does have his priorities straight: he treats the lives of these good sailors as more valuable than his own. There is enough real love in this to be the beginning of good things, including Jonah’s own obedience. In Jonah 2 he turns to God in heartfelt prayer and trust—but only after he has given himself up to death for the sake of these people he hardly knows. Greater love has no man (John 15:13).[†]

For my many fellow Christians who think it’s inappropriate to talk about propitiating—or doing something to satisfy—God’s wrath (assuming they believe that God even has wrath), please notice that this is exactly what’s happening here. Jonah’s sacrifice foreshadows the cross. It’s more evidence for the central place of substitutionary atonement in our understanding of the cross.

Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 66.

Sermon 06-30-13: “Summer Vacation, Part 1: Lifeguard on Duty”

July 4, 2013

Summer Vacation

One of the most interesting aspects of today’s text is that Jesus sent his disciples into this frightening storm, one in which their little boat was battered by wind and waves. What about the storms of life that we face? Do we believe that the Lord may send us into them for a reason? Do we believe that the Lord has something to teach us to make us better people and more faithful disciples? If so—if we learn to see God’s hand in the challenges we face—won’t that help us face them with greater courage and strength?

Sermon Text: Matthew 14:22-33

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I took my kids to see Monsters University last week. It’s a prequel to Monsters, Inc. The premise is that monsters are real but mostly harmless. They live in another dimension. But the really scary monsters get to cross over into our world and frighten little children as they lay in bed trying to sleep. The movie tells the story of a monster named Mike Wazowski and his monster-friends in college. They want to earn a degree in “scaring,” so they can become professional scarers. To be accepted into “scare” school, however, Mike and his fraternity of misfit monsters has to win a scare competition against other monsters in the school. And to everyone’s surprise, his team makes it to the final round of the competition… And it all comes down to Mike. If Mike scores really well on a “scare simulator,” his team will win.

The problem is, despite Mike’s best efforts, he’s just not very scary. He’s too cute, too small, too unintimidating to be scary. Yet somehow he scores off the charts on the simulator. His team wins. He finds out later, however, that his friend Sulley rigged the machine so that Mike couldn’t fail.

When we read today’s scripture about Peter walking on water, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that if only we had enough faith in Jesus, then our life would be rigged so that we couldn’t fail. “After all,” we preachers sometimes say, “if only Peter hadn’t doubted or taken his eyes off Jesus or let himself become frightened by the wind and waves, he could have simply walked across the lake to dry land, to shelter, to safety. And if Peter could do that, then so could we! If only we had enough faith…” Read the rest of this entry »

Why is Christianity so complicated?

July 3, 2013

Not to pick on the New Atheists—it seems as if their moment onstage has already come and gone—but I remember Richard Dawkins explaining in The God Delusion why he doesn’t bother learning Christian theology. He said it’s because it’s just so darn complex, and it doesn’t need to be. The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in—and therefore the only God who could ever exist—is the sleepy, indulgent grandfatherly type—the old man with the long, gray beard, way up in the sky.

Christian theology, by contrast, makes God so elusive, so mysterious, so hard to pin-down. Why?

If Christianity were true, it wouldn’t need to be so complicated. Dawkins suspects that we have to make theology this way so it can stay a step ahead of the latest scientific breakthrough, which, as far as he’s concerned, always represents another nail in the coffin of faith.

Not so, says C.S. Lewis. Reality is always more complicated than our intuition suggests. He uses an analogy that Dawkins would appreciate: quantum physics.

Men believed in atoms centuries before they had any experimental evidence of their existence. It was apparently natural to do so. And the  sort of atoms we naturally believe in are little hard pellets—just like the hard substances we meet in experience, but too small to see… The real atoms turn out to be quite alien from our  natural mode of thought. They are not even made of hard ‘stuff’ or ‘matter’ (as the imagination understands ‘matter’) at all: they are not simple, but have a structure: they are not all the same: and they are unpicturable.[1]

Our original, natural guess about atoms wasn’t utterly wrong, he writes, but it needed serious correction. “The first shock of the objects’ real nature, breaking in on our spontaneous dreams of what that object ought to be,” always has the characteristics of being “hard, complex, dry and repellent” when compared to our first guess.

In this way, he writes, popular or “natural” religion, which from Lewis’s point of view always veers toward Pantheism, scorns Christianity for the “pedantic complexity of our ‘cold Christs and tangled Trinities’…

To the large well-meant statements of ‘religion’ [Christianity] finds itself forced to reply again and again, ‘Well, not quite like that,’ or ‘I should hardly put it that way’. This troublesomeness does not of course prove it to be true; but if it were true it would be bound to have this troublesomeness. The real musician is similarly troublesome to a man who wishes to indulge in untaught ‘musical appreciation’; the real historian is similarly a nuisance when we want to romance about ‘the old days’ or ‘the ancient Greeks and Romans’. The ascertained nature of any real thing is always at first a nuisance to our natural fantasies—a wretched, pedantic, logic-chopping intruder upon a conversation which was getting on famously without it.[2]

1.C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 134.

2. Ibid., 136-7.