Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Jackson’

Devotional Podcast #4: “Thank God for Unanswered Prayer”

January 17, 2018

As someone who’s interested in Christian apologetics, I used to think that unanswered prayer posed a bigger “challenge” to Christianity than I do today. I explain why in this podcast. The gist is this: I know my own heart to some extent. I often don’t know what’s good for me. And I often want things that ultimately cause me harm. Our Father, by contrast, only wants to give us “good things,” as Jesus says. So we can trust him.

Devotional Text: Matthew 7:7-11

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 17, and this is the fourth podcast of my new series of devotional podcasts. I’m posting new podcasts in this series every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I’ll also post my Sunday sermons whenever I get around to it. So stay tuned.

You’re listening to the song “Beautiful One,” by the band Daniel Amos, sometimes known as DA, from their 1986 album Fearful Symmetry. It’s hard not to hear echoes of the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe.”

Years ago—eleven, to be exact—I attended a debate in Atlanta between Christopher Hitchens, a well-known British political commentator, author, and journalist, and Timothy Jackson, one of my professors at the Candler School of Theology. At the time, the late Mr. Hitchens was staging debates with religious people as part of a publicity tour for his new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens was a quick wit and a famously fierce debater, and, although you wouldn’t know it from the boisterous reactions of Hitchens partisans in the audience—it was his book tour, after all—my guy, Dr. Jackson, won the debate… handily. In fact, the debate sparked my interest in Christian apologetics—the art of defending the Christian faith—that remains to this day. It’s hard to remember this now, but I started my blog in 2009 in part to address skeptical questions about the Christian faith.

One such question is the challenge posed by unanswered prayer. How do we square the fact of unanswered prayer with Jesus’ own words on the subject—for example, Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Or John 14:13: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

There are many good answers to this question, but I like this analogy from science: Chaos theory teaches us that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could be “magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific.”[1] So even a seemingly small event like a butterfly flapping its wings can change the course of history in ways that we can’t predict. Now think about our prayer petitions: the things we ask God to do for us will likely be far more significant than a butterfly flapping its wings; and only God can foresee whether the consequences of granting our petition will ultimately be good for us, for everyone else, and for the rest of Creation.

My point is, if God doesn’t grant our petition, we can trust that he knows best; we certainly don’t. As pastor Tim Keller puts it, “God gives us what we would have asked for, if we knew everything that God knows.”

I like that answer… I do! But it’s still a little academic.

How about this answer: Often God doesn’t give us—his children—what we ask for because God wants us to be happy—I mean, deeply happy; with a lasting kind of happiness, an invulnerable kind of joy. And we simply don’t know what we need in order to achieve that kind of happiness. But God does.

In that same passage from Matthew chapter 7 that I referred to a moment ago, Jesus says, “[W]hich one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”[2]

Notice Jesus says that our Father will give us “good things.” I hate to say it, but I’m not convinced I want good things much of the time!

Don’t get me wrong: I want things! For example, I desperately want recognition… I want people to praise me… I want people to appreciate me… I want people to show me how much they love me.

And you might say, “What do you want? A medal?” Yes! That’s a good start!

And if I don’t get a medal, I’d be willing to settle for lots of money! I’m not hard to please!

My point is, the things I want… even if I got them, they would never be enough. I would never be satisfied. God knows that!

So thank God for unanswered prayer! I mean that literally… Thank God! Our Father only wants to give his children good things. See, I’m the one asking for stones, and my Father gives me bread instead. I’m the one asking for a serpent, and my Father gives me a fish instead. Or, from Luke’s gospel, I’m the one asking for a scorpion, and my Father gives me an egg instead. Thank God!

God wants us to be happy… Our problem is our willingness to settle for something far less than happiness. Listen to the way C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain:

George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.[3]

“O God, I’m weary from hunger. I don’t want to starve any longer. Give me your bread of life. Give me your Son Jesus! Give me Jesus, and I’ll be satisfied. Amen.”

That’s a prayer that God will answer every time!

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2. Matthew 7:9-10 ESV

3. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.

Sermon 03-01-15: “King, Cross & Crown, Part 2: The King’s Arrival”

March 12, 2015

lenten_sermon_series

During Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the crowd shouted “hosanna,” meaning save us. They wanted and expected their Messiah to save them from Roman occupation and taxation. In other words, they said, “Save us, Jesus, but only a little.” They didn’t realize how much they needed salvation—that if Christ was going to save them, he was going to save them all the way. They needed—and we need—to be transformed them from the inside out.

Do we want a little bit of Jesus, or are we prepared to surrender everything to him?

Sermon Text: Mark 11:1-18

Right-click here to download an MP3 version of this sermon.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

So… Is it white and gold? Or blue and black?

In case you you’ve been living under a rock, the internet broke last week, as millions of us wondered what color this dress is! The image in the middle is the actual image. The image on the left is the way I saw it—white and gold—which is the right way. And the image on the right is the way other people mistakenly saw it. Raise your hand if this dress is white and gold… Now raise your hand if this dress is blue and black? Of course, I liked this meme that Georgia Tech shared.

I read in Wired magazine that, as hard as it is for me to comprehend, the actual dress is blue and black—and the reason so many of us see it as white and gold has something to do with the way our brains process colors. Our brain is playing tricks on us.

dress01

The point is, we’re all looking at the exact same picture, yet our responses to it are drastically different. That’s not unlike people’s responses to Jesus in today’s scripture. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowd praises him as king and Savior. So that’s how one group of people viewed Jesus.

But the very next day, this other group of people, in verse 18, views this same Jesus as not only wrong about being king and Savior, but dangerously wrong—so much so that they want to get him killed.

So it’s one or the other… Which is it? Read the rest of this entry »

“Reason to Believe,” a new three-week class on the resurrection

March 5, 2015

reason_to_believe_class

I mentioned in last Sunday’s sermon that back in 2007 I witnessed a debate in Atlanta between bestselling atheist author Christopher Hitchens and one of my seminary professors, Dr. Tim Jackson. To say the least, Dr. Jackson was facing an intimidating adversary in Hitchens, yet he was able to meet his every objection with humor and equanimity.

I felt inspired: Dr. Jackson’s example made me want to take seriously Peter’s command to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

The only problem, as I said last Sunday, was that I was effectively living as an atheist myself, for all the difference God’s Word was making in my life. Among other things, I did not hold a high view of the authority of scripture. I had become a professional Bible reader—studying it mostly to prepare sermons and Bible studies, or to get a good grade on an exam or essay.

Thank God the Holy Spirit got hold of me soon enough—using thinkers like N.T. Wright, whose book The Resurrection of the Son of God was another formative influence on me. I repented. I began to take God’s Word seriously once again. And within a couple of years I started this blog, in part to defend the Christian faith.

With all this in mind, I’m excited to begin a three-part class this Sunday night on the resurrection of Jesus Christ called “Reason to Believe.”

Does our belief in the miracle at the center of our faith rest on solid historical evidence? Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus was bodily resurrected? What about alternative theories that attempt to explain Easter Sunday?

Our stakes in answering these questions couldn’t be higher: Christianity stands or falls on the historicity of this miracle. As Paul rightly understood, if the resurrection didn’t happen, then our faith is futile, we are still in our sins, and “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19).

For the class, I’ll draw upon the “minimal facts” approach of Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, as well as insights from N.T. Wright, William Lane Craig, Glenn Peoples, and others.

I look forward to a lively discussion!

Personal incredulity is not an argument

April 26, 2012

A Facebook friend helpfully pointed me to a webpage that reminds us of eleven mistakes of logic that we often make when arguing. As I’m currently preaching a sermon series on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, I’m trying my best to avoid them. One fallacy, which I had never heard of before, is “personal incredulity.” Here’s the description:

I’m struck by the fact that he uses evolution as an example. I get his point, but I also note that this same mistake is often made by skeptics and atheists concerning God, theology, and resurrection.

Recently, my friend Mike was watching an online debate between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and the late Christopher Hitchens. I assume this debate was part of Hitchens’s God is Not Great book tour several years ago. (Click here to read about a debate I witnessed live between Hitchens and my Christian ethics prof, Timothy Jackson.)

Mike was impressed with Craig, and why wouldn’t he be? Craig knows all the arguments backwards and forwards, and is well-prepared to take on any comer. (Last year, Craig challenged Dawkins to debate him in England, but Dawkins turned him down. Smart man!) But my friend noticed that Hitchens had zero interest in engaging any of Craig’s arguments. And since Craig is such an earnest fellow, I can’t imagine that he fared well playing Hitchens’s game of scornful derision masked as witty repartee.

My point is, the fallacy of personal incredulity is a primary tactic of our celebrity atheists. Dawkins himself deflects criticism that he knows nothing about Christian theology by talking about fairies and flying spaghetti monsters. Why bother learning anything about theology? he would say. It’s such obvious nonsense.

And so it is with evidence for the resurrection. The attitude of many skeptics is, “It doesn’t matter what you tell me, I’m not going to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s beyond the realm of possibility.” Whatever else happened, we know in advance that that didn’t happen.

One thing I hope to get across in this “Reason to Believe” series is this: If the resurrection of Jesus did happen, then the evidence we have is the precisely the evidence that we should expect. 

Blog replay: Christopher Hitchens debates Tim Jackson

December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens died this week. I disliked his ideas and nearly everything he stood for. (I’m not meaning to disrespect the dead; he would want people like me to dislike him and say so.) In one important way, however, I owe him a debt of gratitude. He influenced me to start this blog and to formulate my own responses to the often shallow arguments put forth by him and his fellow New Atheist writers. He shook me out of my complacency about defending the Christian faith.

Not that I think I do the work of apologetics very well, but most of my fellow clergy (none of my blog readers, I promise!) don’t do it at all. They don’t seem to care about the ideas of people like Hitchens. For whatever reason, I do. Passionately. I think his ideas matter to many people—people who will never darken the door of a church. So I care about them, too.

Don’t get me wrong: No one comes to faith because of ideas alone. No one reasons their way into becoming a Christian. No argument by itself will cause someone to be a Christian. It’s a much deeper, more emotional decision (made possible by the Holy Spirit, of course). But arguments and reason do play an important role.

Regardless, I saw him in Atlanta in 2007 on his book tour for god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As part of this tour, Hitchens had been going from city to city, staging debates about God and religion with whichever local believer his publicist could find to debate him. Often, these debate opponents were overmatched (Al Sharpton in New York? Really?) or unprepared for Hitchens’s aggressively derisive debating style—often confused for wit by his tour’s enthusiastic fans. “Oh, you thought this was going to be a fair fight?” Hitchens seemed to say. “It’s personal, and I’m going straight for the jugular.”

Sadly, Hitchens often took advantage of Christians’ well-meaning impulse to be nice, which they sometimes mistake for the virtue of kindness. Niceness is not a virtue, especially when debating someone like Hitchens. Sometimes, as the song says, you’ve got to be cruel to be kind.

Dr. Tim Jackson, kind—even nice—but he knows the difference.

Fortunately, Timothy Jackson, my Christian ethics professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, understood this distinction when he debated Hitchens at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. This time, Hitchens seemed unprepared. Not that there was much give-and-take. Hitchens rarely responded to what Jackson said. He was mostly reciting a script. Still, even he conceded a few weeks later on a blog that Jackson was, “by far” his best opponent. I’m sure he was!

This audio recording is from the second of two debates that day. I attended the first. I assume the second is similar, although Dr. Jackson told me in an email that both of them were a bit grumpier the second time around.

UPDATE: Now it’s on YouTube!