Daniel, Head Magician—A Reprise


When the first Harry Potter book came out, it quickly became embroiled in controversy largely generated by Christians who were opposed to a book about magic written for children. I understand the thinking. It’s not my intention to rehash the issue, but I can’t help but make a comparison: Harry with Daniel.

Yes, I’m referring to the Daniel-in-the-lions’-den Daniel. First, both were teens. Well, Harry was only eleven when the books started, but he grew up before the eyes of his adoring public. Daniel was a teen at the beginning of his true story and became an old man by the end.

Second, both lived as aliens and strangers. Harry was a gifted, powerful wizard living with people who hated and feared him because of it. Daniel lived with people who had captured him and held him as a slave.

Third, and this is really the point of this post, they were both gifted in magic. Harry’s magic, of course, is pretend. He could learn how to mix potions, wave his wand just so, incant spells, fly his broom—things which are make-believe. Daniel learned, too—the language and literature of the Chaldeans. Did that include their astrology, necromancy, sorcery? Hard to say.

We know he interpreted dreams, starting with the one Nebuchadnezzar wouldn’t describe. But he had already earned a spot as one of the “magicians, the conjurers, the sorcerers and the Chaldeans” marked for death, because it appeared no one could do what the king demanded.

And Daniel’s reward when he did actually give the king the dream and its interpretation? He was promoted. Among other duties, he became chief of the magicians (see for example Dan. 4:9).

Think about that for a moment. He not only lived among those people who worshiped idols, but now he was head of those who used the dark arts to guide their king in his decisions. Talk about being in the culture!

But Daniel and his three friends early in their captivity made up their minds that they would not defile themselves. At issue in those days was what they were to eat. Seemingly, Daniel knew the Mosaic Law, and he intended to abide by it.

We know years later he was still maintaining a regular prayer life, one that was not secret. He lived, as he intended, in communion with God.

And yet his job was chief of the magicians.

I imagine these were people like the Egyptian sorcerers who matched miracles with Moses and Aaron for a short time. In other words, they had real power—just not God’s power.

And Daniel was their chief.

I find that incredible! Today many Christians run from reading about pretend magic, and Daniel was put in charge of real magicians, people who knew how to read the heavens.

Sure, some of what they did was undoubtedly a scam. I suspect that’s why Nebuchadnezzar came up with his impossible request: they were to first tell him what he dreamed, and only then interpret it. I imagine he was fed up with what he had detected to be party-line interpretations. He wanted to know what the dream actually meant, not whatever flattery those fakes might come up with.

But later if they were all fakes, all the time, and Daniel was their chief, why wouldn’t he simply clean house and get good, honest Jews in their place, men like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego whom he could trust? He could have turned the magicians’ arm of the government into a Christian uh, a department run by believers in the One True God.

Of course, Daniel might have been the only person God gifted with the power of divination among the Jewish exiles. But what did he think of the pagan diviners? That they were illegitimate? That they were tapping into the power of the evil one? That they were just one more evidence of the sinfulness of the nation in which he was forced to live? Did he respect them? Or did he squelch them as often as he could?

They owed him their lives because they were due to be executed, but that fact didn’t stop the from coming up with a scheme to get Daniel killed. Clearly, there was no love lost on their part.

Why all this speculation?

I think Christians today in the Western world tend to run scared when it comes to evil. I know I have. I’ve been places where offerings were made to idols, and I sensed evil in a way that freaked me out. But I think that plays into Satan’s hand. The truth is, he is not stronger than God—that would be He who resides in the heart of every Christian. Why are we running scared? it should be Satan running scared when he sees us advancing on our knees.

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here in May, 2012.

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Published in: on May 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Lord Is In His Holy Temple—A Reprise


Habakkuk had it right when he wrote, “The Lord is in His holy temple.” That statement stood in contrast to the idols of wood, overlaid with silver and gold that the people of Israel were guilty of worshiping.

What profit is the idol when its maker has carved it,
Or an image, a teacher of falsehood?
For its maker trusts in his own handiwork
When he fashions speechless idols. (Hab. 2:18)

I find it interesting that the idol is without profit, yet it is the teacher of falsehood. In other words, it cannot answer prayer; it cannot save, but it is fully capable of deceiving. The idol, a product of a craftsman’s talent and skill, induces him to believe in himself.

“Believe in yourself” is the current mantra of Western civilization. It’s an acceptable theme in children’s literature, one that is sure to garner little opposition. Who would tell someone else to doubt himself?

Well, essentially God does.

The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it? (Jer. 17:9)

If the heart is more deceitful than all else, why would a person want to look within for his source of strength, why would he trust in himself rather than in God? He wouldn’t. So trusting himself over God is tantamount to calling God a liar.

To get to that point, of course, a person also must put himself up as God’s judge. This person, in his vast wisdom and knowledge, can make the determination whether or not God is right to say the heart is more deceitful than all else. How ironic! A deceitful heart, deciding whether or not hearts are deceitful.

Sadly, our culture is training us to abandon reason, abandon authoritative truth and moral absolutes in order to believe whatever we wish to believe.

Enter God’s word.

But the LORD is in His holy temple.
Let all the earth be silent before Him. (Hab. 2:20)

A person who believes in himself will still one day meet his Maker face to face, and what is he going to say? I did it my way? I followed my dream?

Yes, God will say, you believed in the wooden idol you carved out for yourself, your own speechless handiwork. And how is that working out for you?

This post is repeat of one that appeared here in May, 2012.

Published in: on May 8, 2018 at 5:52 pm  Comments (7)  
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God Is Not Benevolent


copOne of the “faults” atheists find with God, and apparently some professing Christians share this thinking, is that He shows Himself in the Old Testament to be wrathful. The first conversation I had with someone about this subject made me think we simply were not defining “wrathful” in the same way. She, I believed, meant that God was quick to anger, that he “flew off the handle” easily, and that He was capricious about when and why He “lost it.” I knew He wasn’t any of that.

Apparently I was wrong about her definition. She meant that God was wrong for punishing the unrighteous.

There are indeed those in the world who think God errors because He judges sin. His wrath, then, isn’t acceptable in any form. There simply isn’t room for a god who doesn’t bend his will toward making life better for the universe. Only if he did so, in this view, would he be a benevolent god.

And clearly, so these thinkers say, the God of the Old Testament is not benevolent.

I agree with this conclusion. The God of the Old Testament, who happens to be the same as the God of the New Testament, is not benevolent by those standards. The Oxford English Dictionary defines benevolent as “well meaning and kindly.” Ah, but as C. S. Lewis reminds us, God is good, not simply well meaning and kindly.

God does not “mean well” in the sense that He’s hoping for the best and trying to help and aiming for what’s good. NO! God is good, does good, brings about good. But good is defined on His terms.

I can say it would be good for me to sell my book for a million dollars. But my understanding of good is limited and finite. I don’t know if a million dollars would make me happy or angry at people who I perceive as trying to leech off me once I got some cash. I don’t know if a million dollars would change my perspective so much that I’d stop doing things of value like writing blog posts and doing freelance editing. I don’t know if a million dollars would make me more prideful, self-centered, and egotistical that I’d lose all my friends. And most importantly, I don’t know if a million dollars would become my idol, if I would worship it in God’s place.

God knows these things, however, and may, for my benefit here and now, in this life, prevent me from getting a million dollars. I also have no doubt that God could give me a million dollars if that were truly for my good—if it would bring me closer to Him, cause me to serve Him more truly, make me conform more closely to the image of His Son. What’s a million dollars to the Owner of the cosmos?

But He withholds what would harm His people in the same way that a good parent doesn’t give a three-year-old candy for breakfast just because she asks. God knows better than we do what is truly good.

God Himself is good, so we can conclude that His judgment is good as well. When He says, the wages of sin is death, that’s not an arbitrary judgment—that’s the testimony of an all knowing Creator. Much the way that a policeman might point to a sign and say, this is a handicap parking zone; you’ll get a ticket if you park here, God has made plain what disobeying His righteous standards will cost.

handicap parking signSomeone who didn’t know what the handicap parking sign meant would be grateful that the policeman told him. They wouldn’t rail against him because he didn’t tear the sign down and let them park in the specially marked spot, and they certainly wouldn’t ignore the warning and park there right under the watchful eye of the policeman.

But that’s what many people want of God—that He would ignore justice for them. Of course, few want Him to ignore justice for those they consider enemies, but they reserve their idea of His benevolence based on how He treats them.

Jesus told an interesting story about a man who thought much as these people do. He owed a debt so great he could never manage to pay it back in his life time–the equivalent would be millions of dollars. His creditor said all the man owned would have to be sold and he himself would go into servitude until he paid his debt. The man begged for more time. The creditor had compassion on him but instead of giving him more time to pay, which was really an impossibility, he forgave him the entire debt.

The man left and immediately ran into a fellow worker who owed him the equivalent of about ten thousand dollars. The man grabbed his co-worker and demanded that he pay up or he’d have to sell everything he owned and go into servitude himself until the debt was paid. The co-worker begged for more time, but the man refused.

A bunch of other workers saw what happened and told the man’s creditor. And this is how the story ends:

Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. (Matt 18:32-34)

Was the creditor in the wrong because he didn’t treat the man in a benevolent way? Of course not. He had in fact canceled the man’s debt. It was the man himself who wasn’t benevolent, who didn’t understand what receiving a gift of forgiveness actually meant.

So, no, God is not benevolent in the way the people of today want Him to be. He doesn’t tear up the ticket we deserve. Rather, He paid it for us. The point isn’t to get us off so we can go pile up more debt. The point is to change our status from debtor, to adopted child; it is to give us an inheritance far richer than any we can imagine.

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here in June, 2013.

Published in: on May 7, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The US National Day Of Prayer—A Reprise


This coming Thursday is the National Day Of Prayer here in the US. In a country with the freedom to worship when and how and who we please, it seems a little odd that we have a designated National Day of Prayer. I’m glad we do because it makes me think more about the subject, but part of my thinking is that, for most of us, the National Day of Prayer means very little.

For one thing, prayer, as an activity in and of itself, has no efficacious value. Isaiah illustrated that most clearly in the passage about idols that I included in Friday’s article. Here it is again, with a couple additional verses.

Surely he cuts cedars for himself, and takes a cypress or an oak and raises it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” They do not know, nor do they understand, for He has smeared over their eyes so that they cannot see and their hearts so that they cannot comprehend. No one recalls, nor is there knowledge or understanding to say, “I have burned half of it in the fire and also have baked bread over its coals. I roast meat and eat it. Then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!” (Isaiah 44:14-19; emphasis mine)

Praying to a block of wood, Isaiah is saying, has no value. Clearly, then, value is not in the act of praying.

Consequently, in a country with people of many faiths, telling us all to pray on a certain day, accomplishes nothing. The only prayer that matters is the one offered to a Person interested enough to listen and powerful enough to do something about what He hears.

But should we limit ourselves to pray to such a Person on one day out of the year? Surely, if we knew President Trump would take our phone call every morning and would do all within his power to fulfill our requests, we wouldn’t limit ourselves to a phone call one day a year. Why then would we make prayer a one-day event?

Clearly it should be a regular part of our relationship with God—the One who commands us to pray, who promises to hear us, and who delights in giving us what we ask. Anything, that is, which we ask in His name, according to His will.

No, that isn’t a formula for getting what we want. The specifics God laid down about prayer are relational doors. We are to ask “in Jesus’s name” not as a cool way to bring a prayer to an end or as a magic mantra to insure that God has to come through and deliver on His promises. We ask in Jesus’s name in the same way that we might go to an exclusive “by invitation only” dinner. We reach the door and give our name. Oh, but we’re not on the list. Rather, the guest of honor invited us to be in his party, so we give his name. Because of his name we are ushered into the banquet hall and seated at the head table. In the same way, we ask God for things, not because of who we are but because of who Jesus is.

Consequently, we can’t ask Him for things that would contradict who Jesus is. Well, we can ask, but God isn’t going to hear us if we ask for selfish things in His Son’s name. Jesus is not in the business of rubber stamping all the selfish requests people make of the Father.

Which brings us to praying according to God’s will. Jesus Himself before He went to the cross asked for something He didn’t get–to bypass the sacrifice set before Him. But God actually did answer Jesus’s prayer because He stipulated that He wanted God’s will more than He wanted what He wanted. It was Jesus’s way of prioritizing. He wanted A and if God wanted A for Him, then Yay! But if He wanted A and God wanted B, then Yay! Jesus would change His mind and want B also. Because God’s will mattered more to Jesus than His own will did.

In praying according to God’s will, essentially we are stepping back and agreeing that God knows more than we do, is good, loves us, and won’t make any mistakes. It’s as if we’re looking at our lives and our circumstances through a straw, but God sees the entire picture. From our straw perspective we ask God for what looks like the thing we need or want. God answers from his entire-picture perspective, however, which means we don’t always get what we thought we wanted.

Joni Eareckson Tada is a good example of this principle. When she broke her neck as a seventeen year old, she prayed to be healed. She was an active, athletic teenager who couldn’t imagine how God could possibly want her to spend her life in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. Eventually, however, she bowed before His will, and today, fifty years later, she gives testimony of her willingness to do whatever He asks of her, no matter how hard it seems. That has included living with chronic pain and the onset of cancer.

So Joni is an example of answered prayer? She is, because she testifies of God’s love and goodness and mercy for her as she has gone through suffering. He has given her according to His will, and as a result, Joni has reached thousands upon thousands of hurting people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Her impact for eternity is far beyond anything she could have imagined as a teen.

So, a day of prayer? Sure, it’s good to be public about our thoughts on prayer. But it’s much better to make prayer a key ingredient in our relationship with God. We wouldn’t think of limiting conversation with our spouse to one day a year. So, too, a strong relationship with God is built by talking to Him each and every day, not just once in a public forum because it’s the US National Day of Prayer.

This article is an edited version of one that first appeared here in May 2013, then resurfaced in May 2015.

The Call Of God


Paul_the_Apostle_conversionThe apostle Paul received the call of God. So did any number of other people in Scripture—Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah, Samuel. The thing about Paul’s call was that it was so public.

He saw a light so bright it blinded him for days. In fact, he needed a man sent by God to restore his sight. In the midst of that light, Paul heard a voice and what this Person said was a distinct message for him. First a question: Why are you persecuting Me?

Paul’s answer was natural: “Who are you, Lord?”

Then, The Call: “And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Acts 9:5b-6)

I suppose Paul could have said no. After all, Jonah did. Balaam and an unnamed prophet also resisted God’s directions. But the fact is, Paul obeyed. He did exactly what he’d been told.

And though the men with him saw the light (not in the way Paul did—they weren’t blinded by it), and though they heard the voice (not the way Paul did—they didn’t understand what the Speaker said), this call was for Paul alone.

It was dramatic. It was personal. It was convincing. We don’t have any record that Paul ever looked back from that moment on. He had been pursuing Christians to arrest them and bring them to judgment which would lead to their executions. Now he was a Christian who other zealous Jews were trying to put to death.

Despite his calling, others questioned what he was doing. Ananias, the man God sent to heal Paul, was the first one. God told him who he was to go to, and Ananias answered, Really, Lord? This man has been actively seeking to KILL Christians.

How like so many of us. We act as if we need to remind God of the dire circumstances we’re in or the offense against us or the plans we’d made, as if God had forgotten or maybe wasn’t aware. In reality it was Ananias who wasn’t aware:

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

I still marvel that the “before the Gentiles” part didn’t throw Ananias, but to his great credit, he obeyed God.

He wouldn’t be the last person to doubt Paul’s calling, though. When this new, enthusiastic convert arrived in Jerusalem, “he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.” (Acts 9:26b)

Can’t blame them really, but I think that’s typical. We don’t know what the calling is that others have received. Really? we say; you’re going to be part of a prison ministry? or an unwed mother’s Bible study? or a medical ministry to Russia? or a missionary to … shhh . . . a Muslim country.

Even more, we might say, What? You’re giving up your writing to take care of your disabled sister-in-law? Or, you’re giving up your stable job to become a writer? Or, you’re turning your back on that great guy who loves you because you feel called to the mission field?

The part that’s inexplicable is the calling. Paul knew he was called, though no one else heard what he heard, and he acted accordingly. Eventually others realized he was serious, though they may not have understood. And certainly his old Pharisee buddies did not get it.

In fact, later in Paul’s ministry when he was called to Jerusalem, a number of his Christian friends and disciples, including a prophet, tried to dissuade him. Don’t go, they said. If you go to Jerusalem, you’ll be arrested.

Paul had listened to those warnings before. After his conversion, in Damascus, when the staunch Jews were planning to kill him, his disciples lowered him in a basket outside the city wall so he could escape. Another time, when there was a near riot because of his preaching, he wanted to enter the arena to speak to the crowd, but the other Christians told him no. He left Philippi because of death threats and traveled by himself to Athens to wait for his companions. So Paul was not a stranger to heeding the warnings of others.

But he’d been called to Jerusalem, so to Jerusalem he went, regardless that this calling didn’t insure a happy end or many converts—at least not in the short term.

That’s also true about following God’s call. There is no guarantee that there will be fruit from your labor. Jeremiah, in fact, knew going in that no one would listen to him. Yet God called him to warn the people of God’s judgment.

In other words, the veracity of God’s call can’t be confirmed by results that people here and now can see. The widows of the men martyred with Jim Elliott may well have thought initially that their calling had ended in fruitlessness. It hadn’t, but they couldn’t know that at the time.

But it can be “confirmed,” I guess you’d say, by Scripture in the sense that God isn’t going to call a person to do something contrary to His written word. He isn’t going to “call” someone to have an affair, for instance, or to preach a different gospel from the one Scripture teaches.

I’ll be honest—I don’t like this notion of God’s call. I know it’s easy to act on our own, to be deluded by our own desires, to want something so much we talk ourselves into believing God wants it for us too. I feel on shaky ground when someone else says they’ve been called. But the few times I’ve known God’s call in my life, it’s been clear—convincingly clear. But maybe not necessarily to everyone else around me. Undoubtedly there are some still saying, Really? I get that. I wish I had a bright light to point to.

Or not. Some scholars think that perhaps the thorn Paul wanted removed was his poor eyesight which, though restored, was never as good as it had been. Of course his poor eyesight could just as easily have come from one of the beatings he took or the times he was stoned and left for dead.

Either way, it’s clear callings come with a cost—people not always “getting it,” some even opposing it, and lots of people doubting you ever got such a calling in the first place. That’s OK.

Like Lucy in Prince Caspian, we can respond to the call of Aslan, even though others don’t see or hear, or we can fall in line and go the way everyone else is going. It’s a matter of trust.

“Yes, wasn’t it a shame?” said Lucy. I saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so—”

From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.

“I’m sorry,” said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. “I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?”

The Lion looked straight into her eyes.

“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “You don’t mean it was? How could I—I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that . . . oh, well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you.” (pp 135-136)

This post first appeared here in June, 2014.

Published in: on April 26, 2018 at 5:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What Creation Tells Us About God


I had a conversation once with an atheist woman who proclaimed that everything in the universe is random and any patterning we think we see is actually a trick of the mind that determines disorder must be placed in some understandable pattern.

That in itself sounds very ordered to me. I mean, do all humans do this?

I bring up order because one of the things creation teaches us about God is that He is an ordered, and ordering, God. He does not subscribe to chaos.

Take, for example just one procedure that occurs within our cells: Protein Synthesis. Here’s the short explanation of what this is:

Protein synthesis is one of the most fundamental biological processes by which individual cells build their specific proteins. Within the process are involved both DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and different in their function ribonucleic acids (RNA). The process is initiated in the cell’s nucleus, where specific enzymes unwind the needed section of DNA, which makes the DNA in this region accessible and a RNA copy can be made. This RNA molecule then moves from the nucleus to the cell cytoplasm, where the actual the process of protein synthesis take place. (“What Is Protein Synthesis?”; emphasis mine)

Here’s one short animation of what this process looks like (only a 2:15 video in length).

I’m not a scientist, but one thing strikes me as I read about protein synthesis: this process occurs within the cells, every one of the cells, in the human body. And not just in some human bodies. In every human body.

To explain the process, scientists use words like code and sequence and engineered and rules and translated. None of those elements sounds anything like “random” or “by chance” to me. There is order and purpose and achievement, even at the microscopic level of the cell.

Which makes me aware of something else that creation teaches about God: He cares for the details. God didn’t throw spaghetti on the wall to see if something stuck. He cared and cares for the particulars, down to the microscopic and beyond. Because one story I saw said that we aren’t finished with the discovery of what makes up a cell. As our microscopes become more sophisticated and capable, we most likely will see even smaller “machines” that simply, with all practicality, couldn’t randomly come into being.

Something else that I learn about God from creation: He loves beauty. Places that no one has gone to for thousands of years, are nevertheless beautiful. We might be talking about the remotest part of the sea or out in deep space. The beauty which we uncover has existed since creation, even though no human until recent times had any idea of the existence of such rich colors and shapes and textures and interplay between light and shadow.

Another thing I see in creation, and therefore in God, is purpose. Atheists are fond of saying that creation is very inefficient, that there are extra organs or unnecessary appendages, for this species or that. And yet, humans are just beginning to understand the ecosystem and the delicate interplay of one element with another. I suspect the same is true within a particular species—each is simply a confined ecosystem with each member functioning for the benefit of the whole, even though we humans don’t yet know what all those functions are.

Take for example, the human appendix. For years people have believed it to be a do-nothing organ, something that can be removed or left in at the will of the individual. But not so fast. Some medical professionals now believe the appendix might do something important:

The function of the appendix is unknown. One theory is that the appendix acts as a storehouse for good bacteria, “rebooting” the digestive system after diarrheal illnesses.

Essentially, the jury’s still out, but tonsils, also once thought to be superfluous, have proved to have a significant job:

As part of the immune system, the tonsils fight infection; they are first line of defense in the throat (“What do tonsils do and why would we take them out“)

The point is simple: though we can live without these organs, they still have a purpose. After all, we can live without a leg or without our eyes or without a finger, but that fact does not prove that a leg, eyes, or finger has no purpose.

Another thing I learn about God by looking at creation is His might. I’ve seen the might of nature when I was hiking in the mountains in the winter. Well, hiking isn’t quite right. We were on cross country skies or on snowshoes. But the point is, navigating the snowy hillsides was hard work. We got tired and wet, and then the afternoon gloom started to set in. Suddenly I realized how frail we were, how vulnerable, how easy it would be for the simple elements of snow and cold to conquer us.

I learned the same thing when I, who don’t swim well, went body surfing at a place that had giant sets of waves. They weren’t breaking close to shore though, and I was quickly out further than I was comfortable with. And then the big waves came. They would break right on top of me, and crush me if I didn’t dive down and let the water absorb the power. So I did. I’d done it at other times. But this time I could feel the wave shake me as it rumbled over top. When it was over, I resurfaced, only to see another wave coming. Down I went. This took place countless times, and the last time, I thought, I’m out of energy. I can’t fight this water any more. I realized how frail, how fragile I am as a human up against . . . water. Just water. The power of the waves that God has created.

I could go on about God’s grandeur clearly visible in the mountains or His kindness to make a world where we humans have all we need to live in comfort. And even in the places where the climate is one extreme or the other, there are still polar bears or camels, fish or oases. By God’s grace and kindness we still have what we need to live.

And what about the infinity of God we see in space? Or His unsearchable nature? It’s hard for me to stop, but I wonder what others see of God by looking at creation. After all, Romans tells us His imprint is there.

Published in: on April 24, 2018 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What’s The Bible All About? — A Reprise


I think a lot of people have misunderstood the Bible—Christians and non-Christians alike. Some see it as a rule book, others as the Christian version of Confucius’s sayings. Many people use the Bible to prove whatever point they want to get across—sort of a handy debater’s list of proof texts. A number of folks believe the Bible shows people the way to God. Some say it is a record of God’s dealing with humankind and others call it “His Story,” referring to Jesus.

These last two views are true as far as they go. The Bible does indeed record God’s dealing with humankind, but what are those dealings? And the Bible does, from cover to cover, either explicitly or implicitly, point to Jesus Christ. But what particularly does it say about Him?

As I have said in this space from time to time, the Bible is one book and needs to be understood as a whole. Any use of its individual parts—verses, passages, chapters, books, or even testaments—needs to be measured against the whole message of the Bible.

For example, there’s a verse that contains this: “There is no God.” Someone might point to that statement and say, the Bible claims that there is no God. In reality, that line needs to be understood in relation to the entire Bible as well as to the specific context in which it exists.

A quick scan of the Bible shows that God appears throughout; consequently the statement “there is no God” is not an accurate reflection of the Bible’s teaching. In addition, the specific context of the phrase is this: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’ ” (Psalm 14:1).

Occasionally I’ve seen a number of people quote from the book of Ecclesiastes to prove various points of debate. Again, that approach is suspect since much of Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s thinking apart from God’s direction—his view of the world “under the sun,” as opposed to his view informed by God’s wisdom.

The question should always be, Do these thoughts align with the rest of Scripture?

But that brings me back to the central question—what particularly is the rest of Scripture all about? A former pastor gave an insightful and simple answer to this question, starting in Genesis.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they did two specific things—they hid their bodies from one another (covered their nakedness) and hid themselves from God.

In the cool of the day, God walked in the garden and asked Adam where he was. Of course, omniscient God wasn’t seeking information. He wanted to give Adam a chance to give up his feeble effort to cover his sin and to confess. In other words, He was seeking Adam in a much deeper way than to see where Adam’s GPS showed him to be.

A quick scan of Scripture shows that God continued to seek people in this same way. He said in Ezekiel, “For thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.’ ”

He took up Enoch and saved Noah. He chose Abraham and sought out David. He chastised Jonah and rescued Daniel.

Jesus graphically illustrated God’s relentless pursuit of us when He gave the parable of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost lamb. He followed that story with the illustration of the woman who looked throughout her house for her lost coin.

And therein is the message of the Bible—not that we seek God, but that He pursues us, giving up all that is precious to Him, even His own beloved Son, in order to bring us back to Himself.

The great, glad news, of course, is that Jesus bore our sins in His body, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. And because of His resurrection, we also have Christ, through His Spirit, living within each believer. As Romans 5 says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in April, 2013,

Published in: on April 20, 2018 at 5:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Autonomy VS Freedom


I’m reading a thought-provoking book called Saving Truth by Abdu Murray, a member of the RZIM apologetics team. He introduces his topic by discussing post-truth and the effects on society of this mindset.

The greatest effect, Mr. Murray says, is that people now believe in autonomy, not freedom. Thankfully, he took time to explain what he means. Autonomy comes from two Greek roots, one meaning self and the other meaning rule. Thus, autonomy means self-rule, or without external control.

The problem with autonomy, of course, is that my autonomy and your autonomy may collide. And then, as Mr. Murray points out, might makes right. The stronger of the two dictates to the weaker. In other words, autonomy is actually the gateway to tyranny, with anarchy a stop along the way.

Mr. Murray likened autonomy to what Israel experienced in the era of the Judges. Scripture records this statement: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6).

The result was chaos and all kinds of immoral action. People abused others and reacted in violent ways. And no one was willing to take responsibility until civil war broke out.

Freedom is very different. It’s akin to liberty or the ability to stand on your own, and “implies the power to choose among alternatives rather than merely being unrestrained” (Oxford-American Dictionary). In truth, true freedom occurs when a person is guided by moral law.

I think of the example I heard years ago when I was teaching. Some experiment was done in which children were given an open field in which to play during their recess breaks. There were no walls, no fences, but the children concentrated their play near the building. Some time later, the children were provided with a fenced area in which to play, and this time they scattered to the distant parts of the designated field.

In reality the “restriction” gave the children a sense of safety that allowed them to take off their self-restraint and enjoy the area where they’d been allowed to go. Without the boundaries, however, they created self-imposed restrictions that hampered their movement.

Of course, the experiment could have taken a different direction. The children without the boundaries could have left the school grounds. They could have run into the street. They might have vandalized homes in the vicinity. They could have harassed neighbors. They might have stayed away instead of returning to school. They could have been abducted.

The point is, their autonomy didn’t have to result in self-restraint. It could just as easily have resulted in their impinging on someone else’s rights and misusing their property, even as they put themselves at risk to be harmed, accidentally or on purpose.

Freedom is something we can all enjoy. Autonomy leads only to chaos and ultimately tyranny.

Again looking to the era of the judges in Israel’s history, when society descended into chaos, the people cried for a king. They wanted someone to impose on them the rules of law that would bring order. Of course, the result was that the entire nation was then under the rule of one man who subjected them to the laws he decided to establish or follow.

As a result the southern nation was a bit of a yo-yo. When they had a king that followed God, they returned to the sacrifices and temple worship established at their beginning. When they had a king that forsook God and worshiped idols, then they built high places and indulged in child sacrifice and temple prostitution. At one point, the Mosaic Law was not just forgotten, the scrolls that contained it were buried in the temple so that the people didn’t even know what God’s standard was.

Post-truth. They lived at the whim of whoever was on the throne.

The northern kingdom fared worse. They actually went from one coup to another as particular military men vied for control of the nation. At one point in history, one man assassinated the sitting king, but the army followed a different leader. So the one who had connived to take the throne was himself ousted.

Chaos. Tyranny. By ignoring God’s law, by choosing autocracy, they actually forfeited their freedom.

Jesus says, The Truth will set you free. Of course, He also says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” So Jesus is the truth. The truth sets you free. Consequently, Jesus sets you free.

Christian Forgiveness: Conditional Or Unconditional?


The_Crucifixion001Some years ago I read a new thing about forgiveness—well, new to me. The idea popped up on a post at Spec Faith by Stephen Burnett, then expanded as I followed a link to a post by Kevin DeYoung. I respect both of these men, but I have to admit, I think they’re missing something important about Christian forgiveness.

As I understand the principle they’re presenting, they believe there are two ideas about forgiveness: one, a therapeutic forgiveness that is popular today even in the secular world, and two, a Biblical forgiveness that is dependent upon the repentance of the offender.

In his article about these two types of forgiveness, Mr. DeYoung goes to pains to explain that the second type of forgiveness in no way condones an attitude of bitterness or revenge:

We should always love our enemies. We should always fight against bitterness. We should cast all our cares on the Lord. We should learn to trust God’s providence. We should be eager to forgive those who hurt us and be reconciled to them.

The foundational thought to this idea that a Christian only forgives those who repent, is that we are to forgive like God forgives and He forgives conditionally—that condition being repentance.

Let me back up and explain “therapeutic forgiveness.” I’d not heard the term before, but I think it does describe a humanistic co-oping of a Biblical principle. The idea here is that giving forgiveness makes the person doing the forgiving feel better. There is no intent to reconcile, however. It’s just a way of escaping negative feelings like anger and bitterness.

Many Christians, influenced by Lewis Smedes and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. (“What Is Forgiveness?”)

The Biblical view, according to Mr. DeYoung, is that forgiveness is the means to reconciliation. Hence, the Christian should always be ready to forgive, but true forgiveness only comes when both parties move toward one another, repenting and receiving or offering forgiveness as necessary.

Again the rationale behind this concept is the Scriptural statement that we are to forgive as Christ forgave us.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV, Eph. 4:32)

I’ll admit, I have problems with this approach. First, I don’t think there has to be two choices: either therapeutic or Biblical conditional forgiveness. I think there can easily be a third option: Biblical unconditional forgiveness.

Part of my thinking is that some Bible scholars get tied up trying to think the way God thinks. Mr. DeYoung, then, says God’s forgiveness is conditional and therefore ours should be too, as if it’s possible for us to understand the conditional nature of God’s forgiveness.

Ah, but doesn’t Ephesians 4:32 say that’s how we are to forgive? I don’t think necessarily it does. I don’t read the verse as saying we are to forgive in the same manner that God forgives, but that we are to forgive because we received forgiveness.

Paul says essentially the same thing in Col. 3:13:

bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

The intent does not seem focused on forgiving in like manner but extending to others the forgiveness we received.

In other words, I see these verses mirroring Jesus’s instructions to forgive in response to the forgiveness we received. See, for example, the parable He told about the slave who received forgiveness for his debt only to turn around and withhold forgiveness from his fellow slave:

Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ (Matt. 18:32-33; see the entire parable in vv. 23-35)

It seems apparent to me that this “in the same way” is not talking about manner or even condition. In reality neither slave asked that their debt would be forgiven. They asked for more time to pay it off themselves. The act of forgiveness was an extension of mercy—the undeserved offer to cancel the debt.

This is what Christ did on the cross

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Col. 2:13-14)

As I read those verses, I’m convinced that God didn’t forgive us when we had put ourselves in a position to deserve it by repenting. He went to the cross while we were yet sinners.

Consequently, I don’t believe as Mr. DeYoung does that God’s forgiveness was conditional. He gave His forgiveness to anyone and everyone, but not everyone has accepted it. When Scripture says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16), I think the words “world” and “whoever” remove conditions from God’s side of the equation.

When Paul instructed Timothy to pray for all men, he explained his reasoning this way:

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.

There are literally dozens of verses throughout the Bible that carry this same idea. But one of the most telling, for me, is 2 Thess. 2:10ff which looks at salvation and forgiveness from the side of those who do not accept it:

[the lawless one will come with all power and signs and false wonders] 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. (Emphasis added.)

These who perish did not receive, implying that they could have received. They took pleasure in wickedness, implying that they could have refrained from taking pleasure in wickedness. They did not believe the truth, implying they could have believed the truth.

All this to say, the third reason I don’t believe forgiveness for the Christian is conditional, based on the repentance of the offender, is because I don’t believe God’s forgiveness is conditional.

I understand there are believers of a different doctrinal persuasion from mine who will disagree, but maybe two out of three reasons will be enough to make the case against this idea that forgiveness needs to be earned by repentance.

This post is a revised version of one that originally appeared here in July, 2014.

The Great Divide—A Reprise


As divided as the United States is politically between red states (conservative) and blue states (liberal), the great divide has nothing to do with politics. Nor is it about racial issues or gender. The thing that divides all humankind, not just Americans, is whether God is righteous or Man is righteous.

The people in the latter camp outnumber the former by a wide margin and fall into one of a number of categories. First there are the atheists who simply do not believe God exists. Consequently, by default, Man is the righteous one.

Even though there really is no choice from an atheist’s perspective, I don’t think many who hold to this position are unhappy with the idea that humans are righteous—or we might say, good. In fact, I suspect most agree with the atheists who argue that any “not good” or unrighteous behavior we observe in children, or in adults, for that matter, can be easily remedied by proper education and eventual acculturation. Good will prevail, according to this view, if given a chance.

Another sub-group in this Man-is-righteous camp consists of people who shape god into the image they want him in. These people say things like, My god wouldn’t do such a thing. They determine what they want from a god and dismiss any revelation to the contrary. Consequently they ignore large passages of the Bible which do not conform to the image they created for their god. Some dismiss the Bible altogether and simply decide without the benefit of any “restrictive” book, what they think god is like. Others mythologize the Bible and take from it principles they want their god to stand behind.

At first blush, this group may not appear to believe that Man is righteous, not God, but because Man is shaping god, any righteousness god may have is actually the righteousness of the one shaping him.

A third group most likely would claim to have little in common with the first two. These folk believe in the literal meaning and authoritative place of the Bible—so much so that they say God is required by His very words to act in a certain way. He must bless those who follow Him and curse those who turn from Him.

This is the position of Job’s friends. Here’s a sample of their conversation with the man who had lost his flocks and herds, his children, and his health:

“Behold, how happy is the man whom God reproves,
So do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
“For He inflicts pain, and gives relief;
He wounds, and His hands also heal.
“From six troubles He will deliver you,
Even in seven evil will not touch you.
“In famine He will redeem you from death,
And in war from the power of the sword.
“You will be hidden from the scourge of the tongue,
And you will not be afraid of violence when it comes.
“You will laugh at violence and famine,
And you will not be afraid of wild beasts.
“For you will be in league with the stones of the field,
And the beasts of the field will be at peace with you.
“You will know that your tent is secure,
For you will visit your abode and fear no loss.
“You will know also that your descendants will be many,
And your offspring as the grass of the earth. (Job 5:17-25)

This passage says the person who “does not despise the discipline of the Almighty” will find an end to suffering and hardship and trouble. Man simply has to do the right thing, and God will respond with unwavering provision and protection.

Another of Job’s friends, Bildad, spelled out this position clearly:

“If you would seek God
And implore the compassion of the Almighty,
If you are pure and upright,
Surely now He would rouse Himself for you
And restore your righteous estate. (Job 8:5-6)

In this view (though it’s unlikely any who believe this way would word it so) Man is pulling the strings, and God is simply reacting to Man’s actions. Man is really in control, then. God is the puppet, not the sovereign, and if the puppet, not the righteous one but rather, the manipulated one. Which leaves Man as righteous, though some fall short.

In contrast to the camp that views Man as righteous and god as either nonexistent, made in the image of the ones who admit he exists, or manipulated by those who believe in Him, those on the other side of the divide accept the fact that God is righteous.

Because God is righteous, He does not lie. Consequently His self-revelation is reliable, as is what He says about the rest of creation, including humans.

In a nutshell, what He says about humans is this:
* we are made in God’s image
* we are fearfully and wonderfully made
* we are made lower than Elohim—lower than God
BUT
* we have all sinned and all fall short of the glory of God
* we are deceived in our thoughts
* we are not righteous, no not one

Here’s one passage in Scripture that declares the last of these facts:

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God,”
They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice;
There is no one who does good.
God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men
To see if there is anyone who understands,
Who seeks after God.
Every one of them has turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
There is no one who does good, not even one. (Ps. 53:1-3)

“No one does good” does not mean there aren’t kind atheists or Hindus who work against slave trafficking or Muslims who stand against abortion. Rather, the “no one does good” aspect refers to the condition of our hearts, not the individual acts we perform. It refers to seeking God rather than turning aside.

The truth is, our hearts are bent toward self-interest, not the interest of others. We are proud, not humble; greedy, not generous; hateful, not loving; rebellious, not obedient. Those are our natural tendencies—which we may work to change, but which remain the state of our heart.

Not only do we have the numerous passages of Scripture that show us what we are, we have a world filled with evidence about mankind. Shall we consider crime or terrorism? Wars? Sex trafficking or perhaps child pornography? Prostitution? Corporate greed or government corruption? What areas of society are immune to the unrighteousness of the human heart? Are marriages free of self-interest? Are schools? The government? Churches?

Despite the evidence, the world will continue to be divided along the line of righteousness: Is Man righteous or is God? We can’t have it both ways because God has said Man is not righteous. So if God lies, He’s not righteous. It’s one or the other, Man or God. And that is the great divide.

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here December, 2014.