reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the category “Hard Questions”

The Right Questions

question“Has no one condemned you?” – John 8:10

If the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage didn’t turn out the way you hoped, you may have some questions for God right now. How could He allow this? Has He changed His mind about marriage? Is He still there?

Maybe we as Christians need to ask ourselves some questions instead. Principally, if God allowed the battle to be lost, was He ever in it? You may think, of course He was!  God always fights against those who break His commandments, doesn’t He?

God’s judgment has come and is coming. He judged sin at the cross. For those who don’t accept that judgment poured out on Jesus in our place, judgment will come at the end of time, and there will be no intermediary to absorb it. Until then, however, Jesus won’t raid the speakeasy and send the revelers scurrying into the night. He’ll enter, in our skin and on our feet, and invite them to come out into the light.

God invites us into a covenant relationship, and marriage is a sacred, earthly symbol of that covenant, as the Bible repeatedly makes clear. That may be one reason it’s hard to believe God wouldn’t stand and fight with the defenders of marriage as He established it. But when God gives a symbol to represent a deeper concept of faith, the symbol never trumps the spiritual reality.

When venomous snakes attacked God’s people as they wandered the wilderness, God commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it high; all who looked to it would be saved (Numbers 21:4-9). Through this symbol God demonstrated His power and foreshadowed Christ being lifted up to save all who would look to Him. What could be more sacred than that? Fast forward several hundred years. When people persisted in worshiping the bronze serpent, the righteous King Hezekiah destroyed it.

Am I suggesting that God wants traditional marriage destroyed? No, though in the next world, earthly marriage won’t exist; its time will be past (Mark 12:25). But sacred as marriage is in this life, there are more sacred things – such as God’s invitation into the higher relationship marriage symbolizes. We can’t extend that invitation impaled on a sword of judgment.

Speaking of symbols, it’s interesting that the rainbow, which God declared a symbol of His covenant never to flood the Earth again, has been adopted as a symbol for marriage equality. We can sit and fume about that. Or, just as God made the rainbow a symbol of judgment suspended, we can see it as a reminder to suspend our own judgment.

American Salad

saladI recently had my first exposure to Dr. Ben Carson, who is generating Republican presidential buzz with a growing fan base on the evangelical right. On video, he was a glib and entertaining speaker with an inspiring story, flashing the brilliance you expect of a pediatric brain surgeon. You feel smart just for listening to him. Then you hear more of what he has to say, and with all due respect to a fellow Christ follower, maybe the excitement starts to fade.

Did he really say America has become like Nazi Germany? And reaffirm the claim when given the chance to backpedal? And then draw some strained comparison between ISIS and America’s founding fathers? I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, but I’m not sure what it is. I just know I’m getting the sense of someone who is on a mission to shock people. He’ll justify it as his war on political correctness, and some of us will eat it up.

And what are we eating up? For one thing, I detect that staple of the American political menu, fear. Dr. Carson is just serving it up in an edgy plate of greens instead of the usual steakhouse wedge of iceberg. He’s not alone. Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal, a former Rhodes Scholar who courts the same vote as Dr. Carson, is out pushing the idea of Muslim “no-go” zones, a scare so baseless that Fox News had to back down from it four times in one day.

But my point is not to bash Ben Carson or Bobby Jindal; it’s to ask why American Christians keep responding to the politics of fear. To answer that, consider when we get afraid: when we think something important to us is at risk. Our level of fear reflects how invested we are in that thing.

We invest in certain things with gusto here in the Land of More is Better. “Too much of a good thing” is an alien concept. Americans are so busy going big, they rarely consider whether it might in fact be time to go home. Christians are not immune. Some of us even get over-invested, to the point of entitlement, in the idea of America that we see as our sacred heritage.

At the risk of my own tarring and feathering, perhaps the sense of entitlement springs from our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Life, I’ll give you that. Only God has the right to give it or take it, by His sovereign power or through the instruments of His choosing. Any others exercising that power are merely playing God, at their own ultimate peril.

Liberty? In Christ we are free from the penalty and power of sin, free from Old Testament law, free in debatable matters of conscience, as the apostle Paul declared in Romans 14. But the Bible never promised American-style freedom. God blessed me to be born and to live under it. These very words are protected by the First Amendment, which carries the benefit of a wide-open door for the Gospel. But whenever He pleases, God can let this door be closed and another opened. To Paul, even captivity was an opportunity; in Ephesians 6:20, he declared himself an “ambassador in chains” in his Roman imprisonment. He didn’t protest politically or incite rebellion against his oppressors. He was too busy evangelizing the guards.

Pursuit of Happiness? If we belong to God, our joy is, or should be, in Him above all: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) Happiness for its own sake is just a warm, fuzzy and unreliable feeling, and the Bible doesn’t promise such happiness.

Still, some American Christians seem to expect politicians, usually Republicans, to guarantee a particular vision of life and liberty, without which they won’t be happy or feel secure.

Holly Fisher found fame or infamy, depending on your viewpoint, when she tweeted a picture of herself holding a Bible in one hand and an AR-15 rifle in the other, while standing in front of an American flag. She had every right to do that, and those who cheered or mocked her had every right to react. America is great that way.

As for me, I had the all-too-familiar sensation of looking at a fellow believer, and squirming a little. That picture neatly captures an unsettling feature of our culture: a peculiar American salad of Christian faith, patriotism, conservative politics and guns, dressed with a dollop of fear that everything we cherish is one generation from oblivion. We’re giving it all away, Dr. Carson warns – an appeal to fear couched as a call to courage.

But where is our true security? Some who call themselves believers seem to put the Constitution, as they understand it, in God’s place. By this vision, we’re secure as long as the framework of our government guarantees we can speak and worship freely, and as long as guns can stand between us and the bad guys and/or a government that turns on us. Which brings us back to America as Nazi Germany. The comparison is, for now, thoroughly over the top. But let’s play what-if.

Some day it may become dangerous to be an American Christian. I don’t say this to sow fear. The threat to religious freedom simply is, and it’s more than a threat to countless people of all faiths around the world. Jesus warns that the persecuted church is the norm: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” The view from where He stood in John 15:19 is far from our blessed existence here in America.

So, what if oppression arises in our midst?

In the Garden of Gethsemane, government thugs came to take away Jesus’ right to speak and worship freely. Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. And Jesus told Peter to stop, and healed Malchus. In that moment, I think our Lord set the tone for any believer throughout history facing the loss of civil rights, including religious ones.

In the Bible, when God’s people are oppressed where they live, they continue to worship and they wait for deliverance, however God provides it. Think of the Israelite captivities, from Egypt to Babylon. That God has used America so remarkably, though it was born from a rebellion, may merely testify to His grace and His ability to bring good out of anything (Genesis 50:20). Find a passage in the Bible where God calls His people to insurrection against the government He allows to rule over them. If you can find one, please share, but I’m not aware of any in the Old Testament or the New. Yes, Jesus told his disciples – just before that confrontation in Gethsemane – to get swords (Luke 22:36). But the meaning and implications of that passage are debatable, and it’s not a proof text for the notion that Christians must arm themselves, especially in light of what followed at the moment of Jesus’ arrest.

Still, there are American Christians ready for metaphorical or even literal combat. We’ve seen the Holly Fishers, and we’ve seen the anonymous ones blustering in online comment threads about the day’s news. It isn’t always clear who is serious, but they can’t all be trolling. The ones who are serious have some hard questions to answer:

  • To defend your civil rights, given and taken by humans who rule with God’s permission (Romans 13), will you attack a fellow citizen? Or will you extend mercy?
  • For your religious rights, will you strike blows in the name of God, and raise the barrier of aggression between your adversary and the good news that you carry? Or like Paul will you simply take whatever opportunity presents itself under the powers that be?
  • For your right to bear arms, will you choose confrontation? Or will you trust God with your safety and lower your defenses, not to let the enemy in but to let grace out? Does your security so depend on a firearm, even more than on God, that you will shed blood over your right to keep it?

These very ideas may sound extreme to some, but in today’s supercharged, polarized politics, otherwise sane people seem to be wandering out to the fringes. And even if you’re not ready to take up arms against your government, consuming fear can twist your attitudes and actions. Never harbor the delusion that you’re fighting for God. You’re fighting in Him – His power, strength and wisdom, with spiritual weapons – against forces whose defeat is already sure, because God can fight perfectly well for Himself.

If we rethink how we might answer hostility from our own government in the future, we should separate that from issues of the here and now: personal security at home, or military service to repel external threats to the nation. In both of these matters, I believe a Christian may legitimately be prepared to defend family, neighbors or country against criminals or foreign invaders. I don’t believe millions of military men and women have served in vain. It is right to defend the defenseless against the lawless, as the psalmist says: “Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:4) But none of this equates to a divine right or mandate for a Christian to own a gun or any weapon, or to demand that right on our terms.

Remember President Obama’s famously ill-chosen remarks about rural Americans clinging to their guns and religion. It was elitist and condescending. But if Obama saw Holly Fisher’s picture, I could understand him feeling a little bit vindicated. As for my reaction: If she treats her Bible as a symbol for an idea, not as a vehicle to encounter God, she’s missing its purpose. If she trusts the gun and the flag for her security, she’s forgotten where true security lies.

Holly Fisher may be celebrating the latest election results. Fine; God’s plan is moving forward, and we can always celebrate that, as well as the precious right that we have. On this I can agree with Ben Carson: Vote, and if your faith is truly a part of all you do, bring it into the voting booth. But I don’t assume that God’s plan is to advance the American Christian social or political agenda, whatever that is, or to restore America’s greatness.

Perhaps I’ve come to realize that patriotism, while not bad in itself, is best held loosely in light of my relationship with God. Like anything apart from God, my patriotism can crumble into disappointment or fear if the object of my devotion proves unworthy or impermanent. Better to be devoted to the One who will never disappoint us, leave us or forsake us. And I am less likely to regret what I do in my country’s name, if my nationalism doesn’t blur the vision of my heavenly citizenship.

Photo: pbs.org

Signs and Wondering

Sign“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it…” – Matthew 16:4 (NASB)

Why doesn’t God erase all doubt?

If God exists, it should be easy for Him to prove it. One spectacular, globally visible, supernatural display, and He’s got the world at his feet. It would be easy, but it would be thievery, and God is no thief. He’s not going to steal back something fundamental that He placed in each of us: our will.

There would be something coercive in the kind of sign that unbelievers seek. We would no longer freely give God our belief and devotion. He would drag them out of us – unshakable, cold and loveless.

I’ve been over this ground before, here and here. But I think it’s worth revisiting, because the more I think about it, the more compelling it gets.

The will is a kind of spiritual junction. With it we yield to the Holy Spirit and connect to God, or resist and disconnect from Him. The last act of the believer’s will may be surrendering it. But when unbelievers choose to resist instead, they stroll right past the supernatural thing that is under all of our noses: the will to make that choice.

The Peril of a Soft Heart

Vintage Chenille Red Heart Pillow

(Photo: Nesha’s Vintage Niche)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? – Jeremiah 17:9

Let me be clear up front: a Christian should have a soft heart. Soft with compassion, soft with forgiveness, soft with refusal to judge or condemn people God longs to redeem. That would be everyone.

So where’s the peril of a soft heart? It arises when our gracious choice not to judge people becomes a foolish choice not to judge sin. Or when we call morally neutral, or even celebrate, what God calls sin. With this kind of soft heart we can deceive ourselves and raise our own risk of falling. Or we can deceive others that a saving relationship with God doesn’t have to change their lives.

This struggle is most visible right now surrounding homosexuality and gay marriage. I have said before, and I will say again, that it’s time for Christians to drop the culture warrior mentality on this issue. It’s not our job to chase after a culture that’s running from God; these fights can only raise barriers between us and individuals outside the faith. So I applaud the Christians who are reaching out, even apologizing to the gay community for hateful behavior, both past and unfortunately present.

But some Christians are walking right up to a very fine line and crossing it. Suddenly, God accepts not only homosexuals but their behavior, and the advance of gay marriage is a victory.

It all feels like earthly values of tolerance and enlightenment bundled into a happy package with heavenly virtues of kindness and compassion. It also doesn’t square with what the Bible says. It’s just another case of trying to live with one foot in the world and the other in God’s kingdom.

This kind of thinking extends to other behaviors, mostly in relationships. Premarital sex, living together before marriage, hasty divorce with no effort to reconcile – even abortion in some Christian circles – are things to tiptoe around. God’s teaching is too hard, or our fear of rejection is too strong, for our kind hearts to lay the truth on the table. Again, we shouldn’t be slamming doors on people who have engaged in immorality, or beating them over the head with their behavior. Jesus certainly didn’t, and every believer lives under the same grace. But that’s not the same as saying these behaviors are okay.

If we deceive ourselves on moral matters, we become unreliable witnesses to others, and we passively deny God’s power to change hearts. We also become vulnerable. Are you married? It could end; tomorrow you could be widowed. How would you behave in a future relationship? Would you think yourself entitled to whatever makes you happy, because that’s what your soft heart would want for others? Or would you remember and follow the Bible’s teachings?

And if someone asked you point blank what your faith teaches about relationships, would you be able and willing to answer with the truth? Or would you give tacit approval to lifestyles that are incompatible with committed Christianity? If it would be the latter, chances are your soft heart has become shapeless as to God’s truth, choosing to spare feelings even at the cost of endorsing sin.

Unbelief’s Creed

Image from the Book of Kells, a 1200 year old ...

Wikipedia

“…while I ache for faith to hold me, I need to feel the scars and see the proof.” – “Two Hands,” Jars of Clay

If you want to shut down a conversation with an atheist, it doesn’t take much time or thought. Just wait for the challenge to prove that God exists, and bring the clever retort: “Prove that He doesn’t.” That’ll show ’em! But before walking away, the atheist will rightly point out that you’re demanding proof of a negative, which is notoriously hard to do.

If you have authentic faith in Jesus Christ, I hope that as a rule you’re not trying to drive atheists away. You can play fair in the intellectual sandbox and still give them something to chew on. Atheism carries some implied claims that I wouldn’t want to try defending. Here are three examples:

Humans are infinitely knowledgeable.  From our flyspeck in this vast, mysterious, complex universe, we know enough to be certain that what’s physical and scientifically observable is all there is. This is similar to any categorical claim that excludes all competing claims; it implies that we know all that’s necessary to answer the question at hand. Sometimes that claim is defensible. But when you claim categorically there is no God, the question goes to the nature and origin of the entire universe. Science has an undeniable track record of explaining the unexplainable, and no one will make fun of you for believing only what can be proved by observation. But putting all of your trust in science means:

Past performance guarantees future results. If you were considering an investment, and the sales pitch included that statement, I hope you would run the other way. And yet atheism invites you to invest for eternity in the premise that because science has answered past questions, it will always answer future ones, no God required. But for all its past success, science does not answer the same questions over and over; therefore it can’t guarantee future success. And an exclusive trust in science also leads to this:

We have no free will. After all, how could we, in a purely physical universe governed by law-bound cause and effect? In such a universe, the very thought process guiding my fingers at this moment is just particles inside my skull, the ongoing ricochets of the Big Bang. I won’t belabor the point, which I’ve covered before, but I will add that one very bright atheist and I – independent of each other – traveled the same logical road to the same choice. Either abandon the notion of free will, or accept that something beyond the physical is at work. He and I made opposite choices. I dare say his requires more faith.

Certainly by human reckoning, Christianity has its share of logical fallacies. The Bible is true because it says so? God is three yet one? Sometimes we buy into the illogical because our experience convinces us that it’s true. The external experience of science gives tangible cause to trust its explanatory power, even though it’s illogical to take that experience as a guarantee for tomorrow’s mysteries. The internal experience of the Holy Spirit, which illuminates the truth of the Bible, can’t be laid on the table in the same way that science can, and so logically it holds no greater promise of answers. That’s where we come to faith, “the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1).

Christians trip themselves up when they try to force faith to become sight. They might justify the quest for worldly proof as responding to those will accept no less. But if they’re honest, maybe these “believers” are revealing their own doubts. From such vain struggles come junk science, trumped-up testimonies, and children who die for want of a doctor because misguided parents tried to blackmail God into putting on a show. If we try to meet a standard of proof the world demands, we forget the definition of faith, and we will fail.

But for some who don’t believe, there are logical hurdles to clear before the real conversation can even start, and there’s no harm in trying to address them. The argument may not be strictly Biblical, and I don’t expect my words here to bring atheists to their knees. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, opening up the Word of God and convicting hearts of sin. But to the unbeliever the Bible is irrelevant, because it isn’t the Word of God, because there is no God. On the other hand, if I were an atheist faced with defending the claims above, I might be walking back my atheist declaration toward something more agnostic. And maybe then the door to belief would open a crack.

Step Away From the Tree

English: Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil עב...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” – Genesis 3:1 NIV

Anyone who has followed this blog from the start knows that I think about my faith and ask hard questions. Especially over the past few years, my seeking has deepened and strengthened my faith. So why, in John 16:23, did Jesus say, “in that day you will no longer ask me anything”?

Note that He didn’t say, “Stop asking questions.” He knows that we don’t see Him now, face to glorified face. We’re walking by faith; questions and doubts are inevitable, and faith’s foundation gets firmer in seeking and finding answers.

So, are questions ever wrong? I think it depends on their motivation. What are you seeking? In the Garden of Eden, God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And Satan tempted them to disobey by promising they could be like God. While the tree bestowed a particular kind of knowledge, Adam and Eve’s inability to resist could stand for all of humanity’s envious questing for equality with our Creator. In every age since, humans have come to the forbidden trees in their own gardens and coveted the fruit they think will make God superfluous.

If you’re not seeking to dethrone God, you may be asking questions as an expression of conditional belief. This misses the point of faith. An authentic believer should be past the point of saying, “God, if you want me to believe, answer this question.”

There is no sin in asking. But if we demand that God answer every question – in effect, demand that He make us like him in all knowledge, right now, or that He prove his existence beyond any need for faith – we lose sight of the goal. That is simply oneness with God. Just seek Him. And one day, we will know all the answers, not because He spoon fed them to our demanding mouths, but because we have become like Him in His timing.

I suspect that for many atheists, the barrier to belief is accepting that not everything is knowable in this life. Without a mathematical, peer-reviewed proof for God, they’re not going to accept His existence. But as I’ve suggested before, the atheist’s stand entails some decidedly counterintuitive ideas, whether the atheist realizes it or not.

Nonbelievers like to point out that as science advances, the realm of the unexplained shrinks, leaving less and less need to invoke God to solve the world’s mysteries. I am more willing than many believers are to accept the findings of mainstream science, and I cringe a little at some of the pseudoscience Christians try to substitute. But atheists fall into their own logical fallacy, which becomes its own kind of faith: Because science has continually pushed back the boundaries of the unknown, it will always do so. That could be true, but it’s not a repeatable experiment, like demonstrating gravity. At the margins of human understanding, the questions are always new.

I will keep asking questions until “that day” Jesus spoke about, and I’m happy to watch scientists discover ever more about the glory written across creation. But believers know the Author, and His story isn’t finished. We have “that day” and eternity beyond it to hear the rest.

About That Little Supreme Court Case…

keep-calm-and-love-on-15475“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.” – Isaiah 41:10 (NIV)

As the Supreme Court deliberates a potentially momentous decision on gay marriage, I’ve said about all I have to say right here. Agree or disagree, but don’t fear.

(Photo credit: keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk)

When Heaven Folds Its Hands

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. – 2 Corinthians 4:17 (NIV)

The next time a major tragedy strikes, take two aspirin and delve into the discussion threads below the online news stories. You’ll discover plenty of compassionate people, but also many whose comments shake your faith in humanity. You’ll almost certainly see the following line of argument played out.

It starts when someone weighs in with prayers for the victims or thanks to God that it wasn’t worse. Close behind are the Atheists on Patrol, who seem to camp out on these threads, scanning for any expression of faith to challenge. Believers respond to them, some with patience and gentleness, others with caustic glee for the day when the atheists learn they were wrong.

The skeptics raise many serious objections, but the one that has always made me pause and squirm amounts to this: God fails as cosmic lifeguard. It’s the question as old as humanity. How could a good God allow so much disappointment, suffering and tragedy, in our lives and in the world? Where was He in the loss of that job, that relationship, perhaps my very health? Why did he allow that earthquake, that famine? Or as CNN asked, drawing more than 10,000 responses, where was God in Aurora?

I started out to write an entirely different post, but God pulled me aside and into some very deep waters. Let me try to retrace the steps.

Believers offer many answers to the question of suffering. God is testing us. He’s refining us. It’s His discipline. It’s setting the table for God to show His power, directly or through His people. He’s teaching us something. He’s preparing us for a greater tomorrow that we can’t foresee. At different times, in different places, all of these explanations can apply. Taken together, they don’t nearly add up to a complete answer.

Dig a little deeper, and the reasoning may be that we live in a fallen world; evil and suffering are the unavoidable consequences of this. Also true, but still there are holes.

Why is the world fallen? Basically, through the exercise of free will, which humanity has misused to rebel and sin against God. And yet, while suffering may be a consequence of human rebellion, it’s not necessarily punishment.

Free will is, after all, a gift from God. To me, it’s among the strongest clues that God even exists. What I didn’t grasp until recently is how profoundly precious that gift is. Its value is measured, in part, in human suffering.

If we say that some suffering is simply the result of people exerting free will, suffering becomes mere collateral damage. That would be true if God had no power to prevent it – and He would look like a reckless God for giving us this dangerous toy we call free will. But God does have the power. Why does He so often refrain from using it?

Perhaps it comes down to this: Every time God intervenes in human events, He encroaches on free will. Satan thought God intervened a bit too much, and challenged God to His face as he sought permission to ruin Job’s life. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?” Satan asked. “…But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-10, NIV)

Satan underestimated Job’s faith, but he put his finger on something pivotal. Under the same blessing and cursing as Job received, how would we be affected?  With a strict diet of force-fed blessings, would God steal our freedom to choose or reject Him? If He let it all be taken away, would our faith remain? The life of cradle-to-grave safety and prosperity under God would be a life of comfort without liberty. The life exposed to free will and its consequences, however dire, is one in which we can freely give Him trust and love that have real worth.

Job trusted God to know how much protection was enough. So do I. But imagine if God’s hand shielded everyone, all the time, from every misfortune. To do so, he would have to change our choices and bend the laws of nature and probability, displaying His power so clearly that with any remaining will, we could do nothing other than bow to Him. We would become a race of robots God never intended us to be.

God loves us too much to do that. He loved us enough to sacrifice the perfection of His original creation – even the angels of heaven had free will, and so Satan exists. All this, so we would have freedom to choose the full, deep, satisfying relationship God desires with us.

Perhaps then unexplained suffering is not the collateral damage of free will, but rather the cost God willingly assigns to it and shares with us. Human suffering hurts us and it hurts Him, but the gift is worth the price. It may be among God’s greatest gifts short of redemption itself, which cost the death of His son Jesus on the cross, His blameless body and spirit bearing heaven’s full wrath against sin.

So where do we go with this? Three things come to mind.

First, don’t stop caring. Mercy and compassion are woven through the Bible from beginning to end. God loves us whether He is sparing us pain or allowing it,  and we are to let His love flow through us to a world full of hurt, whatever the cause.

Second, you may be able to make peace with God about the suffering you have endured or witnessed. God might have clearer, more specific reasons for the pain He allowed into your life. But even if you can’t see any reason, you can kn0w that the suffering had meaning.

Third, you may be able to make peace with God on the most basic level. Suffering may have left you too angry at God to bow to Him, or too skeptical to believe He exists at all. The very will you assert to push Him away is a precious gift from Him, bound up with the hurt you have seen. You can use this will to receive His greatest gift – redemption through Jesus Christ.

Then you can begin to surrender your will to His, in large chunks or in small pieces, because you want to. All of our suffering will be eternally forgotten in the glory that is waiting for us. It will have been worth the cost.

Premature Judgment – Part 3

The Judgment of Solomon

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Passing judgment before the proper time can make faith look like fanaticism, or extinguish a life, or lead to gross injustice. Parts 1 and 2 in this series of posts looked at these themes in very different ways: first, the polarizing and often fruitless “culture wars” that drive well-meaning people to face the world with mean-spirited condemnation; and second, the hasty assumptions that can drive two young men into a confrontation that leaves one dead.

Now I’m veering back to the subject that I first intended to be Part 2. As I venture into a 40-year-old debate, I hope by this one issue to shed light on judgment that’s destructive, and on judgment that is just. Not to dance around the point, I’m talking about unborn human life.

Here, actual lives hang in the balance. I will plead for them first of all as a Christian, but also with any moral appeal that may possibly resonate. I will voice judgment on this issue and not apologize.

Speaking of judgment, ponder this: An old chestnut of Planned Parenthood is the slogan, “Every child a wanted child.” The idea sounds both practical and compassionate until you start to unpack it. It’s hard to find fault with preventing unwanted pregnancy. But we know that in practice the Planned Parenthood mantra also involves the liberal use of one very draconian judgment.

Every abortion on some level is a judgment of the unborn child’s worth by some external measure. The prospects for its home environment are too bleak. Its defects are too severe. It will cost too much – financially, emotionally or in terms of the mother’s life or health.

Those latter situations, and cases such as rape or incest, introduce some shades of gray. Such instances call for the wisdom of Solomon, and he’s not available. But by and large, the judgment of death to the child is made on grounds that while serious, are far less drastic than the exchange of one life for another.

In any event, the decision to abort is a judgment made not on any merit of the child, but on factors completely apart from him or her. And it’s a judgment in which the child has no say.

Time has a finger on the scale as this judgment is made. Abortion immediately lifts the responsibility for another life, grants financial relief and removes a physical burden. If you don’t find that a little chilling, consider how the same ethic could be applied to other people whose quality of life doesn’t meet some arbitrary standard, or who might be judged more of a drain than a contributor – in terms of time, energy or resources.

Unlike abortion’s “upsides,” the rewards of parenthood are slow-ripening fruit. Especially to a young, single woman, the judgment becomes easy when that fruit appears distant, and she has a flawed moral conviction – or none at all – about the object of that judgment.

If a person were brought forth who had somehow lived in a moral vacuum, with no opportunity to knowingly do good or evil, wouldn’t it be unjust to issue a death sentence based on other people’s subjective judgments of the person’s worth or prospects? Yet that is done with every abortion. And a life ends.

Some will ask, is it really a life? A fair question, which I’ll answer with another. Suppose there is an extremely premature infant in a neonatal ward – premature enough to have been aborted via a late-term procedure, had it not been born. This kind of overlap is not some future fantasy – it exists today. Now, supposed a deranged person breaks into the ward and kills that infant. Wouldn’t it be murder? And yet, had the mother judged it impossible to let that baby live, she could have had it aborted, legally.

The point is, we can try to compromise by setting some arbitrary, legal threshold of viability outside the womb, and drawing the line on abortion there. And as surely as the sun will rise, medical science will push that threshold back.

The pressures, subtle and overt, that drive the choice to abort make it important to withhold our judgment of the people involved. As with anything else, it’s for God to judge people, and for His servants to extend compassion, speak truth and seek justice.

In most of my posts, I leave plenty of space for the possibility that I’m wrong. On this issue, I can only leave a very small space. If there is any point at which a fetus is not a human being (I don’t think so), we are not wise enough to find that boundary. The safest moral ground is to treat every fetus as a person, too young to judge unworthy of life. With a few very narrow exceptions, to kill that child intentionally is a terrible injustice.

Straight Talk

“You say…love is a temple, love the higher law. You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl.” – “One” by U2

Like it or not, we are in the midst of a cultural and political shift on a par with the Civil Rights era. I’m not old enough to remembers those years, but any Christian who stood with God for justice should have seen the rightness of the cause.

This time around, homosexuals are at the center of the change. And many Christians, however firm their convictions may sound, are adrift. I am one of them, trying to drop an anchor somewhere.

If you’re a Christian and this subject hasn’t made you squirm, you may not have thought hard enough about it. No, I’m not talking about knee-jerk revulsion at relationships that make us uncomfortable. I’m talking about the knife edge we need to walk between upholding Biblical truth, and giving every person outside the faith room to come as they are.

Even as I try to strike a blow against hate, I know that based on the following paragraphs, some readers will mark me as a slave to ignorance and possibly a hatemonger, though I am no such thing. Christians need to bring a delicate balance of honesty, perspective and love to this discussion, and I believe most are missing it as the progression of gay rights accelerates.

Some Christians thunder judgment, fear and hate from pulpits, street corners or any handy soapbox. It’s un-Christian, un-Biblical and immeasurably damaging to the testimony of the church.

Others timidly surrender principles and honesty as they go with the flow – bowled over by the tide of history, fearful of being labeled a bigot, or perhaps giving voice to the tender spot in the heart that wants to believe mutual love between two people is always right.

I’d like to propose another way, taking the three key principles – honesty, perspective and love – one at a time.

Honesty first of all demands that we acknowledge what the Bible teaches. Accept or reject the Bible’s authority, but it’s a mighty stretch to find the Bible neutral on homosexuality, much less in favor of it. I’ve seen many attempts to do so, and they all seem to involve selective reading, wishful thinking or both. They appeal to a desire to be excused from wrestling with this issue.

But the sum of the Bible’s teaching is clear. It’s stated in the Old Testament, repeated in the New. If the Bible’s authority is from God, then the matter ought to be settled.

And so what?  I don’t mean to make light of what God forbids, but this is where perspective comes in. God has forbidden many things. If we as Christians struggle with what to say about homosexuality, the better question is why we feel compelled to say any more about it than we do about anything else God disapproves.

Sin is sin. We need to talk about sin, because it’s the chasm between God and everyone who hasn’t received His gift of redemption. But if we are reading the Bible correctly as to homosexuality, we can trust God to deal with it in the lives of those come to Him – just as He is dealing with everything the rest of us brought to our relationships with Him. The Christian’s job is to hold the door open.

That’s where the love comes in. The easy, trite thing to say is that we hate the sin but love the sinner. But we need to understand that homosexuals regard their orientation as part of their very identity. To say “we hate your homosexuality, but we love you,” reads to them as “we hate what you are, but we love you.” It sounds like self-contradicting nonsense.

It hardly matters whether homosexuals have a choice about what they are. They see it as their identity; for all practical purposes, it is, unless and until God changes it.

As for what the Christian’s attitude should be, consider the arc of Jesus’ life – from the angelic birth announcement to the shepherds, to the travels of His earthly ministry, to his dying promise to a dying thief. He went places where the religious leaders wouldn’t have defiled their sandals, seeking encounters with people who would never have found a place in the temple courts. He didn’t ask who was clean or unclean; he simply pursued those who needed Him. “All those the Father gives me will come to me,” he said, “and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37 NIV).

Perhaps we should learn the lesson of Peter, who got an earful about clean and unclean in a vision from God. When God set an un-kosher buffet before Peter and commanded him to eat, He was not abolishing every Old Testament command, but it was about much more than food. What came after the vision was not a shipment of shrimp. It was an invitation to a pagan home that no ceremonially clean Jew would dare enter.

If by clean you mean sinless, then no, gays are not clean. Neither are you, and neither am I, apart from God’s grace. Nor is anyone defined by just one sin. But as God made clear to Peter, under the new order established at the cross, all are approachable, all can be offered the same grace by which we are saved. We can’t approach anyone, however, if we are unbearable company.

When asked directly what we believe, we need to be honest (see above). But we need to realize that gays’ sense of injustice and desire for affirmation is from the heart, and their pain is real when they are attacked. Pain may eventually be unavoidable, but if so, let it be the sting of cleansing, not our words falling like fists on their heads. And never, ever, real fists.

What about law and culture? Please remember that we do not live in the God-ordained theocracy of ancient Israel. We live in a pluralistic, secular society that, for a time, fairly well represented Judeo-Christian values. That is slipping away, and it’s scary, and perhaps that’s why Christians get so agitated when another domino falls, as is happening now.

But at what cost do we try to recapture the fading shadow of our “Christian nation?” What is most important – individual souls or this abstraction we call our culture? In the supercharged atmosphere of the moment, almost every word spoken in the public square against gay marriage comes across as hate speech toward gays, whether it’s intended that way or not.  And in the age of social media, the public square is unimaginably large. After all they’ve seen and heard, how many gays will ever set foot in a church that presents the full Gospel?

The Bible tells us to submit to the civil authorities and pray for them. That doesn’t mean Christians have to celebrate the legalization of gay marriage, vote for the candidates who support it, or bless those unions with church weddings. But we would be wise to run every public word through that filter of honesty, perspective and love. I suspect far fewer words would come out of Christian mouths if all did this. We ought to restrain our speech not out of fear, but out of love for those who just might come to trust us, and so allow us to speak our hearts in private.

Speak our hearts about what? The Gospel. The rest is in God’s hands. If Christians have become the ogres in the gay marriage debate, maybe it’s because we forgot to put first things first.

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