reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the tag “belief”

Shedding Grace

majesty21For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)

In America the beautiful, many Christians are shedding grace, but not in a good way. They are setting aside the grace of the Gospel and replacing it with a covenant of works for their nation to follow.

As Christians we don’t impose this covenant even on ourselves, nor should we. And yet some spend untold emotional, financial and political resources trying to hammer the United States into the image of Christ, all by trying to dictate the behavior of the government and the culture. It’s a Christian nation, they say, and then they try to manufacture the proof out of materials that refuse to bend.

In doing so, they like to point to our heritage, a time of greater righteousness and morality. I wonder what time they have in mind. Was it the time when Africans were abducted from their homes, bought and enslaved here, and their descendants oppressed and treated as less than human? Was it the time when Native Americans were subjected to a creeping near-genocide that still echoes across desperate, drug-infested reservations? Or was it when wealth became enthroned and the rawest form of capitalism became the de facto religion?

My point is not to hold every American responsible for all past or present sins; it’s simply to say that if we’re looking to recapture some righteous national legacy, there’s less to it than we like to believe. Past generations may have been more polite, more civil and more churchgoing. But like the superficial goodness of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:27), these external virtues at times were whitewash on the tombs of hypocrisy.

I once wrote here that I believe righteousness does exalt a nation, as Proverbs 14:34 declares. Still, in all history only Israel could ever say, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.” (Psalm 33:12) That nation, the only chosen one ever, lived under a covenant based on the law – that is, on works – and it was exalted when it did right.

We are now in the age when God’s grace is revealed to a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). The grace God sheds on America is not saving grace. It’s simply His favor granted in the service of His plan, which has made this country into history’s greatest exporter of the Gospel. I’m thankful to live here, but like every other nation that ever was, the USA will fade away. No one in heaven will be wearing stars-and-stripes lapel pins.

The Bible instructs us to be good citizens and to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-3); let’s do as it says, but let’s not try to make our country more than it is. There’s only been one earthly nation that could be saved. And the grace that matters for eternity isn’t shed on nations but on individual people. Christians are here to point them to it.

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No Half Measures

Pleasmathed with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel… – Charles Wesley, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”

If Jesus were a mythological figure, his parentage might make him a kind of demigod: A human-divine hybrid, a superman, fallible and yet with abilities beyond the rest of us. The incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is so much more than that.

It seems enough to say that through Christmas we have Good Friday and Easter. But Jesus’ coming to Earth was not just a relocation to shorten the commute to the cross. Distance is nothing to God. He could have dispensed with the messy business of teaching, healing and discipling, and just made His triumphal entry vertically.

That would have been a good show, but it wouldn’t have completed the humanly impossible math God was working out. One God plus one human did not produce half a god and half a man, or some dual or divided being. Jesus was all God because God alone was holy enough and perfect enough to be an acceptable sacrifice for humanity’s sins. He was all man because he had to identify fully with those he would redeem, from the womb through helpless infancy to all the struggles and temptations of earthly life.

No spinner of myths could conjure the miracle that is Christmas. One plus one equaled one savior, all God and all man, as it had to be.

What Would the Walls Say?

DSCN0563You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house… – 1 Peter 2:5

I must have driven by the old church hundreds of times without knowing what it was. Dense trees, brush and vines yielded glimpses of a roofless square of rough stone. The cemetery next door was completely obscured.

For several months now, volunteers have been reclaiming the church and the headstones from nature. It’s an artifact of local history recovered for a new generation.

The building’s front wall is intact, one side is gone, and the back is completely fallen into the sanctuary. The head of the preservation effort noted that it was engineered that way – to fall inward. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that the church builder looked ahead to the congregation’s demise.

A little is known about how the church began, less about why it closed its doors before the turn of the 20th century. What story would the walls tell? In the best case, the church had its time, played its part in God’s plan, and then He scattered it. But maybe like those stone walls, it got lost in a thicket of worldly entanglements (Matthew 13:7, 22). Perhaps it collapsed inward in a storm of petty infighting and selfish ambition (2 Cor. 12:20). Maybe it became a place where the spiritual dead outnumbered the living (James 2:17).

A hundred years from now, what will the walls of our churches say? God willing and if Jesus hasn’t returned, they will still echo with the praise of another generation of disciples. They will, if we keep the weeds cut back, each stone where it was placed, and the people inside spiritually alive. Because that pile of rock in the woods, fascinating as it is, should sadden any believer.

Cracked Pots

I’m not broke but you can see the cracks, you can make me perfect again – U2,  “All Because of You”

Christians know they’re not supposed to hide the light within them; as Jesus said, “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.” (Matthew 5:15) We hide it anyway – some more than others, but all of us to some degree. It’s not just being afraid to speak about our belief. We hide the light when we lack faith, or put our faith in the wrong things, or simply behave in ways that are a poor testimony to God’s work in our lives. Just being human puts a veil between the light in us and the darkness in the world.

God has a way of getting the light out anyway. When we hide it under our bowls of doubt and sin, He lets the bowls get cracked. Through those cracks of suffering and misfortune in our lives, the light leaks out.

Imagine if God allowed us who follow Him to waltz through life, hiding the light but never facing a trial. People would look at us and marvel at how clever or lucky we were. I doubt they would see God in our charmed lives. Even if we gave Him the credit, they would see it as false modesty or naїve superstition. But when a person endures suffering without self-pity, even with joy, then the world starts to see something supernatural. Sometimes, the trial ends with something far greater than the rescue we wanted – and God gets the glory.

I’ve pondered the question of human suffering before, and I stand by those thoughts. But I don’t kid myself that I have it all figured out. Maybe our cracked pots are another piece of the puzzle.

The Regression Progression

carriageCheck your brains at the door. I’ve heard that phrase used to mock religious belief. It implies that to believe in God, you must suspend rational thought. If you’re a defensive kind of Christian, you may rise up in protest against this and invoke the great thinkers of the faith, from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis to Ravi Zacharias.

But wait.

If you’ve come to faith in Jesus Christ, in a sense you’ve done exactly what the atheist accuses you of doing, and exactly what the Bible tells you to do. Hear Jesus’ words in Mark 10:15: “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”

As I read that recently, my mind turned to all the imagery of birth, childhood and renewal in the New Testament. Jesus emptied himself to enter the world as a baby; from the first moments of life, wherever we find ourselves, He has been. The grown Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again – an image not just of renewal, but of going back to the start, to the clean slate of infancy. Jesus held up children – those little people who are capable of believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy – as examples of the right attitude toward God. Later, the apostle Paul called for the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), and John often called his disciples his little children.

I’m also reminded of when I came to faith as a teenager. It made rational sense, but there was something childlike about it as well. I didn’t understand everything about my decision, but if everyone waited for that full understanding, no one would ever come to faith.

So what does this mean? Do we forget right from left, up from down, and how to tie our shoes? Of course not. But it does mean we take everything the world calls wisdom, everything that has shaped our thinking, and check those earthly “brains” at the door of faith. What you get back will be infinitely improved – cleaned up, emptied of lint and clearer than it’s ever been. By regressing in worldly terms, you progress in heavenly terms. You don’t give up thinking; you become a better thinker.

It took about 30 years to fully realize this in my life. I got the first part – renouncing worldly wisdom. But I didn’t understand that there’s a next step. For a very long time, I stuffed down a lot of questions in deference to the anti-intellectual strain that too often infects the church. Turning those questions loose and turning them over in my renewed mind – which had been there all along – made my faith stronger, and had a large part in the birth of this blog.

I still don’t have all the answers or a proof to satisfy every doubter. But it’s not our job to understand everything or to win arguments – just to be teachable and available. God will take care of the rest. It starts with emptying yourself, and letting Him fill you.

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 Day of the Storm

Hurricane

Photo: Chalky Lives

 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” – Matthew 7:24-27 (NIV)

A year ago, I sat with my wife and another couple watching the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers play their homecoming game, while overhead, the first wispy clouds of Sandy began to filter the sunlight streaming into the stadium. Everyone knew the storm was out there. I wonder how many really understood what was about to befall them. The Knights lost that game, but surely some of the spectators were just days away from a far more bitter homecoming – to the ruins of houses that literally had been built on sand.

The parable of the wise and foolish builders has at least a couple of layers of meaning, one of which is: Put your faith in the right Person, build your life on the Rock, and you will weather the storms of life better than someone who trusts in the wrong people or things, or only in the self. But God has pointed me lately to transitions in the Bible that start with “therefore” or “so,” and this is another of those passages. Here’s what came before it:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV)

Jesus was talking about “that day,” which usually is taken to mean the Day of the Lord or Judgment Day. So the storm that beats on the two builders’ houses is much more than illness or loss or adversity. It makes Sandy look like a summer squall. You won’t ride this one out with your generator, beans and toilet paper. It’s the coming storm of God’s judgment on the Earth, and it will blow away everything in our lives that isn’t built on God.

For those who have built on wealth, power, privilege, earthly relationships, even good deeds and clean living apart from God, truly everything will be lost. But those whose bedrock is Jesus – His dying for their sins and His rising from the dead – there will be a joyous homecoming to a room in the Father’s house, where the warranty is good for eternity (John 14:2). It won’t matter to them what they lost on Earth, because even their earthly gains will look like losses next to what the Father and Son have prepared (Philippians 3:8). I hope that you have that homecoming in your future.

So. What?

c. 1500-1510

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So weep not for me my friend when my time below does end,
For my life belongs to Him Who will raise the dead again – “All My Tears,” Julie Miller

So. Two letters, such a little word, but where you put it can make a world of difference. In the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, it threatens to break down the logic of the story.

It begins with Lazarus at death’s door. His sisters, Mary and Martha, know the one person who can shut that door. They have seen Jesus’ power, and they send for him. Here the story takes a curious turn. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he (Lazarus) was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.” (John 11:5-6 NASB)

“So?”

Jesus loves this family, so He waits for Lazarus to die before He shows up? You can read it that way and be bewildered, but only if you stop reading there.

Mary and Martha don’t know it, but Jesus has something much greater to show them than what they’ve already seen. Though the path to the revelation hurts them beyond measure, he loves them too much to hold back the fullness of His power.

When God takes us through suffering, we may struggle with the knowledge that He could set things right in an instant, but He seems to be doing nothing. We should rejoice, because He is leading us to something greater. And He’s not just waiting on the other side; He is sharing in our sufferings, as Jesus did when he gazed on the mourners around Lazarus’ tomb:  “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).

To witness Jesus’ power over life and death was a privilege reserved for very few people during His time on earth. The good news for everyone who has received redemption through Jesus is this: their turn is coming. The passage of death ends for them just as it did for Lazarus. It’s only the wait that is longer.

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.

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