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Lord Willing

Friday, August 14, 2020

Living in Tennessee is a very different cultural experience from living in Illinois.  One of the contrasts I have noticed is the frequent appearance of “Lord willing” in conversation.  When you’re talking with some folks, every expression of intent or hope for the future is punctuated with “Lord willing”.

This comes from James 4:15, where James urges us to frame our plans with the statement, “if the Lord wills”.  However, the context is not about saying magic words to make sure bad things don’t happen to us.  It’s about having the right spirit.  In fact, people who use “Lord willing” can become entrapped in many of the same pitfalls that await people who say, “O my God!” 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with uttering those three words.  They appear in the Psalms and in many hymns that we sing.  However, problems arise when we say, “O my God!” flippantly or thoughtlessly.  I am not among those who believe that saying it constitutes taking the Lord’s name in vain as per Exodus 20:7 (which I believe is about swearing false oaths), but that doesn’t make it acceptable. 

Invoking the name of the Holy One of Israel is a solemn thing.  One of the greatest privileges we have, one purchased with the blood of Christ, is the right to call upon the name of the LORD.  When we do so carelessly, we display irreverence toward the One whom we are commanded to revere.  It is dangerous to treat the Almighty in such a cavalier fashion!

So too, we must make sure that we speak reverently of the purposes of God.  In James 4:13-16, James condemns the arrogance of those who make confident plans about the future. He points out that none of us can guarantee that we will survive even tomorrow.  Before the awesome, unchanging God, all of us are nothing more than a passing vapor. 

“Lord willing,” then, is supposed to be more than a verbal good-luck charm.  Instead, James is urging us, every time we talk about the future, to think long and hard about how uncertain our place in that future is. 

We don’t like doing that.  We want to believe that we are the ones in control, that everything will shape up according to our desires.  If nothing else, 2020 should have highlighted the foolishness of that conviction.  When we believe we’re in the driver’s seat of our own lives and speak accordingly, we’re boasting, whether the phrase “Lord willing” passes our lips or not.

Instead, we should use “Lord willing” as an opportunity to humble ourselves before our Maker.  We should remind ourselves of how foolish and feeble we are, especially when compared to the wisdom and power of God.  We also should view it as an acknowledgment of our subjection before His will.  Someone who says “Lord willing” and then goes out and sins clearly does not mean it!

We must mean it, whether we say it or not.  “Lord willing” ought to call us to fix our minds upon the sovereignty of God, each day and each hour.  May we live accordingly! 

The Motivated Atheist

Thursday, August 13, 2020

People do things for reasons.  Well, unless they’re morons, they do.  As a rule, the larger the change is, the more compelling the reason behind it. 

As Proverbs 4:23 observes, these reasons proceed from the heart.  This is not the Western heart, as in “the seat of the emotions”, but rather the Eastern mind-and-heart, the place where reason and emotion intersect.  In fact, I think that one of the great weaknesses of Western thought is its failure to acknowledge the interplay of the two in the human mind.

In consequence, whenever I hear someone announce that they have changed their mind about something purely through disinterested logical consideration, I become suspicious.  This is particularly true when something else in their lives is providing powerful motivation for them to change their minds. 

Here, consider the man who “restudies” Matthew 19 after his daughter gets divorced and—surprise!—reaches a different conclusion on the text, or the church that “reconsiders” 1 Timothy 2 in a feminist age and decides that women in the pulpit are OK after all.  In both cases, the restudiers will loudly insist that they were motivated only by the love of truth, despite the circumstances that make their new beliefs convenient.  Nonetheless, I raise a skeptical eyebrow.

I will confess that I feel a similar upward tugging in my forehead whenever a Christian, typically a young Christian, proclaims that they have become an atheist.  In such cases, the rhetoric doesn’t vary much.  The newly minted unbeliever will talk at length about how hard this was for them, how they are acting against their own interests, and how only their determination to follow reason wherever it goes has led them to this point.  At times I wonder if there’s a “How to Come Out as an Atheist” script online.

Again, my time on planet Earth leads me to believe people act because they want to, not because they don’t want to.  The problem is, though, that atheism itself doesn’t offer much intrinsic motivation.  Christianity does.  If you buy into the Christian belief system, you get God, absolute right and wrong, meaning, people who care about you, and the promise of eternal life.  I think even atheists would acknowledge that it’s a powerfully attractive set of ideas!

Atheism, though, offers no absolute morality, no meaning, and no hope.  Life is a small span of suffering before the universe squishes you into oblivion.  Admittedly, atheism might give you the satisfaction of believing that you’re smarter than the believers, but feelings of intellectual superiority only get us so far.  You only can join Mensa once.

Instead, in my experience, if you probe a little bit, underneath the intellectual superstructure of atheism, there lurk powerful (if reluctantly acknowledged) motivations behind such a dramatic life change.  I’ve seen them include:

  • Grief at the loss of a loved one.
  • Objection to the moral teaching of the Bible, particularly about homosexuality.
  • Resentment of bad treatment by Christians.
  • Distaste for the perceived connection between Christianity and political conservatism.
  • An unbelieving spouse.

I have no trouble understanding how any of those things would move someone to leave the church and the Lord.  The problem is, though, that they don’t provide intellectual cover for such a change.  You might not like the God who does such rotten-to-you things, has such rotten-to-you followers, or makes your personal life so inconvenient.  However, none of those things justify the conclusion that God doesn’t exist.

They do, though, leave you very receptive to the possibility that He might not exist.  If you are of a mind to do so, you can evaluate both creation and the Bible in such a way as to lead to the conclusion that God is not real.  In fact, Romans 1 and 2 Thessalonians 2 promise that if you want to reject God, He will give you the rope you need to hang yourself.  It is hardly surprising, then, when people who want to leave the faith find the justification they’re seeking.

This process is, to say the least, intensely frustrating to watch.  Often, concerned brethren try to restore the atheist to fellowship by attacking their intellectual conclusions.  Sadly, that’s about as effective as trying to kill a dandelion by pulling the leaves off.  As long as the roots are there, the leaves will be back soon, and somebody who doesn’t want to believe in God never will have any trouble manufacturing reasons not to.

Instead, we must reckon with the underlying motivations.  We need to be able to have those discussions about theodicy and to critically examine our society’s conviction that sexual autonomy is the preeminent human value.  We need to make sure that our behavior isn’t alienating others. 

Sometimes, we simply must acknowledge that the motivation isn’t susceptible to reason.  Somebody who goes atheist because of their spouse probably will stay atheist as long as they’re married.  Indeed, even attempts to address the reasoned component of a motivation are not certain to succeed.  However, atheism that starts with want-to must end there too.

Singleness in the Church

Thursday, July 30, 2020

As Bible students, one of our greatest challenges is separating what the Bible says from what we think the Bible says because of 200 years of Restoration tradition.  Often, the problem is not so much one of doctrine as one of emphasis.  Because we focus on one aspect of truth over another, we distort the overall picture.

This is particularly obvious when it comes to familial relationships.  Marriage and the family is not a major theme of Scripture.  You have the divorce passages in the gospels, the early part of 1 Corinthians 7, and instructions on Christian submission in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter.  That’s about it.

Nonetheless, marriage and the family is one of the major themes of preaching and teaching in churches of Christ.  We have gospel meetings, marriage-enrichment classes, books, and outside seminars galore!  With the aid of pop psychology, those few texts are inflated into one of the most important themes of the faith. 

By contrast, we take the opposite approach to 1 Corinthians 7:25-40, a text about singleness that is longer than any of those texts about marriage.  The way most brethren teach it, the most important thing in the context is the three words, “the present distress”.  They allow us to gloss over Paul’s comments about the spiritual advantages that the unmarried have, perhaps because we’re worried about sounding like we’re endorsing a celibate priesthood.

However, all of this creates in the minds of brethren the misconception that to be a Christian, you really ought to be married, and if you aren’t married (especially if you’re a woman), you’re a second-class Christian.  This has pernicious effects.  It certainly makes single Christians (a numerous tribe) feel inadequate, and it most likely pushes people into marriage who should not be getting married.  Would there be so many troubled marriages in the church if we spent more time emphasizing singleness as an acceptable alternative?

Don’t get me wrong.  I am pro-marriage and indeed happily married.  However, I’m pro-single Christians too.  There are many reasons why they are where they are.  Some haven’t gotten married yet.  Others have been widowed.  Others have gotten divorced.  Still others don’t want to get married.  All of those states can be every bit as valid for the child of God as marriage is.

What’s more, as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, single Christians are able to serve God with their undivided attention in a way that married Christians aren’t.  I love my wife and children, but being a godly husband and father takes a lot of time and effort!  Without those obligations, there are many ways in which I could serve my God, my brother, and my neighbor that I now can’t contemplate.

To my single brothers and sisters, then, I say:  Don’t regard singleness as the unhappy waiting room you sit in before your real life as a Christian begins.  Don’t feel like it condemns you to second-class Christianity. 

Instead, serve the Lord where you are with what you have.  Use your precious gift of time to glorify God.  Be eager to help in the church.  Be active in your community.  Seek God diligently by yourself.  Study.  Pray.  If you doubt the value of such quiet moments, ask a Christian mother with children under the age of five!

Most of all, trust God.  He did not create you to have a meaningless, pointless, empty existence.  Though it is not good for man to be alone, our greatest need is not for marriage.  It is for Him, and only He can fill that need.  I know people who have tried to make marriage fill the God-shaped hole.  On the other hand, I also know those who never married and dedicated themselves to Christ instead.  Guess who has lived a happier, more fulfilled life? 

In time, all marriages come to an end, but the Christian’s walk with God does not.  What matters most is not whether we are married or will be married or anything of the sort.  What matters most is whether we seek completion in Him. 

The Problem with a Comprehensible God

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

In my time as a preacher, I’ve had my share of conversations with people who thought they had a moral or philosophical justification for their agnosticism/atheism.  They found something in the Bible they didn’t like.  Maybe it was God commanding the slaughter of the Canaanite children.  Maybe it was God condemning the practice of homosexuality as sinful.  Maybe it was God’s foreknowledge of human activity.  Regardless, there was something that displeased them, they couldn’t see how it was consistent with their understanding of God, so they concluded that God didn’t exist. 

I believe there are answers to all of these objections (and the others like them), but there’s an even more fundamental problem with that line of reasoning.  All of these scenarios begin with the doubter constructing their version of God  (possibly in good faith; possibly as a straw man), comparing their construct to the Biblical record, and concluding that the God of the Bible doesn’t measure up.  Their God wouldn’t do that!

To which I say, “So what?”  The God of the Bible doesn’t make sense to them.  Why should they have any expectation that a being of vastly greater understanding (which is how the Bible presents God) ought to make sense to them? 

I am quite confident that five years ago, when I told my children that they couldn’t eat Halloween candy for three meals a day, it didn’t make sense to them either.  “Candy tastes good, and it is there to be eaten.  It tastes better than stuffed peppers, so we should have it for dinner instead of stuffed peppers.  What am I missing?” 

Children don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t understand what they don’t understand.  And yet, my five-year-olds were much closer in intellect to me than I or any atheist doubter is to God.  If the child is unable to understand the parent, how much more will the creation struggle to understand the Creator!

Consequently, we should expect there to be many times when God does or tells us to do things that don’t make sense to us.  A God who is omniscient ought to be incomprehensible to human beings who aren’t.  Just like the toddler isn’t going to back Mom into a logical corner so that she offers up candy on demand, we aren’t going to be able to use the times that God doesn’t make sense to us to prove that He doesn’t exist.  The problem isn’t Him.  It’s us.

Indeed, it is the comprehensible God who looks much more like a figment of the human imagination.  The gods of the Greeks were comprehensible.  They got in ridiculous fusses with each other like people do.  They committed adultery like people do. 

Despite their greater power, these gods fit into a human frame.  They were idols, crafted to resemble people not only in outward features but in personality and scope.  They made sense because they were human in origin.

The God of the Bible does not make sense like that because He did not come from us.  He is not human or human-like.  He doesn’t even exist in the same state of reality.  He is utterly alien to us, and it is a tribute to His skill in communication that we are able to understand Him even as well as we do. 

The alien-ness and incomprehensibility of God, rather than being a sign of His non-existence, really is a proof to the contrary.  If we don’t understand Him, that is as it should be.  We can expect to have unanswered questions for as long as we live and maybe thereafter.  Conversely, if we think we do understand Him, we’re missing something.

Our job is not to make God make sense.  It is to seek to please Him.  As Moses wisely observed in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may obey all the words of this law.”

The Bible and Outside Scholarship

Friday, July 24, 2020

If there is anything that stands at the heart of our faith, it is the idea that ordinary Christians can read and understand the Bible for themselves.  Unless we are competent to do so, every other conclusion that we reach—about God, about Jesus, about salvation—is suspect.  Until we find an expert to interpret the Bible for us, we are in serious trouble!

This is a powerful idea with many implications.  One of them is that we must be wary of any interpretation of Scripture that relies on evidence outside the Bible.  For instance, Craig Keener’s argument that women should be allowed to lead in public worship depends on scholarly conclusions about the lack of education of women in the first-century Roman Empire.  Reasoning from those conclusions, he dismisses 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 as culture-specific and no longer relevant.

The problem is that if scholarly opinion is not only helpful but necessary to an argument, the argument will fail without backing from scholars.  Thus, anyone who reads the Bible on their own, without assistance from outside sources, cannot reach the correct conclusion.  They are not competent to understand the Bible for themselves, and the Bible itself is not a sufficient guide to faith and practice.

For instance, let’s assume that Keener is right.  The scholars have it pegged, and 1 Timothy 2:12 is a culturally specific instruction that does not apply to women today.  Well and good, but what about our brethren in the 19th century who studied and applied 1 Timothy 2:12 before all these scholars did their research? 

If Keener is right, they must have been wrong.  They required something of their sisters in Christ that God did not require.  Indeed, rather than being useful, the Scriptures were deceptive.  The plain reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, even understood in the context of the entire Bible, led them into error. 

Such an outcome would be fatal to our belief that we ought to try to understand the Bible for ourselves.  If we can do everything right in our Bible study but still get it wrong (because we didn’t consult the right expert), it is better for us to leave study to those who are wiser and more scholarly than we are.  Rather than relying on our own judgment, we should rely on someone who has the training and the time to sift through the dueling academics and figure out which ones are worth listening to. 

Ultimately, though, if this is the world in which we live, we shouldn’t listen even to the experts.  The composition of the Bible was finished 2000 years ago, but the accumulation of articles and books about the Bible continues to this day.  What if some professor five years from now, or ten years from now, makes a discovery that transforms our understanding of, say, the importance of baptism?  If so, even the most expert of experts can’t help us be right today, and we can have no confidence in any attempt to discern truth in the word of God. 

Of course, none of this is to say that academic and scholarly writing is useless in understanding the Scriptures.  At its best, it adds nuance and depth to our comprehension of divine truth.  The experts have their place.

However, we must make sure that we keep them in their place.  A mountain of scholarly articles is not enough to overturn the testimony of the Scriptures.  Scholars are people too, and human fallibility is precisely the reason why we need an infallible written guide.  Let God be found true, though every man be a liar!  We cannot place our trust in even the wisest of human beings.  It must be in Him. 

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