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The Problem of Other People's Suffering

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

I first encountered the classical statement of the problem of human suffering in a religious-studies class in college.  The professor wrote on the board, “If God could stop suffering and chooses not to, He is not perfectly good.  If God wants to stop suffering and can’t, He is not perfectly powerful.  If God is both perfectly good and perfectly powerful, why does suffering exist?”

Though skeptics are fond of the problem of suffering, there are several problems with it.  To me, one of the most significant is its assumption that our understanding of the good is the same as God’s understanding.  A toddler cannot comprehend why their mother does not feed them candy for every meal and let them stick their fingers into electrical sockets.  Is it the mother’s conception of the good that is flawed, or the toddler’s?

God knows more than we do, has a far better grasp of the consequences of suffering, is far more concerned with the eternal than the earthly, and doesn’t think like us to begin with.  The Bible presents Him as a God who is perfectly good, yet whose actions are not subject to human reason.  It calls us to trust even when, and especially when, we don’t understand.

All of this, though, is the sort of thing that is discussed in collegiate lecture halls and Wednesday-night Bible classes.  It doesn’t have much to do with the actual lived experience of suffering.  When you are the one who has lost a child, when you are the one who is grappling with a terminal diagnosis, you are much more concerned with the consequences of God’s existence/nonexistence than you are with proofs to establish either.

If God is and is a rewarder of those who seek Him, suffering and indeed life itself are meaningful.  I suffer, yes, but I suffer with hope.  My efforts to glorify God are significant and give others the opportunity to make consequential changes in their own life.  In the end, I will be blessed with such joy that all my suffering will seem to me as nothing more than momentary, light affliction.

If there is no God, then none of the above applies.  Neither my suffering nor my life have meaning.  It is impossible for them to be meaningful.  I am nothing more than the victim of malignant chance, as everyone will be sooner or later.  My efforts to lift others up are pointless.  In the end, I will die and be forgotten, with no more significance than the pattern left on the sand by the last wave to wash up on the beach.

If that’s all there is to life, why live?  Why go on?  Why bother wrestling with the monstrous?  The counsel of atheism to the sufferer is the counsel of despair, and it never can be anything else.

Yes, this is an emotional argument, but our reactions to the “rational” arguments about the existence of God are emotionally driven too.  Anybody who thinks they can dispassionately reason to fundamental truths about the nature of existence without being powerfully influenced by their desires and fears is a fool.  We make such decisions with the Biblical heart, the Eastern mind-and-heart, not the Western mind.

Indeed, the belief that we can rely on the latter is one of the great illusions of Western civilization.  The product of such self-deceptive “reasoning” might stand up in the classroom, but suffering forces us to confront the truth.  Either we choose to trust in the God whose ways are not our ways, or we reject Him.  The former choice is not pleasant, but the latter is unbearable.

Firearms and Teaching Children

Thursday, July 01, 2021

In 2010 and 2011, I became the father of two extremely inquisitive children.  In 2019, I also became the owner of a firearm.  Naturally, I gave some thought to how these two areas of my life should interact.  Should I keep my gun locked away from my kids and forbid them to have anything to do with it?

I chose a different course.  In our household, we have basically two firearm rules.  First, our children aren’t allowed to touch them at all if an adult isn’t present.  However, if they would like to see one of my guns, all they have to do is ask, and I will go get it and let them look at it, play with it, dry-fire it, etc.  While they do this, I’m around to make sure they’re not doing anything foolish and to drill them on the rules of firearm safety (“Rule 1:  Always treat a firearm as if it is. . . ?”).

I know there are risks associated with gun ownership, but I prefer to train my children on how to deal with those risks rather than shielding them from them.  After all, if I don’t train them, then they won’t know what to do if they encounter a firearm when I’m not around.

Of course, I do not speak with reference to guns.  I think firearm ownership is morally neutral, but parents are presented with the shield-or-train in many areas of great moral significance.  Sex is one.  Philosophical naturalism and the theory of evolution is another.  Humanist critiques of the Bible are a third. 

Many Christian parents, especially those who homeschool their children, choose the “shield” approach.  They don’t talk about sex with their kids.  Sometimes, they’re so afraid of evolution that they flat don’t teach them anything about science.  Certainly, they don’t expose them to the arguments that the Bible is a lie.

Admittedly, the quality of my parenting has yet to be established, but I think that’s a mistake.  In fact, I think it’s more of a mistake to shield children from those things than it is to shield them from firearms.  It’s entirely possible to go through life without ever touching a gun, but in our society, sex, evolution, and humanism are unavoidable. 

We can keep our children in bubble wrap for a time (maybe), but sooner or later, they will encounter these ideas.  They will hear about sex from a boyfriend or girlfriend, atheism from Richard Dawkins on TV, and Biblical criticism from Bart Ehrman on YouTube.  When that time comes, either we have prepared them for the encounter, or we haven’t.

For the well-equipped Christian, I don’t think there is anything to fear from that encounter.  I’ve found nothing in any of those ideas to turn me away from God.  Instead, problems arise when a child’s initial exposure to an idea comes from an opponent of truth.  They will assume that there is no Christian rebuttal to these things because no one ever taught them the Christian rebuttal, and they may well lose their souls as a result.

Today’s parents, then, need to master the art of the difficult conversation.  We need to be our children’s guides to the strongest challenges to our faith.  We can’t keep the devil from bringing them to our children’s attention.  All we can do is make sure he doesn’t get there first.

The Coming Storm

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Last February, Mark Roberts sent me a blog post by a Canadian Baptist pastor entitled “If I Were Starting a Denomination from Scratch”, which can be found here.  I found the article intriguing, but even more so were the posts to which the author linked inside it.  They explained why he was at the point of starting a new denomination in the first place.

In 2017, the pastor learned that one of the other churches in his denomination had passed a resolution allowing LGTB people to become congregational leaders.  A few years later, a pastor in another congregation came out as transgender.  The author attempted to rally opposition against such things during denominational conferences, but he lost the power struggle.  Now, he and other like-minded Canadian Baptists are leaving their conference in search of an organization that still affirms traditional views of sexuality.

As the saying goes, where the Baptists are now is where the churches of Christ will be 20 years from now.  Indeed, I don’t think it will take that long.  Some progressive voices in our brotherhood already are appealing for a more inclusive approach.  It is probably true that within 10 years, the controversy will take center stage, along with the controversies about women as church leaders, the instrument, and the necessity of baptism for forgiveness of sins.

It's probably also true that the more institutional entanglements a congregation has, the harder resisting this pressure will prove to be.  As the Canadian pastor found, the organizations you support financially have a way of exerting influence back on you.  The result of being unequally yoked is typically either that you cease to be yoked or that you cease to be unequal.

Congregations without these entanglements will have an easier time withstanding outside influences.  When we follow the pattern of the early church, we inherit the strengths of that pattern, and one of them is resistance to worldly coercion.  The first-century church thrived despite extreme coercive pressure in the form of persecution.  To a truly autonomous congregation, the disapproval of somebody else somewhere else doesn’t matter very much.

Instead, our trial will come from our own members.  I know several young people who left the church in part because they objected to its condemnation of the practice of homosexuality.  In years to come, as other members are emboldened by an increasingly permissive culture, they will feel free to express those objections and expect to be heard.

As much as brethren like hearing about doctrine that separates them from the world, they dislike hearing about doctrine that separates them from one another.  If LGBT issues become too sensitive to discuss, soon we will stop insisting on the Genesis 2:24 model for sexuality altogether. 

This is going to be a problem for the Lord’s church in the 21st century, and we must prepare for it by turning to the Scriptures and embracing their teaching about sexual morality.  To the worldly, sexuality is a matter of identity, but in God’s word, it is a matter of behavior.  Just as the Bible defines a thief as a thief because they have stolen something, it defines a homosexual as a homosexual because they have practiced same-sex intimacy.

The adoption of God’s definitions in these matters accomplishes two important goals.  First, it sidesteps the tedious debate about why someone experiences same-sex attraction.  In Biblical terms, the answer to the question (whatever it might be) doesn’t matter.  It’s not a sin to be tempted.  It’s only a sin to give in, so the motivations behind any temptation, including this one, are of no spiritual consequence.

Second, it gives hope to those who struggle with these desires.  “Such were some of you” in 1 Corinthians 6:11 does not mean that any of those people were released from temptation once they obeyed the gospel.  Instead, the adulterer was still tempted to cheat on his wife, the reviler was still tempted to shoot his mouth off, and so on.  They became ex-adulterers and ex-revilers because, even though they continued to feel those temptations, they ceased to be controlled by them.

The same is true for the godly ex-homosexual.  He has not changed his sexual inclinations.  He has not prayed the gay away.  Instead, he has determined to devote his body to Christ instead of sin.  If he spends the rest of his life fighting off temptation, that does not make him a spiritual failure.  It makes him a success.

To the world, this is the most awful fate imaginable because it violates the preeminent worldly value of sexual autonomy.  Here too, we must reject fleshly thinking.  Sexual satisfaction is not the Christian’s preeminent value.  Holiness is. 

Just as Christ calls the unscripturally divorced to celibacy, so too He calls to celibacy those whose know only same-sex attraction.  This is a burden, but it is not a spiritual death sentence.  There are thousands of Christians who live celibately according to His will but find joy in His service regardless.  Blessed are those who join them!

This Biblically faithful approach bears meaningful fruit in two ways.  First, it allows us to defeat accusations of bigotry.  No longer do LGBT people occupy their own special, disfavored category, in which they stand condemned because of the desires they feel.  Instead, they are held accountable to the same standard as the rest of us. 

Second, it allows us to reach out compassionately to sinners.  I shudder to think how many people have been driven away from Christ not because of their sins, but because of their temptations.  Jesus will receive such if they sincerely seek Him, and so should we. 

Some of the challenges that will face the 21st-century church remain hidden from us, but the looming problems with issues of alternative sexuality are obvious.  However, the gospel prevailed in these areas 2000 years ago, and it will prevail tomorrow too.  If we are true to it, it will not fail us.

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Pressing On.

Divorce, _Apolyō_, and Matthew 19

Monday, May 17, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, the centuries-long dispute over marriage, divorce, and remarriage popped up on my Facebook feed again.  As usual, somebody found a reason why they thought that the restriction of Matthew 19:9 did not apply to Christians today who are divorced for reasons other than a spouse’s adultery.

In this case, the argument centers around the Greek word apolyō, which is rendered as “divorce” in our modern translations of Matthew 19:9.  That notwithstanding, proponents of this view claim that apolyō should not be translated as “divorce”.  They note that the KJV translates it as “put away” (as indeed it is translated in other contexts in modern translations), and they assert that putting away was an action distinct from divorce.  Formal divorce involved the writing of divorce of Deuteronomy 24:1; putting away was just informally kicking your wife to the curb.  Thus, Matthew 19:9 does not apply to the formal divorces of our day, and all divorced Christians can remarry without fear.

As appealing as this argument is (Matthew 19:9 certainly is among the hard sayings of Jesus, and life would be easier for all of us if it became a dead letter), there are several problems with it.  First, I’m not aware of any evidence that the Jews of Jesus’ day made a distinction between informal putting away and formal divorce.  If you’re going to hang your whole argument on the existence of an ancient custom, you probably need to establish that the custom existed first!

Second, this is a the-translators-got-it-wrong argument, and we always should regard those with skepticism.  Admittedly, translators and Greek scholars are not perfect, and they sometimes make mistakes in their work with ancient languages.  However, if even experts in the field can err, how much more error-prone are non-experts likely to be!  If we can’t prove our argument from the Bible without making a significant change in translation, we are staking our souls on the presumption that we are right and hundreds of original-language scholars are wrong.  That may represent insight, but it more likely represents self-deception.

Third, the Bible uses apolyō to mean “divorce”, which probably is why all the scholars reached that conclusion in the first place.  In Matthew 19:8, Jesus notes, “Moses permitted you to apolyō your wives.”  What did Moses permit?  Not informally sending wives away, that’s for sure!  The only procedure in the Law for separating from one’s spouse is the formal divorce-certificate process of Deuteronomy 24:1, which the Pharisees cite in Matthew 19:7.  Thus, Jesus uses apolyō to refer to formal divorce, and we should understand Him as doing so in Matthew 19:9, which is the very next verse.

Matthew 19:9 isn’t anybody’s favorite commandment.  However, it is a restriction that God in His wisdom and holiness has bound upon all people.  As much sorrow as enforcing it can cause in this life, failure to enforce it will lead to much greater sorrow in the life to come.

God Is at Work in You!

Friday, May 07, 2021

A few months ago, Clay examined Philippians 2:12-13 in a sermon, dwelling especially on v. 13.  I’ve known for years that brethren have a bad habit of focusing on “Work out your own salvation,” to the exclusion of “It is God who is working in you.”  However, Clay’s study of the latter point brought home something I had never realized before.

God is working in every obedient Christian.  Right now.  He is working in me.  Right now.  He is working in you.  Right now.

To describe this as heartening would be an understatement!  Like many preachers, I struggle with the temptation to believe the insidious lie of Malachi 3:14.  The devil very much wants us to believe that it is useless to serve God.  In this pandemic era of social isolation, reduced or nonexistent assembling, and Christians fighting and splitting churches over dumb stuff like wearing masks, he seems to have a stronger case than normal.  Why not give up?  It won’t make any difference, right?

Wrong.  Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.  Even if it is not obvious to us, the arc of history bends toward God.  He will work out His will, He will accomplish His purpose, and He will glorify Himself through His people if they will let Him do it.

The health-and-wealth preachers have a point, kind of.  God does have a plan for your life.  However, His plan is not for you to enjoy earthly happiness.  It is for you to put your nose to the grindstone and do right every single day, cheerfully, unfailingly.  If you do, He will use you to accomplish what He wants to accomplish.

We cannot know what that is, not this side of Jordan, at least, and there is no point in speculating.  If you preach the gospel and nobody listens, that does not mean you have failed.  If you fight to raise godly children but they fall away, that does not mean you have failed either.  God knew that His people wouldn’t listen to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but He sent them anyway.  Sometimes the Spirit convicts rather than converting, but that too is in accord with His purpose.

Throughout history, it always has seemed as though the cause of righteousness is failing.  It seemed so when the wicked rejected Noah, when Israel sank into corruption in the time of the judges, when Solomon forsook the Lord, when the Israelites were carried captive, when Jesus was crucified, and when Saul shattered the Jerusalem church.  God’s people always appear to be given over to death.  If it seems so in the present time, that should not surprise us.

Of course, the cause of God never actually does fail.  Repeatedly, He brings about salvation in ways that no one else could have foreseen.  He accomplishes His most spectacular works in the hours that seem darkest.

So it will be for us, if indeed we do not grow weary and lose heart.  If we work, God will be at work in us, and He will succeed in His purpose.  Go then, and work, whether preaching or teaching or supporting your family or raising your kids or watching your grandkids.  Even if nobody else notices or cares, you can be certain that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

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