As I contemplate my future, one of the most unpleasant prospects is that of developing frontotemporal dementia. In my family, FTD and ALS are genetically linked. My mother had both. I do not know whether I will be spared.
However, as awful as FTD is, my trust is in the One whose power is greater than any illness. As of now, there is no medication that will slow its inexorable march, but I am confident that any victory that it wins over me will be temporary only. For me, as for any Christian afflicted with Alzheimer’s or dementia, I know these things to be true:
In Christ I will not lose my memories. Jesus knew His friends and loved ones after His resurrection, and I will be raised like Him.
In Christ I will not lose my personality. He who is able to restore the martyrs from scattered ashes will be able to restore it too.
In Christ I will not lose my relationships. Heaven is a place of greater fellowship, not lesser.
In Christ I will not lose my mind. I know I will have it because it is impossible to love God fully without it.
In Christ I will not lose my joy. At His right hand there are pleasures forever.
In Christ I will not lose my salvation. He will not hold me accountable for the foolish and hurtful actions that I am no longer able to control.
In Christ I will not lose my life. It is hidden in Him.
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.
I will extol You, God and King!
Forever I will praise Your name,
For You are great and highly praised;
All ages will declare Your fame.
I will reflect upon Your works
And tell Your deeds to everyone
So they may shout Your righteousness
And magnify what You have done.
The Lord is merciful and kind;
His grace is great; His anger, slow;
Your works shall thank You for Your care;
The just shall bless the God they know.
Your majesty they will declare;
The glory of Your realm, repeat,
So all the sons of men may know
That it will never see defeat.
The Lord sustains each living thing;
His open hand provides their needs,
For He is good in all His ways
And generous in all His deeds.
The Lord is near to those who call
And keeps His godly ones from shame
Forever I will speak His praise;
All flesh will bless His holy name.
Suggested tune: “He Leadeth Me”
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.
Because it is still 2021, our theme for the year continues to be “Be the Light”. Clay and I don’t have another light-based sermon series scheduled for a little while yet, but I thought it was appropriate to revisit the theme in a one-off sermon anyway.
In particular, I thought all of us could stand to be reminded that even though we’re supposed to be the light, we aren’t supposed to be the source of the light. Instead, that source is Jesus. If we want to know what light is, we should look to Him.
However, this doesn’t merely mean looking at what Jesus said and saying the same thing. Rather, we need to consider the whole pattern of His life and teaching. 2000 years ago, many people rejected Jesus, and they continue to do so today for the same reasons. Even the people who believed in and listened to Him ran into problems with that, and if we think we are above those problems, we are sadly mistaken! This morning, then, let’s look at a context from Mark 8 to see what it can teach us about enlightenment through Christ.
The first of the three stories in the chapter that we’re going to be considering concerns THE PHARISEES. Here, consider Mark 8:11-13. As always when we study Mark, it’s important to remember that the gospel is only loosely chronological, but it is tightly thematic. When Mark puts two stories next to each other, it’s not necessarily because they happened sequentially in time. Instead, it’s because the stories have something to do with each other and offer commentary on each other.
Here, the Pharisees have come to Jesus asking for a sign. On its face, this request sounds reasonable. However, the opposite is true. Jesus has just worked the mighty miracle of the feeding of the 4000, but that’s still not enough for these guys. They want another sign! Jesus declines to jump through their hoops, but based on their previous performance, if He had obliged them instead, they only would have looked for an excuse to ask for yet another sign. Their problem is not absence of proof. It is the absence of a good heart.
In the same way, we must consider whether we are coming to Jesus with a good heart. This has to do first of all with His divinity. We have plenty of evidence that He is indeed the Son of God. The question, though, is whether we are looking for reasons to believe or excuses to disbelieve. If the latter, no apologetic argument ever will be enough to convince us.
The same holds true of the authority of Jesus. There are two hearts with which we can come to the word. We can come to it wanting most of all to carry out our own desires, or we can come to it with the desire only to please Jesus.
Here too, we must be honest. Do I study the Scriptures looking for the tiniest clue about what Jesus wants, so I can do that? Or, instead, do I reject any but the most overwhelming evidence, insisting that my obtuseness leaves me with the right to do whatever I want? If the latter, we have company among the people of 2000 years ago, but it’s not the company we want!
Next, let’s consider how the enlightenment of Jesus affects THE DISCIPLES. Let’s continue with our reading in Mark 8:14-21. In this story, we see a clear difference of priorities between Jesus and even His closest followers. Jesus is concerned with the evil hearts of the Pharisees and of Herod, who also is a problem. Using metaphor, He warns His disciples to watch out for the leaven of their influence.
That’s not where the disciples are. Apparently somebody goofed, and they neglected to lay in provisions for the boat ride ahead. They’re out of bread! As a result, when Jesus starts talking about leaven, their minds go to the yeast in the wheat products they eat.
From our perspective, this might seem like a reasonable mistake to make, but Jesus doesn’t take it that way. Instead, He uses the language of Old Testament prophecy to condemn them. These were men who had seen Jesus make meals for 5000 and 4000 people out of a tiny amount of food. If they had thought about that, they would have realized that it didn’t matter whether they had bread, as long as they had Jesus.
Brethren, this is one to which all of us need to pay attention. As with the disciples, our preferred state is to have both bread and Jesus. We want our relationship with God, but we want all of our earthly comforts and blessings too. When we lose those things, where is our focus? Do we seek Jesus, believing that He is enough, or do we start worrying because we don’t have any bread? As we see, the latter can be a problem even for good-hearted disciples, but if it’s a problem we have, it highlights our need for growth in understanding.
Finally, let’s consider the miracle of healing THE BLIND MAN in Mark 8:22-26. This is surely one of the most difficult miracles in the whole ministry of Jesus to understand. The blind man is brought to Jesus, Jesus lays hands on him, but his vision is not fully restored. Rather than seeing clearly, in his own words, he sees men like trees walking around. Only after Jesus lays hands on him again does he begin to see clearly.
When we consider this miracle in isolation, we find ourselves asking, “How in the world does this make sense?” If Jesus had enough power to heal the guy at all, why did it take two tries to get it right? Did He have to get a power-up from the Holy Spirit before He could try again?
The mistake here, of course, is considering the miracle in isolation. When we’re talking about the One who did all things well, the only reasonable conclusion is that He healed the man in this way because He meant to. In the context of stories about people who refuse to understand or who understand only incompletely, His purpose in doing so is clear.
Here, then, is what is going on. Just like Jesus healed the paralytic to show that He had authority on earth to forgive sins, He healed the blind man in stages to show that our spiritual enlightenment comes in the same way—in stages. Nobody is presented with a perfect understanding of Jesus and His will the moment they’re baptized. Instead, we have to seek Him and learn from Him in order to conform our understanding to His.
This certainly happened with the apostles. In the next chapter, Peter is about to have a big leap in spiritual understanding when he confesses that Jesus is the Christ. However, even then Peter wasn’t done. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, his violent response shows how much more he has to learn.
So too with us. None of us have it all figured out, nor will we. However, the more diligently we seek the Lord, and continue to seek Him, the more enlightenment we will find.