Thursday, April 9, 2015

"Humour and Proportion"

"I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, "By jove! I'm being humble", and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don't try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed."

-CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

It's funny how our fallen minds work, isn't it? At least, I know my mind works in funny ways. As though it's determined to leach virtue out of everything I do, to take generosity and turn it into a roundabout way of gratifying and congratulating myself.

Yesterday I found myself in a grocery store, insistently reassuring a young woman that she should "buy whatever you need, don't worry about it!" And then she came to the register with her cart, laden with food for her and her two younger siblings, and a part of me thought, Hmm...that's a little full, isn't it? And then I was watching the cashier scan the items, and that same part of me thought, Hmm...do they really need meat? Couldn't they get by on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? After all, she's buying this with your money, and you can't keep on doing this sort of thing forever. Think of Anna, after all, and your child on the way! Shouldn't you be saving more money for...

And then, thank God, another part of me spoke up. And it said, Oh yeah, shame on her! Shame on her for taking you at your word! Shame on her for assuming that you really meant to be generous, and not just buy a few token groceries to make yourself feel better.  Yeah, you're stretched for money  alright...after all, you spent more money than this on hot wings a few weeks ago. God forbid that on top of that immense hardship, you buy someone groceries -- you might not be able to buy as many hot wings next time!

And that was that...for a while. And then, of course, afterwards, that thought: That was a good thing you just did. Good job! And the way you got rid of those ungracious thoughts? Great work, dude! That was super generous of you. Most people probably wouldn't have been that generous. Isn't it nice, thinking of how generous you are?

And then, on quashing those thoughts: Man, you are so humble. Not many people would have gotten rid of that so quickly. You're the man! Isn't it cool how humble you are? Isn't it...


Honestly, I had to laugh at myself. And I think "humour and proportion", as Lewis points out, really are some of our most potent weapons against the enemy - and ourselves. It's a constant battle not to take myself too seriously, to laugh at my sheer ridiculousness, to mock the part of me who sticks me up on a pedestal.

So I laugh at my sin, and in doing so try to get rid of it. I don't laugh at it because sin is trivial -- it certainly isn't! But I laugh at it because it is concerned with trivialities. It consists of taking a small act of charity and making a mountain of it - not for the benefit of others, but for my own. It consists of taking a small attempt at humility and making that the basis for a statue built in my honor.

Sin makes us think so small...when the things that God wants us to aspire to are so large. And when confronted with that smallness, with a desire to substitute it for the largeness up ahead, I think the only appropriate response is laughter.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cats and Friendship

"If, nevertheless , the strong conviction which we have of a real, though doubtless rudimentary, selfhood in the higher animals, and specially in those we tame, is not an illusion, their destiny demands a somewhat deeper consideration. The error we must avoid is that of considering them in themselves. Man is to be understood only in his relation to God. The beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and, through man, to God....Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal— the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master. If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so.
...
You must not think of a beast by itself, and call that a personality and then inquire whether God will raise and bless that. You must take the whole context in which the beast acquires its selfhood— namely ‘The–goodman–and–the–goodwife–ruling–their–children–and–their–beasts–in–the–good–homestead’....If you ask, concerning an animal thus raised as a member of the whole Body of the homestead , where its personal identity resides, I answer ‘Where its identity always did reside even in the earthly life— in its relation to the Body and , specially , to the master who is the head of that Body.’ In other words , the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master and, in knowing him, will be itself."

CS Lewis, "The Problem of Pain"

Maybe it's just me, but these words ring true to me. I think any pet owner will insist on some sort of "personality" in their pet, something that makes the animal something more than an animal...not a person, perhaps, but something similar. I think about pets a lot, and their proper place in the world and in families. And I've come to a few conclusions:

  • Tame animals are, indeed, "natural" in the divine sense. As a cat owner, it pains me to see stray cats wandering streets and parking lots, knowing that they could at any moment meet their end by a careless driver. While such loss might be natural to a fallen world, it is most assuredly unnatural in the divine sense...it is a symptom of creation being "subjected to futility" and groaning in pain. The proper place of animals is in the care of - and under the authority of - humanity. And the proper place of Rory in particular is either purring on my lap, or sitting on his cat tree in a sun beam. 

  • Pets are NOT children, and shouldn't be treated as such. I think that any pet relationship that ends up essentially treating the pet as a substitute for children is disordered, an example of misplaced affections that will likely result in some degree of harm or distress. The pets will not be able to do what children do, and they lack the capacity to return the care and affection that child-rearing is supposed to result in. Child-rearing has a goal that pet-keeping is unable to fulfill.

  • However, as any pet owner will tell you, pets are friends and companions. Anna and I joke that a tired soul can be revitalized merely by rubbing one's face on a soft cat belly. Rory and Martha are our friends. We play with them, we talk to them, we sit with them, we miss them when we're away...the are our friends, in just about every sense of the word. 

  • Finally, I will insist that Rory and Martha have personality. They might not be persons...but they are more than mere beasts. And I tend to agree with Lewis that what they get in personhood, they get through being part of a human family. 
Had you asked me, before I got married and we got Rory, if I would EVER feel this attached to any animal, let alone a cat, I would have laughed at you. But now...it's different. I think that pets have a valid role and significance to us specifically as Christians, and that properly keeping a pet can be a microcosm of humanity's intended role for all of creation. Also, it's really fun. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Will God Save My Kids? A Response

This post was originally sparked by this article, titled "Do you believe God will save your kids?" It's written by blogger Tim Challies, who happens to be a Calvinist, as is evident from his article.

Challies pulls out all the stops on this one. He opens by stating that "There are few things I pray for with greater frequency or intensity than the salvation of my children." And he doesn't just pray for it...he believes it. "I believe God will save them. I believe he will save them because that is what he does—he saves. I believe he will save them because that is who he is—he loves to save."

And he continues believing and praying, all through the post. And in the end, "I entrust their souls to him. I put my confidence in him, and in his character, and in his Word." And again, at the closer, "And I pray—I pray that the God who graciously extended favor to undeserving me, would extend it to my undeserving children as well."

Now, there's a lot in between those statements: About trusting God, about how God "uses" prayer and the Bible and the Gospel to save his people. But in the end, it ultimately comes down to trusting that God will save them.

And I thought...How absolutely horrifying it would be to read this, as the parent of a child who had died un-saved.

Don't get me wrong: It's good to pray for the salvation of your children. And it's good to trust in God. And it's good to believe that God is the God who saves, who desires and loves to save people. All of that is good and true...but in the Calvinist scheme, that's only one side of the coin.

The other side, of course, is that God is the one who deliberately doesn't save everyone. That God is the one who desires and loves to save some people, and desires and loves to damn the rest of them. That God is the one who takes many kids from Christian families and deliberately withholds the grace they so desperately need. That God is the one who created billions of people for the express purpose of not saving them...and that your child could easily be one of those people. 

That's the other side of the Calvinist coin here, and it's just as necessary as the first side. And one necessary consequence of this is that in the case of non-elect children, the parents will love their children better and more fully than God ever did. Love is, after all, to desire the Good of the beloved, and while the parents will pray, will desire and work towards the good of their children, God will actually do the exact opposite: God will so order the universe as to render their salvation impossible. That may well be justice. That may well be his right as the supreme ruler of all. But it is not loving...not to the reprobate.

That's horrifying to me. That's unacceptable. I don't understand how you could read the Bible and arrive at an understanding of God whose love towards the reprobate is surpassed by the love of human friends and family. And I can't comprehend what that would be like...to be the parent of a dead child, knowing that somehow, you loved your child more and better than your God ever did.


Anna and I are trying to get pregnant. Every day, the enormity of that hits me a little more. Every day, the possibility that today or tomorrow could be the day when we discover that two-become-one has actually become three...that possibility is awesome: It is awe-inspiring. And when it comes to the question, "Will God Save My Kids," I only have a few thoughts:

I believe that God will desire to save my kids, and consequently, I reject any notion that he desires, or plans, or ordains, or decrees for them to be damned.

And I also believe that since God desires them to choose him, he will leave them the possibility of not choosing him - although I reject that he gets any pleasure from the agony of those who reject him. 

Finally, I believe that he will create them with the express purpose of having them consciously choose to follow him, and to have them join him in paradise, and that despite our rebellion and captivity, he has already affected their rescue, and beyond that, he will woo and call them in various ways throughout their lives.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Thoughts on Scripture (Following my message to Jr. High/HS)

I just did the Jr High/High School message at my church this morning. We're in the middle of a short series called "Bible 101", and my topic today was Divine Inspiration. While writing the message, I had a few thoughts that I don't recall having before, and I wanted to share them here.

First off, while researching "God-breathed", I discovered that the Greek word is the√≥pneustos (theh-op'-nyoo-stos). It comes from “theos” – God – and “pneo” – meaning “breath” or “to breath out.” A couple of the sources I looked at speculated that Paul had actually coined this word, creating it to describe Scripture in just the right way.

And in thinking about the breath of God, my mind suddenly snapped to Genesis 2...the creation of man.

"Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." - Genesis 2:7

God breathed into Adam and made him live. None of the other animals are created this way, which tells me that this is where get not just our life, but our souls and spirits: From the very breath of God. God took an earthly thing – a pile of dirt – and made it something more, something spiritual and living.

And I don’t think it’s an accident that we see Paul describing Scripture in the same terms. They are God-breathed, and that’s what the breath of God does. God’s breath makes things come alive. It makes them more than what they should be. God breathed into Adam and he became a living being, and he breathed into the words of Scripture and they became the words of God.

That was the first thing that struck me. And the second?

I think that Scripture is a kind of incarnation.

In discussing the relationship between Scripture being the words of God, and also the words of man, it struck me that the reasoning was somewhat similar to that of Christology, and the relationship between Jesus' divine and human natures. And just as the ultimate baseline of orthodoxy is to affirm that Jesus is both 100% man and 100% God, I think the same holds true for the Scriptures.

They are both the writings of human authors about God, as well as God-breathed Truth that we can trust and rely on. Scripture was written by the people of God in a variety of situations by a variety of different people, all bringing their own experiences, voice, and personality to the table. And at the same time, it is timeless truth about the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and it remains true and relevant for us today.

It is both at the same time: An incarnation. But instead of The Divine Word becoming flesh, it is the words of God becoming the words of man, entering our reality as this Book of books.

That was how I ended the message on Sunday, and I hope it was helpful to them. It was definitely a lot of fun to prepare the message... Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Hezekiah and the Plans of God

"So...God actually changed his mind as a result of Hezekiah's prayer?"

That's what a friend of mine asked as we were discussing 2 Kings 20. I've written about this before, and it really is one of the most important passages in my understanding of prayer and how it interacts with God's plan.

So: Back to my friend's question. Did Hezekiah's prayer cause God to "change his mind"? During the initial conversation, I responded almost off-the-cuff, saying "I don't know if God necessarily had a mind to change." And after a lot of further reflection, I think that might just hold up.

I don't think it's correct to say that God planned for Hezekiah in particular to die from that particular illness at that particular time. I definitely think that God knew that Hezekiah would die with all those particulars. And I think that God had worked that event into his plans for the future. But I don't think that God planned the event itself: I don't think he designed it, or desired it to happen, or had so constructed the universe in such a way as to render it certain.

Instead, I think that Hezekiah was going to do of that particular illness, at that particular time, as a result of the natural laws that God put into place at the creation of the universe, and as a result of the free will of humanity interacting with those natural laws, and likely as a result of a bunch of other things that don't directly have to do with God explicitly planning that event.

I don't think that God "changed his mind" in healing Hezekiah. I don't think that in this particular situation, God had a mind to change. Hezekiah was going to die not because God planned it or caused it to happen, but because that's what happens in a fallen world where our bodies break down and fall prey to sickness and disease. It does not happen outside God's knowledge or control, but neither does it happen as a result of God's sovereign plan and active will.*

God's working and plan first becomes evident not in Hezekiah's disease, but in his response to Hezekiah's prayer. That is where God first takes action: That is where God steps into history and changes what is supposed to happen. He breaks the chain of natural cause-and-affect, and as a result, Hezekiah lives for another 15 years. And I actually think this is a pretty great way of understanding how our prayers can affect genuine change in the world: It's a time where God takes not just his own purposes into account, but also our own desires.

*Did God have a purpose in using Hezekiah's illness? Almost certainly - and in the same way, he also has a purpose in using our own illnesses and misfortunes. And sometimes, that purpose may be more active and deliberate, as is the case with Job. But I think it's wrong to say with certainty that any specific misfortune is "planned" by God....nothing happens without divine permission, but not all things happen by sovereign decree.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A (Hopefully) Simple Explanation of Simple Foreknowledge

"If God knew that mankind would sin, why did he still create us? Why didn't he prevent it? Doesn't that mean that he wanted the sin to happen?"

Those are some of the questions I've heard concerning the origin of sin and God's role in it: The much-discussed Problem of Evil. Why did God still create us, when he knew we were going to sin?

There are a lot of different answers to that, of course...but one that I'd never heard of before a few months ago (and I'm guessing you never have either) is Simple Foreknowledge.

Here's SF in a nutshell: God only knew that humanity would sin, after he made the decision to create humanity.* Speaking of God knowing what humanity would do, before he decided to create humanity, is nonsensical...because before he decided to create us, there was nothing for him to know about us. We didn't exist in any way, not even potentially, and God doesn't have knowledge of non-existent things.

Let me put it another way: Asking if God knew we would sin, before he decided to create us, is like asking if God knows where the leprechaun's gold is. It's like asking if God knows the color of next Friday. It's a nonsense question: There's simply nothing for him to know.

God only knew what humanity would do after he decided to create us. And if that's a viable option (and it is), then it becomes a very useful idea. We no longer have to wonder if the mere fact of the fall means that God wanted it to happen all along; We no longer have to wonder if God chose to create us even knowing that we would all fall short of his glory. It means that God decided to create us, and then had foreknowledge of the Fall and everything else that comes with it.

There are a lot of places we could go from here, one of the most interesting being how this allows for a really cool picture of God looking through human history and preparing his amazing plan: Taking the history of a doomed race and turning it into a story of glory and love and redemption. But I wanted this to be a short and quick post, so I'll just say one more thing.

This post came into being because I was thinking about the role of sin in God's plan, and whether the Fall and Cross was, as I've heard asserted by some Christians, God's "Plan A." And there are a lot of ways to answer the question of whether God knew mankind would sin before he created us, and the order of all that, and the role that his foreknowledge plays in it, and a whole lot more. But if your answer ends up asserting that the Fall was Plan A, then you have answered it wrongly.

If you end up asserting that God never had a plan for unfallen humanity, and that everything that has happened thus far - from the Fall, to the Flood, to systematized slavery and genocide, to the World Wars and the Holocaust - is all going exactly according to God's original Plan A, then you have taken a wrong turn, and you need to try again. It's fine if your answer is "I don't know." It's fine if you can't fully articulate it (although I think it's one of those things where you should look into some possible answers). But there is at least one answer that I feel to be so wrong as to taint literally every other area of your knowledge of God, and that is it.

This is not Plan A. God wanted something so much better for us, and I think that it should be impossible to read through Genesis - to read the glories of Eden, the curses in Genesis 3, and God's grief and regret in Genesis 6 - and come to any other conclusion.

"Is [God] a beast that we can stop His path, or a leaf that we can twist His shape? Whatever you do, He will make good of it. But not the good He had prepared for you if you had obeyed Him. That is lost for ever. The first King and first Mother of our world did the forbidden thing, and He brought good of it in the end. But what they did was not good, and what they lost we have not seen. And there were some to whom no good came nor ever will come.”

CS Lewis, Perelandra


*Note that the language of "before" and "after" is very tricky to apply to an eternal God existing in eternity: This is best understood as a logical order, not a temporal order.

Addendum: I struggled for a while to overcome my immediate Devil's Advocate response to this: "Why couldn't God just perform some sort of divine thought experiment and arrive at a hypothetical universe identical to our own?"

But the answer is actually pretty simple: Because free will doesn't work like that. If free will were the type of thing that could be exactly predicted like that, it wouldn't be free will anymore. That would mean that it was 100% dictated by the cause-and-effect of history and environment, and that everything we do is the inevitable reaction to something else that happened to us. But if free will is really free, then it most definitely is not the kind of thing that can be predicted in a thought experiment. No: It has to be done for reals.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sin is an Episode

"The atonement accomplished in Jesus Christ is God’s retort to the sin of man and its consequences. And the sin of man is an episode. It is the original of all episodes, the essence of everything that is unnecessary, disorderly, contrary to plan and purpose. It has not escaped the knowledge and control of God. But it is not a work of His creation and not a disposition of His providence.

It really comes about and is only as that which God did not will and does not will and never will will. It has its being only in the fact that it is non-being, that which from the point of view of God is unintelligible and intolerable. It takes place only as the powerful—but, of course, before God absolutely powerless—irruption of that which is not into the fulfilment of His will.

It takes place, therefore, only under the original, radical, definitive and therefore finally triumphant No of God. It is not a limitation of His positive will. Rather it exists as it is completely conditioned by His non-will. It is alive and active in all its fearfulness only on the left hand of God.

But the atonement accomplished in Jesus Christ, like creation and the providential rule of God, is a work on the right hand of God, a work of His positive will. It is so in the highest possible sense, in a way which gives it priority and precedence over creation and providence. In Jesus Christ God comes to grips with that episode. Jesus Christ is in fact God’s retort to the sin of man."

Karl Barth, The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country

When I read these words for the first time, years ago in my Trinitarian meta-torrey with Dr. Sanders, a shiver ran down my spine. I thought I had never before read such a clear accounting of the origin and being of evil, and its relation to the will of God and his Providence.

I still think that.

Let's break it down a bit:

Barth calls the sin of man "an episode." There are several potential definitions for this, but I think the most likely is "an incident or period considered in isolation." That is, an event that is not continuous with the events before or after it. And indeed, Barth explains it further in his next sentence:

  • Sin is "unnecessary": It is not needed or required - specifically, not needed or required by God's plan or providence. 
  • Sin is "disorderly": It goes against God's order, and is indeed the essence of disorderliness. 
  • Sin is "contrary to plan and purpose." This is the clearest statement so far. Barth directly states that sin goes against ANY plan or purpose of God's
Finally, he clarifies and summarizes exactly what he means:

"It has not escaped the knowledge and control of God" .Sin is NOT something that exists outside the knowledge and control of God. God is not confounded or befuddled by sin. He is not left helpless by it, and he is not powerless against it. He knows it, and he is in control over it.

HOWEVER:

"It is not a work of His creation and not a disposition of His providence." This is the point of the entire paragraph. Here, Barth seems to reject, in the strongest possible manner, the idea of felix culpa,, "Happy Fault," the idea that God uses evil to accomplish greater good than would have been possible without the evil.

Note the "greater", because it's important. God can clearly use evil for good, and in fact we see that idea throughout the entire Bible. But there is a HUGE difference between that, and the idea that there is a GREATER level of good that requires evil in order to be actualized.

This is what Barth is fighting against. And that is why he says, over and over again, that evil, in and of itself, is disorderly, contrary to plan and purpose, and unnecessary.

His language grows stronger: "It really comes about and is only as that which God did not will and does not will and never will will."

Sin is something that God did not desire or cause to exist; It is something that God does not will or desire or cause to exist: And it is something that God never will desire or cause to exist. In the strongest possible language, he lays it down that sin is something that exists entirely outside the active will of God. Instead, sin exists "as the powerful—but, of course, before God absolutely powerless—irruption of that which is not into the fulfilment of His will", and ultimately "under the original, radical, definitive and therefore finally triumphant No of God."

In other words, sin is a temporary disruption of God's plan, existing only in so far as God does not actively destroy it...which he eventually will, as he "comes to grips with that episode" in Jesus Christ.


So... why is this important?

Because it makes a huge difference whether God allows sin to happen, or causes it to happen.

Because it makes a huge difference whether the ultimate cause of sin lies in the sinner, or in God's will and providence. 

And ultimately, because it makes a huge difference in whether sin can rightly be regarded as an enemy.