Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Is this God’s will?

We don’t have to live long before we will experience difficult situations in our lives. Poverty, sickness, pain and suffering, bereavement, depression, divorce, relationship breakdown, a demanding boss or awkward co-workers, rebellious children, and so on. I’m sure you can add many more of your own to the list. For some this is reason enough to reject Christianity. In my last post I questioned some of the assumptions that underpin that objection.

Nevertheless it must be admitted that this can be a difficult question for Christians too. How do we reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with our belief in God’s perfect love and almighty power? At some point most Christians have probably asked the question, “is this God’s will?”, but behind this question are two assumptions:
1. Since God is good, He wouldn’t let bad things happen to me
2. God should tell me His will.

Can these assumptions be supported by scripture?

Scripture in fact clearly states that God keeps part of His will ‘secret’ from us: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deut. 29:29). To understand this it is helpful to think in terms of a distinction between God’s revealed will and His secret will. His revealed will includes His commands and promises to us. Of course, we know that many care nothing for obeying God's commands. Even we Christians constantly fail to love Him with all our mind, heart and strength. So in this sense of the meaning of God's will we can say that, when His commands are disobeyed, then we are not acting in line with His will. But this is where His "secret" will comes in for God rules over all His creation, even the wind and waves (Mark 4:41), and good and bad (Lam 3:38). Nothing comes to pass that He hasn't fore-ordained (Pr. 20:24, Acts 2:23). He planned the beginning to the end (Ecc. 3:11, Isa. 46:10). His secret will cannot be stopped or thwarted (Dan. 4:35). All that He has ordained according to His secret will shall come to pass (Ezek. 12:25). In other words, in this sense of His will, everything that happens is always God's will. This is not to say that God causes bad things to happen but rather that He allows them and uses them for wise, inscrutable reasons related to a higher purpose that we know nothing about. What Satan intends for harm God limits and turns for good (e.g. see Gen. 50:20).

So the first thing to note is that nowhere in scripture does it tell us that God will reveal His will for us in any situation. Quite the opposite in fact. Much of God’s will remains hidden from us. What He does reveal is enough about Himself and what He has done for us in Christ Jesus that we can know that we can trust Him and enough about what He expects from us in response. Obviously this would include trusting Him, even through difficult times.

I recognise that some just can’t conceive of God’s will for us involving suffering. “God loves us”, they reason, “He wouldn’t let us suffer”. So what they do is attribute suffering to some other cause: most probably the devil – as though the devil sometimes gets the upper hand over God. But such a view robs God of His sovereignty by saying that He isn’t fully in control. What they are doing is trying to resolve what they perceive to be a contradiction between God loving us and having plans for our good (Jer. 29:11) and at the same time allowing bad things to happen to us. This is actually a very self-centred, short-term view of God’s will. Consider the following illustration. Suppose a child has a painful splinter. Naturally the child’s parents love their child and don’t want them to suffer pain so they will want to remove the splinter. However, removing the splinter will temporarily cause even more pain. Here we have two conflicting desires. Obviously the caring parent will remove the splinter to reduce the pain but in doing so they will have to (briefly) act against their own desire for their child not to suffer. In other words, we can sometimes desire to do something we don’t want to do because it is necessary to the achievement of some greater, longer-term purpose. If we, who are made in His image, can have multiple conflicting desires how then can we refuse to ascribe to God something that we recognise in ourselves?

Our problem is that we have little awareness of how sinful we really are or of how great God’s purposes are for the restoration of His creation. When mankind first sinned, forces of evil, decay, destruction and death were unleashed on the world. The problem with asking God to destroy evil and suffering is that He couldn’t do that without destroying us for we are part of the problem (see Rom. 3:9-19). In fact the problem would be far worse if God didn’t limit the evil desires of mankind and turn them for His good purposes. As part of the corruption that has come on the earth we have become selfish. Our greatest desires are for our own comfort and happiness. But ultimately this leads us on a course of self-destruction for we all must give an account of ourselves before God. Thus one reason God may allow difficulties in to our lives is to show us that our hope is in things that will perish instead of in Him. This is not to say that we understand all the reasons all the time but the one thing we do know is that when we suffer we need not wonder whether God cares about us. He has removed any cause of doubt about that by dying on the cross for us. So, we can be certain that God is both good and in control and that, ultimately, if we have put our hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, He will work all things for good (Rom. 8:28).

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Objections to Christianity 1 – Evil and suffering

I’m going to take common objections for why people don’t believe Christianity is true and examine them. I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind by this but I hope at least to prompt some to examine their reasons and beliefs more carefully. In this post I will look at the problem of evil and suffering.

“Earthquakes, tsunamis, famine, war, evil tyrannical leaders who torture anyone who dares disagree with them, sickness and disease. How can I believe in a God who allows such suffering?” So runs a common objection to Christianity. Another version of this objection is less personal and more philosophical. It may be stated like this: “The Bible says that God is all-powerful and all-loving. Yet, God allows evil and suffering in the world therefore God cannot be all-good or he cannot be all-powerful. Either way, the God of the Bible cannot exist.”

This does seem like a compelling argument doesn’t it? It is not an easy one to answer because God doesn’t give us reasons for all pain and suffering. Nevertheless it needs to be seen that this argument relies on some hidden assumptions:
Firstly it assumes that suffering doesn’t serve a good purpose. In other words that it is pointless. But just because something appears pointless to us doesn’t make it pointless. That is a fallacy. It assumes we know everything there is to be known. Just because we cannot think of a reason doesn’t mean there isn’t one. In fact, the person making this assumption is exercising faith. Faith in themselves, for, without any plausible reason for doing so, they have assumed that if there were a grand reason for suffering that made it worthwhile they would know what it is! That’s actually quite a leap of faith!
This argument doesn’t even line up with our experience for many of us can testify of having experienced difficulties which made no sense to us at the time and yet which ultimately worked out for good. As Tim Keller argues in The Reason for God, “with time and perspective most of us can see some good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life. Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them?” Some might argue that no future bliss could be worth the worst kind of unspeakable suffering, but what does the man who wants nothing to do with God know of God’s promises? As C. S. Lewis effectively argued, such an argument does not understand that even the greatest kind of suffering will be turned backwards into an even greater glory.

Secondly this argument assumes that there is a standard against which things may be judged to be wrong and unfair. But where does this standard come from? If we reject God then we are left with natural selection in which the ‘fittest’ survive and where death and violence and the triumph of the strong over the weak are perfectly natural. So we find that the atheist has no basis for assuming that people shouldn’t suffer. After all, in their worldview suffering is inevitable! Yet wasn’t this their very reason for objecting to God? How contradictory. So, the problem of suffering is just as much of a problem for the atheist. If anything, an argument against suffering and injustice is an argument for God.

Of course, these arguments may make logical sense but they are of little comfort when we ourselves are in the midst of great suffering or difficulty. If God seems distant to us then our suffering will seem far more real. But the one thing we cannot do is assume that God doesn’t care about the problem of evil and suffering. For, in Jesus Christ, God Himself came to earth and shared in our suffering. He was beaten and crucified by evil men even though he had done nothing wrong. He experienced despair, pain, rejection, loneliness, torture and imprisonment. And he did it for you and me. God who was rich in every way became poor for our sakes. He chose to identify with the poor and lowly, the abandoned and forgotten and with those who suffer. He suffered for our sins, that is, for our rejection of and rebellion against God. He did it because He loves us that much. So, sure, we don’t always know the reason for hardship and suffering in this life, but one thing we do know is that it can’t be that God doesn’t care about us. He cares enough to share in our suffering and, ultimately, to rescue us from it, if we believe in Him.

Not only does God share in our humanity and suffering, he gives us hope that it is not in vain. We may not always see in this life the good that results from having suffered but we do know that the day is coming when He shall return again and make all things new (John 14:3; Rev. 21:5). This is not just consolation (e.g. Rev. 21:3-4) for what we have suffered in this life but a glorious restoration and re-making of all things. As Dostoevsky wrote:
“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

To borrow a phrase from the Lord of the Rings ”everything sad will become untrue”. What greater consolation could there be in this life?

Thursday, 15 October 2009

A Confession

In my last post I spoke of how the gospel leads people to be honest about their failings. So I thought I may as well go right ahead with my first confession:
Some of you reading this know me well and yet have never heard me speak of the gospel. This is because God has slowly been teaching me that, despite what you see on the outside, deep down I am insecure. Consequently I hate anything that could lead to confrontation, rejection or ridicule. But now, the more secure I become in my belief in Christ, the less these things bother me. Every one of us has an in built need to feel accepted and to justify themselves but as I learn to marvel more-and-more at how God loved me enough to die for me and, because of Jesus' death, has declared me not guilty and accepts me just as I am, I realise that I don't need to seek to be accepted by or justified before other people. Also the more I come to be thankful for God's grace to someone as deeply flawed as me the more I want to share the good news with those I know.

So, expect to hear more from me on this. :-)

Monday, 12 October 2009

blogging and hypocrisy

One of the difficulties of writing a blog, particularly one shared with close family and friends via Facebook, as well as the world at large via the web, is the huge range of people that may be reading. Now I don't for one minute flatter myself by thinking I have a big audience. Indeed, from the number of comments I get, it may be that no-one is reading! (I write as much for my own benefit in any case). Nevertheless I am aware that some people will occasionally read it and that amongst those people are those who are Christians and those who are not. My aim in both cases though is to point people to the Lord Jesus Christ as their only hope in life and death. The only one who will unconditionally forgive and accept them. The only one who loves them enough to die for them. The only one in whom they will find real meaning, hope, peace and deep, lasting joy - even in life's difficulties.

No doubt amongst the non-believers are some that think I'm a nut-job and others still who perhaps know me better and think I'm a hypocrite. What they see me writing about here doesn't match up to what they see of me in person. Well, this may come as a bit of a surprise but I will readily admit that I'm a hypocrite. But in a very real sense, that is precisely the point. You see, Jesus came to save sinners. Those who are messed up, those who know they fail and let others down. From murderers to complainers. Rapists to occasional white-lie tellers. Yes, even hypocrites.

Most non-Christian's perception of Christianity is that it's for a bunch of fuddy-duddy, frowning, rule-keeping, freedom-robbing, fun-hating boring people. But true Christianity, when rightly understood, produces freedom and joy because it is based on recognising that we can't keep the rules but the Lord Jesus Christ has kept them for us.

Now I admit you may have met Christians who fit my dull description very well but that is no more representative of what a Christian should like than if I put a fluffy hat on my head and said I was a rabbit. A Christian is a real person like anyone else. They will mess up regularly like everyone else. Sometimes they'll get angry. Sometimes they'll do things that you'll think Christians shouldn't do. Maybe even things that most non-Christians wouldn't do. But the difference is that a true Christian is someone who knows how deeply flawed they are and isn't afraid to admit it. Why? Because Jesus accepts them just as they are. No need to try to clean themselves up or put on a show to impress anyone.

The sad irony is that the fuddy-duddies who are stuck on the treadmill of trying to keep God's rules in order to earn his favour are often the ones farthest from God and the ones who find the Gospel message so hard to accept. Like I said Jesus came to save dirty sinners - not those who are trying to scrub themselves clean.

As I work through the implications of growing in my own understanding of the gospel it means I may speak about my own failings. This is because not only is the need to protect my reputation of decreasing importance compared to my growing understanding of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Philippians 3:8) but also because showing my failings and weaknesses is a great way to demonstrate how great the gospel is. Deep down, everyone knows there is a God and knows that they need to be right with Him - it's what drives so much of what we do - and the wonder of the gospel is that we are far worse than we think we are yet we are never so bad that we are beyond the reach of God's grace. Turn to Him. Turn from all your self-reliance and trust in His unfailing love. You'll never look back!

Oh, and to the one person who is reading, do feel free to drop me a comment - even if only to tell me that you agree that I am a nut-job and hypocrite. :-)

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The challenge of trusting God as provider

David Cameron has announced that there will be massive cuts in public spending if the Conservatives come to power. Now I find myself with a conflict of interests. I definitely want Labour to be defeated. Why would I want the people largely responsible for making the recession deeper and longer than it needed to be to continue in Government? Since they got us into the mess we can hardly trust them to get us out of it! However, on the other hand, my current client is in the public sector and my contract will probably be one the first things to go in the cuts. There are very few opportunities around in my line of work a tthe moment so I face the prospect of having no income. I do find myself worrying about this from time-to-time and have to keep reminding myself that God will provide what we need and that the things I worry about losing are things we don't really need.

Of course I have faced times like this before in the 24 years I've been a freelancer so I found it strange that I seemed to be worrying more this time. I think that's partly because I know this recession is worse than anything I've seen before but also I realised something else. In the past I've faced periods when there has been no work with confidence and said to people "God will provide" - and He did. But I realised a large part of that was the natural bravado of a young man, it wasn't really trust in God. The older we get the less we have that natural optimism and confidence. So, it seems I have more to learn about trusting Him than I thought. But one thing I am confident of is this: because I know that He loved me enough to die for me I know that He will provide all we need. In the mean time I need to get better at distinguishing between what is a luxury, desire or comfort and what is a true need.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Do you have an image problem?

In Fight Clubs: Gospel-Centred Discipleship (The Resurgence. 2009), Jonathan Dodson writes:

"All too often, our online identity is very different from our offline identity. Our Facebook status projects what we want others to think of us, not who we truly are. Our blog posts are shrouded in airs of intellectualism or edginess. We all face the temptation to project a false image of ourselves because we find the real image inadequate. If we are honest, the real image is nowhere near as attractive as we want it to be. We want to be more beautiful, more successful, more creative, more virtuous, more popular, and more intelligent than we actually are. We all have an image problem. The problem, however, is not that we lack beauty, success, creativity, virtue, popularity, or intelligence. The problem is that we believe the lie that obtaining those images will actually make us complete, happy, and content people."

Having believed the lie, we endlessly exert ourselves trying to create and preserve the image we want others to see. But all the while we remain unsatisfied. Our deepest needs go unmet. The irony is that Christianity is also about image and identity. But it teaches that we are made in the image of God, designed to find our identity in Him. We have all failed to live in line with what God created us for yet in His great love for us God does not cast us into hell. Instead Jesus willingly suffers in our place and God raises Him from the dead so that, through faith in Him, we can be forgiven and given a new identity in Christ Jesus.

When we trust our lives to Jesus we are freed from the endless cycle of trying to impress others because Jesus has impressed God on our behalf. As Dodson says: "I can tell people my sins because my identity doesn’t hang on what they think of me. I can be an imperfect Christian because I cling to a perfect Christ".

Are you a legalist?

Everyone is a legalist. We're born that way. C J Mahaney defines legalism as "seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God" (The Cross Centred Life. Multnomah. 2002).

A Christian is someone who knows that that they have been saved by grace, that is, that forgiveness is an undeserved gift of God through faith in Jesus and not something they can earn. Yet in their daily walk with God many Christians seem to forget this and their perception of the degree to which they consider themselves accepted by Him varies according to how good a job they think they're doing of obeying Him. This inevitably leads to pride when they think they're doing well and despair when they're not. In other words it is just a more sophisticated form of legalism. They confuse forgiveness and acceptance and reverse the order of the gospel. This demonstrates how deeply the ideas of reward and acceptance for good works and punishment for doing wrong is ingrained in us. We are born that way. We think "how could God possibly love me after I've done that!" but the truth is that we don't realise that our sins are far worse than we imagine. And that is the wonder of God's grace for our sins against the Holy God are so bad that only the blood of His Son would be enough to pay the penalty and His love for us is so great that Jesus willingly suffered and died for us so that we don't have to try to 'measure up'. As a result we don't have to earn His favour or acceptance. If we have believed the gospel we are already accepted by the King of the universe! We cannot add to that or take away from it. Thus we are accepted every day - whether we do well or badly, whether we have a good day or a bad day. In one sense we can say that Christians are free to do what they please! Because Jesus lived the perfect life that we could not and bore the punishment that we deserve then, if we have put our hope in Him, God only ever loves us. He's not a tempramental monster who gets angry with us when we mess up as some imagine Him to be. God's attitude towards us is unchanging. If we have believed the gospel message then God is no longer angry at our sin. Sure, he disciplines us, but in love not anger. Now I'm not saying we shouldn't obey God - simply that it is crucial that we remember the gospel order: I am accepted by God because of Jesus, therefore I obey.

Of course, non christians will say "I'm not trying to earn God's acceptance, I don't need Him!" but the reality is that, in some way, we all want to be accepted. We all need to feel valued. And everyone spends effort on it: in the way they dress, in the things they say and do. We need to feel acceptance from our peers or those we look up to thus we try to hide, minimize or explain away our behaviour or blame someone else when we mess up. Its a never-ending struggle because we keep messing up and people keep letting us down. Its hard work and it never pays off. We never find what we really yearn for. People never love us or value us like we want them to. But there is one who loves us and is prepared to accept us unconditionally, one who never gets angry with us when we mess up. One who never has a bad mood or turns nasty with us. His name is Jesus. He longs for you to turn to Him. Just as you are. Why try to earn what will always elude you? Go to Him and discover the freedom and joy that comes from knowing and experiencing the radical, life-altering love of the God who made you so that you could know and be satisfied in Him.