Afraid of the Dark: What Suffering Tells Us About God

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The Bible in One Verse

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Skyshore

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Blackerby’s Wonderful Traveling Machine

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Love Your Neighbor: No Exceptions

“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

This quote is widely attributed to James Baldwin, but was, in fact, coined by Robert Jones, Jr. on August 18, 2015 on Twitter.

I’ve seen similar postings, with similar sentiments, by many on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.  It sounds profound if you don’t think about it for more than two seconds.

In reality, it is a profoundly dangerous and horrible way of looking at life. It easily justifies the very thing it wishes to prevent: hatred and dehumanization.

The Bible can be summarized with one verse, Matthew 7:12 “do to others as you’d have them do to you,” elsewhere worded as: “love your neighbor as yourself.”  A religious scholar seeking to justify himself asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor.” (Luke 10:25-37) The quote by Robert Jones, Jr. would argue that my neighbor is a person who is kind to me; otherwise, that person is not my neighbor.  But that is not the definition that Jesus gave.  We cannot control how others act toward us, but we can control how we respond to them.  Robert Jones, Jr. apparently thinks we should do to others as they do to us.  Not quite what Jesus had in mind.

Jesus had some words regarding this very human attitude:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48). 

God showed his love for us in that he sent Jesus to die for us while we were still his enemies. (Romans 5:6-11) Jesus forgave the people who were crucifying him (Luke 23:34), and so did the first Christian martyr, Stephen, forgive those lynching him (Acts 7:60).  It is human nature to not love those who are cruel to us.  God asks us to not act according to our human nature.

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In the Garden

There is an old hymn from 1912—more than a hundred years old—entitled “In the Garden.”  It was written by C. Austin Miles, an American songwriter.  It became popular thanks to its use by the evangelist Billy Sunday.  Later, it was performed by such well-known artists at Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Perry Como, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson.

The lyrics are probably familiar:

I come to the garden alone,

While the dew is still on the roses;

And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,

The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,

And He tells me I am His own,

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice

Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;

And the melody that He gave to me

Within my heart is ringing.

I’d stay in the garden with Him

Tho’ the night around me be falling;

But He bids me go; thro’ the voice of woe,

His voice to me is calling.

In John 18 Jesus walks with his disciples to the nearby Garden of Gethsemane.  It still exists today as a garden, dominated by olive trees old enough to have been there on that night when Jesus was arrested. Jesus and his disciples had frequently been to that garden on the Mt. of Olives and together had spent a lot of time there praying.  On this final gloomy night, although his disciples were physically present with Jesus, for all practical purposes he spent his last hours alone: they just kept falling asleep.  It had been a busy week, after all, and it was very late at night.  Several of his disciples were fishermen, who were more accustomed to arising early in the morning than staying up late. Night owls, they weren’t.

Jesus’ experience on his final evening reminds us that in our darkest moments we will be just as alone as Jesus was.  That is, his closest friends were there, but only barely.  It mirrors my own experience more than twenty years ago when our foster son died; people did their best, but there’s only so much that anyone can do for you when everything crashes down around you.  Several people informed me explicitly that they simply couldn’t be there for me.  Those that didn’t abandon me were about as helpful as Jesus’ disciples were to him on that final night.  Not because they didn’t care, but because they can’t crawl into your head with you.

But, Jesus’ experience reminds us, too, that we really aren’t alone.  Jesus spent that night in deep conversation with his Father, which echoes the words of the best-known psalm:

Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

            God never leaves us or abandons us, even through the worst moments of our lives.  And no one can be closer or care more desperately than him.

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The Kingdom and Suffering

The seventeenth century philosopher and theologian Gottfried Leibniz argued that if God is good, loving, and powerful, then this must be the best possible world, because what other kind of world would such a deity create? 

The problem, of course, is that we can imagine a better world.   One of the common clichés people mutter at us in our times of grief when a loved one passes on is, “well, she’s in a better place now.”

So, if there is such a better place, such a better world, then why is there this one and why do we have to be in it, if God loves us so much?

If the Kingdom of Heaven is better than here and now, then how can this possibly be the best of all possible worlds?  And if this isn’t the best of all possible worlds, then what does that tell us about God?

But.

What if the Kingdom of Heaven can come about only because of this world?  That is, what if the Kingdom of Heaven requires this world in order to come into existence?  What if, in fact, this world creates the Kingdom of Heaven, so that the Kingdom of Heaven is a consequence of this world?  

The Kingdom of Heaven would then grow from this world and would not entirely—or even at all—be separate from this world.

Some may object to this for various reasons, but ask yourself, what is the Kingdom of Heaven? 

The short answer: it is God’s people.  It is the church.  It is the Bride of Christ.  Therefore, this world is necessary for the Kingdom of Heaven to exist, because it is the people of God living in this world who are and who become that Kingdom.  This then is the best of all possible worlds, since it is the only world that can create or become the better world of the Kingdom—which is paradoxical unless you realize that the Kingdom is co-existent with this current world: the Kingdom, in a very real sense, is now.

Jesus explained it very clearly:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

When we ask, “is this the best of all possible worlds?” we must recognize that this world includes the Kingdom of Heaven in seed form at the very least. 

Ask yourself this when you peer at Jesus sleeping in the manger, “is this baby the best of all possible human beings?”  The baby is no less the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the World, than the resurrected Lord.  One could say that this world is the baby to the adult that is the Kingdom of Heaven.

An analogy from scripture would be Joseph; after the death of his father Jacob, his brothers were fearful, scared to death, that Joseph would seek vengeance against them for all the awful things they’d done to him, like selling him into slavery, and for all the awful things he’d gone through after that.  So what happened?

19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 51:19-21)

Consider, too, that even the death of the righteous—what most would consider an example of the core problem in the issue of suffering being unjust and an affront to the existence of God—is, counterintuitively, considered to be a positive good, a blessing even, based on a few biblical passages.  As I’ve pointed out before, it is death that makes our redemption possible in the first place; our exclusion from the tree of life, God’s concern that we not be allowed to eat from it and “live forever” (see Genesis 3:21-24), was not done because he hated us, because he was mad a us, because he wanted to make us squirm; it was because our being mortal was the only way he could save us: God had to become a human being, become one of us, and then die for our sins.  If human beings were not mortal, he could not die for us and if he could not die for us…then we could not be saved.  This is why Satan and the demons are doomed: they are immortal and beyond help or hope.

We die because God loves us; and love is the core of the Bible, the center of everything. 

Matthew 22:34-40 – Love

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ i 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ j 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

            Love is the core of the Bible. Jesus pointed out that it was on the twin commandments, to love God and to love people, that the whole Bible hung (Matthew 22:34-40).  Paul emphasizes it in his writing, too. He explained that all the commandments in the Bible could be summarized with a single commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14).  This concept is also a core concept in Judaism. The story is told of a Rabbi who was forced, on pain of death, to recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot.  His response was to say “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.  All the rest is commentary.” 

Because of love, Christians should be the most optimistic of people. 

The way of the world is to be gloomy, to always expect the worst, to believe that ultimately there is no hope.  The world embraces pessimism.

            The reason we keep going in the face of problems, in the face of setbacks, in the face of discouragement and nothing going right is precisely because of this thing called love.  We keep our zeal, our spiritual fervor, we keep on serving the Lord because we know God loves us.  And his love inspires us to love the people around us, and to press on.

            Think about how a young man or woman feel in the first throws of love.  Nothing else matters.  The world is beautiful and all is right with the world.  Nothing else matters as long as he or she is loved and loves in return.

            That’s what our relationship with God can do for us.  That’s the power of true love.

            What did Paul write about grief, about how we react when someone dies?  Not that we aren’t sad, but that we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Because we know God loves us, we can face the worst without despair.

            We understand that things will work out for our good.  As Paul wrote, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

What does suffering tell us about God?  Counterintuitively: Number one thing that suffering tells us about God: God loves us.  Why?  Because, like our friends when we grieve, he is right there with us.  He not only suffered on the cross for us, he also suffers with us.  And he never leaves us for forsakes us.  Like your loved ones, your friends, your family, God loves you and he is right there with you, grieving with you.  He may say nothing.  You may not feel him.  But he is there. Because he loves you.

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Prayer in School is A Bad Idea

A webcast from Saturday, October 24, 2020. A Mirror Darkly: unbridled inquiry livestreams on YouTube and Facebook most Saturdays at 4 PM Pacific Time.

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You’re a Christian. So What?

You’re a Christian.  So What?  What do we mean when we say that we are Christians?  What is a Christian, really?

How often have we heard the variants of “well that’s not very Christian of you” or “how can you call yourself a Christian?” Have we ever wondered if we are good or bad Christians?  Do we live up to the designation?

Is being a Christian mostly about what we do or mostly about what we don’t do?  Is being a Christian determined by our choices?  Is it all about who we are for and who we are against?

Or perhaps we are being seduced toward a wrong path by these questions?

Consider.  We are Christians by grace alone, by faith alone, by Christ alone.  Our righteousness is in Christ alone. 

Every Christian will say that.  Or at least mouth that.  And then we’ll go back to work, back to the TV, back to the phone call, back to shopping for dinner.

But doctrine as we spout it and life as we live it don’t always intersect.  They mostly run parallel.  They too often are separate circles on our Venn diagram.

And it makes sense that it should be that way.  Grace is a hard notion to keep in our brains because it doesn’t make any sense in our day to day.  School is not by grace. Work is not by grace.  Our relationships are not by grace.  Even churches tend not to actually practice it much.

We know the classic passage and we can boil it down to the essentials and give the answer that will satisfy the Sunday School teacher and the preacher:

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:4-10)

Most of us could list other verses that reinforce the same message. Especially given a good concordance or Google.  But.

We act like it’s all up to us.  We feel it in our guts.  In our bones.  We are certain that we need to prove something.  We still run scared, as if our lives depend on how we act, what we do, what we don’t do.  We worry about getting caught.  We are convinced that we aren’t living like we should, like we need to. That our lives are at least slightly broken, and if we’d only do better then we’d be better.  Hard to figure out what we need to do.  Maybe more Bible reading.  Maybe a class.  Maybe a special study somewhere. A retreat. 

We behave as if we won’t get paid otherwise.  We still fear our failures and sins and worry that we are going to be judged and punished.  We still think we need to do something to fix what we’ve broken, to pay the debt we’ve racked up.  We still believe we are in trouble and that we don’t measure up and that we are not as close to God as we should be.

Because we forget.  Every day, we forget.  We forget that it isn’t up to us.  Not anymore. Never was, in fact.  And that’s the good news.  We are righteous because we are in Christ; we have stolen Jesus’ identity.  Well not stolen.  He gave it to us.  And so our bank account, our credit score, our lives: they are his.  We have his name now as our own:

“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.” (2 Peter 1:3-9)

We’ve spent so long in the dungeon that we forget we aren’t there anymore. If we’d just open our eyes we’d realize it isn’t dark after all.  In the ‘Prisoner of Azkaban,’ Dumbledore says “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” That’s how stupid we are.  Or rather, how forgetful we are. Peter just said we are “nearsighted and blind.”  And it’s why Paul addressed the Christians in Galatia the way he did:

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?”  (Galatians 3:1-5)

So just for today, let’s try to remember rather than forget.  Just for today, let’s try to keep our glasses on instead of forgetting them on the table over there and then wandering about like, as Paul said, “fools.”  Just for today.  We only have to worry about today, after all.  I think Jesus said something about that, too.

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Theology to Come

As a theologian, Bible scholar, science fiction author and fan, I have odd thoughts on a regular basis. What follow are somewhat random thoughts in need of much more contemplation.

The universe we know today is radically larger than that which the authors of the Bible knew, than that which the Church Fathers knew, and what the theologians of the Reformation and early modern era knew.

Yet, if we look at the bulk of theological musings since the burst of information that has become available in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, much of it seems stuck in a geocentric, medieval, small-scale universe.

What adjustments must be made in our understanding of God and the Bible as a result of quantum and relativistic physics, astronomy, geology, biology and neurological and computational science? Those who reject the existence of God will see the question as entirely nonsensical, while many Christians will be tempted to pick up stones or worse, will simply fail to comprehend that any of these questions need to be thought about at all.

But as odd as the following questions may seem, I believe they may affect our understanding of God and his workings.

So. What do we do with the inevitable discovery of both life and intelligence elsewhere in the universe? The Milky Way Galaxy alone contains around 400 billion stars. We now know planets are common. If even one percent of those stars have planets like Earth, that’s 4 billion just in the Milky Way. What of the hundreds of billions of other galaxies just within the observable universe, each of which might contain 4 billion or more Earth-like worlds?

If there are multiple-beyond-comprehension intelligent species scattered through the universe, did their equivalent of Jesus die for their sins? Will it be necessary at some point in the future for theologians to do “comparative” Christianity: discuss the similarities and differences of the incarnation of God on other worlds and the resulting religion? Should we start planning for that eventuality?

Given the size of the universe, why “is God mindful of man” as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 8:4?  Is humanity alone special, or should we assume that God’s mindfulness extends to all sentient beings in the universe? If not, why not?

What effect might neuroscience and computers have on our understanding of the soul? What are we going to do when strong AI becomes a reality? I’d suggest that those who imagine HAL 9000 or its equivalent isn’t ever going to happen are naïve. We need to think about this and come to grips with it now, before someone like Data, Star Trek’s android, appears and starts wondering about the eternal destiny of his soul.

How is the resurrection accomplished? What happens at death? How does God restore us? Does our experience with computers help us understand that? Is the universe like a computer simulation, but with much better graphics? Does he “save” our running programs—our souls—to his flash drive? Is the resurrection thanks to the fact that God has created a backup of each of us?

According to some branches of Christian theology, Christians will, at some future point be “raptured” when Jesus comes back to the Earth. What are the logistics of that if I’m on the International Space Station, or on the Moon, or Mars or in interstellar space? How does the resurrection work if my body is buried on the moon or in orbit? After all, the astronomer Gene Shoemaker’s ashes are already sitting on the moon, and the ashes of several other people are currently in orbit. This is not just a theoretical question.  It is now a real one. Most theological treatments of the resurrection and second coming are hopelessly geocentric and naïve, it seems to me. Perhaps the wording of Mark 13:7 is more literal than most have thought:

“And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

What I’m doing here is just thinking out loud. Asking crazy questions. But that’s what theology is really all about: asking questions and then looking to see if there are answers–and then finding even more questions. 

There is more to doing theology than just reading the Bible. Most theologians recognize that God’s revelation of himself to humanity is not limited to just what is called “special revelation”: the Bible. It also includes his “general revelation”: God’s creation. As the Psalmist wrote, “the heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm 19)

Modern theology must therefore address the ramifications of what we’ve learned from general revelation. With each new discovery, God becomes bigger. When that Psalmist commented about what the “heavens declare” during the first millennium BC, he knew of only about three thousand stars and five planets: all that can be seen with the naked eye on a dark night.

Thanks to modern astronomy, the ancient psalmist’s words have become far more profound and powerful. Today we see a heaven filled with more stars than all the grains of sand on Earth, planets beyond counting, galaxies, super novas, black holes and quasars.

Theology becomes ever harder and the questions ever multiply. Our understanding of theology is still in its infancy.

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