Friday, July 02, 2010

The Problem of Evil

I'm slowly reading "The Doctrine of Sin and Redemption" by Henri Blocher, and the chapter on the problem of evil (the first chapter, and only one I've read so far) was interesting.

He starts with three biblical principals that lay the foundation for assessing our attempts at answering the problem of evil:

1) Evil is completely, radically, and absolutely bad (or evil). We should never diminish the wickedness of evil or the horror of its effects. God hates evil.

2) God is completely, radically, and absolutely sovereign. We should never minimize his resoluteness in making all things happen, both in the big picture and the smallest details. "Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps." (Psalm 135:6 ESV)

3) God is completely, radically, and absolutely good. He is never complicit with evil, nor does he ever approve of it.

Generally, he says, our attempts at resolving the problem of evil reflect some biblical truth as seen in one or two of these three principals, but at the same time minimizing or outright denying the remaining principal(s).

He set forth some of the classic representations of each of these three emphases. The reformed position--God allowed evil to enter into the world because he saw, in his infinite power and wisdom, that His defeat of evil would bring Him more glory than any other possible world He could have created. The free will position--evil entered into the world because man has a completely free will, and man has a free will because ultimately, if his choice of loving God didn't come from his own free agency, it wouldn't be love at all. And lastly, the least common view--that God had to create evil to be complete. Without evil, according to this view, God would be like Hall without Oates, or peanut butter without jelly, or yin without get the picture. Obviously, this last view can't be held by anyone who adheres to a traditional evangelical set of beliefs because it makes evil a part of God, i.e. God is part evil.

What I appreciated the most about Blocher's position, was that he didn't want to abandon the three very obvious biblical principals that he cited (Evil is absolutely evil, God is absolutely sovereign, and God is absolutely good) for the sake of having a nice, clean, easily resolved doctrine of evil. Instead, he prefers to guard the mystery of the details. After all, the reformed position tends to minimize the pain in suffering and the fact that suffering at the hands of evil men is the result of evil itself, an evil that God hates with a pure hatred, though He remains in control at all times. The free will people tie God's hands just for the sake of keeping theirs free, though the scriptures are replete with examples of the contrary. And obviously, who could dare say that God is in Himself evil, as if it were a necessary part of his existence?

So, I'm resolved to try to look at the world and all of it's wickedness--encountered mostly in my own heart--through the lens of these three biblical principals instead of through the lens of my traditionally reformed doctrine. When I see evil, I can't deny that it is 1) absolutely, positively evil, 2) it is not out of the control of God's sovereign, loving, and protecting hand, and 3) God hates it, and it is absolutely contrary to the perfectly good God I find in the scriptures.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Zombie Evangelism

The gospel is at the same time much simpler and much more complicated than we make it. When a suicidal prison guard saw the fruit of the gospel in the lives of his prisoners and asked them, "what must I do to be saved?", they said, "believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved." When the Apostle Paul sums up the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, he basically says, "Christ died for our sins, was buried, then rose again--and a lot of people saw him after." It is a message that doesn't demand a lot from us intellectually.

It's easy to understand.

If you want to know God, believe in Christ's death, burial, and resurrection for your sins. Period. No jumping through hoops or going through red tape to get to heaven--just faith.

But at the same time, the gospel is complicated. We tell people to believe in the Lord Jesus, while all the while knowing that they are incapable of following our advice. The spiritually dead don't respond to spiritual truths, in much the same way that our dead goldfish don't flush themselves down the toilet when we tell them to. In a way, every time we share the gospel, we are doing Zombie Evangelism. I can tell a corpse to get up and walk as many times as I want, but unless life reenters their body, something I'm not able give them, they will remain dead.

"And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked...." (Ephesians 2:1)

But I think God designed it that way for many reasons. First, when we are powerless to make the dead come to life, He gets all the glory. After all, we try and try to convince people of their lostness and need for Jesus, but they remain stubbornly ignorant. So when God steps in after we have exhausted all our abilities, efforts, and strategies, we have to stand and say, "Lord, you are amazing."

Second, the more we grasp this concept--that we are powerless to convert people--the more we learn to depend on God in our efforts to share the gospel. Notice that I said 'powerless' and not 'helpless.' We are powerless. There is nothing we can do to make someone experience the new birth. But we are not helpless. In fact, the more we see we are powerless, the more we see how much help we have in God. The concept is: a continually diminishing sense of self-sufficiency that is replaced by an increasing awe at the all-sufficiency of God.

Third, as our consciousness of the first two ideas grow, we are freed to share the gospel with more boldness and to share it more frequently. As I realize that dead sinners are brought to life only by the soul resurrecting power of the creator of the universe, I become more confident in my witness. I mean, who is bigger than God. Or more intimidating. I'm the one with all the power behind me. Also, when I see my great need and dependence on God in evangelism, I am free to share it often. After all, the closer I come to God, the more I see how much He loves me, and how He humbled Himself even to the point of dying on the cross in order to give me life. If that is true, everything that matters is already mine and I've got nothing to lose. No amount of persecution or ridicule could ever undo the fact that Christ died to make me, counted among His enemies, on of His own.

Fourth, acknowledging God's sovereignty in evangelism frees us to be a lot less critical of other evangelists. Namely the ones who don't see the complexity of the gospel. This is where I am trying to grow. When Paul was in prison, there were a lot of people who were sharing the gospel just to spite him. Maybe they were sharing in a way that he didn't particularly like, so they took advantage of his imprisonment to prove to him that it could work. Maybe they wanted recognition, and since Paul was the biggest thing around in the church, they used his tribulations to gather their own following. But whatever the case, Paul was just glad they were sharing the gospel. Wow. I want to be like that someday.

So, we can take heart knowing that God uses us to share the gospel for His glory, and that He empowers us to do so by His strength. And because of this we are liberated to be bold and freely share it, and to be encouraged by those who would do it by different means than us.

And at least the people we're sharing with, though they may be the living dead, aren't trying to eat us.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Discerning Love, or, Loving Discernment

As I've been going through 2 Timothy with the youth from my church, a few subjects have come up over and over. Boldness in sharing the gospel. Patiently enduring suffering. The importance of knowing the scriptures. Repeatedly, Paul talks about these same subjects in different situations and relationships that Timothy finds himself in.

Paul encourages Timothy to boldly face his timidity, reminding him to recall that it is the power of God's Spirit that will face his opponents, and not Timothy's own strength. He urges Timothy to suffer in his labor to preach and teach in the same way that a soldier, an athlete, or a farmer would suffer to accomplish their goals. He also emphasizes the importance of having sound doctrine and knowing the scriptures as he explains how it is that Timothy should confront the false teachers he will find within the church--with scripture and with gentleness.

But this last point, or at least our modern interpretations of it, is a bit of a mystery to me. We often hear people say either, "you've got to share the truth in love, but you still have to love," or, "you've got to share the truth in love, but you still have to share the truth." These statements represent a deeper problem that has come to plague the church, namely that somehow, we've managed to create two mutually exclusive categories--truth and love. Or, as they are often called, head and heart.

How is it that we have come to think that our minds and our hearts can be separated? Are we really supposed to believe that human beings are made up of two different and completely unrelated parts that are constantly fighting for control? Think Knight rider, except Kit and Michael just fight over who gets to drive.

Basically, this is what we experience in the church today. 'Intellectuals' clamoring for the attention and recognition that their high grades and pocket protectors kept them from in school, and 'poets' who are dying to show the world how emotional liberty can free them from the chains and oppression of logic. Too often God is reduced to being either a cold and numb equation or a flighty hippie going around and giving everyone sympathy hugs.

Paul didn't make this distinction, however. He stressed the importance of doctrine and he stressed the importance of love. For him, you couldn't separate the two. They go together. In chapter 2 of 2 Timothy he says, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." Timothy is to demonstrate his faithfulness by knowing and rightly understanding the scriptures, and by correcting those who err with that knowledge (v. 15; 4:2). Later in the same chapter Paul says, "And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness." (v. 2:24) Timothy will need to confront and correct people, but he should be gentle as he does it.

So, we see these two ideas which are so commonly, yet mistakenly, set against each other, here working together. Paul wasn't scared of sounding 'heady' or 'intellectual.' And he wasn't scared of being nice to even the greatest of heretics, though he does warn Timothy and Titus to not engage in ongoing controversies with false teachers. That's another post.

But Paul shows us in Philippians that love and knowledge can't be separated, and in fact, they work together. "And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God." (Phil 1:9-11)

Four things jump out at me in these verses. First, as I've been saying, love and knowledge cannot be separated. He prays that as their love grows, that their knowledge and application of that knowledge would grow as well. Actually, I prefer to say that their love can't grow unless their knowledge and discernment increase as well.

Second, he says that the desired result of this increase of love/knowledge/discernment is to be able to approve what is excellent. We grow in our capacity to love so that we will be able to tell what is true and what is false. Again, notice that love is leading to an increased ability to think, but not just as an abstract end-in-itself mental strong man competition, but with the goal shepherding. Approving what is excellent is meant to protect the church from following false teachers.

Third, there is an added result from growing in love and knowledge, namely, that when we "approve what is excellent" we prepare ourselves for the day of Judgement. Learning makes us holy, or it should, at least. If the knowledge we are attaining isn't making us holy, or if it's leading us toward blunt criticism (not to be confused with discernment) and bitterness, then it's not real knowledge. After all, 'knowing' renders us "pure and blameless."

Fourth, as love and knowledge grow, resulting in an increased discernment of the truth that purifies us, God is glorified. When we learn true things that cause us to grow in our capacity to love and be holy it is a worship experience. God is praised and glorified. In the church today, some look down on learning as if we won't need our brains when we get to heaven. But heaven won't be a never-ending Passion concert (Passion Infinity) with all of our worship 'heros' leading us in song. It will, however, be an eternity of using all our gifts, talents, knowledge, etc. to continually increase our understanding of--and therefore worship of--Jesus. That's right, eternity will be a perpetual study on the infinite everything of our Savior, and we will never run out of fresh reasons to give Him worship. So, this life is sort of like practice. We train ourselves now for what we will be doing for eternity--using every faculty to worship Christ forever.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Rare Wisdom of (First) Kings

More and more I am disappointed by politicians and world leaders. Martin Luther was also really disappointed by the way "christian" rulers led their kingdoms. He always remembered that all people are no-good-rotten liars--even the best of us. This is what he said about the subject (my translation from French):
"The Prince should look after his subjects and do it with all his heart. This is what he does while he turns all of his thoughts toward how he can be useful to them and serve them, and not think like this: the country and and people belong to me, I will do whatever pleases me. But on the contrary: I belong to the country and to the people and I have a duty to do what is useful and good for them. I shouldn't seek how I might raise myself up and dominate them, but how they could be given shelter and protected in peace. You might say: Who would still want to be a Prince? Because with principles and duties like these the Prince would be the most miserable person on the earth, and would count on hardships, difficulties, and displeasure! What would become, then, of the royal entertainment, of dances, of hunting, gaming, and other mundane pleasures?"

Then just tonight I read Solomon's request for wisdom from God (1 Kings 4:8-10):
"'And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant King in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?'

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this."

If only every ruler had this same humility and desire to govern his people well!