Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Introduction: Decision Making and the Will of God - Answers

This post was brought on by the beginning by a comment my brother in law made, and my subsequent response, to an older post of mine, entitled “God and Your Job.” If you have not done so already, please take the time to read this post and the subsequent comments as they will give a better handle on where I’m coming from on these subjects.

In addition, as with all of my posts, I wrote it in order to help me think through an issue that is troubling me at the moment, and I greatly appreciate the insight of all Christians into this issue whether you agree or completely disagree. Maybe you can add something I have never thought of, or perhaps you understand where I have made an error in my thinking. Either way, I appreciate all feedback.

God and Your Job was a vehicle to present, in part, my understanding of the Biblical teaching on God’s will and Christian decision making, two inexorably linked subjects. The topic is a hot one for me as I have deep and thoroughgoing disagreements with modern evangelicalism on this matter. In my opinion, the modern church’s teaching on this question breeds deep confusion, pseudo-Christian mysticism, and genuine bondage to doubt and loneliness among many believers. In short, the almost universal understanding of these subjects presents a shallow and impoverished picture of God’s will, His sovereignty, and His love for and response to us.

Aside: If you would like to understand my view on the duel subjects of God’s Will and Christian decision making in full, please read ‘Decision Making and the Will of God’ by Dr. Garry Friesen, or listen to the lectures of the same title by Greg Koukl, founder of Stand to Reason. If you are genuinely interested in hearing those lectures or reading the book, I have both and would be more than happy to let you borrow either.

When Christians face a decision where no best choice is clearly evident, we are taught to respond in many different ways; We ask God to show the choice He wants for us; We wait to see if we “feel a peace” about one of the options before us; We interpret “open and closed doors” as indicators of God’s will; We look for “confirmations” in favor of one choice or the other; We even sometimes put out “fleeces,” a la Gideon, in an effort to get God to reveal His will on the matter.

The problem is that none of these responses appear to be taught in the Bible as a means of decision making, and the one approach that is clearly taught is missed completely. I am referring to what Dr. Garry Friesen has called, The Way of Wisdom, for lack of better term. Allow me to (very) briefly outline this teaching:

  • God does not have an individual plan, His so-called “Individual Will,” laid out for every person that we only have to discover, piece by piece, as we move through life.
  • God does have a “Sovereign Will,” but this is mostly unrevealed to us and we don’t need to know it anyway, as there is no way for us to thwart it or to intentionally bring it about. God’s sovereign will will come to pass, no matter what.
  • God does have a clearly and thoroughly revealed “Moral Will,” which every person is obligated to obey.
  • We should not expect (or even seek after) personalized guidance from God for any decision we are faced with. The key word here is expect; occasionally, as happened in the Bible, God does break in to provide detailed guidance to individuals.
  • When God does provide guidance there several things we note from the Biblical narrative about the nature of these communications:
    • It’s rare – We only a handful of examples of God speaking directly to an individual, spread out over a period of 6000+ years.
    • It’s unexpected – The instruction from God was never requested by the individual who received it.
    • It’s clear – The message is always unmistakable as anything other than a message from God.
    • It’s supernatural – In every example, God breaks in to our physical world in some way to communicate and authenticate His message.
    • It often goes against wisdom – If the directions from God did not otherwise appear to be an unwise course of action, there would be no need for Him to break in to provide the direction.
  • We are told to seek after genuine wisdom.
  • We should employ wisdom, expediency, and God refined desires in making decisions, as we are admonished over and over in Bible to do.

When these Biblical principles are taught to those who have absorbed what both Dr. Friesen and J.I. Packer refer to as the “Tradional View” (despite it’s relative newness), commonly several questions and objections are raised:

  1. “Are you saying that God doesn’t care what I do?”
  2. “Are you saying the Spirit can’t work in my life?”
  3. “If what you’re saying is true, what’s the purpose of prayer?”
  4. “Aren’t you putting God in a box?”

As I have written this post, it has developed into something different than I originally intended. I had originally planned to write exclusively about prayer, but as this piece has developed, I see that rather it’s going to be an introduction to several posts on my thoughts and understanding of the Biblical teachings on Prayer, the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, What God wants from each one of us, and what kind of ideas about Christianity are we “allowed” to teach.

Thanks for reading. Hopefully I will get the next post, probably on prayer (seeing as it was what I wanted write about in the first place) up soon.

Monday, April 21, 2008

No Loving God

In a recent hour of Dennis Prager’s radio show, Bart Eherman, professor and author of many books critical of Christianity, was the guest brought on to discuss belief in God. During the discussion, Mr. Eherman articulated what may be the most classic argument against the God of Judaism and Christianity.
"In the Judeo-Christian tradition, people have typically made three assertions [1) God is all powerful. 2) God is all loving. 3) There is suffering.]. Each one of which seems to be true on it’s own, but when you put them together there seems to be some kind of contradiction. The reason it creates a problem is because if God is all powerful then he is able to do anything that he wants, and if he’s all loving then he doesn’t want people to suffer and yet there is suffering. Why did this world have to be created in such a way as to cause such suffering…there is nothing written into the rules of the universe that says the world has to be this way.”
Apparently, to the atheist/skeptic this argument is very convincing, judging from the frequency with which it is raised.

I bring up this little episode because there is one thing this particular argument demonstrates very effectively, unfortunately for people like Eherman it’s not that the God of the Bible is rationally inconsistent, but rather that otherwise intelligent and well-educated people are not immune to believing wholly foolish things.

The argument, as Eherman correctly posits it, relies entirely on three assumptions:
1) The understanding of what “all-powerful” means.
2) That one knows what God would do in a certain situation.
3) Related to 1), that the world could function differently than it does.

I will take 1) and 3) together since I believe them to be related. Many people, Christians included, labor under the impression that being “all powerful,” or “omnipotent” as the Bible puts it, means that any being who possessed that quality, i.e. God, could do anything. This is simply not true.

The problem arises because most people confuse power with ability. Some Christians may want to write me off after they read the next sentence, but please hear me out. God is limited in His ability, not in His power; there are things that He cannot do. He cannot do anything against His own nature (unloving, unjust, unrighteous, etc.) nor can he do anything irrational (He can’t create a square-circle, for instance).

This brings me to the third point, that the world could function differently than it does. Possibly. But theologians have argued for millennia that for God to create a creature (man) that was truly in His image that creature must be capable of a number of qualities, love among them. For love to be genuine it must be freely given, there is no such thing as forced love. Thus for man to be made in God’s image and to love Him, man required the ability to reject God and engage in behavior disobedient to His laws. We call this disobedience immorality which often results in suffering. Theologians and philosophers have long understood that for man to be genuinely created in God’s image, the world could not other than it is.

Point 2) is far easier to clear up than even 1) and 3). How do we, with our limited understanding of the world, claim to know what a being such as the Judeo-Christian God would do in any given situation? In reality, all Mr. Eherman has done is tell us what he would do with limitless power, but with incredibly finite foreknowledge and understanding. This is truly incredible arrogance.

Sorry Bart, the old argument doesn't wash. If you want to indict the Bible for inconsistencies, then you need to do so on it’s terms and not pour your own presuppositions into the text.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What is a Christian to Say?

The famous British philosopher and noted atheist, Bertrand Russell, asked the following question of Christianity in his book ‘Why I am Not a Christian’: What is a Christian to say when seated at the bedside of a dying child?

For many atheists and agnostics, this question is a powerful one. They see it as striking at one of the core belief of Christianity – that God all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly loving. Would not the fact of a child dying of leukemia, for instance, have to contradict one of those beliefs? Because the child will die, and thousands upon thousands do die all the time, then if there is a God He must be deficient in one or more of those three areas (I will address this precise objection in another post).

However Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig was able to turn the question around and answer it in a brilliant and satisfying way: What is the atheist to say when he’s seated at the bedside of a dying child? (Tough luck?).

His observation is powerful. For the atheist, that child was dealt a terrible draw in life’s lottery. Oh well, that’s just the way things go. For the Christian, we acknowledge that life is full suffering, nothing about our beliefs shy away from that fact, the Bible clearly teaches us to expect that. But it goes so far beyond the transient nature of this life! That child can know that death is not the end of the line, that that child, through the grace of the Father and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, can expect to raised to life again and live forever with God and His followers. That at such a time God will address all injustices and all wrongs will be made right. What a powerful message.

P.S. For another brief post on why the problem of evil and suffering doesn't contradict the concept of a good, loving, and powerful God, see this post.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Things I Learned on the Train

I used to ride the “Coaster” to and from work every day, a trip from the North County area of San Diego into the city of San Diego itself; about a 50 minute ride. Surrounded by professionals commuting back and forth everyday, the train car is fertile ground for interesting discussion, at least when I sit near someone interested in talking. Twice I have had very interesting conversations with an older gentleman, an aggressive atheist who claimed to be writing a book that would put the final nail in the coffin of Christianity.

I would like to take a few moments today to focus on tactics; what did I do right during these conversations? What did I do wrong? Hopefully, I (and you) can learn a little bit through this self-examination on my part and be better prepared next we are faced with a similar opportunity.

In thinking over the conversations, I have identified one primary misstep that I made several times throughout the discussion: I allowed him to dominate the conversation. I don’t mean that he spent most of the time talking, but rather that I spent most of my time responding to his claims rather than making him work as hard as he worked me.

San Diego County In conversations such as this one, the gentleman I was debating is known as a “steamroller.” The general M.O. of a steamroller is to ask a question, listen to the answer for a few moments and then either interrupt with his own thoughts on the subject, cutting the other person off, or ask a completely new question, without responding to anything the other has said or allowing him (me in this case) to finish the thought he had begun.

My “opponent” was a classic steamroller who jumped from topic to topic, the gospels aren’t reliable, the genealogy of Joseph is contradictory, the two versions of the ten-commandments are different, various failings of early church writers, morally problematic passages in the Law, without letting me finish a single thought or ever responding to any of the arguments I made. What can one do if caught is a conversation like this?

The answer, in hindsight, is perfectly clear.

I have spent the last third of my life studying history, culture, theology, textural criticism and philosophy - in short apologetics, and was well prepared for most of my fellow conversationalist’s questions; I felt that I gave very good responses to most of them. However, by allowing him to control the topics, I let him get away from arguments without ever truly engaging them.

I should have taken control of the situation. Allowing the atheist or skeptic to control conversations is one of the most common mistakes that Christians make. It always goes like this: The atheist makes a claim. The Christian does an enormous amount of heavy lifting in the arenas of Scripture, History, Culture, Archeology, etc. to refute the claim. The atheist makes a new claim and the process is repeated until the Christian doesn’t have a satisfactory response and the atheist claims victory.

I should have kindly and politely interrupted the gentleman, saying something to the effect of, “Excuse me, but you claimed that the events of Jesus’ life, as reported in the Gospels are identical to many of the events in the life of the Pagan deity Mithra. I have demonstrated that this simply is not the case. What do think?” In other words, politely request that he finish the conversation that he began. This is not rude, or aggressive; it is asking him to do the courteous thing and respond to my comments on his original claim. Not only is it respectful for him to address my comments, but his failure to do so allows him to skate through the conversation without doing any of the intellectual heavy lifting.

In thinking back on the conversations, I believe that I did two things right in particular.

The first thing that anyone must know, particularly Christians as we are always hot to defend Christianity, is that the one who makes the claim bears the burden of proof. For example, while engaged in another conversation with an atheist, he made the claim, “Belief in God is irrational.” What many Christians do, and what I used to do, at this point is launch into a full scale argument demonstrating why this claim is false. Instead, the right response is to say, “Oh really? What do you mean?” and then to wait.

You see, my friend made a claim, but if he can’t back it up with evidence or an argument, why should I (or you) have to put yourself through all the trouble of refuting it. In addition, allowing him to expand on and defend his claim lets you know exactly how you should address it. Maybe he has a specific beef with the rationality of belief in God that you might miss completely if you just launch into a full fledged defense of it.

This occurred several times during my conversations on the train, and thankfully I recognized them and bounced that ball right back into my friends court with a simple, “What do you mean by that?”

The second thing I did right, on several occasions, was to recognize when an a claim was irrelevant. In my second conversation with this atheist gentleman he kept bringing up examples of self-professed Christians who have engaged in gross immorality during some time in their life after openly accepting Christ. It should be immediately apparent to everyone that immorality or criminality in the lives of certain self-professed followers of Christ has little to do the main topic we were discussing; namely the reality of God and the truth claims of Jesus and the Bible.

I thank God that he gave me the insight during these conversations to not fall into the trap of defending or rejecting the imperfect lives of certain believers, but to simply point out that Pope so-and-so had multiple children out of wedlock and murdered his rivals says nothing about the truth of Jesus, only that we human beings are sinful (which the Bible points out numerous times itself).

Two closing thoughts: Some Christians object the term ‘tactics’ when thinking about how we should engage unbelievers in conversations; they believe the use of rhetorical tactics is somehow tricking the unbeliever or is unchristian in some way. I disagree, tactics, when used fairly, are simply the wise application of knowledge in a conversation. All Christians should be able to condone that.

Secondly, many Christians question the value of discussing apologetics with hardened atheists. They claim that we should just give them the gospel and let them do with it what they will, allow God to work on them. This is true, we do need to give everyone the gospel and God will work on them; but some, like the gentleman on the train, have erected mental road blocks to God which need to be torn down before they can genuinely accept the gospel message. God often uses other believers to accomplish this.

As I was getting off the train, this man thanked me for the conversation and then said something that floored me: “I have never spoken with a Christian believer like you before.” This man has gone his whole life, apparently, believing that Christians are irrational and must ignore science, history, and culture in addition to doing mental gymnastics to get around supposed Biblical contradictions. In me, by the grace of God, he saw a follower of Christ who doesn’t do any of those things, one who didn’t fit his mold. Maybe, just maybe, his first mental road-block has fallen away.