Are All Religions True?

One of the things modern people often say about different religions is that ‘they are all basically the same’: they teach about being a good person, about a higher being of some sort, but all lead to the same place – just different paths to the same thing. While this position sounds good, we must understand that it turns out to not even be close to true, and that’s important because we should be seeking out not what is easy to live with as human beings but what is ultimately true, and lines up with reality.

University of California, Berkley, professor Huston Smith explains, “As soon as the notion of sameness, between the religions, moves beyond vague generalities, that every religion has some version of the Golden Rule, it falls apart on the fact that the religions differ in what they consider essential and nonnegotiable.”[1] Smith is saying that when we dig into any religion we will find contradictory ideas when compared to other religions. This is true about a number of foundational beliefs around which religions are shaped. Here are a couple of examples:

1 – God

Religions differ on their views of who or what God is. Christianity says God is one God in three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), eternally one but eternally distinct. An eternal community, which is why there was love and humility and servanthood, before there was a universe, or people. This is by definition how John can say things like “God is love” (1 John 4:8). You can’t have love without community of some sort, which this view of God allows for. This description of God is known as ‘Trinitarianism’.

Islam and Judaism on the other hand have a Unitarian view of God, wherein there is a strict oneness to God that does not consist of this plurality, or trinity, at all. In fact, both religions see this concept as a heresy. In contrast to Islam and Judaism, Buddhism and atheism says there is no God, while Hinduism says there are hundreds of millions of gods. Which religion is right? Modern western culture says ‘they all are’ and ‘they all teach the same thing’. Clearly we are ignoring the facts, and being irrational, which is the one thing an informed skeptic does not want to be.

 2 – Jesus

Consider also the question of Jesus Christ himself. Christianity says it’s essential that Jesus died to pay the sacrifice for sin, taking on the wrath of God and then rose again from the dead. If these things did not happen, belief in Christianity is “vain”, and useless, and Christians are “still in our sins,” and the most “pitied among men” (1 Cor. 15:13-18). Their view of God, and salvation, is not just different, it is wrong. Islam is vastly different than Christianity in that it says that Jesus didn’t die on the cross at all, and thus, that he did not rise from the dead either.

The reality is: Jesus died or he didn’t die. Islam and Christianity can’t both be true at the same time. There are massive implications on every level of life and civilization to the claims of these faiths and it’s the height of laziness to claim them both somehow true at the same time, even if it is in the name of civility. Someone once said, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ and it is nowhere more clear than in this postmodern effort.

Pluralism in India

When I was in India, we were sitting at the top of a mountain. The team I was leading, and I, were praying together and talking around the campfire and off to the side there was a Hindu man worshipping and praying to Shiva and Vishnu and what he called “the monkey god.” He came and joined us by the fire and told us all about his beliefs and then we told him about Jesus. None of us around the fire that night said, “Hey, both versions of reality are true and reliable at the same time.” That would have been a mockery to our beliefs and to his.

The reality is that our options are that one view is right, or at least more right than the others, or that all religious views that have been developed so far in civilization are possibly wrong, but not that they are all right. That is not only the most irrational position but the laziest.

Steve Turner wrote a poem about the absurdity of this postmodern approach to life:

We believe that all religions are basically the same. They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation. We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him. Reality will adapt accordingly. The universe will readjust. History will alter. We believe that there is no absolute truth except the truth that there is no absolute truth.[2]

Turner’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek as he satirizes the modern approach to truth.

And it should be.

How You Can Change in 2017

This is long post. I like to write four or five paragraph blog posts because I know our attention spans are short, but I also wanted all of this info in one spot. So here is a post that I think will be helpful for the New Year! 

The best book I read this year was James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You LoveThe basic idea of the book is to present the Augustinian model of how we function as human beings versus modern presentations, most importantly the fact that we, even in the church, are pitched a version of ourselves that we are primarily thinking creatures (the power of the mind and all that) and that therefore discipleship and transformation in our lives is primarily about changing and influencing our thinking. Thus, the solution to all of our problems are focused on things of the mind: reading the Bible more, sermons that transfer right information, etc., This seems plausible enough, and in some senses is true. Discipleship is a lot about the mind (Rom. 12:1-3). The very term disciple (mathetes) is derived from the idea of being a learner. But, Smith argues, we learn in far deeper and more profound ways than just our thinking. We make decisions and live life out of other, deeper level, ‘under the hood’ convictions. Some call it our “gut”, others our “heart,” others our “affections”. The Bible talks of Jesus feeling “compassion” for people, and it uses the word splagchnon, literally a feeling that comes from his bowels (Mat. 14:14).

Whatever one calls these feelings and compulsions they are arguably more powerful and more influential on our actions than just our conscious thoughts. So Smith says “we could say that human beings are fundamentally erotic creatures” (You are What You Love, p. 9). Not in the sense of eroticism, but that we are heavily controlled by our desires. We are controlled and driven by pleasure – by what makes us happy, not by what is most rational, or right, in any given moment. And to ignore this fact is tragic if you are looking to change or get better in any way, whether that is simply making new years resolutions (to lose weight, or be more disciplined in your devotions) or the bigger call in life for the Christian: to become more like Christ, to kill sin, and grow in godliness. It means we must go beyond our thinking and start to work that deeper part of ourselves.

Thoughts Aren’t Enough 

The bottom line, Smith says, is that “you can’t just think your way” to right living. A way of life is not arrived at by convincing the intellect alone, but by allure – our wants, and desires. Not just data, whether true or false. In fact, pleasure is likely more influential on our lives than just information. Which is why the culture around us sells us maps of ‘the good life’ that aren’t primarily information based, but appeal to us aesthetically; romantically, not rationally. Think of the car commercials, or the ads for Apple products. It’s not about data and information but about a look, a colour scheme, a feeling. Art, not science. They appeal to our imagination not our intellect.

(ASIDES: First, it is of course not even clear which, the ‘head’ or the ‘heart,’ influences the other first because, as science is now showing us, our brains are influenced by everything else going on in our bodies including our stomachs! Secondly, a point which Smith doesn’t draw attention to but which I think is important to talk about: I think the terms ‘head’ and ‘heart’ and the distinctions of brain versus ‘soul, or gut’, or even ‘intellect’ versus ‘imagination’ are somewhat flawed because we know there is not something called the ‘heart’ aside from the brain. We don’t actually have a ‘soul’ somewhere inside of our rib cage. It is all about our brain. Even our affections, and desires, are brain-oriented things. The point still stands, however, that there is a part of ourselves that is more information/data/intellect driven and a part of ourselves that is more affections/desires/wants driven, both which likely reside in our brain. Once we understand that then we can still talk about those parts of ourselves as ‘heart’ and ‘head’ if we like).

Our Longings are Learned

The next point Smith makes is that our loves, longings, and desires are learned. But how? We often say, through our thinking, and so we need more right information – theological or otherwise, and what we have failed to recognize, Ok, maybe you already knew this, so what I have failed to recognize, is that we learn to love “not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love.” Well then how do we learn to love something? What shapes our desires? I tend to emphasize right thinking, almost exclusively, or at least first, but Smith says, no, it’s not right thinking but right habits, “rituals that form and direct our affections.” These habits, Smith calls “pedagogies of desire”. So, we can’t counter the power of the cultural story over us, he says,

“with didactic information poured into our intellects. We can’t recalibrate the heart from the top down, through merely informational measures. The orientation of the heart happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desire” (p. 25).

So how do we get new habits? Again, we can’t think our way to them, he says, we must habit our way to them! You can’t just think your way to a better golf swing, or to losing weight, or to new tastes. These take certain habits. They are learned. That’s why golf teachers talk about ‘muscle memory’. Muscles that swing and do a certain shape over and over again until a person does it without thinking about it. And over time the habit produces a result which then produces a desire. Like someone starting to run. At the beginning running at 5:00 AM is not fun, but over time, the practice forms a habit from a desired result (literally an addiction to the feeling that the release of certain drugs in the brain gives to the runner). So,

A PRACTICE -> A HABIT -> A WANT

So, Smith says, our discipleship of Jesus is more like a Weight Watchers program, meant to retrain our hunger, than listening to a book on tape (which is what many preachers have made the mistake in thinking it is). If godliness is the end goal, which is all about God not changing what I do but what I want to do than habits are a key part of the way to get there! Our habits end up informing what we want to do.

Who knew?!

And that is how you are going to change this year.

The Bible, raising kids, and temptation

All of this has a thousand applications.

+ You want to start reading your Bible but just can’t get into it. Don’t try to get into it! You aren’t. Just read it. Make it a practice (everyday for 30 days say), and then that will give way to a habit, and over time the habit will create neural pathways forming the desire for more of it.

+ Raising our kids: we not only have to shape our children’s thinking by reading them the Bible at night, or by teaching them the Bible stories, and right doctrine. If we want them to love and follow Jesus, we need to also build into them certain practices, which will then create habits that will shape and create desires in them for more of God.

+ Having victory over sin: Temptation is not just a mental battle. “Because we tend to be intellectuals [we] assume…temptation is an intellectual reality, where some idea is presented to us that we then think about and make a conscious choice to pursue (or not). But once you realize that we are creatures of habit you’ll realize temptation isn’t just about bad ideas or wrong decisions; it’s often a factor of de-formation and wrongly ordered habits” (p. 54).

In other words overcoming temptation requires more than just knowledge, but rehabituation, a re-formation of our loves. How? By new habits that will form and inform that love.

So, how can you change this year? How can you become more like Jesus, or have a better marriage, or lose weight? Start from the bottom, not the top. Train the gut, not the head. Admit you don’t presently feel a particular way about someone or something, that’s ok, start by acting toward them the way you want to feel, and over time it will start to take shape.

Instead of starting by trying to force yourself to want something by thinking about it, reading about it, forcing your brain to want it, change your habits first, into one’s that will over time cause the change you want to want but don’t yet want.

I think that last sentence makes sense, and is the key to the whole thing.

I am excited about the new year, and how my life may change by new habits and rhythms of life that will in turn create in me desires that I have been trying to force myself to just have by sheer will for years.

Dummy.

Two Thoughts on Prayer

Quote

The other day I was pondering the deep difference between our public and private lives – loving God in public versus loving God just because he is God. A couple of major ideas hit me around the same time.

The first was from Charles Spurgeon. He pointed out that Jesus taught his disciples not to preach but to pray, and it hit me that Jesus did this not once, but multiple times (Luke 11; John 13). That our call in life is not to be good preachers, but good pray-ers. This stopped me in my tracks and made me want to work on my prayer life more and more. Let it inspire you too.

The second set of ideas on this same topic hit me from another source. Tim Keller in his book on Prayer, points out that the seventeenth-century English theologian John Owen wrote a warning to popular and successful ministers:

“A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.”

To discover the real you, look at what you spend time thinking about when no one is looking, when nothing is forcing you to think about anything in particular. At such moments, do your thoughts go toward God? You may want to be seen as a humble, unassuming person, but do you take the initiative to confess your sins before God? You wish to be perceived as a positive, cheerful person, but do you habitually thank God for everything you have and praise him for who he is? You may speak a great deal about what a “blessing” your faith is and how you “just really love the Lord,” but if you are prayerless—is that really true? If you aren’t joyful, humble, and faithful in private before God, then what you want to appear to be on the outside won’t match what you truly are.

Just prior to giving his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus offered some preliminary ideas, including this one: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. . . . But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen . . . in secret” (Matt 6:5–6).

The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life.

Q & A Friday: Is there a profile for a church planter?

Hey Mark. I was looking for some advice on church planting. I feel a strong call to plant a church in my city. I was just wondering how do I know if I am called and gifted to start and lead a church?

This is a delicate question for two reasons. First, because I don’t think one size fits all when it comes to church planting. Some planters are more adept at preaching and teaching, and others at caring for people. We need all kinds of different churches to reach all kinds of different people. Second, because it is such a specific question of calling, which is often hard to measure. For instance, when networks evaluate whether a person should plant a church, they are not evaluating whether they are fit for ministry, or being a pastor in general, but planting in particular, which is a whole other question. There were couples Erin and I were assessed with back in 2008 who were told not to plant a church, but that didn’t mean they should leave ministry altogether at all.

Having said that there are things the Bible says about this role which are important to reflect on. In Ephesians 4, Paul says that God has given certain gifts to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers (v. 7-11), what has come to be known as APEST. What are these roles? In their book The Shaping of Things to Come, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch lay them out this way:

The entrepreneur = the apostle (they start new works, are groundbreakers and strategists, who initiate an organizations mission – i.e., missionaries, church planters, para-church leaders, etc.).

The questioner = the prophet (they disturb the status quo, they question the way things are, are theologically deep, and communicate both their questions and their theological answers in a compelling way. They have a deep pining to see holiness around them and to connect people to truth).

The recruiter = the evangelist (they reach new people with the gospel, lead people to Jesus, and rally and inspire people on to mission; they take the message of the organization to those outside and sell it to them).

The humanizer = the shepherd (they love and counsel people well, care deeply for the soul and spiritual well-being of people, love one on one discipleship and relationships; they provide the organizational glue by caring for the individuals inside it).

The systematizer = the teacher (they take concepts and boil them down to simple ideas and sustainable principles for peoples lives, they explain and communicate well, and create sustainable systems for on-going functionality).[1]

In another of his works, Hirsch explains that these roles are not only different from one another but that they actually end up flowing chronologically in how they play out in the world. That each one progressively creates the environment for the next one to be activated:

The APOSTOLIC (a new missionary endeavor, a new church, etc.,) creates the context that gives birth to all the other ministries. It establishes the covenant community, which then leads to the PROPHETIC, which is a ministry that explains what God has to say to a community, and ensures that the holiness of God is honored and truth is respected, which then leads to the EVANGELISTIC, which, now that what God has said/is saying is made clear, one can come into relationship with that God. Without the evangelistic ministry there is no basis for pastoral ministry.

Once people do come to Jesus then the SHEPHERDING/PASTORAL function is initiated. The pastor cares for people to the point that they understand the need for Christlikeness, which is the environment for the TEACHING function, which leads the community and the individual to maturity, understanding and mission.

In light of this then we are in a better place to understand which gift set would best make up a church planter. To undertake the task of starting and leading a missional movement and be able to build the teams to minister to the new people one reaches is done most effectively, not exclusively of course, if a church planter is gifted within the first three categories (APE), with proportional skills in the others (ST).

In the context of a post-Christian context which is opposed to the gospel, and which needs to hear, see, and feel it afresh, one needs to have vision, and competency to move the pieces around the chess board at 30,000 feet, while organizing and inspiring teams of people in a sustainable way (A), have theological conviction/acumen and the gift to call others to repentance, truth, and holiness (P), and have a proven track record of leading people into a saving relationship with Jesus (E).

Once all this foundational, ground level work is done (and is done over and over again), the work of the ST’s takes over in order to grow, disciple, and train up disciples, leaders, those who have been reached by the work and ministry of the APE.

One last caveat: this is not ministry done by one lone ranger. The APE needs to gather around themselves all different types of people and activate them to the mission to reach and train up people, which is the whole point Paul makes in Ephesians 4. We have these gifts “in order to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (v.12). And thus the cycle begins of hopefully a healthy and reproducing organism that is reaching and discipling people in the ways of Jesus.

If you are interested in next steps apply for assessment at C2C Network, an amazing church planting network planting gospel-centered churches across Canada at an amazing rate!

________________________________

[1] Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Hendrickson Publishing: 2003), 175.

Transformation Trios: how they work & the 15 questions.

In light of another pastor/leader I admired years ago having moral failure and being removed from ministry this week by his church, on Sunday I talked about the accountability that I was pursuing in my personal life to help me grow closer to Jesus devotionally, and to help guard against sin and temptation in my life which “so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1-3) – a scary verse if there ever was one. This was based on Jesus teaching about ‘secret sin’ (Matthew 10:26). I also challenged those who make up Village Church to pursue similar relationships/community in their lives. I told them I was going to be starting what my friends church in Amsterdam (Crossroads Church) calls Transformation Trios. I had many people asking to get the information on how this works, so here is the concept if you want to join in:

What is a Transformation Trio?

A Transformation Trio (TT) is a grassroots tool for discipleship and spiritual growth. It is a group of three people that gets together regularly (usually every week) to grow in discipleship and pursue life transformation by sharing what God has spoken to them through reading his Word that week, being accountable to each other, and praying for each other and for those who do not know Jesus yet.

Characteristics:
* A TT meets once a week/every other week for approximately one hour (at a time which works best for all participants).
* A TT is made up of 3 persons of the same gender (because of gender related accountability questions).
* There is no curriculum involved other than the Bible and a list of accountability questions.
* New members will naturally learn as they join an existing group, so no on-going training is required.
* There is no leader in these groups. They are peer based and everyone participates.

*We encourage each group to select a book of the Bible to read through during the week. Together you agree on how much reading to do each week. The number of chapters per week varies per group but ranges from 7 to 30 chapters per week. If the group is reading a book of the Bible with fewer chapters – e.g. James -they may agree to read the book through two or three times in one week.

We believe that real accountability stimulates growth and confessing our sins to each other gives inner freedom and healing (see James 5:16). At each meeting group members ask each another questions which stimulate conversations about character, life-style and confession of sin. This should happen in a safe environment that values honesty, vulnerability, confidentiality, and grace.

The list of accountability questions to ask one another each week are these:

1. How have you sensed God’s presence during this past week?

2. Have you taken enough time to be with God alone in prayer?
3. Have you received a specific answer to your prayers?
4. How did you do in your Bible reading this week?
5. What has God been speaking to you through his Word this week? 6. How can you respond to this?

7. Did you express a loving and forgiving attitude toward others?
8. Have you remained pure sexually?
9. Have you lacked integrity in your financial dealings or coveted something which does not belong to you?
10. Have you taken enough time to rest?
11. Do you need to confess any other sin?
12. Did you pray for your non-Christian friends?
13. Did you share Jesus with someone (in word or deed)?
14. What worries or other issues are you currently facing?
15. What would you like to pray about?

I pray that you can find two people you trust enough to do this with in your life and that you stick with it!

I may have been reading the Gospels wrong my whole life

So tonight I was reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to my middle daughter. We were reading the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and something hit me I had never thought of (God speaks to us from the most interesting places sometimes doesn’t he)? Sally Lloyd-Jones, the writer of the Storybook Bible, makes the point that Jesus could have come down from the cross if he wanted, and that we know he had the power to because we’ve already seen him feed 5,000 people, walk on water, etc. And it dawned on me: what if all those stories – of miracles and impossible deeds – are all a kind of preamble to the real climax to which they have been pointing: the cross, the true and better miracle. And what if those very miracles are recorded for that exact reason: to make us appreciate the cross that much more. No one’s taking his life from him, he’s laying it down of his own accord. No one is keeping him on the cross but him, of his own will, and that’s part of what makes it great. And how do we know this? Because we’ve seen him appear and disappear. We’ve seen him stop storms, and raise the dead, and heal sick people.

People often say that they are surprised by how much space the Gospel writers give to Jesus’ suffering (his last couple of days) saying it seems like a lot. For instance the first half of Mark is about the first three years of Jesus’ ministry and the second half is about just the last few days of Jesus’ ministry (most of which is his last night, his trials and crucifixion).

But maybe the point is the opposite. Maybe they could have spent more time on his redemptive suffering and pain but they wanted to spend time setting up the depth and breadth of that sacrifice by showing us that it didn’t have to be this way. That he was not really a victim of history or just a martyr for a cause but one who could have stopped it all but didn’t, and that’s why the miracle stories exist at all. To tell us that.

All of this would mean that the story of Jesus’ life is not something different than the story of his death, but that the former makes the latter all the greater.

This is a theory of course, and needs more exegetical thought, but it does make me appreciate his sacrifice that much more and hence makes me want to sin less.

And that’s no small feat.

Debunking myths: the church is against science!

If you go back through history, the church and science were at times at odds with one another; those disagreements, however, have been gravely exaggerated. When atheists speak of the church’s persecution of scientists, we hear stories of people being burned at the stake for scientific theories; we hear about Galileo, Copernicus and Giordano Bruno being persecuted by the church for a ‘heliocentric’ view of the universe – the idea that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around – and other such stories. Thrilling dramas, however, they are not true.

Historian David Lindberg speaking about the medieval era, writes, “There was no warfare between science and the church.”[1] Historians are virtually unanimous that there never has been a conflict, and that the science versus religion story is a nineteenth-century fabrication (by such writers as John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White).[2] The mythology of the church vs. science is more informed by famous plays – such as Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galilio, which present the man as a martyr for the cause of science, than actual history. The church did not persecute Copernicus or Bruno or Galileo for scientific theories. Don’t get me wrong, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake; but he “was not executed for Copernicanism but for a series of theological heresies centering on his view of the trinity.”[3] A gruesome reality indeed, but not one based on fear of scientific discovery.

Another modern example of this historical revisionism is the story of the medieval church believing that the Bible taught a flat earth, and then reacting in outrage when science came along and corrected it. Again, this is simply not true. From the time of the ancient Greeks, people knew the earth was round. They observed that the hull of a ship sailing from shore disappears before the top of the mast, and would see the reflection of the earth on the moon during an eclipse.[4] They knew the earth was round. The so-called flat-earth conflict is simply part of nineteenth century propaganda.

And so, Oxford professor Alister McGrath concludes, “The idea that science and religion are in perpetual conflict is no longer taken seriously by any major historian of science…. One of the last remaining bastions of atheism survives only at the popular level – namely, the myth that an atheistic, fact-based science is permanently at war with a faith-based religion.”[5]


 

[1] David Lindberg, “Medieval Science and Religion,” in Gary Ferngren, ed., Science and Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). 70.

[2] Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 85-86.

[3] Quoted in Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity? (Washington: Regnery, Inc., 2007), 104. Italics added.

[4] Ibid., 103.

[5] Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism, 87.

How serving makes us like Jesus

People generally want resurrection without cross. People want to see a great movement of God without personal sacrifice. But that’s not the way it works. When you study revivals and renewal movements throughout history, they have great healings, miracles and social reform, but they are also coupled with great suffering. And one thing that often accompanies those movements is the church being the church in the world versus letting others be the church FOR them. That was the move in the Reformation for instance. The church woke up and realized that they, not just the professional clergy, had been given gifts and a calling by God in the world.

Wayne Cordeiro says:

“People wonder what common denominators there are in those churches that for decades enjoyed the hand of God on their ministries. One quality in particular showed up repeatedly: the ownership that the people of the church took in the ministry. They didn’t wait for a professional or for someone ‘more qualified’ than they. Everyone knew they had a part to play, and they participated gladly. This marks the transition from attendance to ownership, from being consumers to contributors.”

I love that since the beginning of Village Church it has been a movement of people who serve. A church that doesn’t just sit around and consume ‘religious goods and services’ but who give of their time, talent and treasure to serve God in a myriad of ways from Kids ministry, to Community Group leadership to making meals for struggling people. For instance, my wife Erin told me about a Community Group in Village she knows which makes meals in a special way for other families. Once a month they choose a family, and each couple makes a meal for each day of the week for that family to cover 7 meals. That is amazing!

Of course, the serving spirit (which Jesus showed us most potently on the cross, and in his washing of feet in John 13-19) is not true about 100% of our people, which is why we stop every once in a while and do whole Sundays dedicated to laying out the ministry needs and calling people to Step up and Serve, but all in all we are really blessed!

It has been this way since day one when a team of 50 people decided to leave the comfort of the church they knew to start Village Church, where there would be early mornings, tiring and complex work, and a need to disciple new and undomesticated Christians.

I am so thankful for a church that recognizes that they are on a battleship not a cruise liner. Time is short. Life is fragile. People don’t know Jesus, and serving cultivates a reality where people can hear and be transformed by Jesus whether that is formal Sunday stuff or in the fabric of life on any given day in any given space.

Serving is not some safe trade off for the real work of disciple-making as some have said. It is disciple-making in and of itself. For oneself. In it we become more like Jesus who said, “The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

The Uniqueness of the Christian Answer – Pain & Suffering (Part 3)

2015 was a year of a number of tragedies both globally and personally (I lost people I love dearly, and people I know suffered tragedy). How do we understand the meaning of these events, if there is meaning to them? This is part 3 of a few reflections on the question of pain and suffering to end off 2015.

Not a Christian Problem

The challenge of suffering is not a uniquely Christian problem. Every worldview has to deal with it whether you are an atheist or a Hindu. We don’t have space to deal with each and every worldview and how it answers this challenge, except to say I think the Christian answer is the best. The western world struggles with interpreting suffering. There are a number of reasons for this: we see the point of life differently than a large portion of the world. Our lives focus primarily around the pursuit of happiness. In contrast to that, as social theorist Max Scheler writes, an “essential part of the teaching and directives of the great religious and philosophical thinkers the world over has been on the meaning of pain and suffering.”[1]

Every society and worldview seeks to give instructions to its people on how to deal with suffering. Sociologists have compared the various ways different cultures deal with suffering. They have noted that western culture is one of the weakest and ill prepared in history when it comes to dealing with pain. Whether it’s a terrorist attack, a hurricane, or a shooting in a movie theatre – whenever a tragedy hits the western world, we seem unprepared philosophically for it. The most fundamental reason is that our worldview does not offer us an explanation for suffering or show us how to deal with it. In a secular or atheistic worldview, the material world is all there is.

Pain, therefore, has little to no meaningful part to play in our lives. It is always an enemy to be avoided. So, when it hits us, we end up borrowing concepts from others faiths and religions. When the Boston Marathon bombing took place, my Facebook news feed filled up with people offering their ‘prayers’ and ‘thoughts’ to the victims and families. Atheists and agnostics had to borrow language and hope from religious categories because their own story offers little comfort in these times.

At that point, which faith to borrow from becomes important. Many of my friends use Karma language to explain life and events (“what goes around comes around”, etc). On the day of the Boston Marathon bombing and the shootings in Paris, that Karma theology didn’t work – as it would have to blame the victims for their fate – so people borrowed the Christian worldview for the day. “Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful.”[2]

The Suffering God

In Christian theology, the moment of greatest good and glory and love is also the moment of greatest suffering – the cross of Christ. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This is where God is seen loving the world most potently – dying for humanity. The Bible says this was the greatest moment of sacrifice, courage, and love ever to exist. The resource Christianity offers us to deal with suffering in our lives – one that is unique from other worldviews – is a God who Himself suffered. In every other religion, God remains aloof and distant, removed from suffering. Christianity, however, says that God entered in. He suffered. He was tortured. He died. Theologian John Stott tells of a time he was visiting a Buddhist temple. He was staring at a statue of Buddha sitting cross-legged with a philosopher’s grin on his face.

“I wanted to look away and look to see a cross – the bloody, mangled God in the flesh, who became a human being because that is not a removed esoteric philosophy of life, but a self-giving, selfless sacrifice that says ‘I’m with you. I entered into your evil. I took and absorbed the evil onto myself. I suffered for you, so that you wouldn’t have to. I’m not aloof. I’m not distant. I’m in the pain. I’m in the suffering. I took it all on myself so that one day I can redeem it.’”

Christianity says that, while there won’t always be detailed answers as to why evil and suffering befalls us, there is an actual answer to the reality of it: the life and work of Jesus. When we look at Him, we see that the answer can’t be that God doesn’t care. He came and he died an awful death for us. This shows care.

Why did He do this? The answer, Christianity says, is so much deeper than we think. Many say ‘to save us from our sins,’ and, of course, that is true. Christianity goes even further than that however. It says something else which is very unique in the marketplace of ideas. It says that the suffering of the cross was not only about God’s will or plan, but about His very nature. Have you ever wondered why Paul explains the cross of Christ so closely to his discussions about the nature of who God is – His identity (Colossians 1:15-20; Philippians 2:5-11)? It’s because suffering is part and parcel of the very identity of who God is, not just what He does. “If the incarnation of the Son,” Jurgen Moltmann says, “is viewed merely as the functional presupposition of the atoning sacrifice made necessary by sin, then it is only an expression of the saving will of God. It only affects God’s relationship with the world,”[3] and has little to do with who He himself is in his nature.

However, the cross of Christ in the New Testament is more than an atoning sacrifice to save sinners or a response to humanity’s sinful choice. It is also about who God is. Paul is saying: our need was the occasion for the suffering but not it’s only reason.[4] We must grasp the powerful uniqueness of the Christian view: a God who sacrifices and suffers with, for, and because of humanity. He does this, not in spite of His identity, but because of it. He will therefore be “with us” through all our own pain and re-make it in eternity into something we could never imagine (Romans 8:18).

This is the precise point Samwise Gamgee makes to Frodo in the film version of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when trying to convince him to keep pressing on to Mount Doom after all the pain and suffering they have seen:

Sam: It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.

 

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

 

Sam: That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.

Indeed.

 


[1] Max Scheler, “The Meaning of Suffering,” in On Feeling, Knowing and Valuing: Selected Writings, ed. H.J. Bershady (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 98.

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1993), 115.

[4] Ibid.

What about Evolution? – Pain & Suffering (Part 2)

2015 was a year of a number of tragedies both personally (I lost people I love dearly, and people I know suffered tragedy) and globally. How do we understand the meaning of these events, if there is meaning to them? This is part 1 of a few reflections on the question of pain and suffering to end off 2015.

What about Evolution?

In Part 1, I argued the fact that we have categories called ‘evil’ and ‘suffering’. Each act as pointers to God: we wouldn’t have absolute and objective categories called ‘evil’ and ‘suffering’ without an absolute standard (God Himself). The atheist response to this argument is such that, as a species, we got our values and ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ from our evolutionary development. Our moral compass developed in our brain circuitry over hundreds of thousands of years based on what was best for our tribe and our family, and what helped us survive in a particular environment with the goal of passing on our genes, etc. There are detailed reasons why this explanation doesn’t work. For now, a few quick thoughts.

First, we have morals that are contrary to evolutionary development as human beings. Loving our enemies, for instance, makes little sense from a purely naturalistic point of view, as does secretly giving to charities, and a host of other selfless acts. Second, and more interesting, if evolutionary theory is true, then, as many philosopher’s have pointed out, we can’t actually trust any of our convictions around what is ‘evil’ and what is ‘suffering’. Why? Because we only hold these ideas as remnants from past generations and what they were forced to believe in order to survive and flourish at any given moment, not because they are necessarily ‘right’ or ‘true’. Charles Darwin admitted this himself, in a haunting confession, saying that he couldn’t trust his own conclusions about the world because he couldn’t trust the way he came to those conclusions. He says:

“Within me the horrid doubt always arises, whether the convictions of a man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”[1]

The answer, if naturalistic evolution were true, would be a resounding no. We couldn’t trust these convictions. So then, just because a person says something is ‘evil’ doesn’t make it true; it may just be a misfiring of their cognitive faculties. Were the actions of that child abuser, that political leader, or that murderer ‘wrong’? Who is to say really? My convictions may just be saying that for the sake of my own survival, being driven by my selfish gene.

Furthermore, and even more fascinating, is this (and we are about to go deeper down the rabbit hole, so hold on): if all reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection itself? To suggest that the only reason our belief-forming faculties help us form ideas about the world – for the purpose of survival and to give comfort – is to suggest that there is no actual truth to these beliefs at all. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga agrees, and concludes that “[it] is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It is improbable that they provide us with…true beliefs over false.” [2] The problem, of course, is that the same distrust has to include all beliefs, including all conclusions of evolutionary theory and Darwinism itself.

The same cognitive faculties that we can’t trust in regard to our thoughts about ‘God’, ‘evil’ or ‘right and wrong’ are the same ones that cause us to conclude that evolution is true, so we can’t trust those convictions either. In other words, if evolutionary theory is right, we can’t actually trust evolutionary theory! “Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason [i.e. to prove evolution] even as it destroys it.”[3]


[1] Charles Darwin to W. Graham, July 3, 1881, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (1897; repr., Boston: Elibron, 2005), 1:285.

[2] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, xiv.

[3] Ibid.