Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Beautiful Paradox

There are some moments that you just have to take when they come along.  Do you know what I mean?  Have you ever had a moment come along that just seems tailored for you, personally?  The moments I'm talking about are times like a friend asking if anyone happens to have a glue stick on them, and you just happen to carry glue sticks with you, for no reason other than, "someone might need one."  I'm reminded of one of those moments I had in Louisville.

We were discussing Scripture, and how sometimes we come across something that seems to be a contradiction, but upon further reflection isn't.  In order to explain the concept our pastor decided to remind the class (it was in Sunday school) that these are what we generally call "paradoxes."  If, for whatever reason, you are unfamiliar with the term it means what I just explained: something that appears to be a contradiction, but isn't necessarily.  Its a good term, particularly because there are several paradoxical statements in Scripture.  But I digress.

As he was attempting to get the class used to the term he asked, "Does anyone know what a paradox is?"  Now, this was one of those moments for which I live.  I love the odd words of the English language.  In fact I try to regularly increase my vocabulary, because there is such a rich diversity of terminology available to us who speak English.  Thus, of course I knew what a paradox was, even if very few members of the class were familiar with the term.

Because I knew the term, and because no one else was speaking and I could tell some people were a little embarrassed to admit they didn't know the term, I had to immediately speak up.  So I did.  As my pastor was getting ready to explain the concept I said, "I know what a paradox is.  A paradox is two doctors."  Did I mention I also love the Marx brothers and particularly enjoy the banter between Groucho and Chico?

While my wise crack didn't get much of a chuckle (I got a few smiles) the idea of paradox made more of an impact on those in the church.  And for good reason, paradoxes are important to the Christian faith.

Think about just a few of the paradoxes we must embrace to be Christians: success is often measured by persecution, only by dying to ourselves can we find life in Christ, only by ceasing to attempt to earn our position before God through our works can we find a hope of peace in the work he has done for us, even the symbol of our hope and the power of our faith is an instrument of torture and murder.  Our faith is one where it seems that logic would lead us to an exact opposite conclusion of how to attain righteousness.  What man would say that only by agreeing to die daily can a man actually have any hope of life?  Who would have concluded that the idea that God had forgiven all of our unrighteous deeds, past, present, and future, could lead to a moral revolution that would inspire men to serve and love others more than themselves?  Our God is greater than we can imagine still, because he does his great works through the most insignificant of people: us.

Though we look poor, God says we have great wealth in heaven.  Though we are broken, God says we are to be the healers of others.  Though we are people from many lands and languages, God says we are all one family.  Though we are often persecuted, God says we are to be the most peaceful people of all.  Though we are often condemned for our faith, we are the only ones who enjoy true freedom.

I know that the American church does not experience the same poverty of other churches.  We do not experience the same persecution, and we are not usually imprisoned for our faith.  We live in a land that has been different than others for over 200 years, and we can praise God for that.  But, we have also failed to be the integrated church we could have been, we have failed to be a people broken by our own iniquities and the iniquities of our nation far more often than we have embraced the brokenness to which God has called us.

Yet, our God is still a God of paradoxes.  That church which has been most unfaithful can still become the most faithful.  God's Word is described as powerful and living, and as our God still lives, he can still do miracles.  We are not a people without hope, no matter what our current circumstances may be.  For no matter what confronts us, our God is still the controller of the universe, and our circumstances come from his hand.  We can praise him in times of ease, and sing of his goodness in times of suffering.  Let us embrace the God of paradoxes, the only true God, who turns defeat into victory, and brings eternal life from the death of his son on the cross.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Christian Guilt

In Hebrews 9:13-14 we read, "For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God."  We, are no longer bound by guilt, by shame, or by trying to earn salvation before God.  That also means that we, who are in Christ, are no longer bound to try and redeem ourselves before men.  If God has forgiven us our sins, then what can a man say to bring shame upon us?  We, who stand washed in the blood of Christ, have a perfect forgiveness, no one can hold any sin against us, because all our wrongs have been paid for by the perfect Lamb of God.

Before I go on, I do want to say that this forgiveness does not mean that we are not responsible for the wrongs we have committed against others on earth.  A murderer who comes to faith may be forgiven by God, but to claim before the authorities, "I'm innocent of this murder because Christ has forgiven me" is just foolishness.  Yes, we may be able to stand before God and have bold assurance that he will not hold our sins against us, but if we refuse to seek the forgiveness of those we have wronged, or if we refuse to go before the authorities and pay for our crime, then we are still sinning in that we are not submitting to that authority which God has placed over us.  The forgiveness of Christ does not change our past, it makes us a new creation, so that we have an assurance of salvation before God, and a confidence of our forgiveness even when men may condemn us.  Worldly condemnation does not mean we must bow under the burden of guilt, but it means that we must take responsibility for what we have done.

This forgiveness should affect us deeply.  We should be able, and willing, to go to those who have been wronged, acknowledge that they have been wronged, and then tell them that we want to make right what we have done.  We may not have money, but we can help with time and with many other resources that are available to us.  What we have confessed before God though, we do not need to be embarrassed to confess before those who know they have been wronged, but in humility we can show that Christ really is living in us by how we live our lives.

I bring this up because I look around much of the deep South in America today and I realize that as of  yet there has not been racial reconciliation for wrongs that occurred 150 years ago.  I had family on both sides of the slavery issue, and I had family on both sides of the treatment of American Indians, so I understand that this is long standing and deeply painful issue.  But, we who are Christians can take the steps to begin reconciliation at least within our churches.  We do not need to be a divided people with black churches and white churches where "different worship cultures" keep us separated.

Racial differences seem to make a lie out of what Scripture says, that in Christ there is neither slave, nor free, male nor female, Greek nor Jew.  I recognize that Paul is not talking in absolutes in that section of Scripture, as we certainly see that men and women do not become androgynous when they become Christians.  But, Paul is saying that the forgiveness we have through Christ unifies us all under him, so that when I look to my brother or my sister, I should see an image of Christ, a part of his body, not a black man or a white man, not an Asian woman or a Hispanic woman.  As we continue to divide our churches based on racial and social lines, we continue to perpetuate the system that brought about such guilt, lasting until less than a generation ago.

Slavery may have been ended with the defeat of the South in 1865, (though it was not officially outlawed in all Northern states until a little later) but the Jim Crow laws that sprang up after the end of Slavery continued into the 1960s.  The racial divisions of the South were not done away with until after both of my parents were teenagers or young adults.  Even at that I can remember my grandmother using rather incorrect language in reference to people of different races, not because of any animosity she may have felt, but because that was simply the vocabulary with which she grew up.  The harm done by the American system of slavery has been long lasting, and it will not be quickly forgotten.  The fact that many people still make quite a living off of racial tensions should demonstrate to us that racial reconciliation still has some distance to go.  Just because slavery came to an end does not mean that equality was its immediate successor.

However, now we are 40-50 years past the time of Jim Crow.  I grew up going to integrated schools, and I have never known a time where I did not have a friend, or multiple friends, of different colors and racial backgrounds.  I have seen how Christ has unified us, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Indian (here I refer to Asian Indians) and many other races besides.  The church does not have to be held by back guilt any more, thinking that because we have wronged those of another color that we cannot find reconciliation with them.  Moreover we have the opportunity to be a church that reaches out and says that what was done in the past was wrong, and we are looking to help every Christian come to full maturity in Christ, whatever the color of his skin may be.

I know I'm not the first to have this idea.  The fact is that many churches are already opening our doors, but we are doing it very slowly.  Integrated churches are still few and far between.  I can honestly say that I have only known a couple of churches of the Southern Baptist tradition that have had more than one or two non-white members out of a congregation of 100-200 or more.  This should stand to our shame.

We have been forgiven in Christ.  We do not need to be ashamed of the sins of our past.  But, we need to acknowledge the sins of our past and begin to make reconciliation, reaching out to those who have been wronged and trying to make things right.  We need to take responsibility for what has happened in the past, but we do not need to be enslaved by that history.  The blood Christ is sufficient to forgive us of all our sins, we do not need to let anyone use those sins to shame us, but we need to be faithful in serving the one who bought us.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Job's Patience

I'm not very good at suffering.  Honestly, I whine when things don't go well.  Whenever things start to get hard in my life, even when I have what I need, I find myself snickering and doubting Scripture.  I remember, "But godliness with contentment is great gain," (1 Timothy 6:6) and I think, "Really?  Like what?"  Of course, I find my self being rebuked as quick as I say that, and I am forced to acknowledge that I do not know the whole plan of God.

I guess that is why I like the book of Job.  It is a hard book to follow sometimes though.  I mean, I can follow when who is speaking, the text is pretty good about telling us that, but sometimes I don't get the arguments being made.  But, even though I'm certain I miss some of the details, the general concept seems pretty clear to me, most of the time.  Job is suffering, and he doesn't know why, and his friends claim that it is because God has found some fault in Job and calling Job to repent of his wickedness.

By the end of the book the youngest character speaks, Elihu, and his rebuke to Job is another animal entirely.  He does not rebuke Job for sinning in some unspecified way, but by sinning by not giving God the glory and putting his focus on God.  Job's sin is not that he is proud, it isn't that he sinned in his words, but that he forgot that God is bigger than his suffering, God is more than just good times, God is God in all things, and he is always righteous.  Job opened his mouth, and in his suffering he called to his friends, "look at me and weep!  I'm in pain, I have lost all I had, and God persecutes me and will not leave me alone!  If only I could die, then I would be happy, but God won't even give me the mercy of a quick death!"  Job was in a sorry state, but more important than Job's suffering was God's glory.

When God confronts Job he makes this clear.  He asks Job what he knows of earthly matters, and when Job cannot answer that God confronts Job with questions of his own weakness and finite nature.  Job finally realizes that he has been a fool.  He wanted to argue with God, but he forgot his own mortality, and that God is more than he could imagine.  I imagine it will be the same on the day when I meet God and see his power with my own eyes.

There is great gain in godliness with contentment.  I may not know what is happening now, but I will see how great it is on that day when I stand before the judgment of God, given mercy in Christ.  Perhaps the greatest gain is not in the peace I can live with now, but it is the preparation of my soul for the glory that is to come.  When I am content with godliness now, instead of seeking my contentment in worldly pleasures, I am encouraged to look forward to the fact that one day I will die, and I will be with my God who saved me.  There is a new heaven and a new earth coming, and our godliness today is preparing us for the enjoyment of that new creation.

Hardships come, for some more often than others.  Job knew that one day God would redeem him, and he continued to hope in God, despite all that happened to him.  He said, "Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he who testifies for me is on high." (Job 16:19)  Also, "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth." (Job 19:25)  My prayer is that no matter what I suffer Job's hope might be mine.  As we trust that one day our redeemer will stand on the earth, that Christ who intercedes for us now will one day stand triumphant upon the earth, it should give us endurance for every situation.

Godliness is not just how we act, it is what we believe and what we teach.  That is why Paul says to Timothy, "If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing." (1 Timothy 6:3-4a)  We need to be continually reminding ourselves to pay heed to the teaching we have received.  We need our minds to be remade.  We need the patience of Job in suffering so that we can say with Paul, "More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." (Romans 5:3-5)  And the only way we can have the patience of Job is if we have the faith of Job in the God of Job, for he is our God too.

How is your patience today?  How is your doctrine today?  Who is your God today?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Holiness? part 2

Okay, yesterday I began laying out a method by which Christians are able to determine what we should do in any given situation.  Because of the length of the post I decided to divide it into two parts.  The part yesterday discussed how we take a story we find in Scripture and derive a principle from it for the sake of application to our own lives.  I noted that the method I am using is called the analogy of faith, and that it is an old method that has been passed down for hundreds of years.  However, I want to clarify a little bit on the use of that term.

The term, "analogy of faith" most properly understood means that Scripture interprets itself.  What I mean by this is that Scripture does not ever contradict itself.  Therefore, the analogy of faith, in its purest form means that when we read one passage of Scripture we interpret that passage in light of the rest of Scripture, so that there is no contradiction.  So, if there is a passage, such as James, that says you are saved by works, but there is overwhelming evidence throughout the rest of Scripture that works do not save you (as is the case) we are either left with a contradiction, or we are misunderstanding the text.  The normal resolution in the above example is that what James meant when he said you are saved is that your faith is proven true, that is that faith must necessarily lead to works, or it not a true saving faith.  This means that James is using the term "saved" differently than Paul.  Whether or not you find this convincing (and I think it is if you read James' argument in context) will be based on whether you hold that all of Scripture is inspired by God, and therefore cannot be contradictory.

However the term "analogy of faith" has a broader meaning also, meaning that which conforms to the teaching and doctrine of Scripture.  In other words, when we rightly apply Scripture we must use an analogy of faith, so that our practice is not contradictory to the teaching of Scripture.  Because Scripture, rightly understood, cannot contradict Scripture, our lives also ought not contradict what is in Scripture.  This holds true because the same God that inspired Scripture has called us to live like Christ.  Because Christ is the incarnation of the Word of God, the life of Christ conforms to the teaching of Scripture, therefore our lives ought to conform to the teaching of Scripture as well.

As I said initially, for a Christian "holiness" and "morality" are basically interchangeable ideas.  Holiness means living lives set apart to the glory of God.  If we are to be moral we must be holy, because God is the absolute measurement of all that is good.  So, when we seek to be moral we must determine what best reflects the perfect goodness of God, and do that.  Being moral alone may not necessarily lead to holiness, but seeking holiness will require us to live morally.  Therefore, when we come across a principle in Scripture that shows us, "This is what God would have of his people" we need to apply that principle to our own lives and live in light of it.

Previously we discussed how to apply the analogy of faith to what we read in Scripture, specifically looking at a single narrative example, and even then looking at only one part of that narrative example.  We could have asked additional questions of that narrative, like, for instance, if we recognize that adultery is wrong based on the story of David and Bathsheba, what should we do if we are already in an adulterous relationship?  Well, in order to answer that question we could look at the end of the story and see that David repented, and so we should also repent.  But, then we would need to determine what repentance means in our instance.

If we were to ask this question it would be like the second situation I mentioned yesterday, what if you were faced with the option of cheating on your taxes to avoid paying the government some money?  I'm assuming you are in a position where you could get away with the cheating, that you are sure you won't get caught and therefore the question is a purely moral question.  Am I allowed to do this based on Scripture?  In order to answer these kinds of questions we need to have either some familiarity with the Bible, or we need to know how to do a bible search for relevant passages.  After all, if we want to follow the analogy of faith we need to know what Scripture teaches in order to conform our behavior to Scripture.

In all reality, these are likely going to be the more nagging questions than "What does this section of Scripture teach?"  If we come to a section of Scripture we don't understand we can always mark it and come back to it later, but when we are faced with a real moral choice we cannot always postpone the decision to come back to it later.  Thus these questions will be more pressing, and more nagging because we may wonder for some time afterward if we made the right decision.  So, let's address these questions.

First, we need to know what Scripture says.  So, for the tax question, we can turn to Romans 13:6-7 and Matthew 22:15-22.  We can use these two sections of Scripture because they both speak directly the issue of paying taxes.  Paul says that we should pay taxes to whoever taxes are due.  Jesus says we should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's.  Now, in the case of the second example we have to take a small step and move up from "Caesar" to "whatever government is in power."  But, we can see the principle at work in Jesus words, and Paul basically distills that principle down for us, giving it to us directly in Romans 13.  So, Scripture commands us to pay our taxes, therefore we can't cheat on them.

But, what if we are already in an adulterous relationship?  Well, we see that David begs for God's forgiveness, but he doesn't divorce Bathsheba.  Should I continue to sleep with a married woman, or sleep with a woman who isn't my wife as long as I recognize it is sin and ask for forgiveness?  What does Paul say about sin, in general?  If we look to Romans 6:1-2 we see that Paul tells us that if we have died to sin, that is if we are in Christ, then it is abominable that we should continue on in sin.  Likewise James gives us a principle we can apply here in James 4:17, "So, whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin."  What we are left with then is that if we know that adultery is a sin, and we know that we are called to stop sinning, it is not enough to simply know it is wrong and ask God to forgive me, I have to stop the relationship.

This principle, that a Christian should not continue on in Sin, but that we should do that which we know to be good is the foundation of our morality.  John says it like so, "but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.  By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked." (1 John 2:5-6)  We are called to walk like Christ, and that means we must conform our lives to Scripture.  To this we may add Christ's words, "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."  The Christian ethic conforms to the ideal of love.

Indeed this ideal of love is why we should read Scripture.  For if God has written Scripture to instruct us in righteousness, and we are called to love God, shouldn't we desire to be righteous?  Shouldn't we, therefore, make a point of studying Scripture, so we might know how to live in a way that is pleasing to God?  We fulfill thus the law of love in not sinning against our neighbor, in not sinning against God, and in not continuing in any sin in ignorance.  Reading Scripture is part of the way we fulfill our obligation to love God and our neighbor, doing to them what we would have them do to us.

So then, in order to live a holy life, we must understand how to apply Scripture to our lives.  That means we must know how to determine the principles that are in Scripture, and that we must know Scripture and search it out when we are confronted with moral questions.  But, living a holy life also means that we need to be informed about modern issues.  For instance, I have written on stem cell research, homosexual marriage, even politics (though I still have that one pending to post to the blog) and honoring mothers and fathers.  But while most of those things may be discussed in Scripture, there is certainly nothing in the bible about stem cells, rocket fuel, cars, alternative energy, democratic government, or even computers and blogs, does that mean that we cannot make moral statements about any of those things?  No, instead we must know what Scripture says, what principles are in Scripture, and we must understand the issues that face us in the modern day, that way we can know what principles from Scripture to apply to whatever issue we are facing.

For instance, I argued against embryonic stem cell research based on the fact that the only way to generate those cell lines we would use for experimentation come from destroyed embryos.  Thus, I held that because we are destroying a human life (not a potential human life, but an actual human life) we are sinning to do so, and any research that is done must necessarily be tainted by the immorality of that action.  But, my position is only correct if I'm right that embryos are human lives.  Therefore I am making a biological claim based on the scientific information available to me: embryos are human lives because as soon as a sperm and an egg meet the resulting entity is a new human life.  The only way I can make that claim is to first understand the science that is being discussed.

Our obligation to live lives of of holiness means we have to live those lives in the times and places we live.  I cannot live in A.D. 300, because this is A.D. 2010.  I have to live a life of holiness today, and that means I have to engage with my culture as it exists today.  We are obligated to know Scripture, and our own current cultures as much as is reasonable, so that we can know the right thing to do in every situation with which we might be confronted.  Christian morality is hard, because it requires us to be informed, it requires us to use logic, and it requires us to be willing to take positions that might be unpopular, if that is what we are called to by the Word of God.

But remember, James promises us that God will give us wisdom if we ask him, believing that he is good and gives good things to those who seek him.  James also says that if we will humble ourselves God will give more grace.  If we make a mistake we still have Christ as our savior.  The love of God is not limited to saving only those who sin willfully.  But, we need to always be seeking wisdom from God, and asking him to reveal our sin, that we might be holy, no longer continuing in sin, but walking in the light of Christ.

Friday, August 27, 2010


I have, for the last several posts, attempted to be somewhat more conversational and less professorial, however, I want to talk about a subject today that is difficult to address in a purely conversational tone.  I want to address the issue of morality.  From a Christian perspective I think morality and holiness are somewhat interchangeable.  While we certainly teach our children to be moral and holy without using obscure arguments or purely logical argumentation, it is hard to express an overall scheme of morality without the use of logical argumentation.

In defense of the use of logic, I want to note that I don't think logic has to be boring.  In fact logic ought to be compelling and forceful.  Unfortunately many of us do not have extensive exercise in logic.  We have long since moved away from philosophical terms like syllogisms, ultimate causes, and things as means versus things as an end unto themselves.  Moving away from purely academic terms isn't an entirely bad thing, the scholarly and antiseptic logic of a classroom can cause us to miss the moral reality of certain situations.  An example is in the debate over abortion.  If we ask, "Is it morally acceptable to treat a fetus as an entity of secondary importance, utilizing its immediate separation from the primary entity as a means to an end, if the end is the overall increase in general happiness of those primary entities existing at the current time?" then we denude this proposal of its real moral force.  The real moral force of the question becomes evident when asked in this way: "Is it okay to forcibly extract a baby from its mothers womb, killing it and treating it as less than human, if in doing so we placate the desire of the mother?"

Logic, far from being boring, is in fact absolutely essential for a life of holiness, a life to which the Christian is called.  In fact, logic is necessary for any life at all.  You cannot long live if you completely ignore the normal rules of logic, unless you have a very devoted individual seeking to protect you from your own stupidity.  A man who walks out into every street without looking, and walks in the midst of traffic because the road is easier to walk on than a broken sidewalk is an idiot.  Such an individual ignores the basic use of logic: recklessly walking out in the middle of a road with fast moving vehicles without giving those vehicles any heed will likely get you killed.

So, because logic does not have to be boring, I invite you to join me for a quick examination on the use of logic in forming a Christian system of ethics.  I don't intend to lay out a complete system here, but to illustrate the method of logical progression that we can use for any situation in order to determine what would be the best course of action in that situation.  The goal is not so much to create a post where you can look and say, "okay, what did he say about this situation" as it is to show the method of thought that will lead to an answer, even when faced with a difficult problem.  Of course this is not a system that I have developed myself, rather it is the analogy of faith that has been taught and handed down through Christendom for hundreds of years.  It is also the method that pastors often use to examine a text and derive the principles from that text that apply to a congregation, so that every text teaches an applicable truth to which we ought to conform.

Okay, so I used the term, "analogy of faith" what on earth does that mean?  Basically it means that using a "this is like that" comparison for any issue we read about in Scripture, we can derive a principle from Scripture that teaches us how we should live faithfully today.  This can work in two different ways: I can read Scripture and find a situation, like David's adultery with Bathsheba, and attempt to determine what that situation would teach me about how I should live today, or, conversely, I could find myself in a situation today, such as being faced with the option of lying on my taxes, and want to know what Scripture teaches on that subject.  In either case we are faced with one situation and we want to know what the moral thing to do would be, based on that situation.  Which side we start on does not ultimately matter, though starting on the side of Scripture may be somewhat easier if we are unfamiliar with the bible.

So, I gave two examples, but I didn't explain how we might work those out, lets look at one.  In the case of David committing adultery with Bathsheba we have to read the whole story in order to determine what it teaches us about morality and how we should live today.  There is no real moral imperative given in the text, "Let the reader be aware!  This is how you should act..." does not appear in this story.  So what we have to do is look at the situation of David and what he did, and figure out how that situation might apply to us today.  Let's take the time to do that.

1) David did not go out to war with his men.  2) David saw Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop and desired her.  3) David called Bathsheba to himself.  4) David slept with Bathsheba.  5) When Bathsheba reported she was pregnant David sent for her husband.  6) David tried to get Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba, so he could make Uriah think he got Bathsheba pregnant, but failed.  7) David arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle so he could take Bathsheba to himself to hide the fact he got her pregnant.  8) David was confronted by Nathan and chastised, and told that because of his sin his son would die.  9) David repented and begged for God's forgiveness.  10) God forgave David, but his son still died as a result of his sinful behavior.  11) God loved Solomon, born to Bathsheba, and placed him next in the Davidic line.

Okay, so a lot happened.  The basic issue though is what we can learn from the story as far as how we ought to behave currently.  Potentially the following could be moral issues, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9.  I'm excluding 5 because it is simply the report of a fact, we don't normally say reporting something is moral or immoral, it is simply someone telling someone else the truth.  8 is not a directly moral issue, though there is perhaps a secondary moral issue, and we can address that issue later. 10 and 11 are God's determinative actions for David and Solomon; while there may be something going on here, again the moral question would be secondary, at best.

So then, the primary moral flow of the story could go like this: David didn't go to war and lead his men like kings were supposed to in that time, this lead to him seeing Bathsheba bathing and lusting after her, after which he committed adultery with her and attempted to cover it up, leading the murder of Uriah and God punishing David.  If we read on in 2 Samuel 12:26-28 it seems that David should have been at Rabbah with his men, particularly based on what Joab says to him.  So David's first error was in not leading his army.  We would have difficulty making a direct application of that concept to ourselves as few of us are supposed to lead an army.  The whole situation derived from this one error though, so let us look at David's error and see if there is any principle we can derive from it to apply to ourselves.

Let's look at the number of steps we might proceed with to get a full understanding of the moral implications of this story: Direct application- we should not stay home if our job is the lead the army out to war, or we might accidentally see a woman bathing and commit adultery with her, leading to a host of other immoral actions.  Derived application, step one- We should not avoid our responsibilities lest we are lead into temptation and eventually great sin.  Derived application, step two- We should seek to be busy fulfilling our responsibilities, so we do not come into temptation or great sin.  Derived application, step three- We should seek to be busy doing whatever good things we can so that give temptation as little opportunity to occur in our lives as possible, so that we are protected from sin.

Notice that the derived applications seek to determine the principle that is at work in the direct application.  Also notice that the second derived application takes the negative principle at play in the first derived application and turns it into a positive command.  Finally, note that the third derived application take the command of the second derived application and then broadens it, so that it becomes even more applicable to our every day lives.  The derived applications are logical applications of the story to our own lives, but they are not directly stated in the story.

Now a quick comment on the derived applications: you do not have to go through all these steps in each situation.  Sometimes you will already have a positive example, so there is no need to derive a positive command from a negative.  Sometimes the negative will be more applicable to your specific situation.  The goal is to find a principle that can apply to us where we are, so that we can see what Scripture would command us to do, and what it would command us not to do.  In some situations it may be difficult to determine the principle at play in a given section of Scripture (such as the laws of Leviticus or the genealogical records of Nehemiah or Numbers).  In those situations we can either seek out commentaries to help us understand the text, or we ask someone else to help us understand how that section of Scripture should inform us.

According to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 all of Scripture is useful to us.  Sometimes we may have difficulty determining the specific principle for application in a given text, but that does not mean that Scripture does not have application.  We must be familiar with as much of Scripture as we can, living by those areas that are most clear to us and seeking through additional reading and study that other sections would become clear to us over time.  Peter said that some of Paul's writings were hard to understand, and he was an apostle who knew Paul personally!  But, let us not think Scripture is too difficult for us to understand, the fact is that most of it is as simple as the example of David and Bathsheba above, and it contains all the principles we need to be thoroughly trained in righteousness.

This post is already quite long, so I will not go into the second example today, but I will go over that tomorrow.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Stance on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

I had a kind friend write to me to point out what he felt were some deficiencies in my position on embryonic stem cells.  Because I entered into the last post without giving a thorough defense of my own position, I thought I would post this so that those who are interested might see what I think, and why I am against embryonic stem cell research as it done today.  Because this is a response to an email sent to me you may have to read between the lines a little to see what my friend was stating, however, I think my response was thorough enough that you can understand his position and mine from this post.

As a disclaimer, I want to note that I asked his permission to post this comment.  I always intend to respect those who wish to keep dialogue private, so you do not have to worry that I'm going to post a long response to anything you email me about, unless you just want it posted.  The text of my response email follows:

Dear Sir,

Thank you so much for your comments.  I was actually fully aware of everything you noted here (he wrote to me to mention that most of the stem cells used in embryonic stem cell research come from embryos generated by in vitro fertilization, and that the embryos used are donated for the purpose of science, and that they would otherwise be destroyed).  None of this changes my position though.  My position is: once an egg and a sperm have been joined such that there results a joining of DNA and naturally occurring cellular division and reproduction, that entity is now a new human life.  Therefore, because embryonic stem cells are derived from the destruction of these embryos it is an unethical and immoral area of study, due to the fact that it necessarily requires the destruction of a human life in order for research to be conducted.

The issue for me is not where or how the egg is fertilized.  My own personal position (and that of my wife) is that if we were unable to naturally conceive, we would adopt.  We would not go the route of in vitro feritilization.  However, I have no actual moral complaint against women who do go that route, so long as they have fully considered the reality of what they are doing and have weighed their options.  I do believe that some couples have acted selfishly in conceiving in vitro, however, couples act selfishly in adopting and in natural pregnancy, so I can hardly raise that as a complaint.  Certainly I wouldn't argue that because one person has abused the system the whole enterprise is immoral.

As far as the egg being incapable of surviving on its own, of course it cannot survive on its own.  No egg once fertilized can survive on its own.  The very nature of any human act of reproduction requires a womb for the baby to develop.  The reality that the egg cannot survive outside of the womb does not negate its very real humanity though.  This argument is akin to saying that a scientist could remove (in some fashion) an egg that has just implanted itself in a woman's womb, and then say, "I have not killed the child, it simply cannot survive outside of the womb, therefore I should use it to experiment."  The issue is not whether it (the embryo) was implanted at any given time nor whether it could survive outside the womb at any given time, the issue is what "it" is.

As to the throwing away of embryos, I do find this to be a rather abhorrent situation.  Most embryos are frozen for extended periods of time, and quite safely at that, so we can store embryos as a stop-gap for our current situation.  I would fully agree that embryos ought not be destroyed.  One possible solution that I think rightly answers the seriousness of the situation are embryo adoption groups who seek to stop the destruction of innocent children by finding those will adopt the embryos and raise them as their children.  Hopefully, with the ability to safely preserve embryos, those willing to adopt unused embryos, and the advancement of in vitro fertilization, the number of embryos destroyed will decrease and eventually stopped altogether.

I am aware that most science requires years of study in order to advance to a particularly useful point.  Stem cell research, in general, has advanced to the point where over 70 different treatments are being done using them.  All of these have been derived from adult stem cells though.  I have come across only one treatment that I know of where embryonic stem cells have been used to derive a treatment (for a form of blindness).  I am sure that additional treatments will be developed in the coming years and decades, perhaps even additional treatments from embryonic stem cells, but no amount of time will change the morality of committing murder today for the sake of future benefit.

There are also those who make (perhaps valid) arguments that embryonic stem cell research, while not yielding cures, is helping us to better understand early biological developments and cellular development in general, in ways that adult stem cells do not.  This research, it is argued, has multiple uses and much value, and is invaluable in itself because of how it deepens our understanding of biology.  These arguments do not change my position any more than the arguments that we are deriving cells from embryos that would be destroyed.  My argument is not against the research being done, nor even the question of whether there is valid research being done, such arguments, to me, are secondary.  My argument is, and remains, solely with the means of deriving the materials necessary for the research being done.

Allow me to give you what I consider to be a valid example of my position: Imagine, if you will, that a scientist argued (reasonably) that, if he were allowed to kill 10 babies he could utilize the material from those babies to develop potentially life saving research.  He would not steal babies, he would only use deformed babies who had been abandoned at hospitals and who would die within 3 months.  However, he could not wait for those babies to die naturally, he had to, instead, actually kill the babies in order to conduct his research.  He would kill the babies quickly, they would feel no pain, and he could not guarantee results, but he was confident that within 20 years he could have some results.

Would it be okay with you if he conducted the research?  Would it be right to fund that research with public money?  Would any amount of results make his research ethical?  What if he could guarantee results within 5 years?  What if he only needed to use 2 babies?  My argument is that such research, regardless of its rewards, regardless of its potential, regardless of its potential "return on investment" would be immoral, because it relies upon the murder of innocent human lives.  Because I believe that God is the creator of life, and that he creates a new life at the moment of conception, I believe that it is murder to destroy embryos for research, and thus any research conducted from that position is immoral.

We do not make life, we can only bring together physical components (egg and sperm) God actually creates the life that results.  Therefore, for us to murder that life, at any stage, is an act of immorality.  When we determine who has the right to live and die based on what value they may contribute to us as a society, or to science as an experimental specimen, we begin to play God.  This is the temptation of Satan in the Garden, "You can become like God, knowing (determining) good and evil."  This is the root of all human sin, our decision to place our ethics above God's clearly revealed will.

Those who would argue against my position must first convince themselves of one thing: what we are destroying, when we kill and embryo, is not a human life.  Yes, it is undergoing cellular development, yes if placed within its most natural environment, (a womb) it has the potential to grow and develop all the way to the point of birth as a baby, yes it has human DNA and is rightly recognized as an independent living organism, but it is still not a human.  My complaint with embryonic stem cell research thus rests upon the same foundation of my argument against abortion: we do not create life, and we do not get to determine when a human becomes a human.  Because of the very serious moral complaint that God could raise against us, we are better to err on the side of caution, that we may seek the blessings of God in the rest of our lives.  Let us not assume a wisdom beyond ourselves, but rather recognize that when confronted with a mystery, it is best that we act humbly and move cautiously, lest we overextend ourselves and stride proudly into sin.

Now, since I have laid out quite thoroughly why I am against embryonic stem cell research, I do want to say that I am not entirely against embryonic stem cell research.  If there were a means of deriving embryonic stem cells not related to the destruction of embryos I would have no compunction against research done on those cells.  Thus, if there were, for instance, some way that scientists could derive embryonic stem cells from umbilical cords, or if they were able to harvest some from embryonic fluid withdrawn during necessary in utero surgeries, or some other means, then I would not be against doing research based on those cell lines.  (However, if scientists withdrew embryonic fluid solely for the purpose of attempting to harvest embryonic stem cells, and thus endangered a pregnancy, I would be against that.)  The issue for me is entirely the means by which the cell lines are developed, and as long as even one embryo is destroyed, or one child needlessly endangered, I will continue to protest that this is an act of gross immorality.

Caiaphas said, "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish."  John made clear that Caiaphas was prophesying that Christ would die in order to bring all of God's children together, as one.  But, for Caiaphas, what he intended was that it was better to kill Jesus than that Jesus should bring the wrath of Rome on Israel. (John 11:47-53)  Even if it meant that Caiaphas had to bring false charges against Jesus and reject the Christ of God, he would kill one man in order to protect his nation.  While we can understand his passion, we rightly reject his actions as immoral and worthy of condemnation.  Are we somehow more innocent than him if we allow the murder of babies, the murder of innocent children, humans, regardless of how they came into being, for the sake of research?  Do our "good" goals make right our wicked actions today?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Learning to Honor

I used to fear my father.  When I say that I do not mean to conjure up some image of a little boy cowering from his father's shadow.  What I mean is that as a young child, up to my teenage years, I knew that if I got into trouble, regardless of what the punishment might be at school, it was my father's punishment I feared.  I feared my father's punishment because he could actually take things from me that I wanted, he could actually use physical force in punishing me, and no matter what, I could not avoid him, because I had to go home at some point.  In looking back I do not think that fear was a bad thing, because at times when I was not motivated by common sense and a good intent (children are sinful you know) there was another motivating factor to keep me in line.  Fear is not always a bad thing, sometimes fear has perfectly good and practical purposes.

Lest anyone misunderstand, mine was not a household where my mother simply held back and watched my father discipline my brothers and me.  Remember, (if you've read my previous posts) my mother was a quadriplegic, so there was simply little she could do, in terms of force, to punish us.  My father was the primary disciplinarian in my household just because that was the way things had to be.  I have no idea how things would  have been different had my mother been able to walk.  Such a question is really basically irrelevant to me, because I live in the reality that is, not in the possibility of what might have been.

The reason I bring up the fear I had of my father though, is because it is that fear which taught me to honor those authorities over me.  Because I was afraid of my father, I honored his wishes, I behaved (usually) as he wanted me to behave.  And, because my father wanted me to represent him and my mother well, he wanted me to obey those teachers and other authorities that were placed over me, so long as the rules were just.  As I learned to obey the authorities over me, I eventually learned to honor those authorities.

In honoring others I learned something else as well: how to honor myself.  As I grew up and realized what it meant to honor others, I began to realize that the respect I gave those who had authority over me was the same kind of respect I wanted for myself.  I did not want people to be polite to me because I wanted to exercise control over them, but because it meant that they were respecting me, they were showing me the due deference that I was showing them.  If I was supposed to honor my bosses, doing what they wanted me to do and working as hard as I could to complete the orders given to me, then I wanted them to respect me as a person, not giving me orders just to make me work, but because the orders were sensible.  Honoring myself did not mean thinking more highly of myself than I ought to, but realizing that I had value, I am a son of the living God.

It is this same sense of honor that I have tried to teach to children who use insulting language and refuse to exercise self control.  The poor behavior of children like that shows that they do not honor their parents, because they do not care what people think of their children that they would act in such a way.  This poor behavior shows that these children do not honor others, as they use vulgarity and profanity that may insult or offend others nearby, and their behaviors generally cause a commotion, disturbing the peace of those around them as well.  This behavior also demonstrates that these children do not respect themselves.  They do not know how to behave so as to demonstrate that they think they are worth anything more than the value of entertainment they are providing at any given moment.

It is interesting to me that those who make themselves the center of attention could be the ones with the least amount of personal honor.  I do not mean simply that they may behave the worst, or commit crimes when no one is looking, but they also have no personal honor in that they do not think of themselves as having worth.  Children who scream profanities, who insult adults, and who display no self control not only insult those around them, but they illustrate that they insult themselves as well.  I realize this is not the case for all children, some of these children think the whole world revolves around them and they act the way they do because they think everyone ought to give them what they want because they are worth it (or deserve it).  But, in either case, whether these children honor themselves too much or have no honor at all, they still do not rightly honor themselves, their parents, or anyone else.

I bring all this up because I wanted to point out the importance of the Fifth Commandment.  I noted previously, as Scripture says, that this is the first command with a promise: "Honor your mother and your father that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you."  In honoring our parents we learn how to honor society and the authorities of society.  We learn how to honor God as we model our relationship with him on the relationship with have with our mother and father.  We also learn how to honor ourselves, holding ourselves as being worth more than just a cheap bit of money, more than just a bit of food or someone's entertainment.

Honoring our parents brings with it a promise, but also an implied curse.  If we honor our parents, then we will live long in the land, but if we do not, then we will not live long in the land.  That curse is still applicable today.  A man who grows up without honoring, having neither care for his parents, nor concern for others, is prone to make one of two equally disastrous errors.  Either this man will have no respect for himself and will sell out at every opportunity, always seeking to find something to give him meaning, or, he will think of himself as the only one who really matters and he will become selfish, greedy, and contemptible.

Many of us were like this.  We were those who had no honor, we did not give God the glory due him.  We claimed to honor our parents, but in reality we only cared for ourselves.  But, God has forgiven us, if we come to him through Christ, and now he has given us the honor of being called his sons.  How then can we continue in dishonor, when we have a Father who is worth all the honor in creation?

I learned what it means to honor by starting with fear.  Not everyone needs to start in this same way.  For children there is perhaps some value to having a right level of fear of their parents, understanding that their disapproval could lead to significant consequences.  But, for adults that does not need to be the case.  We can learn how to honor others just from the command of Christ: "For whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)  Honoring others begins by doing what we ought, because it is right to do so to them, and because we love them as God has commanded us.

If we are wise we will learn to honor our mothers and our fathers.  We will learn to honor them because in so doing we will honor God.  In honoring God we will learn what it means to honor ourselves, what it is to see ourselves as more than merely animals, as though we were just some kind of evolved protozoa with a sense of morality.  We will realize that he who made us out of dirt also breathed his spirit into us, so that we are more than the sum of our physical parts, because of his spiritual blessings.  Let us honor our mothers and fathers in every aspect of our lives, when they are present and when they are not, because our Father, to whom we owe our very existence, is ever present with us, and is always worthy of our honor.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Victory for Life and Science

I never cared much for doing science fairs when I was a child.  To be honest, I just wasn't that creative and didn't have ideas that I could realistically test that hadn't been done by others.  What's the point in doing a volcano for the hundredth time, talking about the chemical reaction of whatever two components you chose to make it explode?  But, I did like to play with shiny things and I would come up with all kinds of ideas that would allow me to see what burned what color or what worked as a better magnet, etc.  A lot of what I did when I was young wasn't science, but that didn't stop me from submitting those ideas as science fair projects, just because I had to do something.

I wonder sometimes if that same idea is what is behind much science today.  How much do researchers attempt to get the government, or private companies, to finance ideas that they know are not effective, but they have wed themselves to ideologically or economically?  I have a feeling that the answer might be more than many of us realize.  That isn't to fault researchers, it isn't to say that they don't believe that somehow, someday, they might be able to do some good with their ideas, but they realize that any such good is really a long, long way off.  Likewise, even if they are blinded by their own commitments, that only demonstrates that they are human, because all of us have our ideological blind spots, usually areas that we will passionately defend, even if someone points out that our positions don't make much sense.

I wonder if that is why some scientists continue to insist on the potential of embryonic stem cells.  The fact is that there is not much promise in embryonic stem cells.  The very few successful uses of embryonic stem cells have been limited to animal models, and even then there have been increased cysts and tumors.  Yes, the discovery of these types of stem cells only dates back 12 years, but the fact is that there hasn't been a successful treatment on humans yet.  In the only current FDA permitted trial in the United States they are working with cells that are derived from embryonic stem cells, despite the fact that cysts were more prevalent on the spines of the mice that received the treatment.  (The FDA did not comment on why they removed the hold they had placed on the research, however the company doing the research claimed that the cysts had no adverse reactions, and that they changed their treatment to result in fewer cysts.)

Don't misunderstand me, I'm really big on the idea of stem cell research.  I mean I think that the possibility that we could use naturally occurring cells in the human body to cure major diseases which we have no effective means of currently treating is absolutely wonderful.  Adult stem cells have shown promise in this area.  Because adult stem cells are able to be developed from a person's own body they generally do not suffer from the issue of rejection like embryonic stem cells.  Adult stem cells have also been used successfully in human trials.  (Each of the words in the previous sentence links to a different site discussing the success of adult stem cells.  I chose the sites I did based on the fact that each of them contains at least one different story, so that while there may be overlapping examples the sites also each contain unique examples, or if two sites had two of the same stories, they are thus represented properly as two different situations.  The whole points being that you could spend all day finding new examples of the success of adult stem cells.  Some of the stories mentioned above include recovery from decades of blindness, walking after nearly two decades of paralysis, and many other amazing events of that nature, all due to adult stem cell research.)

It is because I am a big supporter of adult stem cells that I am excited that a court has halted a recent decision from the Obama administration to allow for additional federal funding on embryonic stem cells (pending the results of a lawsuit).  Please, let me be clear: I am not against stem cell research, I am against the murder of babies, (primarily) and the waste of limited resources in less efficient areas of research when there are already existing promising opportunities presenting real cures for existing diseases.  Yes, I intended to say "murder of babies" above.  Embryonic stem cells are generally obtained from destroying a fetus, thus terminating a life that has already begun.  You can argue that this is not killing a person if you want (I find that argument logically tortuous and laughable, but that's up to you) but you cannot say that you are not killing an actual human being as an embryo is a living independent organism, with human DNA.  (Again, I know there are methods of getting embryonic stem cells that do not involve the destruction of embryos, but lets be honest, the reality is that most lines of embryonic stem cells are developed from killing an embryo.)

This really is a victory both for science and for life.  Scientifically speaking there is less value in embryonic stem cell research than there is adult stem cell research, even if based on nothing but potential for results.  From the perspective of a culture of life, this is a great victory because there will be no federal funding of the murder of the innocent.  The federal judge did not rule that embryos are humans and should, therefore, have the full protection of the authorities against being wrongfully murdered.  The judgment does not at all address the reality that we are killing our children for the vain hope that we might derive some form of medical benefit in the long term.  But, I'll take what victories we can get, even if they do not address the root problems that we are facing.

If you think my language is brash in arguing against embryonic stem cell research, then I beg you to reconsider.  I have already laid out my position: a baby is a baby from the time of conception to the time of birth.  While many things may happen to naturally terminate a pregnancy before the birth of a child, that does not make it less a murder when we do so intentionally.  That is why I take this so seriously.  God is the giver of life, for us to arbitrarily take the life of another human being is a horrible thing.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Mother's Love

I wrote last time of my father, now I would like to write of my mother.  My father taught me how to read Scripture, he taught me the importance of understanding what has been given to us, and he taught me how to be a man of faith.  My mother taught me how to suffer.  My mother showed me that no matter what, God is still God, and his ways are good, even when I cannot understand them.  My mother shows me still what patience looks like, and what it means to love even when you cannot act.

My mother is a quadriplegic.  She has been paralyzed since I was four years old.  She is what I have been taught is considered and "incomplete quad."  That means that she is able to move her upper arms, basically she has control of her biceps.  But, that's where he muscular control ends, a line across her body basically at breast level.

What that means is that my mother is incapable of any deep coughing to dislodge material from her lungs or deeper in her throat.  She is limited in what she can hold because she cannot grasp with her hands.  She cannot hold her self up as well because she does not have control over her abdominal and back muscles that most people have.  But, she is, with special equipment, able to drive, able to maneuver her wheel chair around, and able to feed herself and do other similar functions.  What limitations my mother has do not prevent her from enjoying life, they just mean she has to do things a little differently from others.

I bring all this up just so you can understand why my mother has had such an impact on me.  You see, despite all that she has gone through, I have never seen my mother depressed.  I have never seen her angry with the lot life has given her.  My mother has embraced all that God has given her, and has counted his plans as better than her own.  God has used my mother to impact me and others whom she has come in contact with so that we should recognize that it is possible to glorify God in the hard times as well as the good.

My mother loves to tell stories.  Maybe that's where I get my love of stories from.  She has told my brothers and I multiple times of what she went through in the hospital.  She tells of how after the surgery where the doctors determined how bad the damage that was done to her spine by the car wreck was, the doctors were amazed by what movement she had.  She has told us of how she prayed after the wreck, placing her life in the hands of God and acknowledging his sovereignty over all things.  I do not recount her stories here because my writing could not rightly capture the manner of them.

I mention my mother's stories because they were always focused not on what was going on in her life, but with how she was trusting God to handle and to care for her needs.  In all of my mother's stories she is not the hero.  God is the hero, and that is his rightful place.  My mother's stories are the epitome of what a Christian's testimony ought to be: a story from or about our lives that reveals the goodness and beauty of God to those who listen.  My mother tells stories of faith, because the God of the Scriptures is not dead, but is living and active within her, and her faith in the expression of how God has impacted her life.

I do not remember much of my mother from before she was paralyzed.  I guess as a little child you just take things like seeing your mother walk for granted, so those memories do not stick in your mind.  Even from the time around the accident I do not have many memories.  I don't remember going to the hospital to visit her.  I don't remember first seeing her in a wheel chair or learning about the idea that my mother would never walk again.  I just grew up knowing those things.

I also grew up knowing that my mother trusted that God has a plan, and that he is fulfilling that plan in her and in all things.  This was the faith I was brought up under.  My mother still puts up with pain, she still has many limitations and is beginning to experience additional complications from being paralyzed for many years.  But, she also remains cheerful, knowing that her God is good, and will do great things on her behalf.  I pray that should I ever go through an event half so traumatic as hers that I would be blessed with that faith, because I have come to realize that it is a gift from God.  The Lord may take something away from us, a job, a career, our legs, even our families.  But, if we put our faith in him, he is all we need, and he will provide for us, so that he might receive the glory.

I closed last time with asking men to be fathers, so this time I ask women to be mothers like my own.  Share your faith with your children (cf. Acts 16:1 and 2 Timothy 3:15).  Take those children who do not have godly mothers under your wings and bring them into your lives that they may see the grace of God through you.  Suffer with grace, as all Christians should, that those who look to you might see that your hope is not in this world, but in the new heavens and new earth, when God will right every wrong, and wipe every tear from your eyes (Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 1:5, Philippians 1:29, 2 Thessalonians 1:5).  Live your faith, dear women, impress all with your godliness, and tell the wonderful story of the grace of God in your lives (1 Timothy 2:9-10).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Of Good Fathers

I have learned more about the Christian faith from my father than probably anyone else.  My father taught me how to read the Scriptures, taught me the importance of the original languages, and taught me what it means to be a man of faith.  While I know that God can use whatever means he wants to in order to teach a man, in my case, much of what I learned came from my father, at least in seed form.  Even today, when I have questions or I want to double check my interpretation of a passage I'll call my father and talk with him, because I still want to learn from his wisdom, and I know that he has more experience and has studied Scripture longer than I have been alive.  The first command with a promise is to honor your mother and your father that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving to you, and my God has made it easy for me to be able to honor my father.

My father is the one who taught me how to see the themes of Scripture and how to read the bible with a focus on the development of the thematic elements within the text.  He taught me to how to realize that God is consistent, and is consistently revealing himself in a progressive manner from Genesis to Revelation.  As I developed in reading Scripture and began to see the importance of Christ in both the Old and New Testaments, the inspiration my father gave me helped me to go from simply reading words on a page, to really understanding the depth and value of Scripture.  There was a time that I thought learning the bible would be as simple as memorizing words and concepts, but then I began to see the intricacies of God's word, that each part plays into the other in a complex web and pattern, and I realized that I would never glean all that is in Scripture.  All of this because my father taught me that what I see in Genesis carries through to what I learn from Revelation.

I would be lying if I said my father taught me Greek or Hebrew.  The fact is my father rarely mentioned the Greek alphabet and may have used a handful of Hebrew words in my life.  But, my father taught me the value of knowing Greek and Hebrew from the way he turned to those languages when I had a question.

When I wanted to know whether Isaiah really meant for us to understand Immanuel as "God with us" my father pulled out a Hebrew concordance (I still love that book) and showed me the word "el" in the Hebrew, told me it was the word Isaiah used there, and then showed me where that concordance listed every single instance of that word in Isaiah.  I then went through the whole book of Isaiah, read every verse and section that mentioned God, and realized that Isaiah only ever uses the word "el" to denote divinity.  While my father did not teach me Hebrew, he did teach me the value of knowing the language.  That's why I spent five semesters in Hebrew and Greek study in seminary, because of my father's influence on me in seeing the value of knowing the languages of Scripture.

More than knowing languages, and more than simply knowing how to read Scripture, my father taught me what it means to have faith in Scripture.  I cannot think of a time when my father ever expressed a doubt in the awesome care and love of God to me and my brothers.  Even through times of difficulty, my father has always been steady in his care of his family and his belief in Christ.  I'm sure my father has had struggles to which I was not a party, just as I have had struggles which no one will ever know about but God himself, but his words and his manner have always been strong despite those difficulties.

I have written this not just to honor my father, though I have sought to do so.  I have written this to encourage young men who have not had strong father figures, that they might know what an impact they could have on their sons and daughters if they will be the men they wish their fathers could have been.  I have written this to remind each of us of the importance of fathers and father figures, and to remind those in the church that there is a need of fathers in this world.  In America today far too many children do not have fathers, and if the men in the church are not willing to be their fathers, Satan certainly has enough of his own lined up who are ready to do the job.

I could cite statistics and new reports about how children who grow up without fathers do worse in school, are more prone to crime, and more likely to get involved in gangs and other violent activities.  I could go on and on about how single mothers are forced to leave their children unattended for long periods of time in order to work and bring home food, thus leading to even more strife in the home.  I could discuss the poverty that many children without fathers live in.  But, the reality is God made us to come from a father and a mother, and he intended for that relationship that led to our creation to also continue on in our upbringing.  It is sufficient that this is the plan of God, the horror stories are simply proof of the goodness of God's plan.

Fathers are essential to a healthy home.  God has declared himself to be a loving father.  How will we learn about God when we do not understand the idea of what it means to be a loving father?  Dear Christian men, let us honor our father in heaven, and be fathers to the fatherless in whatever way we can.  You men who have sons and daughters, care for them as best you can, and if already you have a child with a woman who is not your wife, then plead with God that you might still be a father to that child, because he will need you.  I write this as a man who had a good father, and as a man who has seen the heartbreak of many friends who did not.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Challenge of Justice

One of the best arguments for the reality of moral standards is, I think the argument from injustice.  What I mean is that everyone seems to know when they have been wronged.  No one needs to teach someone when they have been wronged.  In fact, more than that, we have to be taught to reign in our emotions when we are wronged, lest we get into even more trouble.

For instance, imagine you were in medieval China, where the local lord had absolute authority over the life and death of those who lived in his territory.  Imagine that you are wearing the correct colors, (yes, Chinese peasants had certain colors they were allowed to wear, and certain colors they weren't) you bowed and showed proper obedience when he went by, and you even went out of your way to show respect to the local lord by bringing the taxes you owed early.  Basically, imagine if you were the perfect Chinese peasant.  How would you feel if the local lord intentionally rode his horse next to you and tromped through some mud, just to get the dirt all over your face?  How would you feel if you were disrespected despite the fact that you had fulfilled all your obligations and had honored your superior to the best of your ability?

I think of an example from my own life.  I was fighting with one of my brothers (not an atypical event) and he was winning (also, not an atypical event).  The difference was that in this particular situation I was actually entirely innocent!  Normally when I got into a fight with my brothers I was at least somewhat to blame, but not this time.  This time, and I can't even remember what the fight was over, I was totally innocent, and my brother knew it.

I was defeated and beat up by someone stronger than me, and I was outraged.  I was also despondent, because no matter how hard I might try, there was no way I could avenge myself.  I could go to my parents, but I had no evidence that I had been wronged, and without evidence I did not know any way I could get justice.  There was no appeal to any higher or stronger power for justice, except that I could plead with God that my brother would admit he was wrong and apologize for what he did to me.

My point is that because we all know when we have been wronged, we also need justice.  Any society that cannot convince its people that is laws are basically just will ultimately fall, because the people of that society will not support those who wield power.  If people believe they are constantly being wronged, they will seek to get justice for themselves in whatever little ways they can.  Justice is essential, not just for a society, but to each individual in society.

Because justice is so essential, both to society and to us as individuals, I found a recent article very interesting.  Apparently, there is a judge in Saudi Arabia who has asked hospitals if they would be able to paralyze a man by damaging his spinal cord in some way.  I kid you not.  Read it for yourself here: "Saudi Judge Considers Paralysis Punishment."  He is doing this because one man accidentally paralyzed another man, and now the paralyzed man and his family want justice, based on the concept of  "an eye for an eye," which means the other man must also be paralyzed for there to be any justice.

I'm not intending to harp on how barbaric Islam is that it could be reasonable to paralyze a man because he accidentally paralyzed another man.  Admittedly, the idea of paralyzing a man for the sake of justice is a pretty horrible idea.  The fact that any society would think that corporal eye-for-eye punishments would result in an equitable solution for crime seems ridiculous on its face to me.  What I mean is that if you cut off a man's foot because he accidentally (or intentionally) cut off yours, now you have introduced a situation where he is limited in how he can serve society, and how he could help pay for the disability he caused.

Here is the real problem for each of us though: Justice is essential.  If we recognize that we have been wronged, and we recognize that our indignation is real, not just a contrived construct of society, then there is some standard that serves to define justice and injustice, both.  Ultimately that standard has to be the absolute moral righteousness of God, for anything less is not absolute and has no true weight when placed on the scales of reality.  But, if we have been wronged then we must admit we have wronged others, and if we have wronged others, we have also wronged God, because whenever we wrong someone else we not act unjustly against them, we violate the justice of God, since he is the one who established what is right and wrong.

What can we do though?  Justice, when rightly performed requires that there be a repayment, an exchange that rights the wrong performed.  At the very least, in the case of a slight wrong, there must be an apology.  But, an apology only works between men because one humbles himself and appeals to the other, admitting that he has acted improperly.  Forgiveness, in such a case, is not really justice, it is an act of grace whereby the one who forgives chooses not to require justice, but to act as though the wrong has been repaid.  The problem is that if we humble ourselves before God and ask for forgiveness, we only assume our right position before God.  And, if God chooses to forgive us then he would be in violation of his own justice, choosing to act as though repayment has been made when it has not.

If we tried to repay God we would find that to be impossible also.  Even if we acted perfectly for our entire lives we would never do more than we should do.  Even if we to live morally perfect lives in every way, such that we even sacrifice ourselves to save others, we would still not be doing anything more than living as we should live from that moment on.  Justice requires not simply that a man should stop stealing, but that he should also repay for what he has stolen.  How then can man repay God, when we cannot live morally perfect lives, and even if he could, that would not be enough to make him perfect, because after one wrong act the blemish would always exist.

The necessity of Christ becomes clear when we consider the justice of man.  If even those without Christ understand that perfect justice is accomplished through exact repayment, then how much more should we understand what Christ paid on our behalf?  Our iniquities, our injustice, our immorality, had to be atoned for, but only one who had no blemish could suffice for such a payment.  Perfect justice requires a perfect payment, and so Christ, who was perfect, suffered, endured the wrath of God, poured out upon him on a device of human torture, so that in every way our unrighteous acts might be atoned for, paid for exactly by the Son of God himself.

When my brother got done beating me up he left me alone, and I cried and prayed that God would make him come back and apologize to me, because my brother knew he was wrong, I knew he was wrong, and more than that, God knew he was wrong.  I did not really expect an apology, but I asked God that he would make right what was wrong.  After I had regained my composure, I sat on my bed feeling sorry for myself, and my brother came back and told me that he was sorry.  He knew I was innocent, he knew that he had no right to beat me up, and he was sorry for doing it.  The very words I had prayed to God were spoken back to me from the mouth of brother.

Life does not always workout like things did with my brother.  Sometimes we are wronged and there seems to be no recompense.  Sometimes it seems like we ourselves have gotten away with murder.  The fact is though that there is a righteous God who sees all things, and who will have justice one day, because his laws demand it.

The joy of being a Christian is that we already know our payment is complete.  Christ, who died upon the cross, has born our sins, and we bear them no more.  God's righteous justice is matched by his loving grace, because he did not have to provide Christ for us, but that it was what he chose to do.  Because we have been forgiven, we can forgive those who wrong us, and when they stand puzzled at why we do not demand justice, we can let them know that justice has already been met, and that Christ suffered even for them, if they will confess him as Lord and Savior.  Justice demands repayment, and grace allows us to tell people that a perfect payment has been made on their behalf.  Have you considered how great a payment Christ's death was for you?  Have you considered what a blessing it might be to endure injustice, how wonderful it could be to forgive someone else, so that you can tell them of the wonderful payment Christ made on their behalf?

If we have died with him, then we have been resurrected with him.  He was declared the Lord of all things by his resurrection, so who are we to deny him?  If his death was sufficient to pay our debt where we had wronged God, how much more should it suffice to pay for the petty grievances we might hold against those who have wrong us?  Let us endure injustice, but let us be bold to confront those who have wronged us, that we might share with them the grace of the one who died and rose again.  Our egos might be bruised, our toes might get stepped on, but let us see that the real challenge is not to demand justice, but to share the mercy of God with everyone who would hear.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Peace Making 101

Have you ever done something stupid?  Have you ever done or said some stupid thing that hurt someone else by accident?  How about on purpose?  I'll bet if you think hard enough you can probably come up with an idea of sometime when you did.  I know I can.

I have two older brothers, one about 2 years older and one about 4 years older.  Because we grew up as three boys, and because we basically grew up in an area where there were no other children until I was 8, we did stupid things that got each other hurt.  I remember one time emptying out a 2 liter bottle of some kind of soda, then I held it up to my eye and acted like I could see something really cool in it.  When one of my brothers took it and looked into it I hit it.  Now, I meant to knock it so he would be surprised, but I didn't think about the fact that bottles have little openings, so instead of just hitting around his eyes, I basically hit the bottle right into his eye.  As you can imagine, he didn't think it was funny, and it ended up hurting him a bit more than I thought it would.  (As you can also imagine, I got into trouble for it.  Lesson to all you kids out there: stupid actions do not make you immune to the consequences.)

My point?  Well, apparently even adult Christians are not immune from doing stupid things.  I came across an AP News Article that reports that a church in Gainesville, FL plans on burning copies of the Quran on September 11.  Now, I'll grant you that I'm not entirely up to date on exactly why they plan on burning copies of the Quran, I have an idea but I haven't actually talked to anyone from the church about it, but I'm going to state that this is a categorically stupid idea.  Not only is it stupid, it is unchristian.

Why is it unchristian?  Well, what does it accomplish?  Does it present the gospel to a lost and dying world?  Does burning copies of the Quran engage with Muslims in the area or abroad and present to them the reality of their sins and their need for redemption?  Basically, this move in no way exalts God, because all it does is burn pieces of paper.

Okay, it isn't just pieces of paper, its copies of the religious holy book of another religion.  So what?  Will burning those copies of the Quran prevent the spread of Islam?  Will burning copies of the Quran have any effect on Islam in any way, shape or form?  Of course not.  Burn ten copies, burn a thousand copies, burn a million copies of the Quran, it won't change a thing, because more can be printed and will be printed.  Unless everyone who is enslaved by Islam around the world embraces the freedom that is offered to them in Jesus Christ, destroying copies of the Qur'an is a meaningless event at best.  At worst this event will simply harden the hearts of people who desperately need to know about Jesus, and thus this church will be helping Satan lead these people to hell.

Maybe this church figures that because bibles are routinely destroyed in Muslim countries they are simply doing what Muslims have been doing for years.  But that isn't what Christ commanded us to do.  He told us to do to others what we would have them do to us.  That means despite the fact that we are insulted, we do not insult back  Despite the fact that Christians are wronged, our Scripture is insulted and our people are murdered, we do not respond in kind, because we are called to love those who hate us, and to bless those who curse us.

I had a whole rant prepared for how we are God's Israel, and how our battle is against spiritual powers and a sinful system that enslaves and oppresses those who do not know Christ.  But I don't really need to do that rant.  I don't need to provide an argument for what we are called not to do, because there is a simple statement that tells us what we should do in situations like this: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  (Matthew 5:9)

If we are called to be peacemakers, is this church being obedient to the Word of God?  Is burning the Qur'an going to help spread the gospel of Christ so that his peace will reign in the hearts and souls of men?  Anyone who honestly looks at this can only say, "No".  Instead of being peacemakers this church is quite intentionally stirring up controversy.

I'm not saying that we should not confront Islam.  I think we should.  But I think we need to do it in the same way Christians are commanded to confront any false religion, any sin: through biblical, personal outreach.  We need to demonstrate that what we are doing is being done from love, and that we want to rescue the hurting.  Speaking gently, confronting with compassion, and standing on the authority of God's Word are the means of confronting any sin, not burning effigies and screaming at people.

I wonder if this church realizes how much harder they might be making things for Christian missionaries in Muslim countries.  I had a friend who was going to go and be a missionary in Indonesia, he told me that he sometimes had people come to him and say they wanted to know what it would take for them to go with them.  He told me that his response was that they shouldn't bother to pack suitcases, but instead, buy a plain pine coffin, pack their clothes in it, and have it sent with them as their luggage because most likely they would need it if they came with him.  He went knowing that it was entirely possible, if not probable, that he would die sharing the gospel with a lost and dying people who were at war with God.

That is what being a peacemaker means.  Being willing to accept that the gospel of Christ is of more importance than material possessions, your own life, or even your own anger and venom.  I do not doubt that this church that wants to burn Qur'ans believes that Islam is evil and dangerous.  I believe Islam is evil and dangerous.  But what if, instead of burning Qur'ans, this church did a joyful, peaceful servant project to a local community that had a high population of Muslims, and tried to develop personal relationships that would allow them to speak truth into the lives of those enslaved by lies?  What if on 9/11, and every day, instead of throwing fuel on the fires of hatred and resentment, we reached out to a dying world with love?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Need for a Guide

When I was 17 years old and just really getting back into church, I spoke with one of the men who was going to church with me briefly about the idea of evolution.  I'm not sure how the subject was brought up, but I can remember the gist of the conversation.  I argued that Darwinian evolution and Christianity are perfectly compatible, based on the idea that Scripture was not really giving us a history in Genesis 1, and that Darwinism simply explained the mechanism through which God brought about humans.  The response I received was not an apologetic for Scripture, it was an apologetic for apologetics.  My friend told me that I should sit down and read some Ravi Zacharias, or maybe some other works (which he mentioned).

I had never heard of Ravi Zacharias.  I had never really heard of apologetics.  I had simply attempted to reconcile what I was being taught at school with what I read in Scripture.  Being the typical teenager I certainly wasn't going to start asking my parents.  After all, I did not think it a discussion worth having, I already knew the answer, why bother asking them for the solution to what was not a problem?

Reading Zacharias introduced me to apologetics.  From him I began to read others.  From that starting point I realized that there was a lot that I thought I knew that I simply did not know.  In my own wisdom I had taken to reading Scripture through a lens that demythologized it.  Sure, I still believed in miracles, but when I read about the crossing of the Yom Suf (I blame Dr. Garret for this, if you don't know what it is, I'll explain later) or about any number of other events, I simply assumed that these were not particularly miraculous as much as they were times where God simply used the normal course of events to bring about his will.  (Why that is necessarily less miraculous I am not entirely sure.  The idea of a God who could arrange things so a major event of world history would just happen to coincide with some otherwise naturally occurring event, so that the naturally occurring event would take on momentous meaning is pretty awesome.  Work carefully, I promise that last sentence can be parsed into something sensible.)

Apologetics was my road map back to conservative Christianity.  What I mean is that I had bought into a great number of rather liberal assumptions about Scripture.  For instance I am sure that I thought that the authors could have made mistakes, that errors could have crept in via copying, and that Scripture was just as open to error as any 2000+ year old document.  But, I had never considered what Scripture says about itself, and the logical defenses for that position.

When Paul says, "All Scripture is breathed out by God..." I had not considered that he could here actually mean that God had inspired the writers of Scripture, so that what they said and recorded was actually true and free from error.  Further, I had not considered that God himself, as the ultimate author of Scripture, could also be the one to protect Scripture, so that it could be free from error.  Therefore, my assumption was that the bible should be treated like all other documents, in how we read it and seek to correct it, because it is just like all any other document.  Because I started with a wrong assumption, I came to a wrong conclusion: Scripture, while useful for moral teaching and important as a means of salvation, is not necessarily factually accurate in what it speaks of when it comes to history, anthropology, and every other subject it discusses.

My guide was always my own mind, and what I understood of current science.  Scripture was useful, but not essential.  God could be discovered through purely rational activity, such as philosophy.  Man, while imbued with the unique image of God, was biologically only an evolved primate.  Science was my key to understanding life, and so I pursued science, especially Chemistry and math.

But, in being exposed to apologetics I realized there was another way of looking at the world.  What if Scripture was unique and special?  What if we took it at its word, assumed its accuracy, and then sought to wrap our minds around its implications?  What if we looked to prove how the bible has been correct, and did not assume that we, in our modern wisdom, knew more about the past than those who lived at the time and wrote about it?  These questions required me to re-examine the bible, and to realize that there was a lot I missed.

Thinking about Scripture in this way transformed the way I thought about everything.  Maybe God really did create the world in six day.  Why not?  What evidence was there to be marshaled against the idea?  Could that evidence be explained by the biblical account of creation and fall?

What if everything that Scripture claimed was absolutely true and happened just as it happened?  In that case Scripture became more than just a mere record of history, it was the means by which God communicated himself to men throughout every generation.  Moreover, it did not record mere chance events of nature, but it testified to the awesome and inspiring work of a God who I could never grasp and who I could never put into a box of limitations.

This view of Scripture did not require me to abandon logic, it allowed me to dive deep into logic, to go as far as my mind could carry me into any mystery, into any question, because at the end of all exploration there was God to meet me once again.  God the creator, designer, sustainer, provider, helper, discipliner, and lover.  Every question I asked could point me to God, if I followed it through a biblical worldview.  And so I realized, understanding Scripture does not limit my exploration, I do not find mindless chaos as when I assume a purely Darwinistic view of evolution, instead I find a God who is abundantly more than anything of which I had ever dreamed.

In every situation we need a guide, otherwise we will never know if we are on the right road.  For me, more than anything else I have determined that Scripture is what I want as my guide.  I want my mind guided by Scripture, my morals, my heart, and my imagination too.  Why?  Because, whereas I may vacillate on whether something is right or wrong depending on how I feel, and whereas scientific theory may be overturned tomorrow or in a hundred years, and whereas I may grow confused and make an error in logic, Scripture is God's Word, and it alone can claim to be eternally correct.  Without a guide there is no meaning, but what guide can prove more accurate, or give greater meaning, than that which is inspired by God?