Monthly Archives: March 2014

“Why is something bad happening to me?”

One of the philosophical objections to Christianity is the “Problem of Evil”. Why does an all-good, all-powerful God allow evil in the world? I noted in a previous post how Jesus’ death and resurrection gives Christianity a unique and powerful answer to that question.

But this question is rarely raised in a philosophical void. The more common question everyday people face is this: Why is something evil happening to me? This question is personal and is best answered in a personal context. I got this question while giving a talk in our After School program, and thankfully it was addressed later in a one-on-one conversation between a leader and a student.

Nevertheless, here are some Biblical answers I might give. My exact answer would depend on the particular situation.

We live in a fallen world. God created the world and declared it good, but when sin entered the world that goodness was broken and corrupted. The general brokenness of the world accounts for lots of things that don’t appear to have an immediate “culprit”. We get sick. A relative gets cancer. A natural disaster strikes. These are all signs of our broken world. Our hope is that God will eventually bring about a world where there is no sickness, death, or sudden disaster.

We also hold out home in this life because we know that God is a master at bringing good out of evil.

God may be using this to help us grow closer to Him. Paul says that he was given a “thorn in his flesh” to keep him from becoming conceited. He pleaded with God to remove whatever it was but God didn’t. Instead God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). Through this trial, Paul learned to rely fully on God.

I recently had a conversation with a woman who went through bouts of depression. She told me that during one bout she was able to experience the comfort of God in a unique and powerful way which she is able to return to again and again. Why did God allow her to experience depression? I’m not sure, but he has found a way to redeem at least a part of it for good.

God may be using this to help us grow in character and hope. Paul also tells us that we should “glory in our sufferings,” which is a pretty surprising and counter-intuitive command. We can glory in our sufferings because “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character hope” (See Rom 5:1-5). Somehow, our temporary comfort is less important to God than our hope and our character.

Last week on Sunday we were blessed by having Pastor Emmanuel from Rwanda speak at our church. He is a man who has undergone much suffering. His family was killed before his eyes during the genocide. He lived as an orphan for much of his teen life. And yet, he is a man of incredible character and hope. And his hope runs deep. Did that genocide break God’s heart? You bet. Do I have any idea why God allowed it? Nope. But I do know that out of it God raised up a man to bring the light of Jesus to Rwanda.

God may be using this to accomplish something beyond ourselves. The story of Joseph in the Bible is a great place to go to look for comfort in our trials. In it we see how God uses terrible circumstance (Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers) to raise up Joseph to a place of power. At the end of the story Joseph says “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). God had a plan for Joseph beyond himself.

God has a bigger plan than we could ever imagine and rarely do we get the same glimpse that Joseph did. But we have the same God that he did. His plans for our lives transcend our own lives. In this life we might not ever see the good that can be brought out of evil, but someone else might.

We may have to ask, is there something in my life that needs to change? In each of the examples above, the individual was not directly responsible for their trial. But, if we’re honest, we must admit that much of the time our suffering is self-inflicted. The guy who looks at porn shouldn’t wonder why his marriage is crumbling. The man who cheats on his taxes shouldn’t blame God when legal trouble comes along. The teenager who is a jerk to her friends shouldn’t be surprised when her friends desert her. This doesn’t mean everything that is bad that happens to us is our fault or that others don’t share blame. But, we are wise to examine ourselves. Lots of bad stuff happens because the world is fallen. Sometimes it happens because we are fallen.

But God is a master at bringing about good in the midst of evil. He beckons us to himself whether our suffering comes from others or is self-inflicted. Just like the prodigal son, when we return to God, he runs to meet us with open arms to heal, forgive, restore, and redeem. 

What is the meaning of the “presence of God?”

One of my most popular blog posts, in terms of generating search results, is the post “Should we treat church buildings as holy ground?” wherein I address the title question. My answer hangs on the meaning of the presence of God. But what does “the presence of God” really refer to anyway?

Yesterday morning I was reading 1 Kings 8 and I discovered that Solomon both asks and addresses that question in his prayer of dedication of the temple.

Right after the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the temple the Bible says “the cloud filled the LORD” causing Solomon to declare “the LORD has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for your to dwell forever” (1 Kings 8:10-13).

Solomon built the temple to be the “dwelling place” of God.

But Solomon understood the apparent contradiction here. How could one building provide a suitable dwelling place for the Creator of the universe? He asks in his prayer: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less the temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:17) God’s presence is not something contained in space, even the whole of created space, but he definitely seen it as something real.

He answers how he understands the presence of God in the next verse. “Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day … so that you will hear the prayer of your servant.” (8:28, 29) For Solomon, God’s presence is made known when He answers the prayer of his people. But what is most instructive, or what was most surprising to me, was the specific answer to prayer Solomon was looking for. “Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.” (8:30)

I would have expected Solomon’s prayer to read the more generic “and when you hear, answer.” But no, Solomon knew what he and the people needed most when it came to God’s presence – his mercy.

Note how this theme is expanded in the rest of the prayer:

  •          When your people have been defeated… hear and forgive and bring them back to the land. (33-34)
  •          When there is no rain because the people sinned… hear from heaven and forgive. Teach them the right way to live. (35-36)
  •          When a famine or plague comes to the land… Forgive and act; deal with each man according to all he does. (37-40)
  •          When the people sin and are taken captive… hear their prayer and forgive your people; forgive all offenses they have committed against you. (46-51)

There are a few three sections of this prayer where the pattern doesn’t hold.

  •          When a man wrongs his neighbor… Judge between your servants, condemning the guilty and vindicating the innocent. (31-32)
  •          When a foreigner comes and prays… hear his prayer from heaven so that all people may know your name. (41-43)
  •          When your people go to war… uphold their cause. (44-45)

Still, forgiveness is a major theme of Solomon’s prayer. God’s presence, or at least the evidence of God’s presence, is seen in the mercy He shows his people.

This squares with Hebrews 4:16, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mart and find grace to help us in our team of need” and Hebrews 10:22, “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” Again, both the way into God’s presence, and the benefit of it, is marked by the mercy of God.

We often think of God’s presence in terms of mysticism or ecstatic religious experience. I think that an awareness of the real presence of God in our midst should lead us to what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections” but that, objectively, the primary means and benefit of the presence of God is none other than his mercy and grace.

The irony of vampire stories

This post is filed under “random musings.”

I find the existence and popularity of vampire stories ironic given the zeitgeist of the age.

I was listening to a radio interview with an author who wrote a book called Vampires in the Lemon Grove. The author said she used the vampire genre because vampires represent certain human characteristics that we all wrestle with, particularly issues of appetite and desire. Questions of appetite and desire are also significant themes in the uber-popular Twilight series.

The “good” vampires are always those who conquer their bloodlust, who act contrary to their more destructive tendencies, who exercise self-control on behalf of others. This genre is extremely popular these days, especially among teenagers.

I find it ironic then, that these books are so popular in an age where the above characteristics (self-control, self-denial) are so downplayed, or even seen with disdain. We’re told everywhere to act on our baser instincts and to gratify our desires. Yet these themes are central in the vampire genre.

I wonder if that maybe, just maybe, despite the barrage of messages we hear to the contrary, that we all understand the war within, and that is really is a war. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’m actually thankful that some of these vampire stories (I’m sure no all!) are helping some teenagers see the value of self-control and self-restraint.

5 Cool things I learned about our After School program while listening to the radio

Attic After School crew on the Radio

Attic After School crew on the Radio

As many of you know, my church puts on an after school program (Attic After School) three days a week for Middle and High School students. This past Saturday, four of our kids got to be on a radio show. During the show the host, J.R. Pittman, asked the kids questions about their experience in the After School program. Even though I know these students through my work with the program, their answers to his questions were still enlightening, and encouraging to me.

Here are 5 things I learned:

1)      Jasmine’s name is really Beyonce, or so she said on the radio. Did I mention these students are goofy?

2)      Students are coming because of their friends. The host asked each of the students why they came to Attic After School. They all answered, “because my friends invited me.” This is really encouraging to me. We haven’t been growing because of marketing but because of word of mouth. And why would students invite their friends? It must really be a fun, encouraging place to hang out.

3)      Students that ask tough questions appreciate that we do our best to answer them. Jasmine/Beyonce asks some of the toughest questions during our “Talk Time.” On the radio program she admitted she doesn’t really want to call herself a Christian because she is still trying to understand the Bible. She said she really appreciates that the leaders answer questions during and after Talk Time.

4)      Personal testimonies matter. One of the students, Carlos, mentioned that he was really drawn to the Attic because one of our leaders, Darwin, shared his personal testimony. This was something that Carlos could really relate to. Add to that the fact that Darwin is a great mentor to so many of these kids and it’s no wonder we’re seeing many of our students experience significant spiritual growth.

5)      The students feel safe and welcome. We are a distinctly evangelical Christian organization. Our students, on the other hand, come from a wide range of backgrounds and spiritual beliefs. We don’t shy away from tough topics (homosexuality, hell, etc.). Still, the students on the radio – made up of those who don’t share many of our beliefs – said they felt safe and welcomed when they come. Some kids even walked out during one of our Talk Times, yet they keep coming back. I think that’s a testimony to the power of the gospel and the patient kindness of our volunteers.

Bonus: Savon has a radio voice.

The Problem of Evil: A Reason to Trust Jesus?

One of the greatest and most enduring challenges to theistic belief is the so-called “problem of evil.” How could an all-good and all-powerful God allow a world where evil exists? The problem of evil is a tough nut to crack and probably one that won’t be fully solved this side of eternity. A number of solutions have been proposed, some better than others. But, if we’re really talking about evil, should we really expect it to fit nicely into our theological boxes?

However, while it’s a powerful argument against the internal logic of most theistic systems, it’s not a very good argument for atheism. It’s not a good argument because it assumes too much. The problem of evil is only a problem if evil is real. And, from the perspective of atheism “good” and “evil” are really just words that signify nothing. As Wittmer puts it in Despite Doubt “If there is no God, the best I can say is that I dislike being robbed or getting cancer. I cannot say that these events are evil, for what is bad for me might be good for someone else… It is a bold move to declare ‘this is good’ or ‘this is evil.’” In other words, to say that evil is a problem we have to acknowledge that it really exists. And the most natural way to acknowledge its existence is to adopt a theistic worldview.

Also, while the problem of evil is still a problem for Christians, Christianity has a stronger answer than other theistic systems. Again Wittmer: “The problem of evil is not an abstract problem for the Christian God. Our God doesn’t ride above the fray untouched by our fears and tears. He enters our world and joins our suffering to do something about it.”

For God the problem of evil is personal and he overcomes evil in a personal way. Jesus came to overcome evil by suffering on the cross. He experienced the worst evil ever experienced. No one was ever so undeserving as Jesus and no one had as much to lose. On the cross the Son experienced separation from the Father. How this separation could even occur is a profound mystery.

But here’s the amazing thing: We know the reason for this event. We know why the worst evil in history happened. It was for our salvation and it was experienced by God himself. So, even if we don’t know the reason why some evils happen, we do know that if God triumphed over evil on the cross then he can triumph over any evil we may face.

All theistic systems offer some of the same answers for the problem of evil – the existence of free will, the ultimate plan of God – only Christianity has a God who was willing to conquer evil by being willing to experience it. Our God both defeats evil and sympathizes with us when we experience.

Wittmer concludes the argument by stating: “Do you believe in evil? That’s the best reason I know to believe in Jesus. Only Jesus can supply the security, success, and sympathy that you know you need.”

“Get in the Boat!”

I recently read a quote on faith that described living by faith like staying afloat in water. You don’t swim by grasping at the water – that’s futile. You stay afloat by relaxing and just letting your body be carried. In regards to faith, then, we have faith when we relax in reality, whatever it might turn out to be. We destroy faith when we grasp securely to specific notions about God.

I read this quote while contemplating the life and faith of Noah, so the water metaphor latched onto a very concrete event “floating” around in my brain. I imagined Noah preaching this message right before the flood. I imagine him saying, “OK, a big flood is coming, but don’t worry, just relax in the waves and you’ll be okay.” What a useless message!

Of course, he wouldn’t have given the other message either. The message “swim like mad” would have been just as useless, although at least more in tune with our base sense of survival.

Instead, I’m sure Noah would have preached a pretty specific message: Get in the boat!

God promised never again to destroy the world again with a flood, but there is still a judgment coming. We can call people to just “relax, everything will be okay,” or we can council people to a flurry of religious activity (do this, don’t do that), as if by their own actions they could somehow save themselves before the holy judgment of God. Or, we can call people to a simple and profound message: “Get in the boat!” Turn to the One who can save you completely, not through religious effort, but through faith. Yes, there is a singular idea to which we must grasp – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – but we are grasping at more than just an idea. We are reaching out for a Person. And, more importantly, he is grasping for us.

Noah, and a word to my High School self.

I originally wrote this blog post in November of 2012 on another site. Tomorrow, though, I’ll be preaching (Hebrews 11:7) on this very same passage, so I thought it worthwhile to edit and re-post in this new space.

“By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.” Hebrews 11:7

When I was in High School, the worst part of the day was lunch time. It was the worst part of the day because I didn’t have many friends to sit with in the cafeteria. I did find some people I sort of knew, but I was always the odd one out and rarely participated in their conversations. After they ate, I would either awkwardly hang around or head off alone to my locker.

In fact, all of Middle School and High School was a struggle for me when it came to social events. I always felt a little out of place, a little lonely, and quite a bit different than everyone else around me. My unease came from an obsession to be liked, or at least not disliked, by my peers.

It wasn’t really until my senior year that I finally began to come to grips with my own identity and began to care a little less about how well I fit in, or didn’t.

I would like to say I had trouble having friends because I was courageously standing up for Jesus but I think most of the time it was just because I was socially awkward.

Noah, on the other hand, most certainly faced criticism because of his faith. In Noah’s time, the world was filled with violence and the people were extremely wicked. By contrast Noah was “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.” (Gen 6:9)

God warned Noah that he was going to destroy the world with a flood, something people had never seen before, and instructed him to build a giant boat; an ark. Noah responded in obedience, out of “holy fear.”

Noah displayed faith. As it says in Hebrews 1:1, “faith is being sure of what we do not see.” He was warned of something not yet seen (a future flood), was sure that it would come, and responded appropriately. Noah also had confidence that God would reward those who earnestly seek him (1:6), and in this case that meant escape for himself and his family from the judgment of God.

Noah most certainly faced mocking and criticism. He had already set himself apart as a righteous man, now he was building a giant boat in the middle of his back yard. One of the striking phrases of 11:7 is this: “by his faith he condemned the world.” This is an odd (and probably offensive sounding) phrase. Certainly Noah could not condemn in the sense that God condemns, that is, Noah didn’t cause the flood. Instead, he condemned the world in the sense that by his faith “he showed the wisdom of his own course and the folly of theirs” (Barnes Commentary on Heb 11:7).

Now, no one wants to feel condemned, either by God or by others, so there was most certainly a strong reaction against Noah, not just as a “crazy man” but as an enemy of the status quo. People didn’t just think he was nuts, they hated him.

Nevertheless, Noah put his faith in God and withstood the attack of the enemy. He was willing to go against the current (pun intended) and he was rewarded. Meanwhile, his adversaries were destroyed in the flood.

It takes faith to be willing to go against the current. It takes faith to be willing to be left out, or worse, because you trust God’s Word over man’s.

Based on this passage, here was my word to the students in our After School program, but it’s also a message I wouldn’t mind sending back in time to my High School self:

Going against your peers to follow God is probably more difficult at this point in your life than in any other. I get that. But be strong and courageous. God will get you through.

Be willing to stand up for what you know to be right. Be willing to opt-out from what you know is wrong.

At this stage of life, you are forming an identity and you have a choice. Your identity can either be formed by Jesus in obedience to God – which leads to the rewards that only He can give (salvation, eternal life with God after death, life to the abundance now) or you can be “conformed to the patterns of this world”, following the crowd, ultimately to destruction.

It takes faith to choose the former option. You have to trust that God exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Like Noah, it will take sacrifices along the way. But, choosing to follow God, even when it means rejection by the world, leads to a much greater reward.