Questions in the Wake of Suffering

October 4th, 2017 by brandon | | 1 Comment
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When tragedy strikes, as it did in Las Vegas this week, people begin to ask questions. It is part of human nature: we reason, consider, speculate, and ultimately seek to find answers that will provide meaning or comfort.

 

Why did this happen?

 

Where was God?

 

Couldn’t we have prevented this?

 

These are important questions, but they are not necessarily the questions to which Scripture gives answers. That is, if we look to the Bible for guidance, we will find our questions reframed, and answers to the questions we first ask more elusive than we would prefer.

 

In the face of great suffering—great evil, even—here are five questions we might ask, and five reframed questions that might take us in a different, and ultimately more fruitful, direction.

 

  1. Why did this happen? This is always the first question. We instinctively seek meaning, and when suffering seems meaningless, we despair. We understand why we suffer under a surgeon’s scalpel, because that act has meaning: to cure us from the disease; however, we do not understand why a loved one received the cancer diagnosis in the first place: we can see no meaning, no purpose to their suffering. (As we have become increasingly individualistic in our pursuit of happiness, attaching meaning to suffering has become proportionately more difficult, I should add. But that will take us too far afield today.) Of course, this is precisely the question Job asks of God after he suffers almost unfathomable loss. If God would only explain the why, he would accept it. Interestingly—especially considering we the readers are privy to the explanation—God never answers Job’s question. Instead, in his great theophany at the story’s close, he subtly reframes the question: not Why did this happen? but Do you know who I am? God takes Job through a series of rhetorical questions meant to draw out the answers Job already has (which is what rhetorical questions do). God says, in effect, “Job, you know who I am—you know my wisdom, power, justice, and goodness. You do not need to know why so long as you know the One who does know why.” It is a lesson we all struggle to accept.
  2. How could a good God allow such evil? Surely this is the most prominent objection to faith in the God of the Bible. It almost flows out of the last question: “Yes, yes, we know who you are, God—and that’s precisely the problem! If you’re truly good and truly powerful, why didn’t you stop this?” We will return to that question in a moment, but for now, let’s unpack some of the assumptions in the question. The questioner assumes a good God should have prevented the tragedy because it is wrong. President Trump, for example, referred to the massacre in Las Vegas as “an act of pure evil,” and few of us would disagree. But now a second question emerges, and one with which God’s detractors have to wrestle honestly. If we’re going to ask God How could you allow such evil? we need to ask ourselves Does our worldview allow for the category of evil? In rejecting God because of the evil in this world, many implicitly reject the very standard by which they reject him. They saw off the very branch they are perched on. C.S. Lewis sums it up nicely, “If we reject him, we ought also to reject all his works. But one of his works is this very moral standard by which we reject him. If we accept this standard then we are really implying that he is not a Brute and Blackguard. If we reject it, then we have thrown away the only instrument by which we can condemn him.” When we feel repulsion at evil, we implicitly acknowledge that humans are moral beings created in the image of a moral God. If we reject that notion, however, we can no longer meaningfully speak of evil. The great atheist philosopher Nietzsche embraced this logical consistency in a way that few today are intellectually honest enough to do. When hearing of a tsunami in the Java Sea that left hundreds of thousands dead, he responded, “200,000 wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!” We rightly recoil at this sentiment—but do we have the intellectual grounds to do so? If we accept a merely naturalistic, “Darwinian” account of humanity, for example, oughtn’t we rejoice at the “thinning of the herd,” at the decreased competition for survival and reproduction? A disgusting thought that surely suggests we reconsider the God question.
  3. Where was God? These first three questions all have a common thread to them, in that they assume we know what God should have been doing. This questions charges, “Had God been paying attention—were he really involved in this world—did he even exist—he surely would have stopped this tragedy from happening.” As we’ve seen already, however, the Bible nowhere affirms that we will understand what God is doing in permitting any tragedy. What the Bible does affirm, though, is that God knows what he is doing. And occasionally he will pull back the curtains and show us, that we might learn to trust him. Joseph, who suffered more than his fair share—attempted fratricide, slavery, unjust incarceration—is able to say to his brothers in spite of his grievances, “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). Had Joseph not suffered as he did, he could not have been used by God to save an entire region from starvation. Do we think God is any less capable of using tragedy today? Or, to take an even more obvious example, we might look to Calvary. Only one truly innocent person has ever suffered in the history of the world–and see what God did through his suffering! The question we should ask then, is not Where was God? but Do we trust God? As Tim Keller tweeted yesterday, “In the end, God will use evil to do the opposite of what was intended.” Do we believe this is the case? Can we trust him to bring good from evil? Has he not proven himself more than capable of this? Joni Eareckson Tada states the principle eloquently: “God ordains what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” This is nowhere more evident than in the death of his Son. And if God is loving enough to embrace suffering himself for our sakes, can we not trust him no matter what we might suffer?
  4. Could we have prevented this? Now, hear me clearly: this is a fair question, one we should ask and seek to answer as honestly as possible. Those who believe in the sanctity of human life should be the first to join the conversation. We do not take a laissez-faire approach to God’s image-bearers. But having said that clearly, let me say this too: sometimes our pursuit of prevention is an idolatrous desire for control, for autonomy. We should like to think, in the words of that famous poem “Invictus,” that we can be the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls—and we think so in defiance of the God who made us, and to whom we belong. Beyond the theological trouble attending this desire is the more practical one: we are manifestly not the masters of our fates, and we have no power to stave off death. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27). Ann Patchett, in an article entitled “Beltway Sniper” published in The New York Times Magazine during that horrifying tragedy, captures the folly of this desire: “The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality. Find out what the profile is, and identify the ways in which you do not fit it. But a sniper taking a single clean shot. . . reminds us horribly of death itself. Despite our best intentions, it is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.” So while we continue to ask if we could have prevented any single tragedy, we must acknowledge that in the end we still cannot prevent death itself from coming. The question the Bible suggests to us here is simply Are you willing to face your mortality? Psalm 90:10 puts it bluntly: “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” What is the answer to this bare reality? “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v 12). In humble acceptance of our mortality, we embrace an eternal perspective to live rightly.
  5. What did they do to deserve this? I hope no one reading this actually asks this question, but inevitably someone raises the question, especially when tragedy strikes in a place like “Sin City.” This legalistic self-righteousness is not new—for there is nothing new under the sun. Jesus’ own disciples once queried him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1). Of course, this line of questioning circles back to the preceding questions; it seeks to provide comfort to the questioner, knowing they don’t fit the profile of “sinner”; it seeks to provide meaning to suffering—they deserved it—and so to offer pat answers to dishonest questions. But in another instance, Jesus himself reframed the question into a far more fitting one: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish’” (Luke 13:1-5). There is the question we should be asking: Do you think those who suffer are worse than you? The Bible answers a resounding No. We are all dead in our transgressions and sins, by nature deserving of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). The plain fact of the matter is that no one of us suffers more than we deserve, and in fact we all suffer far less than we deserve because of God’s common grace. We deserve eternal condemnation, but God, in his mercy, offers us grace and eternal approbation. The key, as Jesus reminds us, is repentance. We turn from our sins and trust in his finished work on the cross, where he took the punishment for our sins in our place that we might receive welcome as God’s beloved children.

 

And that is another question we must all ask and answer—ultimately the one question that matters most: Will you repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?



Philosophical Kitsch

September 19th, 2017 by brandon | | No Comments
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As a wee lad in high school, I remember being struck by one particular quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five: “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” The she to which Vonnegut refers is Billy Pilgrim’s mother, and the thing that she purchased in the gift shop to give her life meaning was a crucifix, which hung above Billy’s bed as a child.

 

I suspect the quote struck me at the time because I took dual offense at it: as an American, I didn’t particularly like the suggestion that I was dependent on kitsch for my life’s meaning; and as a Christian, I really didn’t like the suggestion that a crucifix could be reduced to mere gift-shop knick-knacks. I’d like to think it suggests a deeper meaning, and the most stable foundation upon which to build a life, but more on that later.

 

In retrospect, however, I think Vonnegut might have been on to something, though not at all in the way in he thought. In fact, in a great bit of irony, his quote is nearer the truth now than ever before, but precisely because people first believed as Vonnegut wished they would—that is, because they stopped looking to the religious for ultimate meaning.

 

The idea first suggested itself when we stopped as a family at a particularly American restaurant right in the heart of America (Nebraska, if I recall) while returning from summer vacation. Among the more dated décor—Americana, primarily—hung the exquisitely fashionable: a feigned rustic, pallet-wood sign. On it, stamped in whites and golds, one could read, “Do one thing every day that makes you happy.”

 

Enter Vonnegut. Here we have an item, purchased at something like a gift shop, attempting to imbue life with meaning. But as in décor, so in philosophy: kitsch abounds (and one might do well enough without it).

 

To explain, let’s tease out this particular instance of gift-shop philosophy a bit. If we reject the religious as ultimate (and assuming deepest meaning would have been found in religion, such as our satisfaction in Christ in Christianity), we now have a vacuum of meaning in our lives. Because no Ultimate exists—no universals, nothing beyond the confines of this life—meaning will have to reduce to self. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel raises this point in his book What Does It All Mean? Since we’re all destined for the grave (and the grave is the end of life, since no immortal soul exists), perhaps we should simply take life as it comes and try to enjoy it as much as we can. In short, perhaps you should just, “Do one thing every day that makes you happy.”

 

The trouble, though, is this assumes a certain set of circumstances, i.e., that you have the power to do something each day that makes you happy. While many in the world have that option, not all do, and few have it each and every day of their lives. Imagine a refugee mother, displaced by genocidal atrocities, forced to choose which of her children she can keep from starvation. As she walks away from the younger of her two children, whom she is leaving to die, should she drink in the sunrise sparkling over the desert and find brief happiness in it? It would be a callused heart indeed who could suggest such a thing.

 

The trouble with our philosophical kitsch, then, is that it belongs to a certain segment of a certain society only—the segment that can afford kitsch, if I could put it bluntly. It is the special frivolity of post-religious affluence that can dream up such slogans and then dare to live by them (or at least attempt to).

 

For if we attempt to create meaning for our lives on the basis of circumstance-dependent slogans, we will always be at the mercy of our circumstances. When life’s vicissitudes gust mightily, the whole structure threatens to collapse. It is a house built on sand.

 

And that’s just the point. Philosophical kitsch, like decorative kitsch, is for adorning the walls of a well-founded structure—not for providing the foundation itself. When you use knick-knacks as load-bearing walls, safe to say those walls will come tumbling down faster than you can say, “Jericho.” First lay a solid foundation—choose a governing philosophy that provides meaning despite circumstances—and then (perhaps) throw some decorations up.

 

So, for example, if you’re particularly wedded to our illustrative slogan—you fully intend to do something each day that makes you happy—that’s well and good. Just make sure that’s not the base of your life’s meaning. Added in, as a conscious effort to drink deeply from the common grace offered us in the created world, it might spruce up the place a bit. Even then, I might choose a more robust version of the sentiment, as in George Mueller’s famous comment, “Above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord.” The unchanging God, in whom all joy is found, is the only sure foundation, so why not seek your daily happiness in him first?

 

In sum, I suppose I could say this: if you (like most Americans?) are going to seek life’s meaning in a gift shop, let it be a religious shop at least. You could do far worse than a crucifix.



Marks of Smoking Flax

June 27th, 2017 by brandon | | No Comments
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The Puritans left behind a great store of wisdom—rigorously theological, warmly devotional, and always centered on Christ and his gospel. Sadly, given the diminishing attention paid to language, grammar, and the humanities, they are less accessible to modern audiences than they deserve. Still, there are a few Puritan works that are short and simple enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest every English-speaking Christian read them. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress would head the list, undoubtedly. But not far behind would be the wonderful little classic The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes.

 

Sibbes takes as his text Isaiah 42:1-3,

 

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.

 

and from it shows the tender, loving grace of Christ, the Lord’s servant, towards his people.

 

If we’re honest about the struggle—the war our flesh and the Spirit wage within us, the temptations we face, and (all too often) our falls into sin—we will soon feel discouragement and doubt. Will we ever be sanctified? Will the war ever cease? Can I be sure of my salvation when I struggle so? Hear how Sibbes describes this struggle:

 

Some think they have no faith at all because they have no full assurance, whereas the fairest fire that can be will have some smoke. The best actions will smell of the smoke. The mortar wherein the garlic has been stamped will always smell of it; so all our actions will savour something of the old man. (45)

 

But how may we know that we are truly Christians, and not hypocrites hiding behind a profession of faith? “In a gloomy day there is so much light,” Sibbes writes, “that we may know it to be day and not night; so there is something in a Christian under a cloud whereby he may be discerned a true believer and not a hypocrite” (37-38). A smoldering wick, though it show no flame at the time, nevertheless bears the mark of heavenly ignition. And once lit by heaven, according to the promise given in our text, Jesus will not suffer to see it extinguished, but will fan it into flame once more.

 

With this in mind, Sibbes suggests ten marks of “smoking flax,” that is, of a smoldering wick. When the marks are present, when we see these rules at work in our lives, we can be sure God’s irresistible grace is at work within us to mortify sin and raise us to newness of life. He is actively forming Christ in us.

 

  1. “If there be any fire in us, it is kindled from heaven.” The light kindled in us by the Father of lights, Sibbes reminds, is the same light as in the Word. We must have heavenly light to discern heavenly truth. If we accept the Word as true, receive it, and seek to see its truth lived out in our lives, God’s light has surely “sparked” the interest within us.
  2. “The least divine light has heat with it in some measure.” Sibbes goes on to say, “Light in the understanding produces heat of love in the affections.” As we grasp biblical truth, it affects more than just our intellect; slowly but surely we begin to feel the fundamental structures of our hearts changing, until our affections are in line with the truth we profess. We value supremely what is supremely valuable; we treasure Christ above all. Here Sibbes follows Augustine’s famous dictum: “As a man loves, so is he.” Our affections truly determine our nature.
  3. “Where this heavenly light is kindled, it directs in the right way.” The world clamors for our attention, and many forces seek to direct us: media, politics, culture, friends and family. However, a true Christian will always look to God’s light as revealed in Scripture first and foremost. Sibbes offers a helpful analogy to distinguish between those who had a moment of intrigue when hearing the gospel, and those whose hearts were truly set aflame by God’s grace: “The light which some men have is like lightning which, after a sudden flash, leaves them more in darkness. They can love the light as it shines, but hate it as it discovers and directs.” If we say we like Jesus well enough, but bristle at his teaching (or the teaching of his prophets and apostles), we hate God’s light as it discovers and directs; if, however, we trust his light to guide and direct even when we struggle to understand the why, we prove ourselves to be smoldering wicks at least.
  4. “Where this fire is, it will sever things of diverse natures, and show a difference between such things as gold and dross.” If God’s light is at work within us, and as we trust it to direct us, it will reveal impurities within us. We will allow it to separate flesh from spirit, to help us identify and ultimately mortify what is carnal.
  5. “So far as a man is spiritual, so far is light delightful to him.” When God’s light reveals uncleanness, immorality, and sin within us, we receive the rebuke with joy. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted” (Proverbs 27:6), and what better friend have we than God himself, speaking through his Word? Our affections have been changed, so we delight most in Christ, and delight to be like him in increasing measure. Whatever tends to that end, we welcome with joy. If, however, we feel the sting of rebuke and resist it—draw the shades of our heart to keep the light out—it is likely we remain unregenerate. “There is nothing in the world more uneasy than the heart of a wicked man made to listen to spiritual instruction, until, like a thief, he puts out the candle so that he may sin with less restraint.”
  6. “Fire, where it is present, is in some degree active.” Grace works. Even in the midst of sin, when our flesh seems to be all-conquering, there is a “contrary principle, which breaks the force of sin, so that it is not boundlessly sinful.” The true light will flicker even in our darkest moments.
  7. “Fire makes metals pliable and malleable.” And so grace, where it is active, makes our hearts soft and prepares us to be changed. However, “Obstinate spirits show that they are not so much as smoking flax.”
  8. “Fire, as much as it can, sets everything on fire.” Grace, where it is active, will make everything in us gracious. All will tend in a Godward direction, to the fame of his name. As Paul puts the same principle, whatever we do, we will do to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
  9. “Sparks by nature fly upwards.” Our desires and aims will mount upward, toward heaven. A person cannot desire the holy unless grace is at work, “for we cannot desire anything which we do not believe first to be, and the desire of it issues from love.” Sibbes notes these desires must be (1) constant, for this shows their supernatural origin, (2) directed to spiritual things such as faith and love, not because of a pressing need or emergency (in which case the desire is selfishly motivated), but “as a loving heart is carried to thing loved for the sake of some excellency in it,” and (3) accompanied with grief when the desire is hindered—that is, when sin masks Christ’s loveliness.
  10. “Fire, if it has any matter to feed on, enlarges itself and mounts higher and higher, and, the higher it rises, the purer is the flame.” Where grace is truly active, it grows in measure and purity. “Ignis, quo magis lucet, eo minus fumat (As fire gives more light, it gives less smoke).” If we are truly in Christ, we will grow more like him; when we see no growth in grace, we show we are not so much as smoldering wicks. As one contemporary pastor puts it, “It’s okay not to be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way.”


Lincoln’s Insight for Today

June 20th, 2017 by brandon | | 1 Comment
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In his book The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, Andrew Delbanco shares what he considers “one of the most remarkable” of Abraham Lincoln’s writing, a short reflection only, perhaps intended as the beginnings of a speech. Lincoln writes:

 

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—

You say A., is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker?

Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it is his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

 

In this brief, inchoate musing (idiosyncratic comma usage and all), Lincoln not only anticipates the modern notion of race as “socially constructed,” but also demonstrates the tenuousness of dealing in moral non-absolutes. As Delbanco comments, “Lincoln knew it was fatally dangerous to oneself to deny to others the rights one claims as one’s own”—a point fraught with relevance for people on both sides of political aisles and religious spectra.

 

The issue of religious liberty springs to mind immediately. On one side, for political conservatives and some pious Christians, we have the danger of denying religious liberty to others (read: Muslims) that we would shudder to see denied ourselves. If one may ban Muslims from entry into a country purely on the basis of their religious beliefs, what is to prevent another from banning Christians for the same reason? As Lincoln might say it, “Take care. By this rule, you are to be banned by the first person you meet with any cause—just or unjust, founded or not—who fears you.” (It is worth noting that this is precisely what happened when Senator Sanders questioned a candidate for public office two weeks ago, as I discussed in my last post.) This is why Christians in America (notably the Baptists and Free churches) have always advocated for the separation of church and state: because they did not want government to meddle in the free exercise of their religion, they knew they could not promote or accept the meddling of government in anyone else’s religion either.

 

But I suspect Lincoln’s musing poses a greater corrective to the other side (what we might call liberal secularism), those who would lump all orthodox believers in any religion together under the pejorative “fundamentalist.” The reason Lincoln’s words prove so incisive here is because they bring out the notion of “social construct.” If race is not an absolute category, but merely a social construct (as is surely the case), then the boundaries might shift, and you might find yourself enslaved rather than enslaving.

 

How does this apply to the modern liberal secularism?

 

Simple. At this point in time, most everything is assumed to be a social construct, notably truth and virtue. If one denies mathematics or physics as racially or sexually oppressive, or denies science when it conflicts with our vision of progress (as in the case of transgenderism), what is to keep someone else from denying your truth in the name of progress or equality? If virtue is malleable to culture, and either the zeitgeist or the majority vote become sole arbiters thereof, what happens when evil becomes accepted virtue culture-wide? (See: Nazi Germany.) I’ve sawed off the very branch I’m sitting on right at the trunk.

 

Given globalization, this bother becomes even more troublesome quite quickly. If my virtue is mere social construct, and I encounter someone from another society, who thus possesses a different social construct, who is to arbitrate between us? If I regard the brutal subjugation of women as evil (as I do), but I encounter someone who sees it as the natural order, what can I say? I’m a victim of my own open-mindedness (especially if I’m a woman). If I continue to insist that truth and virtue are relative concepts, I can make no argument against whatever I perceive as evil anywhere I see it. If, instead, I insist that my (or the prevailing culture’s) view of truth and virtue is absolute, I’ve made myself (or my culture) god, which is breathtaking hubris—and unlikely to convince any who don’t share my apotheosizing religious convictions.

 

The way forward—in truth, the only sensible way—is to accept the presence of absolutes, not only social constructs. This was the implicit ground of Lincoln’s whole argument. As Delbanco comments, “In the last analysis, Lincoln regarded the hope of building one’s dignity on another man’s degradation not merely as an error but as sin” (emphasis added). What is wrong is wrong because it is wrong—not just because my culture thinks it is, or because it is in my interest to believe it is. Of course, this demands an accepted standard of truth (justice, sin, virtue, etc.), and here we find ourselves among the deepest, most important questions humanity can ask.

 

Space precluding longer argument, I would only submit that truth, if it is to be timeless, supracultural, must spring from a Being who is eternal, and who is Truth itself (cf. John 14:6).