A real leap of faith

They say that God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes God speaks in mysterious ways as well. I wish he would speak to me directly and audibly but he speaks to me through scripture, sermons, and songs. I didn’t expect God to speak to me through an Amish romance novel, but he did.

Last year, a friend gave me a bag of books that belonged to her mother, including some Amish love stories. They’re not books I would choose myself, though this particular genre is targeted at Evangelical women over the age of 50. The books sat in my basement for months. When I gave up social media for Lent, I suddenly had more time to read.

One of the Amish books is A Road Unknown by Barbara Cameron. In the book, a twenty-year old named Elizabeth got on a bus and ran away from home. She was the oldest of nine kids and had grown weary of taking care of her younger siblings. With her job and home responsibilities, she didn’t have time for a social life and was afraid she would never date or get married. So she decided to go stay with a friend in Pennsylvania and search for a job.

On her road trip to Pennsylvania, Elizabeth worried about whether she had packed enough food. Then she saw birds pecking at some crumbs and she thought: His eye is on the sparrow. Later in the book, she bought a couple of sparrow figurines to remind herself of God’s love and protection.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Matthew 10:29-31

After I read the book, I started thinking about my most recent leap of faith. A couple of years ago, I was so unhappy in my job that I quit even though I didn’t have another job lined up. I considered retiring early. But I found that health insurance is really expensive if you don’t have an employer to subsidize the premiums. I looked for non-profit jobs, hoping that I could find work that is more meaningful. I ended up jumping back into the rat race because it was easier to find a job in the for-profit market.

When I made that leap of faith, the visual that inspired me was a picture of a fish jumping out of a glass bowl, with the caption, “Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.” My leap of faith transported me to a job that is better than the last one. But instead of really taking a risk, I leapt from one fish bowl to another. So it is no surprise that I find myself once again wanting to take a leap. I am constantly thinking about beginning the next stage of my life somewhere else, escaping the suburbs and moving closer to nature.

Several years ago, I did a Bible study based on John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. One night, the disciples were in the boat, tossed about by the wind. Jesus had gone off by himself to pray. Just before dawn, the disciples saw Jesus walking out to them on the water and were afraid, thinking he was a ghost.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

Matthew 14:27-31

I am a lot like Peter. I want to trust that God will not let me fall. I take a tentative step then quickly return to the safety of what I know.

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.

Proverbs 19:21

Thankfully, God is patient with me, just as Jesus was patient with Peter. I am thankful that he knows what I need to hear and when I need to hear it. He has a plan for me and his plans will not be thwarted. His purpose will prevail.

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Photo by Photo by fred A on Unsplash

Why would a loving God allow pain and suffering?

I had the opportunity to see Vince Vitale,  co-author of Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, when he visited my church. I first reflected on this challenging question a couple of years ago and was interested in how Vitale’s insights meshed with those of C.S. Lewis and others who have tackled this question.

Skeptical theism

I have a niece who is an atheist. She says that she can’t stand it when people say that bad things happen for a reason. I understand her reaction. The people who say this have good intentions but this ambiguous answer provides little comfort in the face of suffering and grief.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, he said that Christianity creates the problem of pain (in an apologetic sense). We Christians believe in an all-powerful God who is both loving and righteous and yet we live in a world where people experience great pain. How can you reconcile the reality of pain, suffering, and senseless tragedy with belief in a loving God who has the power to make life easier for us?

In Christian Apologetics, Douglas Groothius asks: if evil appears to be pointless, is it? If you can’t conceive of a reason for pain and suffering, does that mean there is no reason for it? Vitale introduced me to the term skeptical theism, “the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance.”

Just as a child cannot understand the reasoning of an adult, we as limited human beings cannot understand God’s reasoning. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

What kind of love is this?

Many people reject the Christian God because they question how our God can love people and yet allow them to suffer. How can our God be good if he lets people feel pain? If he is really all-powerful, why doesn’t he do something to prevent suffering? Why should anyone trust a God who lets people suffer?

Vitale asked an interesting question: if it is evil to create a world where pain and suffering exist, then how is it good to bring children into this world? We know that children will experience pain and suffering in their lives but we still choose to have them.

The love of God is analogous to the love of a father for his child. It is the love of the Creator for the created. We are an expression of God’s love and creativity. I believe he loves us more than we can fathom. He forgives us over and over again, even as we reject him. He does not enjoy seeing us in pain but he is present to guide, protect, and comfort those who love him.

Vitale writes, “The loving parent is not the one who never allows suffering in a child’s life. The loving parent is the one who is willing to suffer alongside their children. And in Christianity this is exactly what we find.”

Christians believe that God became human to redeem mankind from our sinfulness. No other religion makes this claim – that God became fully human and experienced human suffering firsthand. Jesus subjected himself to temptation, rejection, ridicule, pain and death. He understands our suffering because he experienced it himself.

The Laws of Nature Versus the Power of God

Death and destruction are part of the natural world. According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, the process of natural selection weeds out the weak. Forces of nature like floods, fires, blizzards, tornadoes, famine and drought cause pain, suffering, death and destruction. So with or without a supernatural creator, we accept the destructiveness of nature. As Groothius writes, if you believe that the natural world is full of evil, then you must have in mind a supernatural ideal as the basis for your belief.

The rejection of the Christian God based on the problem of pain presupposes that God lacks the power to make things right. For those of us who believe that God is omnipotent, we believe that God is capable of suspending the laws of nature to prevent pain. We believe in miracles and that on occasion God changes the course of events. But we don’t expect God to break the laws of nature.

If I did something dangerous like drive my car straight into the path of another vehicle, I believe that God could intervene to prevent an accident. He could instantly change the mass or velocity of the vehicles to lessen the impact. He could make my car fly over the other car and land gently on the other side. But if God interfered with natural laws, they would not be laws. We couldn’t count on nature to behave in predictable, measurable ways. If we expect God to prevent the suffering that nature and free will make inevitable, life, as we know it, would no longer exist.

Vitale challenges us to imagine living in a world where there is no suffering. Everything and everyone would change. You wouldn’t be you. Think about a great person that you admire. If you subtracted out all of the pain and suffering that this person ever experienced, they would not be the person you admire. In a world with no suffering, there would be no heroes. There would be no courage, no compassion, no empathy, no determination -qualities that make people admirable.

The Cost of Free Will

As difficult as it is to understand the cruelty of nature, it is even harder to understand the pain humans inflict on each other. As C.S. Lewis noted, we cause pain when we’re born, we inflict pain on others while we’re living (and suffer on the receiving end), and we often experience pain and suffering in death. Humans have a long record of committing crimes, abuse, and other unspeakable acts against each other. We intentionally hurt each other physically and with words. We can be extremely cruel and indifferent to the pain and suffering of others. What’s worse, because we have the ability to reason and to feel, we understand the pain we cause.

God created us as intelligent beings with the free will to choose. That free will came with a risk – the risk that we would choose evil and reject God. The biblical story of Adam and Eve describes the first sin as an act of disobedience to God – the choice to eat fruit God had specifically forbidden. This was a choice to turn away from God and turn to the self. C.S. Lewis said that as soon as we become aware of God as God and self as self, we have the option to make God or the elevated Self the center of our universe.

God’s Power is Made Perfect in Weakness

The apostle Paul wrote that he was given a thorn in his flesh to prevent him from exalting himself, to keep him from becoming conceited about all the amazing things that had been revealed to him. We don’t know what this affliction was but Paul pleaded with God to take it away. God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul said that he was delighted in his difficulties and hardships (which included being beaten, stoned and imprisoned) because “when I am weak, then I am strong.” He knew that there is purpose in suffering. Suffering leads to perseverance, perseverance leads to character, and character leads to hope.

Pain is God’s Megaphone

C.S. Lewis said that pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” When things are going well, we have a tendency to push God aside and to put ourselves at the center. We live with an “illusion of self-sufficiency.” God reveals what we lack by letting our lives become more difficult. Sometimes our illusion of self-sufficiency must be shattered to save our souls.

Sometimes our surrender to God takes pain. Many people call on God when they are at their lowest point, perhaps struggling with loss, a crippling addiction, or a broken relationship. The good news is God is merciful. He has what Lewis called “divine humility.” He is not proud; he does not mind our choosing him as a last resort. His love never fails. He heals hurting souls.

As a Christian, I can see for myself that bad things happen to good people and that the world I live in is often cruel and unjust. As much as I try, I cannot fully explain the reasons for pain and suffering. But I have seen a glimpse of the purpose of pain in my own life and in the lives of others. When we look back through painful experiences, we see that they made us stronger. We see the building of character, the smoothing of our rough edges. We learn humility in our struggles. We see the light in the darkness. And we see the goodness of humanity in the face of tragedy and adversity.

Sometimes it takes the healing hands of time for us to see the big picture. When we’re in the midst of pain and suffering, we see the puzzle but we don’t necessarily see how the pieces fit together. In this life, we see only in part, but someday we will know fully.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12

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Vitale’s response to the question of pain and suffering is summarized in an article he wrote on the RZIM website – If God, Why Suffering? 

The Pernicious Lie of the Prosperity/Success Gospel

As I get ready for work in the morning, I often see a Joel Osteen commercial in which he says, when you humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, in due time, he will exalt you (1 Peter 5:6). Joel Osteen is known for preaching the “prosperity gospel” and for that reason alone, I steer clear of him. But while staying in a hotel, I watched a few minutes of his Sunday service and saw how easily Osteen misleads people with what is also known as the “gospel of success.”

In a Huffington Post article, Pastor Rick Henderson called out Osteen and Joyce Meyer for The False Promise of the Prosperity Gospel.

The Prosperity Gospel is much like all other religions in that it uses faith, it uses doing good things to leverage material blessings from God. Essentially, use God to get things from God.

Pastor Rick Henderson

Henderson’s article includes a link to a ten-minute video of Pastor John Piper explaining why the prosperity gospel is abominable. To explain why this false teaching is spiritually dangerous, Piper repeats Jesus’s warning about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Jesus also said that you cannot serve both God and money – Luke 16:13).

How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Luke 18:24-25

The Apostle Paul wrote about how destructive it is to chase after wealth because the love of money often leads to temptation. We should be content if our basic needs are met.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

1 Timothy 6:6-9

Piper says that those who believe in the prosperity gospel are confused about the timing of the blessings promised in scripture. The truth is, Christians face trials, persecution, pain, suffering, failure, and poverty in this life. Heaven is our eternal reward for a righteous life.

In the few minutes that I watched Joel Osteen’s sermon, he said that while there is nothing wrong with being a cheerleader for other people, you should be your own cheerleader because you have God-given talents. This sounds innocuous; I credit God for my abilities. But cheerleading the self is not consistent with the real gospel. And it is clear to me that Osteen has a self-serving and not a God-serving reason for pushing the success gospel. In his book, “You Can, You Will,” he offers to teach you how to reach your potential.

There is a winner in you. You were created to be successful, to accomplish your goals, to leave your mark on this generation. You have greatness in you. The key is to get it out.

Joel Osteen, promoting his book “You Can, You Will” on Facebook

The Truth Project’s lesson guide on anthropology says that some Christians “may have difficulty accepting the idea that ‘self-fulfillment’ and the call to ‘follow your heart’ are inconsistent with a Christian worldview.” Dr. Del Tackett says that “self-actualization” is a “pernicious lie.” He criticized Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs because self-actualization is depicted as the highest human need.

I say that the prosperity/success gospel is a pernicious lie. I think that Pastor Hariton Deligiannides would agree. In writing about Osteen’s cult-like influence, Diligiannides said that Osteen feeds his audience’s egos, scratches their itching ears (telling them what they want to hear), and covers up the true condition of the human heart.

Adam Blosser also calls out Joel Osteen as a false teacher because Jesus made it clear that his followers would be persecuted for their faith. Jesus said, you will be persecuted but you will be rewarded in heaven.

Osteen’s message is built on the power of positive thinking. If we will remove any semblance of negativity from our lives and focus only on things that are positive, then we can live lives that are victorious and successful. The clear problem with this message is that it ignores the reality of Christian persecution and suffering around the world.

Adam Blosser, in Why I call Joel Osteen a false teacher

Peter said that when you humble yourself, in due time, you will be exalted. I don’t know what Osteen has in mind when he quotes Peter’s verse about humility but I do know that my study Bible says Peter wrote to offer encouragement to suffering Christians. When I read about humbling yourself, I have in mind Christ’s humility (Philippians 2:5-11).

Even though Jesus was in his very nature God, while he walked on the Earth as a Son of Man, he did not exalt himself above us. Instead, he made himself nothing. He took on the nature of a servant, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, washing dirty feet. He was obedient to God, even to death on the cross! And after he lived a life of service and humility, God exalted him to the highest place – at His right hand – and gave him a name above all names.

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Photo of man kneeling by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

Who do you say I am?

In The Truth Project’s lesson on theology, several “men on the street” were asked the question, who is God? When I heard one of the responses, I laughed because it sounded ridiculously conceited. What hubris! To paraphrase: Who’s God? I am. I am a tattoo artist. I create. I’ve done very well for myself. The tattoo artist is not alone in thinking he is a “little g” god. But who is God with a big G? And if you know the answer, what do you do with it?

Who is God?

Although we cannot fully know God, a long list of attributes have been used to describe his nature – holiness, graciousness, omnipotence, etc. The authors of The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) wrote a lengthy sentence about God’s nature with scriptural sources for each attribute.

There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory, most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal most just and terrible in his judgments; hating all sin; and who will by no means clear the guilty.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter II, Of God and of the Holy Trinity

The words “without body, parts or passions” gave me pause. What did the writers of the confession mean when they said God is without passions? My mind interprets “without passions” as emotionless, which isn’t consistent with my view of God. The God I know loves deeply. According to William Tate, as published in Reformed Perspectives Magazine, to affirm that God is without passions means that God is not moved or controlled by something else in the way that humans are controlled by our emotions and passions.

The many names of God in the Bible – Abba, Father, El Shaddai, etc. – reveal a lot about his nature. Dr. Tackett spoke at length about the name El Qanna, Jealous God. Tackett struggled to understand how jealousy is consistent with a God who is without sin. But God is described as a jealous God because he wants to preserve the covenant relationship he has with his people.

God is my Father, Rock, Redeemer and Shepherd. He disciplines me like a father. He is strong and dependable, a firm foundation. He saves me and leads me. But one of my favorite names for God is I Am because it so simply affirms that he always was and always will be. He is immutable.

I AM: (Exodus 3:14) – This name for God, given by Him to Moses, is a form of the Hebrew “to be.” It expresses His self-existence and the unchangeableness of His nature. He is the “eternal present,” because He always was and always will be. Because He is outside time, He is always in the present. He does not change or change His mind. He is immutable.

From Compelling Truth: What are the names of God?

Knowing God

A central premise of The Truth Project’s lesson on Theology is that there is an important connection between knowing God and receiving eternal life. Eternal life is mentioned several times in the New Testament, including the familiar John 3:16, which says that whoever believes in the Son will have eternal life. Dr. Tackett pointed out the prayer in John 17:1-3, in which Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

The key to receiving eternal life is knowing the one true God. You can’t know God unless you have a personal, intimate relationship with him. As Dr. Tackett says, God revealed himself to us in his Word. The Bible is God’s Word but God’s will was made clear when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

Dr. Tackett warned about the people who have attacked God’s Word throughout history. I am not concerned about people who question the veracity of the scriptures. I do, however, feel compelled to repeat the warning that Jesus gave in Matthew 7. Not everyone who calls out to Jesus, Lord, Lord (as if they know him) will enter the kingdom of heaven, only those who show that they understand the Word of God by doing God’s will. Jesus will tell the false disciples, ‘Get away from me. I never knew you.’

Jesus often spoke in thought-provoking parables that were incomprehensible to those with hardened hearts. When asked why, he said:

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
   you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.

For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them

Matthew 13: 14-15

Through Jesus, I see the grace of God. I see how much God cares for the least among us. I understand with my heart.

Who do you say I am?

Focus on the Family posed the question, who is God? Jesus asked the question, who do you say I am? Do you see that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to save us? Do you grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is? Do you see how much the rest of the world needs to know God too?

When asked the question, who is God, the tattoo artist in The Truth Project video facetiously responded that he is. I found a video about Flash on Focus on the Family’s website. As I listened to him talk, I saw the pain behind the conceit. Many people reject God because the world is dark and cruel and the “churchy” people they see are not genuine. One bright memory in Flash’s childhood was a woman from church named Millie. She was the real deal. She was a light in the darkness.

As I reflected on this lesson on Theology, I am convinced that knowing God is not merely an intellectual exercise. It is much more than knowing his many names. It is much more than being able to describe his mysterious attributes. It is about knowing and loving him with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It’s understanding that people like Flash won’t know the love of God unless you show them who He is.

One Lord, one body, one hope

Sojourners and other faith-based organizations say that Christianity has been co-opted by politics. I have long believed that the pursuit of political power has a corrupting influence on religion. Last year, a group of religious leaders wrote a declaration called: Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis. How should the Church respond in this struggle against the powers of this dark world?

An identity centered on Christ

Today, many believers seem to derive their identity from their political party and from nationalism; the Pew Research Center calls them God-and-country believers. Paul reminded the Ephesian believers that our true identity is centered on Christ. Jesus is the head of the body, and it is by his grace that we were saved. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10).

What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be born again? What does it mean to be evangelical? Our culture misuses these words so much, it is no wonder that Christianity is misunderstood and it is no wonder that religious hypocrisy is on the rise.

If you want to know what it means to be a Christian, read the gospel. Jesus said that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again, that is born of the Spirit (John 3:3-7). The Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. Jesus said that the second most important commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39). In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus made it clear that he will judge us based on how we treat those in need (Matthew 25:31-46).

Spiritual battles

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote that the first believers were “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming (Eph. 4:14).” Today, many believers have been led astray by the cunning and deceitfulness of those with wealth and political power who are willing to do whatever they can to keep it.

There is a spiritual battle going on today even if we cannot see it. I tend to think of the enemy as the people who practice the deceitful scheming. But Paul said that the battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil. It is a battle between truth and deception. As Jesus said, the devil is the father of all lies. Jesus came to testify to the truth and everyone on the side of truth listens to Jesus (John 18:37).

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 

Ephesians 6:13-14

If Christ’s followers keep our eyes on the head of the Church – Christ – we will be equipped to do the work he has called us to do and to be strong as we face these spiritual battles.

Unity in the body of Christ

Paul wanted the believers to remember that they were called to one purpose. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:3-6).

When Jesus prayed for future believers, he prayed that we would be one just as the Father and Son are one.

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Jesus, John 17:20-23

Unity of faith is not blind, tribal unity. We must guard our hearts and minds against deception. We should not be partners with those who are immoral, greedy and dishonest. No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them (Eph. 5:5-7).

I struggled with the concept of unity in the body of Christ after the 2016 election. I looked at the people in the pews around me and wondered, how can so many of you not see what I see? But when I walk through the doors of my church, I know that I will hear the word of God preached. I know that God’s name will be praised. We pray to one God. God is working in in ways that I cannot see.

A couple of weeks ago, my pastor told us about a dream he has had more than a dozed times since he became the pastor of our church. In the recurring dream, he sees a wood-framed church somewhere on the coast. Huge waves rise up and tear down the church. After the waves came and destroyed the physical walls of the church, my pastor saw the people, hands joined together, standing on a rock. I loved hearing about this dream because it reminds me that there is a body of believers who will stand strong in the spiritual battles of our time.

It is hard to see people of faith being tossed about by the waves, aligning themselves with those who deceive with empty words. The right response is to be humble, gentle and patient. The right response is to speak the truth in love. The right response is to stand strong in the Lord, our Rock and Redeemer. The right response is to pray for God’s people. The right response is to keep on imitating Christ so that the world will know that God sent him and that God loves them.

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