Cru @ SRU : Ask Anything Night

I am excited to have had the opportunity to sit on the panel last night (Thursday, March 31, 2016) for Cru’s Ask Anything Night on the campus of Slippery Rock University. The evening was quite encouraging to me. I appreciate honest reflection and an atmosphere that welcomes discussion, so I was glad to take part. At the event, students were able to text questions to be addressed by a panel of four believers. The evening was only an hour, the texts were numerous, which means many were not answered ‘live’. Even with the invitation to face-to-face conversation afterwards, we just couldn’t tackle them all. As such, there is a heaping pile of text messages on my phone – questions asked by college students about the nature of God from a variety of perspectives. I thought I’d take the time to post the answers here for two reasons:

  1. I am not exactly adept at texting long answers. I struggle not seeing the whole answer in front of me, and I struggle with typing – even with swipe.
  2. I thought many if not most might like to see some of the questions, and ponder some of my proposed answers.

If I’ve answered YOUR question here, know that I am still available for extended conversation. I welcome the possibilities! But I wanted this to be a starting point and a resource for you (maybe even for me!). I’m not pouring hours into the aesthetics of these posts, just aiming to answer honestly the questions I’ve received.

Finally, know that I could not possibly exhaust the full possibility of every answer to the 40 individuals and nearly 100 questions currently on my phone. However, I will attempt to draw from every topic covered with at least a nugget of my feeble understanding. Without further delay, here we go:

 

Why is God portrayed as having much more wrath in the Old Testament than Jesus does in the New Testament? For example, God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for not having any righteous people… why didn’t he try to save the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah instead of passing judgment on them and destroying the city? 

I’ll offer thoughts in two parts for this. First, with regard to the perceived different portrayal of God’s character in the Old and the New Testaments, I might point you to Hebrews 1:1-3. If you want to see the fullness of the revelation of God’s character, you look no further than the person and work of Jesus Christ. Admittedly, it is not particularly easy to understand every decision God has made throughout history, but he is best understood by the fullest expression of his nature – that being the person of his son with the work of his cross. Justice and mercy converge at the cross. In an instant, God was both pouring out wrath and extending grace to undeserving sinners. That is the perfect imprint of his nature.

Jesus experienced the fullness of God’s wrath – something not even Sodom & Gomorrah tasted. And for that, I would argue the New Testament contains the fullest portrayal of separation and punishment. However, the shadows of the Old Testament – real life events that reveal the character and nature of our Creator – serve to foreshadow the depth of the deserved penalty for sin. But temporal pain does not carry the same gravity as eternal separation. In addition, S&G demonstrate the breadth of sin AND the depth of mercy, as God was willing/wanting to spare the entire city for even 10 righteous.

A fair look at the Old and New Testaments reveal every aspect of God’s character which we are capable of ingesting. His mercy is as great as his wrath in all of Scripture. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are portrayed as the embodiment of every divine attribute – whether we like them or not. His character is quite consistent, but we are prone to hang on the stories we don’t like and/or don’t understand. As an extension, might I suggest this thought: In Scripture, we have received that which we require to find the truth of God unto salvation in Christ. We do not have every tangible aspect of the story (we so rarely do in this broken life!), and so we do not fully understand. We have been given the story in order to seek the truth – and in this case we find the truth of the severity of sin, of the justice of God, of the desire for mercy, and the provision for the redeemed (Lot!). We cannot presume to understand the entirety of the story or the eternal implications for every human life, but we can learn from what God has revealed and preserved as true. His desire is for us to see and trust his son, not to become omniscient ourselves.

 

How can God be benevolent, all knowing, and all powerful, but there still be unnecessary evil in the world? 

We talked at the event about the danger of definitions. In this case, I stick on the word unnecessary. I’ll ask a question: what if God granted Adam the freedom to choose evil? And what if, by choosing evil, Adam was introducing a depth of depravity that he could not have foreseen, but against which God issued a stern warning? What if God, despite man’s decision to rebel and choose evil over love, decided to carry out a plan of redemption that would ultimately quench and defeat evil and all of its consequences because he knew that an eternity won by love would outweigh the pain it would take to get there? I would call that benevolent, all knowing, and all powerful. In light of what has happened, then, I might ask what a necessary level of evil would entail? At every exposure, we would ask for less, yet the consequence of our sin is far greater.

Why would he wait thousands of years to redeem a nation/family from slavery, only then to wait over one thousand more to bring into the world his incarnate son through that nation/family, only then to have his perfect sinless son die in order to pay the required penalty of justice, only then to wait two thousand years more while people turn to him in faith? Why is a difficult question. But let me ask, what would you call a god who does only what you agree with, only at a level you can understand, using means that only you might produce? I would call him no god at all, but rather an extension of broken human thought. There is comfort in the mystery of God when the fullness of his revelation demonstrates that he has in fact, in utter love – yet without compromising holiness or justice – provided a solution that enables eternal bliss, albeit only after a lifetime of enduring the messy world we’ve created.

 

What happens to people living in 3rd world countries where they are unable to hear the gospel? What about people never given the opportunity to hear about the Son, if he is the only way? 

I have to be honest, this question breaks my heart. The Scriptures are indeed clear that the only way to the Father is through the Son. And as Paul said in Romans 10, how will they know if they’ve not heard? And how will they hear if no one goes to tell them? This question underscores the desperate need for Christian mission. There are countless stories of missionaries giving up their lives in order to pursue the Great Commission to tell the world. I read a book about Dr. Robert Foster this year – an amazing story of faith, hope, and love. And there was fruit of such a mission, but there are so many who need to hear. The encouragement of Revelation 7 is that every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages will stand before the Throne in praise of God – the Great Commission will succeed!

But in the interim, what about those who fail to hear? The truth of Scripture is devastating. Creation itself is enough to reveal the fact that God exists and is worthy of praise. (Romans 1), but creation is only enough to condemn, for creation cannot redeem. Only the gospel of God’s kingdom in Christ can redeem. The gospel must be received by grace through faith. The gospel must awaken repentance in the sinner. There is no way around this truth in God’s word. I have heard many stories of the Lord visiting remote villages through dreams and visions. I have heard stories of faith that give me hope that no one is beyond the reach of God should he reveal himself in such a way. But because we are called to participate, I believe our emphasis must be on praying, equipping, sending, and going – leaning on his everlasting arms. God has revealed himself to be good, and I believe he will be vindicated when our faith becomes sight. Yet until that day, we must weep and pray that many would come to Jesus.

 

Do you feel that God has abandoned us? Considering he is omniscient, why would he allow Adam and Eve to fail in the garden of Eden? 

I’ll give two thoughts. No, I do not believe he has abandoned us. He has provided for us two great gifts. First, he has given us the gift of his son – God in flesh, walking the earth, revealing perfect obedience and dying sacrificially to save sinners deserving of torment. Second, he has given us the gift of a written word. Think about it – an incomprehensible being has accommodated lowly rebellious creatures in order to be certain that the message of his grace, mercy, and love, is within the grasp of our darkened understanding through a written word. God who, were we to see the fullness of his glory, would consume us has made a way that we can know him intimately. Far from abandonment, God has given us every means and reason to embrace him.

Why would he allow Adam and Eve to fail? Again, asking why can evaporate our sanity. Perhaps a more interesting question is, why would he create at all knowing we would fall if given the choice? What I believe is that he is best glorified in his loving rescue of creatures who chose to be enemies rather than friends. I can’t answer why that is true, but I believe it to be true. He was so moved to share love and relationship that all this mess must be worth it. And if he believes so, and is willing to sacrifice deeply to enact a blessing, I am inclined to think he knows what he is doing.

 

Do you believe that everything happens for a reason? 

Yes. The world is not a random place. God has revealed himself to be sovereign. And sovereign means sovereign. This means nothing happens apart from his knowing. If God is sovereign, this means even if he allows something to happen, by virtue of withholding his sovereign hand, he is in fact exercising dominion over the moment. This makes people uncomfortable. At times, this makes me uncomfortable. Yet the glorious mystery is that God’s sovereign hand in no way removes the responsibility of every man, woman, and child for the consequences of their actions. In Scripture, God is revealed to be at work in the most devastating of moments, in fact bringing about the most glorious redemption. (Genesis 50:20, Acts 4:28)

The truth of God’s sovereignty is that he is not obligated to explain his motives or the full implications of every occurrence. But by showing through his word his benevolence and his unyielding drive to bring about good in the life of the believer by bringing glory to his son, he opens the door for us to trust his intentions in the strangest and most difficult trials.

Understanding God to be sovereign does not guarantee our comfort in every moment. BUT…

Understanding God to be sovereign means we can view every moment as an opportunity to draw near to him, to grow in wisdom, to grow in faith by virtue of our surrender to his gracious hand.

 

Look for more posts as I am able in the coming days!

 

 

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On Eternal Perspective: The Great Divorce #8

George MacDonald 1860s.jpgIf you’ve been reading along, chapter 9 is by far the longest, and perhaps the most intriguing yet. The Writer finally encounters his Bright Person, a favorite author named George MacDonald. Yes, this is a real author who lived mostly in the 19th century, though his life did venture into the 20th! It would be easy to spend weeks here, but we have a schedule to keep…

Rather than simply listening in on the conversations of others,the Writer is finally able to ask some questions and receive answers – challenging though they may be.

 

“But ye can get some likeness of [eternity] if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective.” (MacDonald)

 

If I could sum up MacDonald’s description of the relationship between life and death, heaven and hell, temporal and eternal, it might sound like this: We are eternal creatures. Though we experience things in the temporal world now, everything we do intersects eternity. Our current perspective is incomplete because it lacks experience and understanding. Our final perspective will flow from our experience of the eternal, when we will see more clearly all that has ever happened in our lives. For those whose final perspective is heaven, heaven will necessarily color every experience – even the temporal. For those whose final perspective is hell, hell will necessarily do the same.

(To get caught up in the details of MacDonald’s words here could be maddening. The difficulty of a fictional book like this is that it is colored by the author’s theology – or in this case, MacDonald’s theology! And while I know works of fiction do not typically have chapter and verse citations of why an author would choose certain words and phrases, they sure would be helpful. In the meantime, I’m choosing to focus on the sense of the chapter rather than the details, for the sake of my sanity.)

Lewis’ intersection, his offer at this point, is to lift your gaze from yourself, to fix your eyes on the mountains (so to speak),  and to take steps towards the heavenly – that is, towards Christ. The alternative is to fix your eyes on yourself, which is something of a descent towards hell.

 

“Ah, the Saved… what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage.” (MacDonald)

 

Lewis strikes a chord here as he describes the perspective of the damned and the saved. Of course, he describes this perspective as flowing from a perfected eternal experience, but I believe there is a great application for us here and now. There are certain biblical truths which are glorious and yet extremely difficult to accept. One truth is found in Romans 8:18-30. The heading in my Bible reads Future Glory. The passage speaks of a future glory which will necessarily overshadow any of the trials of this life. The passage speaks of the groanings of creation, longing for all things to be made new. The passage speaks of God’s participation in our prayers as we cry out to him.

We then see Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” 

This is a verse that is often misquoted – or more specifically it is often truncated, cut short and therefore misquoted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “it’ll all work out for the best.” I’m not sure if there’s a name for quoting 1/3 of a Bible verse and totally ignoring context, but this is a prime example. There are two super-important qualifiers on that little phrase. For those who love God and for those who are called according to his purpose. The qualifiers alone are a reminder that all things do not work together for good… for everyone.

Context is the stuff around a verse. The immediate context of Romans 8:28 tells us who should be comforted by the knowledge that all things work together for good. The extended context tells us the light in which we should view the promise. In other words, as we long for future glory, as we cry out to God for his eternal presence, we are enabled by our calling in Christ to see current suffering as a wellspring of life. Even further context reminds us that there is nothing that can separate (including current suffering!) the redeemed from their Redeemer, and that we are indeed conquerors through the love of God in Christ.

This promise is of supreme comfort, but those qualifiers… those qualifiers produce a chill in me. The qualifiers say that there are some for whom the trials of life will not ultimately end well. Oh, that the gospel would bring countless hearts to faith in Christ!

 

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.'” (MacDonald)

 

And that draws me back into the story. MacDonald seems to be painting such a picture. There will come a day when eternity will be set, the future course unchanging. (I don’t even want to get into the possibility of choosing life after death, for I do not believe the Scriptures guarantee any such opportunity) When the dust settles on this life and the eternal is all we know, our perspective will indeed be complete. The Christian can taste this perspective now by the grace of God, seeing trials as life-giving waters drawing us near to our Savior. The Christian can say, even now, with confidence, that things will work out for good. What a blessing!

Even greater is the news that our worst trials, and even our finest hours, will be but a faded memory when we have the opportunity to gaze upon our Lord face to face.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

Come Lord Jesus!

 

 

You can visit the Summer Reading page by clicking here, or by opening the menu at the top right.

 

 

 

 

The Good Shepherd & Psalm 23

Excerpt from a recent sermon on the Psalm Immortal. 

Good Shepherd - Background2As if there weren’t enough reason IN Psalm 23 to draw us TO the Psalm, I want to add one more thought. Consider the Lord Jesus for a moment.

I’ve spent time in this Psalm before. I’m sure I’ve taught on it before at some point. But it was only this week that I found myself considering the incarnate Lord Jesus, walking the earth as the fullest revelation of the Word of God. And I asked myself, “I wonder what Jesus, the Good Shepherd in the flesh, thought about this Psalm?” I also found myself asking, “Could it be that Jesus found the same comfort in this Psalm as did David, and as we do today?”

It is easy to fall into the trap of imagining Jesus as God walking around 1st century Israel, holding the Old Testament as if it were a checklist. Born in Bethlehem? Check. To a woman? Check. Who is a virgin. Impressive. Check. Bruise the head of the serpent? In progress. Heal the blind… Hmmm… someone bring me a blind man! We forget that Jesus was also a man who knew the Father. A man who knew the Scripture, not just memorized, but knew how to apply them in every situation.

Andrew Bonar once said, “the church has so exclusively applied this Psalm to herself, as almost to forget that her Shepherd once needed it and was glad to use it. The Lamb was once led along by His Father.”

In the gospel of John, Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” (10:14b-15a) In other words, in the same way Jesus knows his sheep, he was known by his heavenly Father. Jesus could stand in the flesh and say, with superior confidence,

YHWH is my Shepherd… I shall not want.”

We must remember that Jesus walked as both God and man. Incomprehensible. But this meant that he read, understood, and leaned on the Scriptures in a way we cannot begin to fathom. He called out to his heavenly Father.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me.

In the 16th chapter of John, as he made his final preparations for the cross, Jesus said, “And yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” As his soul faced the trouble of the wrath of God, walking alone as both Shepherd and Lamb through valley of darkness, fear could not shake him – for the Father was near!

He prepares before me a table in the presence of my enemies.
He anoints my head with oil. My cup overflows.

Consider the table the Father prepared for the Lamb. The last supper. The greatest table of all. In Jerusalem, surrounded by the crowds that would call for his death, Jesus approached the table, broke the bread and poured the wine. Satan took possession of Judas at the very table the Father arranged. The enemy was indeed in the midst. And yet the anointed of the Lord persevered, his cup overflowing.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life;
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The promise. The covenant made before time began. The Lord Jesus knew that goodness and mercy would certainly follow him, even though he had to walk through the valley to return home. In knowing his own eternal position as the King of kings, Jesus carried on in great strength, and he secured our eternity with him.

I believe this is the kind of Psalm that would have brought comfort to Jesus in his darkest hours. And now he sits enthroned on high as the Good Shepherd-King – the one who seeks lost sheep and returns them to the fold of God. All praise, glory, and honor be to Jesus for evermore!

As John Newton said, “He guides, protects, feeds, heals, and restores; and he will be our guide and our God even until death. Then he will meet us, receive us, and present us to Himself, and we shall be near him, and like him, and with him forever.”

This is our Shepherd. This is Christ the King. If you are thirsty, come. Repent of your sin, turn from your shame and brokenness. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Savior and Master of your soul. He alone can embrace you with eternal arms of grace, cleanse you of all unrighteousness, seal your adoption as a son of God Almighty, and usher you into the very presence of God.

He alone is the fountain of goodness and mercy. His is the eternal presence we so desperately seek.