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!

 

 

The Church, She Ain’t Dumb

Occasionally, something as simple as an Amazon review can point out broad and deep issues in the church. Usually, though, it is not the reviews which “cleverly” aim to uncover issues that are actually successful. Instead, candid comments often provide a more realistic thermometer (or perhaps a barometer? My expertise in meteorological hardware is somewhat limited) of current trends and views.

For example, I read a review last night for a commentary which has sparked a mild rant in need of online venting.

Background: I was invited to preach at a Junior High Youth Camp this summer (check it out! Suncrest Camp). After careful consideration, I feel compelled to preach through the book of Esther. Ten messages. Ten chapters. It’s almost too easy. Of course, it is also the book about which Martin Luther said, “I am so hostile to this book that I wish it did not exist.” Fun. Indeed, there are challenges in the book, but there are challenges in any book. 

Like most pastors, my preparation involves an inordinate amount of time in the biblical text itself, in prayer, and also in commentaries – books written to share the opinions of men about the Truth of God. Good commentaries (translate: commentaries with which the pastor is inclined to agree) are not always easy to find. I rely on Amazon descriptions and reviews to discern a taste of what I might purchase.

I unearthed a review last night, given for a commentary on Esther, that hurt my heart. Here is the text of the review:

Full disclosure: I have not read the entire book. So this may be a little off base. But from what I have read, this is a great academic commentary if you are concerned with different textual opinions on the passages being discussed. If yo [sic] are looking for something to preach from, personal edification, or bible study material this may not be for you.

And so my rant begins with a question:

When did academic commentary cease to be useful for preaching, personal edification, and bible study?

The Bible was not written in English. I know, it’s shocking. I’ll give you a moment to catch up with that statement.

If this is true (and it is), then it stands to reason that something is lost in translation. And while I fully and whole-heartedly believe that God has preserved his word through faithful translators, I also hold that believers of every background can profit from knowing more than the most watered-down contemporary translation is able to share. This means that, at times, I believe it is useful – if not absolutely necessary – to engage the text of Scripture from a more challenging point of view. Most of the time, for English-speakers, English is the way to go. It is the easiest, it is the language we understand and remember.

The presence of a Hebrew word or a Greek word on the page is intimidating. It’s like my last name. There’s a in there. People see nine letters and the and they panic. The struggle is real. So I know what foreign languages do to me. But I’ve found, over the years, that if I press into the foreign, I learn something. I still remember the first time I tried. The text was “academic” in nature, but I was determined to grow. I kept a Greek alphabet in the volume and I took a moment to try to pronounce the foreign words. I took notes in the margins. By the end of the 700pg(!!) book, I was recognizing biblical words! Real, original, biblical words! My knowledge was shallow, but I found blessing in overcoming the fear.

Called to Preach? 

To say that “academic” materials are not useful to preachers is insulting to the pastoral calling. How would you feel, as a member of a church, to know that your pastor didn’t feel it was useful to even attempt to grasp biblical texts from an academic perspective? I do NOT condone pastors sharing everything they’ve learned. Sermons are not supposed to be just a formal reading of the Greek lexicon. But if there is no study behind the sermon, what is there instead? Pastors approach the pulpit to expound the word, to point to Christ, to equip and encourage. Maybe I’m naive, but I think there’s at least a little bit of thinking involved.

In the midst of preparation, I have a couple “academic” commentaries in hand. I also have a number of “smooth like butter” commentaries, which are usually compilations of sermons the author has already preached. To simply grab the butter and regurgitate… well… there’s a word for that. How would you feel, as a member of a church, to know that your pastor is only paraphrasing the fruit of another servant’s labors? It happens. I believe there is much to be gained from the butter. But I also believe the butter is one resource among many. Maybe there’s something newly churned waiting to emerge.

I want to be challenged by a text before I preach. As I am faithful to dig and explore, to pray and to apply, the challenge will come. Sometimes the full gravity of what I am saying doesn’t hit me UNTIL I’m preaching, but I rejoice even when this is the case. If the Holy Spirit has not poured the text over my weak and weary soul, my message loses a measure of authenticity.

The regurgitated sermon is not the fruit of the pastor’s time spent with God in the Scripture and prayer. It is the fruit of someone else’s time spent with God. Maybe I’m wrong, but apart from the extremely rare and fully disclosed case, I believe in sermons crafted from a word wrought on the heart of the Lord’s servant for that hour.

The Church, She Ain’t Dumb

I believe this Amazon review speaks a harsh word over the church as well. If the “academic” commentaries have no value in preaching, and no value in personal edification, and (most absurdly) no value in bible study, why do they exist? If pastors and Christians can’t profit, who can? I would like to offer a word to the church. You are NOT dumb. You do NOT need the Word of God watered down to some paltry level of intelligence. You do NOT need to be entertained more than you need to be fed. I believe in you. I’m one of you.

You CAN read the “academic” materials. You CAN grow by stretching your intellectual efforts. You CAN find transformation in the renewing of your mind. It’s true. The Bible says so.

When I preach, I push myself so that I can push the congregation – no matter the age or background of the group. I challenge the church because I believe in her. More importantly, I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to convict and convince as the full counsel of the Word is proclaimed. I believe our greatest growth is found in struggle. Consider the exercise of any muscle in your body. If you grab the bar but never lift, will you ever get stronger?

There is only blessing, never a curse, in striving to understand today what you did not understand  yesterday. Chase it.

The Bible and Beyond

We enjoyed dinner last night with a group of friends from church. Some of us have been reading a book together over the summer. One friend’s comment spoke well into this situation. She shared that she was worried at the outset that she would struggle to grasp the book. But as she read, she found it quite manageable. I would gladly have offered encouragement and assurance from the outset that she, and everyone else, would be fine.

I firmly believe our feeble brains will elevate to the challenge if we are persistent to engage. In other words, keep trying. Keep reading. There is no shame in reading slowly. There is no shame in reading with a dictionary on the table. In fact, the best books are likely to force you into the dictionary. Sometimes a single “dictionary word” can speak a thought unspeakable by a dozen emoticons. We never graduate from learning, so let’s go ahead and agree that needing to look up a word is a blessing and an opportunity. This is true of every book, including the Bible. Especially the Bible.

I plead with you today: Pastors, Church, readers. Believe in yourself enough to challenge and be challenged.