Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief

In Psalm 22, David cries out to the Lord - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And, thousands of years later, this lament was echoed by his descendant - Jesus Christ, God incarnate come to both live and die among us - as He felt the full weight of God's wrath against sin.

We live in a world of suffering. There is not a person alive who has not felt pain or sorrow of some kind. As we find ourselves seemingly overcome, it can be easy to echo the Psalmist's cry in turn. Has God forsaken us? Why can our own bodies, or those of our loved ones, be afflicted with deadly diseases? Why do thousands die in natural disasters, and why can one person be so stricken with despair that they take their own life? Why do we suffer?

There is, unfortunately, no easy answer to this question. We live in a world of suffering because we live in a world of sin. A world stricken by rebellion against its Creator. We are sinful people in a sinful world, and our pain is a consequence of that. In fact, we are the ones who have forsaken God.

And yet, for all this, He has never forsaken us.

In the very same psalm that opens by saying that God has left him, the psalmist says:

"I will tell of your name to my brothers;
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
    and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
 For he has not despised or abhorred
    the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
    but has heard, when he cried to him."

He knows that, even when despair is greatest and God seems farthest, his salvation is assured. God has not despised the afflicted, or hidden His face - He is a God who hears and helps. Who lends strength when we have none of our own.

So we know that, even in our suffering, God is there. But how can we know that? What assurance do we have that our faith is justified? And why would God even do that for us if we are rebellious and sinful?

To understand that, we must look at someone who suffered despite committing no sin.

We read in Isaiah 53:3-5 of:

"...a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
 Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed."

Consider those words for a moment.

Man of sorrows.

Acquainted with grief.

This prophecy points to Jesus - to his life, and to the moment that He suffered on the cross. He was perfect, completely without sin, and yet he took the entirety of God's fury upon himself. He was acquainted with grief - not a cruel, unfeeling god, not caring for his people's plight, but one who knew intimately our suffering. A man of sorrows.

Pierced for our transgressions.

Crushed for our iniquities.

In the midst of our sufferings, we can rely on this sure hope and knowledge: that though we are sinners, born to suffer and die, there is one who suffered for us. One who bore pain greater than any we could ever endure - and that we will never have to experience because of what he did.

With his wounds we are healed.

This is love, and this is our assurance.

Our hope is not in this life, but in life after death. This, too, we are assured of as Jesus says in John 14:1-3 "Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also." And Paul tells us in Romans 8:18 that "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."

In Revelation 21, we read this:

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 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.'"

This is our strength, and that of the psalmist. Not that God will free us from suffering in this life. But that it will be nothing compared to that which is to come. And "when the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

'Death is swallowed up in victory.'
 'O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?'" - 1 Corinthians 15:54-55

Monday, 8 September 2014

It is Finished

Is there some accomplishment or deed in your life that you are particularly proud of?

Completion of a difficult task can be immensely satisfying. While there is certainly joy to be found in the journey, it is often interspersed with hardships, which can sometimes make you question whether the struggle is worth it. But when you see them in the light of the end result, then you may realise that there is no aspect of your journey that you would give up - if only because they make the completion that much more rewarding.

"Completion" is actually a remarkably powerful word, and perhaps one that we do not give enough credit. It speaks of both the fulfilment of our labour and the cessation of our struggles, and brings them together in a word that takes the good and the bad, and makes them into something better.

But there is a catch.

The problem is that true completion is unattainable in our lives. The most monumental accomplishments or stunning works of art all have one fatal flaw. No matter how permanent they may seem in one, two, or even twenty generations, they all need to be maintained. Whether it's physical or emotional, social or personal, all of our achievements need to be preserved somehow. Sometimes the effort required may be so minuscule that we don't even notice, but sometimes it may take all of our effort to keep what we created. The struggle will continue in some form for as long as we live.

The sad fact is that completion is an illusion. A tempting, yet ephemeral concept beyond human grasp.

At least... that's almost true.

Both the unattainability and the allure of completion point to something greater. The glorious truth is that we were never meant to reach fulfilment in this world, nor were we intended to reach it through our own efforts. We are shattered souls in a broken world, doomed to fall short - but Jesus has won the battle for us. No matter how much we strive to something infinitely beyond us, or how much we fall, we are given the comfort that our ultimate completion and fulfilment is the gift of grace, imputed to us without deserving. To seek satisfaction in this life is to condemn ourselves to a fight that we could never win, but that burden has been lifted.

It is in knowing this that true comfort is found. A bleak landscape of hardships is transformed into a path to something greater. The ups and downs of life fade away in significance before the one true 'I Am' - the maker of all that is and the source of all that is good. Though there are still struggles ahead, and we may not know where this path will take us in our journey, this is made insignificant compared to the joy that is to come. Everything we do can be done in the knowledge that the battle is won, and so we are even given a taste of this victory in our present lives.

Do not be content with the pale, temporary achievements of the world. We are made to be satisfied with nothing less than eternity, and this has already been given to us.

"After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:28-30)

This is our triumph, granted by grace.

"If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory." (Colossians 3:1-4)

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Regrets, I've had a few

Have you ever decided to live without regret? I told myself I wanted that, once - for about 30 seconds.

It's easy to see negative emotions as a terrible thing, to be avoided at all costs. It's the message the world sends us: guilt and regret are wastes of time. We should live our lives to the fullest, crammed with as many happy emotions as possible. This may seem like good advice at first. After all, who wants to feel bad? Won't eliminating negative emotions give us better lives overall? For those who don't hold to an objective morality, especially, these things may seem completely useless, and it would make sense to avoid them at all costs.

Simply put, why waste time on regret?

The answer to this is simple, but it's not easy. Sorrow, guilt, and regret - these emotions tell us that there is something fundamentally broken about our world. Whether it's a flaw in ourselves or in what's around us, we are constantly reminded of the stark reality that God's beautiful creation has been stained by sin. We should always attempt to minimize the need for regret, but refusal to acknowledge the reality of the mistakes we have made will lead to dangerous consequences for our consciences. Ecclesiastes 3:4 tells us that there is "a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance".

That said, negative emotions are not necessarily good in themselves. To disregard them flaunts the imperfections of this world, but that does not mean we should dwell on them. We must acknowledge our sins, yet we must also remember that they have been forgiven. The guilt we feel should not consume us - instead, it should serve to highlight God's grace all the more. It is through knowing our guilt that we are shown our need for a saviour.

There is also a danger in allowing our guilt to define our lives. This can lead down different paths: some may use their awareness of their sins as an excuse for future wrongdoing, reasoning that if they are sinful by nature, there is no point in fighting it. Others may choose to wallow in their guilt, letting it consume them and rejecting any possibility of redemption, believing themselves to be beyond hope. Both of these, however, trivialize the immensity of God's grace. He is infinitely greater than any sin we could ever commit.

We should not reject any emotion out of hand, regardless of how unpleasant it may be. Whether it is regret or pride, sorrow or joy, these all serve a valuable purpose in analyzing the world around us. But when we let one emotion rule our lives, then we gain a twisted perspective of both God and His creation.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014


Why do you believe in God?

Well, maybe you don't. That's fair enough. Although in that case, I would ask: why don't you believe in God? And no, this isn't an attempt to shift the burden of proof to proving that God doesn't exist.

Well, I'm sure anyone with an opinion on the matter managed to come up with some sort of answer to those questions quickly enough. So here's another one: why, or why not, do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Again, I'm sure most people can provide a response one way or another.

So here's something to consider. Why did the early Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God? As a matter of fact, that question is one of the most important to consider in regards to salvation, the veracity of the Bible, and even the existence of God.

You see, many people will answer those first two questions with something along the lines of "the Bible tells me so". It may vary, some may provide more details than others, and some may provide additional evidence. But ultimately, the main factor in the vast majority of people's beliefs will be the Bible. And that's certainly not a bad thing - because the Bible IS how we should know these things. The real question is: why should we believe the Bible?

That's where a lot of people, both Christian or not, trip up. Atheists, especially, like to say that Christians believe that the Bible is infallible because God said so, and they know that's true because the Bible said so, and so on. This is, of course, circular reasoning. However, it's also a straw man, because a good case can be made for the reliability of the Bible based on objective reasoning and historical evidence.

So, let's get back to that third question. Why did the early Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God? Paul actually directly states this in 1 Corinthians 15, and in no uncertain terms: 

"Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable."

Paul makes it abundantly clear that his faith, and the faith of the entire early church, rested entirely and completely on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He even goes so far as to say that if it is not true, then Christians are "of all men the most pitiable". So what relevance does the critical importance of their belief in the resurrection have for us?

It tells us that the early Christians believed so strongly in that resurrection that they were willing to die for it. To be tortured, crucified, and killed. And this wasn't based on "blind faith". Paul made sure to give the church a reason for the resurrection, earlier in the chapter:

"For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time."

Paul was not simply asking the Christians to believe in the resurrection so that they could have hope in Christ. He gave them a reason for that hope. He referenced direct eyewitness testimonies of Jesus being raised from the dead.

The fact that the early church accepted these testimonies is as critical to us today as the testimonies themselves were to their own faith. It tells us that the testimonies were reliable. Their sheer efficacy alone speaks to their reliability, but it's still worthwhile to look into what actually made them reliable.

The main two factors are numbers and profit. First, we know that many people testified to this resurrection. Paul said that Jesus "was seen be over five hundred brethren at once". It's not an accident that he included this number. Five hundred people testifying is a lot. And this isn't new information designed to strengthen an argument - Paul is recapping what he has already told them. Because of this, it's also reasonable to assume that he isn't lying to bolster his claims. It would be far too easily testable for Paul to rest on it if it were false.

The second factor, profit, is actually referring to the complete lack of it. The apostles gained nothing from their ministry. The idea that it might have been a deliberate deception is simply nonsensical. They stood to gain absolutely nothing from it monetarily or socially. In Philippians 1, Paul describes how he rejoices in suffering because it is used to further the gospel, and he condemns those who would preach for reasons other than out of love. And it certainly wouldn't have been a good way to gain the acceptance of their peers: everything they preached was diametrically opposed to the prevailing views of the times. The only explanation for their actions was that to them, "to live is Christ, and to die is gain".

So the early Christians definitely believed in the resurrection of Jesus, and they believed it for good reasons. As I said before, this has pretty major implications for us. The willingness of the apostles to suffer for what they believed, and the belief of the Christians who were not eyewitnesses, indicate a strong historical reliability for the Bible. Given the historical setting, it's not at all reasonable to assume that it was some kind of deception. No one stood to gain from their actions or beliefs at the time.

So, why did the early Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God? Well, they believed it because He was raised from the dead - which corresponded with the claims He made about Himself while He was alive. And they believed He was raised from the dead because they had numerous reliable eyewitness testimonies about it.

One final question. Why do I believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Well, I believe it because He died for me, and was raised from the dead. And I can know that because the early church died for Him, knowing beyond a doubt that He would then raise them from the dead.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Is Agnosticism a reasonable middle ground?

With the topic of religious truth being so popular these days, many people believe the best course of action is to say "well, we can never really know the truth, so why live as if one stance is objectively true?" This is, while technically philosophically different from atheism, practically speaking the same thing. Assuming we can't really know which religion or lack thereof is true, the default position is to act as if none of them are true. But is this a sensible solution to the often confusing conundrum of religious quandaries? Let's take a look at what it means, using a practical example.

Say you are a sergeant in the US army. Your squad is deep in enemy territory, and you've completed an important mission. At this point, you are attempting to get to a safe zone, but are being followed by many enemy soldiers. You are currently camped in the most defensible position you can find, but you know it won't hold out for long against the enemy. You need to know if there's a way out, so you send out 4 of your best men on reconnaissance, and you also order some other men to interrogate some local villagers. Your presence in this territory is not popular with the locals, so you're not sure if you can trust them. But at this point, you're looking for any option to survive.

Eventually, everyone you have sent out returns. And they all have good news! The men you sent out on reconnaissance all agree on one point: there is a gap in the enemy forces that can be easily exploited to escape. You will have to take your squad through as quickly as possible, though, because the enemy intends to close in soon.

The men you sent to interrogate the villagers also have good news, but theirs is different from what your spies brought back. Their reports also, for the most part, don't agree among themselves. Some of them say that there is another way out through the soldiers - this is a popular claim, but most of them are pointing in completely different directions. A few even say that the enemy is actually not there at all! They claim that they left some time ago - or maybe were never there to begin with.

Now, as the commanding officer, you are left with a choice. You are responsible for the lives of every man in your squad. You can listen to the testimony of your spies. They have been shown to be reliable in other matters, and you have no reason to doubt them now. Except, of course, that their testimony is different from the varying claims of the villagers. If you wish, you could trust the locals, even though their stories vastly differ among themselves. But why not just pick the one you like best? The claim that the enemy doesn't even exist is particularly attractive. After all, you haven't really seen any of the enemy yet personally - you've been focused on staying as far away as possible. Perhaps you can stroll back to base camp unharmed, without worrying about the possibility of being shot.

One thing is certain, though. The only decision that you can't make is to stay where you are. If there is an enemy, they will be attacking soon. And if there is not an enemy right now, then they will eventually find you. And your soldiers have homes and families to go back to. You need to make sure they survive. To do this, you can choose to trust any of the testimonies presented to you - but you absolutely cannot stay where you are. Sure, it's impossible to really know which option is true. But the choice of no choice is guaranteed to have consequences. You will stagnate in your camp until you die, one way or another. The choice of no choice is the choice of throwing your life away - and the lives of all of your men.

Agnosticism is choosing to take no action in the face of incredibly important consequences. Even if you choose to believe that there is no God, then you are at least being intellectually honest. The consequences will be exactly the same as if you chose no choice, but they will be the result of a real choice. And it's not even a particularly difficult choice! The testimony found in the gospels is presented by reliable eyewitnesses. Truth be told, they are some of the best historical documents available to us. (Seriously, click the link up there. If you get that book you will not regret it.)

In Revelation 3:15-16, God sent a message to the church in Laodicea. He said "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth." That's agnosticism. Lukewarm water. It's not a "safe" middle ground - it's the choice to either condemn your squad, or make them wait for nothing.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Milton VS Pullman

So I've been reading Paradise Lost lately, and one thing I especially noticed was that Philip Pullman's Dark Materials series makes at least two direct references to it in: in the name of the series itself, and in the name of one of the books (the book in question is The Golden Compass). Curious about this, I looked it up, and found this: http://darknessvisible.christs.cam.ac.uk/imitation.html

Basically, Pullman's series was actually intended as a rewriting of Paradise Lost for teenagers, except that because he is Philip Pullman, he supported Satan's viewpoint throughout the book.

But he has a very, very big flaw.

In Paradise Lost, Milton constantly emphasizes God's omnipotence and role as the creator as arguments for his inherent superiority. Satan's flaw is twofold: he believes himself to be self-created(he argues this because he doesn't specifically remember the act of his creation), and he believes that God's superior power is quantitative, rather than qualitative: he thinks it's a matter of "higher numbers" of power, so to speak, rather than the infinite gap between infinity and any given number. In this, he commits grievous idolatry, by implying that anyone could be equal to God if they simply accumulated enough power, and by failing to acknowledge the inherent distinction between creator and created.

When Pullman argues on the side of Satan, he doesn't merely say he was philosophically justified, but that he was factually correct. Pullman's "God" is not the creator (I could be wrong on this - it's been some time since I've read the books, but I believe he was simply a higher order of angel), and he is most definitely not omnipotent.

So when Pullman rewrites Paradise Lost, his entire argument depends on a completely different set of premises, rather than an actual logical/philosophical dissonance. Because he has to make this change for the arguments espoused in his book to be viable, he completely discredits himself as presenting an actual argument against God's authority.

Putting this in context, consider this quote from the earlier link: "...whereas C. S. Lewis claims that Milton's work succeeds in its stated aim of justifying the ways of God to men, William Empson (Lewis' chief antagonist) has argued that Paradise Lost is good because it makes God look bad. Pullman's position in this debate is unequivocal; he says in his introduction, 'Blake said Milton was a true poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it. I am of the Devil's party and know it.'"

Pullman specifically states that he is supporting the view that God, as presented by Milton, is evil - but he isn't even presenting the same God.

Really, it's just symptomatic of a larger issue: practically every argument against God, be it against his existence or morality, depends on somehow altering his nature. But it's represented especially well here, in the contrast between such prominent works, intrinsically related and yet with very different goals.