God, Faith, Empirical Evidence and Grace.

skepticSkeptics commonly charge that if any such thing as God actually existed there would be empirical evidence available for all of us to study and thus recognize His existence. Empirical evidence meaning evidence that can be observed, measured, and experimented with according to Scientific Methodology. Skeptics suggest such evidence would remove all doubt to the existence of God and presumably put us all on the same playing field.

My first reaction to such claims is that I’m not entirely sure it’s impossible to measure and observe the existence of a Biblical God … and I plan on writing some posts in the future to address this. However, I suspect what most skeptics are objecting to is the fact that God hasn’t removed each and every one of their own doubts. One skeptic I encountered took great offense that Jesus would offer proof to “Doubting” Thomas by way of allowing him to examine His scars, however, He has never appeared and offered the same proof to modern-day skeptics.

So skeptics take umbrage to the idea that God has not removed all of their doubts, questions, fears, and concerns. Why wouldn’t God make His presence known beyond a shadow of a doubt for everyone to see? It’s a fair question. In fact, it’s a question I’ve asked in the past and it’s the question I hope to address with this post.

It’s quite helpful to examine the life, ministry, and teachings of Christ when asking questions of God. Christ is, after all, the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). The Son reveals the Father to us and, as it turns out, Jesus was asked a very similar question as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:

10 And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” 11 Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. 12 For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.13 Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, You will keep on hearing, but will not understandYou will keep on seeing, but will not perceive15 For the heart of this people has become dullWith their ears they scarcely hearAnd they have closed their eyesOtherwise they would see with their eyesHear with their earsAnd understand with their heart and returnAnd I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.17 For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

In this passage, the Apostles ask Jesus why He so often teaches people using parables. In other words, they asked Him why He didn’t give it to the people strait. Why did Jesus speak in parables when He could offer them empirical, objective, measurable, and scientific proof? Jesus’ answer provides us with a clue as to what’s going on.

Jesus tells His disciples that he speaks to the multitudes in parables because while they are seeing, they don’t see, and while they are hearing, they don’t understand. Jesus tells His disciples that the hearts of the people have grown dull. There problem wasn’t that Jesus had failed to provide them with proof, but rather they had rejected the proof He had already offered. The same Jesus that now spoke to the multitudes in parables had healed the sick, preached that the Kingdom of Heaven was near, healed the blind, exorcised demons, and even raised the dead! He had given them proof but they failed to accept Him as their Lord and Savior. They saw, but they didn’t see. They heard, but they didn’t understand. Their hearts were dull. So now, Jesus spoke to them in parables.

By their very nature, parables are designed to make people think. They take a fable, fairy tale, or story and place it along side reality in a way that illuminates and reveals the truth. On the surface they may seem like simple stories, but as you dig into them a little but truth is revealed. Jesus used parables when speaking to people who had, by and large, rejected Him. Their hearts were dull, so Jesus used parables to engage their mind. He wanted them to think about what He said. His parables served two purposes. For believers, those who had been granted to know the mysteries of the Gospel, would hear a parable and learn even more about their God. Unbelievers, those with a dull heart, would in turn be given something to chew on, to ponder, and to contemplate.

The alternative was simple. Jesus could have simply given them undeniable proof, but he had already done that. He had performed miracles and preached the Kingdom and they rejected Him. So He spoke to them in parables as an act of grace. Jesus didn’t want people to reject Him outright and then face the consequences of their decisions. He wanted them chew on the parables, contemplate them, and engage their minds until their heart followed. Why?

“[Because] The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” 2 Peter 3:9, NASB.

It doesn’t matter how skeptical you are. You could be the staunchest of all the atheists and God’s desire is for you to come to repentance. He does not want you to perish in hell. So Jesus spoke to them in parables as a way to save them from themselves. It is better for the skeptical to ponder and contemplate a parable than it is for them to outright reject Christ. Parables are an act of grace.

In the same way, God has given us enough evidence in our world to lead us to Christ. The skeptic who demands empirical, measurable, scientific, and undeniable proofs from God is failing to see the evidence that is already there. They see without seeing, they hear without understanding. And in all fairness, yes God could appear and prove His existence to them beyond a shadow of doubt, but then they would be forced to make a choice their heart may not be ready to make. Many of the skeptics who watched Jesus perform miracles blamed evil spirits. Others failed to understand. Others demanded more signs. God bowing to your wishes and appearing before you to perform miracles is no guarantee of your willingness to believe …

Some would claim it was all special effects. Others would say it was magic or evil spirits. Others would claim God’s “in your face” miracles violated their free will to choose. Still more would demand more and more proof. Their resistance and denial would lead to their perishing.

So God gives you enough to engage your mind and your brain. He gives you enough proof to ponder and consider the world around you. To study Scriptures for yourselves. He is patiently waiting for you to accept Jesus because His desire is for none of us to perish. He is patiently showing all skeptics grace. 

“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” Romans 1:20, NASB.

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The Bible and Slavery

Bible2I continually see Scripture being attacked on the basis that it either endorses the practice of slavery or that it fails to explicitly denounce the practice of slavery. I’ve seen skeptics, atheists, and even self-proclaimed liberal Christians use this argument as a means to charge the Bible with immorality, irrelevance, and atrocities. A few years ago, I offered a response to such claims in an online discussion forum and thought I would share them here.

Does the Bible Endorse or Fail to Denounce Slavery? 
It is a mistake to assume the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery and if such an assertion is to be made, it deserves careful and critical examination.

First off, the word “slavery” as it occurs throughout the Bible refers to a wide spectrum of servitude from “leasing” ones service where both parties enter into the agreement willingly to situations that far more resembled slavery as we know it in this country. Biblically, the word “slavery” refers to a wide range of stuff from servitude to outright slavery.

I believe there is sufficient evidence that the Bible condemns the latter forms of atrocious slavery. First, consider the plagues that fell upon the Egyptians for refusing to free God’s people from forced, atrocious slavery. Of all the slavery portrayed in the Bible, the Egyptians rule over the Hebrews can certainly be compared to the racial slavery we experienced in our country. In this situation, I think God made it evident He condemned such a heinous act. Extracting the Hebrew people, as lowly as they were seen in the eyes of the Egyptian people, establishing them as God’s chosen ones, and pouring curses out on the Egyptians was as definitive a statement as God could have made. Certainly, any sane person can deduce that God is not in favor of such forms of slavery.

Couple this situation with the following verses:

  • “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” (Exodus 21:16).
  • “But we know that the law is good, provided one uses it legitimately. We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and irreverent, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral and homosexuals, for kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and for whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching” (1 Timothy 1:8-10).

The word “kidnappers” in the above passage is alternately translated as “man-stealers” or “enslavers” depending on the translation you are using. These verses when juxtaposed with the Hebrew slavery in Egypt clearly reveals that God does not condone or endorse the heinous, forced, and atrocious forms of slavery. Period. In fact, suggesting God endorses such acts does Him and His Word an injustice and reveals a poor working knowledge of Scripture.

Now this brings us to the more mild forms of slavery (where both parties entered into the agreement willingly). In these situations God’s Word speaks into the hearts of both slave and slave-owner. The method God’s Word uses to initiate social reform in this case is to speak into the hearts of individuals. Social change occurs one conversion at a time in the heart of believers. With this is mind, examine the following verses:

  • For the slave master: Ephesians 6:9, “And masters, treat your slaves the same way, without threatening them, because you know that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him.”
  • For the slave: 1 Peter 2:19-20, “For it brings favor if, mindful of God’s will, someone endures grief from suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if you sin and are punished, and you endure it? But when you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God.”

In the culture of the New Testament, slavery was engrained. So the writers of the New Testament encouraged social reform one heart at a time. When this is taken into account, no form of “Christian slavery” would resemble what comes to our mind when we hear the word slavery. Consider Paul’s interaction with the slave Onesimus.

In the first chapter of Philemon, Paul writes that Onesimus is “no longer a slave, but more than a slave” (v.16). He refers to Onesimus as his “son” (v. 10). In verse 17, Paul encourages Philemon (the master) to receive Onesimus as a partner in Christ just as he would Paul himself. Paul even goes as far as to assume any debts or charges that Onesimus may have built up against Philemon (v. 18)!

Does any of Paul’s words resemble the heinous, atrocious images that we associate as Americans with slavery? Paul is encouraging social reform by appealing to the hearts of both Onesimus and Philemon. In no way is he “endorsing slavery” as skeptics suggest.

When Scripture is examined, the Christian can take confidence that neither God, nor His Word, “endorses” the heinous and atrocious act of slavery or human trafficking. We can stand on God’s Word when we oppose such practices and when we do, we will glorify God in the process.

 

Running, God, and Type 2 Diabetes

“Even to your old age I will be the same, And even to your graying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; And I will bear you and I will deliver you” Isaiah 46:4. 

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Waiting for the Doctor

In October of 2014, I was diagnosed with raging out of control type 2 diabetes and put on metformin, cholesterol pills, and a second blood pressure pill (I was already on one). At that time I was also warned I would probably have to go on insulin sooner rather than later. Getting diagnosed with diabetes is in some ways a death sentence because once you’re diabetic you are always diabetic. There’s no curing it … only controlling it. Diabetes is a significant challenge. It doesn’t kill you directly, but it does make it easier for everything else to kill you. Diabetes complicates any other condition you might have and shortens your life span significantly. Over and over I’ve watched friends get diagnosed with diabetes and fail to respond accordingly. They either don’t take it seriously or don’t have the will to make necessary lifestyle changes. Many are content taking two or three types of meds and living with it. However, diabetes is a progressive disease – it tends to gets worse as you get older even if you’re doing all the right things – and failing to acknowledge it is certainly the wrong move.

So I determined I was going to respond differently. At first I just began cutting back on my food intake. Smaller portions and less sugar. The weight started coming off slowly. When spring of this year hit, I added walking to my program. At, first, walking just 15 minutes was a challenge. I eventually worked my way up to walking three miles. Then I wondered if I could run three miles. So I began the Couch to 5k running program and slowly began adding little spurts of running to my walking. You think running 20 seconds is easy? It wasn’t for me. It was hard. Really hard. At the same time I began tracking my food. I did Weight Watchers for a couple of months and began taking my diet more seriously.

A year later I’m still tracking my diet and my running has increased significantly – My longest run so far is four miles and my goal is to run a 10k (a little over 6 miles). I’m still slow, but I get out there and do my best. My weight is down over 100 pounds and I still have about 30 pounds to lose. But yesterday, my doctor took me off all my blood pressure and diabetes medicines. I’m still diabetic, but for now my diabetes is considered diet-controlled. Over the next three months I have to watch my diet and exercise carefully, because my body’s response to being taken off the meds will determine if I have to go back on them. It’s sort of my trial period.

But here’s my message to diabetics. You don’t have to be content with your diagnosis. You can fight back. At my heaviest weight I was 368 pounds and every time I run I praise God that I’m able to because somewhere out there is a 300+ pound man or woman who has a hard time simply getting out of bed. There are diabetics out there that would kill for a chance to be able to run or walk just once, but the disease has progressed so far they are unable to. I’ve enjoyed a little bit of success over diabetes not because I’m special or have amazing will-power, but rather because I am blessed. God has allowed me the opportunity to fight back ever so slightly. So I praise Him for it.

If you’re diabetic, you owe it to yourself to fight back however you can – watch your diet, walk, run, bike … whatever you’re able to do. Do it for yourself. Do it for the guy or gal that wishes they could be doing it. Do it as a way to honor God Almighty who gives you breath.

The next three months are going to be a challenge for me. I don’t have the cushion of medication to help me lower my blood sugar which means my diet will have to be cleaner than ever … plus, I’m worried about how the winter months will impact my running. But I am determined to honor God as best as I can. Regardless of how it goes, God has blessed me tremendously and He is worthy of my praise!

Never Stop Praising Him!

Mankind was designed to worship God. Isaiah 43:7 says we were created to give God glory. That is the meaning of our lives, to give glory to the One who created us. In Revelation chapter 4 John is given a glimpse into the throne room of God Almighty. In verse 8, he details four heavenly creatures who praise God:

“… day and night they do not cease to say, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come'” (Revelation 4:8).

These heavenly creatures never stop praising God Almighty. John continues to write that whenever they whenever these creatures give God glory, the twenty-four elders seated around the throne fall down before Him in worship, cast their crowns at His feet, and say:

“Worthy are you, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created” (Revelation 4:11).

Can you imagine this scene of never-ending glory being given to God Almighty? Like these heavenly creatures, we were created to give Him glory. Why? Because He deserves it. He is the creator of all things! He is worthy to receive glory, honor, and power! God and God alone is worthy of our praise and we should never stop praising Him!

It occurred to me today that when I find myself struggling with all those familiar sins that seem to nip at my heels, it is during moments when I have stopped praising Him. It is in moments when I have taken my eyes off of God’s glory and placed them elsewhere. In 1 Thessalonians 5 Paul instructs us to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:16-18). I think we can safely add to this, praise without ceasing. I should live my life in a manner that is constantly heaping praise and glory on My Creator for He is worthy of that praise!

As I go about my business this week, I will be reciting Revelation 4:8 and 11 in my mind often to remind me who God is and why He deserves continual and never-ending praise … will you join me?

The Problem with Pantheism

Did you or your children ever play little league baseball? Can you remember a time when only the winners of the league (and maybe 2nd and 3rd place) took home a trophy? Perhaps like me you have a hard time with the recent trend of participation trophies. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way someone got the bright idea that every kid who bought a pair of cleats should get a trophy. Rewarding the kids who work hard, practice and hone their skills is no longer a priority. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps we’re trying to spare the feelings of the losers. Perhaps the virtue of participation really is more important than the concept of winning. Personally, I think this is a bunch of bunk. Maybe a kid can’t hit a fastball. So what? Let’s help him find his own gift; maybe it’s playing a tuba or swimming. Maybe she’s a natural born writer or scientist. My point is that we should award the kids in an area that they deserve recognition. If every kid that runs onto a baseball diamond gets a trophy, the trophies become somewhat meaningless, right? What’s so special about winning a trophy if everyone gets a trophy?

Right now you’re probably asking yourself what this has to do with pantheism. I’m making a point – trust me.

The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy defines pantheism as follows:

Pantheism is a metaphysical and religious position. Broadly defined it is the view that God is everything and everything is God. A slightly more specific definition says [that] pantheism … signifies the belief that every existing entity is, only one Being; and that all other forms of reality are either modes (or appearances) of it or identical with it.

This concept of pantheism is common amongst Eastern and New Age religions. Whenever you hear a person talk about “The All” or “The One” you can rest assured they are espousing a belief in pantheism. A person who expresses a belief in pantheism is normally trying to convince others to respect nature. The argument is that we should care for and respect nature and other people because all of it – man, rocks, mountains, trees, animals and etc. – are all part of “The All.” Everything is God so we should treat everything with the proper respect.

This all sounds great doesn’t it? The problem is that this isn’t the Biblical view of creation. Rather, the Bible teaches that we should be able to recognize God based on His creation. Our appreciation of creation and nature should cause us to fall on our knees and worship the true, living God. We may discover the general attributes of God by examining His creation; for instance, He is a God who appreciates beauty, love and friendship. He is a God who loves painting glorious skies and landscapes just to watch our mouths fall open in wonder. However, we must not confuse the Creator with creation. These revelations that can be found in nature are general. If we want to learn the specific attributes of God we must study the Special Revelation found in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ. When we confuse the general and special revelations of God we are making the same mistake that Paul addresses in Romans 1:25, “[We exchange] the truth of God for a lie, and worship and serve created things rather than the creator.”

I would take it one step further and suggest we are in violation of one of the Ten Commandments.  When we worship creation as if it were God, we are creating idols. Yes we should respect, preserve, and care for our environment; but only because it is a gift from God, not because it is God.

If we consider all of creation God – you are God, I am God, the trees are God, Squirrels are God and etc. – than there is nothing special about being God; much like little league participation trophies, God becomes meaningless.

Look at it this way … if everything is God, than nothing is God. Pantheism is akin to atheism in the sense that God becomes unnecessary. I prefer to learn about the real, living God as revealed in the Scriptures. Yeah, it takes more effort and more dedication than simply pronouncing that nature is God, but it is more rewarding in the end.

What if There Were No Heaven?

(This post originally appeared on the now defunct centurybound.com blog on December 22, 2005. It appears here with some major rewrites from the author.)

While surfing the internet, I happened upon the blog of an atheist who was asking the following question of her readers:

“How many people would believe in a god if there were no rewards promised to the self for doing so?”

This rather loaded question is a complicated one. It is actually not meant to be a question, but rather an attack on the principles of Christianity. The atheist is suggesting that the Christian faith is a selfish one and insinuating that if there were no promise of Heaven, there would be few, if any, Christians. There is no chance I could ever answer the question to this particular atheist’s satisfaction because I suspect she believes she already knows the answer. Furthermore, I’m not sure there is a way to know the answer. Since there is a promise of Heaven, I have no idea how many Christians there would be if that promise was ripped out from under us. I suspect, rather sadly, there would be less. Possibly much less, but that is just a guess. I know that in my own experience, Heaven did not enter the equation. I chose to believe in God because I had an encounter with Him that began to make sense to me intellectually. I then chose to believe in Jesus Christ (and the Christian faith) specifically for an abundance of reasons – none of which were Heaven. I sort of see Heaven as the icing on the cake. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad the promise is there; but my faith doesn’t hinge on it.

I believe we can examine this question introspectively in a way that can help us examine our faith. What if today, we pondered the following question?

Would you still follow Jesus Christ if there were suddenly no promise of Heaven?

If our answer to this question is ‘no’, I would suggest that we may be on shaky ground spiritually. I spent the majority of life before Christ creating a particular version of God in my mind and then imposing those values on the real God. For instance, the God I created was all knowing and all powerful. He had created this world and then stepped back to see what would happen. He was a fair God who would allow pretty much anyone into Heaven provided they tried to live a good life (you know … paid their taxes, supported their children, didn’t kill anyone … that sort of thing). It was only when I humbled myself that I realized I had no right to impose my beliefs on God. If God were real, I had to allow Him to teach me about Himself and accept even what I didn’t understand. I had no business trying to invent God in my image. I had to understand and apply the old saying “Father Knows Best.” In other words, if God, in all His wisdom, suddenly decided there should be no Heaven, I would have to accept it – even if I didn’t understand it. I can’t worship God because of what He promises me, rather, I must worship God because He deserves it.

I am so thankful that my God has promised me Heaven. I also believe there is a hell. Hell, in my opinion, is proof that God loves us. How’s that you might ask? Well, if what we really want is a place that is free from the presence and influence of God, he will provide it for us even though it breaks His heart to do so. That place is hell. It’s not God that makes hell such a terrible place … it is the complete absence of God’s influence that makes hell so bad.

Even though I have a concrete belief in Heaven and hell, I can’t make that the focal point of my faith. Why? Well, if all I do is think about the future … someday far in the future … I am ignoring one of Jesus’ most powerful lessons. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. What did He mean by that? I think He meant that we can experience Heaven right now in our mortal life. If hell is the total absence of God, then Heaven is living in God’s presence. In fact, Heaven is more than just the presence of God – it is a place where God’s Will is done. We can experience God’s presence and live in His will right now. If we spend all of our time looking towards the future, we will miss out on the beauty that is Heaven on Earth.

Think about it … we all know the bitter and depressed Christian who lives a miserable life and constantly talks about Heaven in the future tense. My heart goes out to these people. Thank God they have the promise of eternal life from the One True God to keep them going. I am not suggesting that it would be healthy to totally forget about our promise of Heaven; I just pray that someday we can all experience a shadow of Heaven right now!