July 25, 2010

Is God to Blame for My Daughter's Birth Defect?

Today my daughter Zoe turns four year old. The following is something I wrote shortly after she was born:

Sometime about three weeks after conception—before my wife even knew she was pregnant—the small ribbon inside her that should have become our baby’s spine didn’t form correctly. By the time we found out about the spinal bifida, the damage was already done. When the specialist told us there was very little chance that our unborn child would ever be able to walk without assistance I got clammy and lightheaded and I had to sit down. I felt like all my blood had just evaporated.

The car was very quiet as I drove my wife home. By God’s grace, she was being very strong. I was having a harder time. Suddenly a thought ran in front of my mind. “Did God plan this? Some people would say that if God is responsible for this then He is to blame for this.”

Rewind one year: I had just finished my master’s thesis on God’s sovereignty, using Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will to critique openness theology. One openness theology book is titled Is God to Blame? Its author, Gregory Boyd, says no. God does not know the future until it happens. God does not plan our pain and suffering. If they were part of God’s plan, then God would be to blame for them. We can’t get God off the hook by appealing to some higher purpose that supposedly makes pain acceptable. Boyd writes, “If every evil event could have been avoided had God so willed, how are we to avoid thinking of God as a conspirator in evil?” (Boyd, 56.)

This was the theology I had examined and rejected. After years of studying this subject, I had come to some settled conclusions. But now it wasn’t abstract. Theology can look different when you are driving home after a doctor’s appointment.

As I drove, the question suddenly divided like the lanes in front of me. Is God responsible? Is He to blame? There are two questions, not one. “Is God responsible?” is not the same question as “Is God to blame?”

Was God responsible for the spinal bifida? Did He plan it? Yes. Was God to blame? No.

Yes, God was in control of my baby’s problem. God has revealed too much in His Word for me to believe anything else. If a sparrow can’t fall without his permission, how can a human be born paralyzed apart from His ordination? I couldn’t deny God’s sovereign plan just because I didn’t like part of it.

But was God to blame? No. Definitely no! That is a completely different question. Being blamed for something means having done something wrong. It means being blameworthy.

Thus Greg Boyd and I agree that God is not to blame for my child’s birth defect—but for different reasons. Open theists say it is because God does not control the situation. I say it is because God has done nothing wrong. God has committed no fault. As I continued to drive, I felt indignation—not at God, but at the idea of accusing God of guilt.

God knows what He is doing with our lives. I’ve heard some say not to throw Romans 8:28 at people in pain. They say it’s glib, insensitive, and unhelpful. Now, we need to be careful how we use Scripture to counsel people—but isn’t it true that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose? Painful times are when we need God’s truth the most. The promises of God are not placeboes. They are only glib clich├ęs when they are not believed. When believed, they are a fortress.

Pain and tragedy force Christians to ask ourselves if we really believe what we say we believe. Be sure of what you believe before hurt hits home. To do otherwise is like waiting until the car crash to strap your seat belt.

As the c-section grew closer I grew in experiential—not just theoretical—knowledge of God’s providence and goodness. I pray that Zoe might someday be able to walk, but even more that she would walk with Christ. I don’t know God’s plan, but it is up to Him to decide how He wants to be glorified. I don’t say this as if it’s not hard. God knows it’s hard. The Father is no stranger to the pain parents experience when their children suffer. My daughter was born with a hole in her back. God’s Son was born to have holes in His hands and feet.

July 19, 2010

Death is Such an Ugly Enemy

This is an excellent section from D.A. Carson's book Scandalous.  John 11:33 says that when Jesus saw Mary and others weeping over Lazarus' death He was "deeply moved" in His spirit.  Carson stresses that the phrase “deeply moved” really should be translated as “outraged” because the language communicates anger.  Part of what Jesus was experiencing was anger.  Jesus was angry because death is always ultimately because of sin, the ultimate tragedy. Although God brings good out of the death of a believer, death itself is something evil.  Carson writes:

“There is a compassion in these tears, but there is also outrage. Jesus is outraged not because he has lost a friend but because of death itself. Death is such an ugly enemy. It generates endless and incalculable anguish. And for anyone steeped in the entire biblical heritage, death itself is a mark of sin. How is death introduced to the [human] race? Death itself is nothing other than God’s insistence that human hubris [prideful arrogance] will go so far and no farther. It is God’s judicial response to our warped rebellion. Whether death afflicts us at five or ten or thirty or fifty or seventy or eighty years, it comes and it is implacable [it can not be bribed away]. We are sinners, and we will die. Every time there is death, it still hurts. It is still painful. It is still ugly. And it is still the result of sin. This is not the way God made the creation in the first place. Jesus is outraged by the whole thing. He is outraged by the death that has called forth this loss, by the sin that lies behind that, and by the unbelief that characterizes everyone’s response to it. . . [The Bible] dares to recognize death as the last enemy. Death is an enemy, and it can be a fierce one. Death is not normal when you look at it from the vantage point of what God created in the first place. It is normal this side of the fall, but that is not saying much. It is an enemy. It is ugly. It destroys relationships. It is to be feared. It is repulsive. There is something odious about death. Never pretend otherwise. But death does not have the last word. It is the last enemy, but more to be feared is the second death. Thank God for a Savior who could claim, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’” (132-2.)

July 7, 2010

What Would Jesus Say to an Agnostic?

What's An Agnostic?

Every person is either a theist, an atheist, or an agnostic depending on how you answer the question, "Does God Exist?" These terms come from Greek.

Theos = God
a = no
Gnosis = knowledge

Theist: believes God exists
Atheist: believes God doesn’t exist*
Agnostic: doesn’t know if God exists

Two Types of Agnostics
There are two types of agnostics. So, if you claim to be an agnostic, which kind are you? One kind of agnostic personally doesn't know if God exists or not, but the other kind also believes that no one can possibly know!

"Can't Know" agnostics believe not only that they don’t know if God exists, but that no one can possibly know. They believe that because God is beyond this world there is no way we could find out anything about Him even if He did exist. But is this right? How can they be sure that no one can know if God exists? First, it is a contradiction to say that we can't know anything about God. If someone says that God is completely unknowable, they are saying that there is at least one thing that we can know about God… that He is unknowable. But if we know this about God, then He really isn’t completely unknowable! Second, even if it is true that there is no way that we can gain knowledge of God from our end, there is no reason why God couldn't make Himself known to us. We may not be able to peer through the "great divide" but an all-powerful God would have no problem making Himself known to us if He wanted to. Third, I believe that there have been times in history where God has made Himself known. Just because they don't know doesn’t mean that other people can't know.

So, I don’t think it is a good idea to be a "can’t know" agnostic. But what about "don’t know" agnostics? If you’re a "don’t know" agnostic, here is the main thing I want to ask you… When are you going to find out!?

What Would Jesus Say?
Now, I don't really know exactly what Jesus would say to each agnostic. People are different and I am sure that Jesus would say different things to different people depending on what is in their heart and what they need to hear. But on the other hand, Jesus doesn't contradict Himself. He might say different things to different people, but He wouldn't say contradictory things to different people. Also, Jesus taught that He was God and that the Bible was God’s Word, so Jesus would agree with everything that the Bible teaches. So, although we might not know exactly what Jesus would say to each individual agnostic, we can know, from the Bible, for certain what He could say. Therefore, if you are an agnostic, the following are five things that Jesus might say to you. All of them are true and I hope you spend some time thinking about them.

1. If you doubt, find out!
There weren't too many agnostics around in Bible days. Almost everyone believed in God or gods. (The only question was, which one?) However, I think that what Jesus said to Thomas would apply to agnostics. After Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after being put to death, He appeared to his disciples. Thomas wasn't there at the time, but the other apostles told him about it. But Thomas doubted. He said, "Unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my finger were the nails were, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe." (See John 20:20-29)

Thomas has his doubts. Jesus told him to examine the evidence. Yes, Jesus said, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" but he didn’t stop Thomas from examining the evidence. In fact, He commanded Thomas to do touch His wound, and to stop doubting and believe.

No, Jesus isn't going to appear to you to touch, but that doesn’t mean that there is no evidence out there for you to examine. No one will be able to stand before God and claim that they didn’t believe because of lack of evidence. I think God will ask, "Oh? How hard did you try to find out?" There are great books. There are people you can talk to. If you are honestly seeking to find out, there is enough evidence out there for you. If you doubt; find out!

2. I have revealed Myself to mankind in and through the Scriptures.
God has not kept Himself hidden. He has revealed Himself to mankind, especially through Jesus Christ. The Bible is truth from God and it is a record of the times God has shown Himself. John 20:30-31 says, "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name." The Bible was written to bring people to belief. There is something very powerful about God’s Word. Seek Him there. The Gospel of John is a good place to start. It specifically said that it was written so that you would believe that Jesus Christ is who He claimed to be, God in flesh.

3. The most unwise thing you can do is to ignore God.
Now, you might get offended by this, but let me explain. Psalm 14:1 says, "The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'" The Bible has a lot to say about wisdom. Wisdom is living skillfully for the best long-term results. The opposite of a wise person is a fool. According to the way that the Bible uses the word "fool" a fool might be someone incredibly smart, who makes unwise choices. And the most unwise thing that you can possibly do is to blow off the God who rules the universe, who made you, who must judge you, and who died to offer you forgiveness and true life. If God exists, it is an incredibly unwise thing to pretend He doesn't. Don't be a fool!

4. I didn’t just create you to know about Me, I created you to know Me.
Jesus told the religious leaders of His day, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life." (John 5:31-47)

It is one thing to know about someone. It is another thing to know them. For example, I know about George Bush. I do not know him. Jesus is reminding us that He doesn’t just want us to know about Him, as if He is just some character from ancient history. He wants us to have a relationship with Him. God isn’t an abstract theory to study. He is a person to have a relationship with.

5. I love you.
Simple, but true. God wants you to know that He loves you. John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life."

If you are an agnostic, I think that Jesus might be saying to you, "I loved you enough to go to the cross and die for you. I already did. I died in your place to take your punishment for your sins… that is, unless you don’t want me as your God and sin-bearer. I have made my feelings clear about you. Your future depends on whether or not you reject or accept me."

God in the Dock
One last thing...

C.S. Lewis has a book titled God in the Dock. For a long time I thought it was called God in the Duck, and that didn't make sense to me, but then I realized I was reading the title wrong. But God in the Dock didn't make sense to me either until I read it.

One of the chapters in the book is actually called God in the Dock. As I read it, I figured out that in a British courtroom, the "dock" is where the person who is on trial sits. With that in mind, C.S. Lewis' words were very profound. He wrote,

"The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen. The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock."

If you are an agnostic, look into the reasons for believing that God exists and that Jesus Christ is God. I believe that if you honestly look into these things, you will find the answers. However, please take C.S. Lewis' words to heart and consider the attitude in which you are doing it. It is one thing to have faith that seeks understanding, or to discover the evidence for belief... but it is another thing to force the Judge of the Universe into the dock and to take His place as His judge. James 4:10 gives some good advice, "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up."

*Some atheists believe that the word "atheist" should refer to anyone who doesn't believe that God exists, not just people who believe that God doesn't exist. Did you catch the difference? There is a subtle difference between not believing that God exists, and believing that God doesn't exist. The first way means that you don't believe in God, but you don't claim to know for sure that He doesn't exist. Therefore, you don’t know either way. The second way means that you specifically believe that He does not exist. Now, I think that the word atheist should specifically refer to someone who believes that God does not exist, because the word agnostic fits better for people who don't know either way. But no matter what terms you use, there are four categories that each of us fall into: (1) people who believe that God exists, (2) people who believe that God doesn't exist, (3) people would don't know either way, and (4) people who believe that no one can know either way.
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