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Life

“So this is what God’s really like.”

This summer, I’m preaching a very short sermon series from the Psalms on praying your emotions. Last week, I preached on Psalm 3, “Pray Your Fears.” In two Sundays, I’ll be preaching from the darkest Psalm, chapter 88, “Pray Your Sadness.”

I’m re-reading parts of a few books as research for the sermon. One book I turned to was C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. It is a tremendous little book about his journey after losing his wife Helen. When I read it the first time, I remember thinking that the book was one of the most raw, honest, yet refreshing books I had read. Essentially, A Grief Observed is the tear-stained pages of Lewis’ journal. I’m thankful his most delicate emotions were put on paper and published.

Listen to this devastating and liberating quote from Lewis in the very first chapter of his book:

[W]here is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?

I tried to put some of these thoughts to C. this afternoon. He reminded me that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ I know. Does that make it easier to understand?

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there is no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’

Categories
Theology

Calvin, Lewis, and Knowing Yourself

John Calvin and C.S. Lewis seem to be worlds apart. If they had a theological debate, there’s no doubt they would have many points of disagreement. Calvin was, of course, a Reformer, and he espoused his system known as “Calvinism.” Lewis was an eclectic of sorts, a self-professed lay minister, and he was decidedly “Arminian.” Calvin was a sixteenth century pastor in Switzerland. Lewis was a twentieth century literature professor in Great Britain.

Yet at the same time, there is some overlap between these two men. One of the great things about Christianity is that the essentials of the faith make for strange (and willing) bedfellows.

The essential I have in mind is that unless we know God, we cannot know who we are. In the first chapter of Book I of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes:

Our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us, that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him. On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also—He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced.

Over 390 years later, near the end of Mere ChristianityLewis echoes Calvin with his own unique touch:

The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of “little Christs,” all different, will still be too few to express Him fully. He made them all. He invented—as an author invents characters in a novel—all the different men that you and I were intended to be. In that sense our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. It is no good trying to “be myself” without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call “me” can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.

For Calvin, true knowledge of God produced a true knowledge of himself. For Lewis, turning to Christ unleashed his true personality. Different words. Different contexts. Same glorious principle: when we know God through Jesus Christ, we begin to see ourselves for who we really are and who we were intended to be.

Apart from God, we are stuck in a delusion, esteeming ourselves more highly than we ought and selling ourselves short of what we could become. In this delusion, we are left to be our own god—a role we were never meant to play and one which weighs far more than we can bear.

Categories
Theology

Thoughts on Erwin McManus’s Talk at the Global Leadership Summit

I attended Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit this year at a satellite location here in Omaha. There was a lot to receive, some things to redeem, and others to reject. Today, Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic in Los Angeles, closed out the Summit with his talk about Christians being culture creators and creative story tellers.

He exceptionally articulated the fact that because God is a creator, Christians are also called to be creative and enter into the redemption that God is working in the world. He told about the time he led Soledad O’Brien to Christ while describing a documentary he was making about the longings and desires every person has. McManus is clearly an innovator, very intelligent (despite barely graduating high school), and no doubt loves Jesus.

The text that McManus spoke from, and formed his argument around, was Ecclesiastes 1:1-11.  Aside from the first ten minutes McManus sounded like a (fairly) orthodox Christian, albeit using post-modern vocabulary.  In those first 10 minutes, however, his use and interpretation of the text was irresponsible, troubling and dangerous at best.

After telling the audience that Ecclesiastes is his favorite book in the Bible, he read the first eleven verses and said that he has been convinced for a while that “Solomon is wrong.” Wrong about what? Wrong that “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (v. 9). McManus described a time he spoke with his wife and she humorously said, “You are going to hell…Don’t tell anyone you think that.” McManus said he waited a “long time” to tell anyone. He also said, “I don’t believe the Bible’s wrong…I believe Solomon is wrong!”  He stated, “Solomon said that animals and men are the same. Do you think that’s true? I don’t.”

McManus went on to argue, as you can imagine, that there are new things in the world. He mentioned various stories in the Old Testament where God did something new, the fact that every person is made unique, the incarnation, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and countless other “new” things. He’s right. New things happen all the time.

But McManus is also wrong. He’s wrong because Solomon is not wrong. It’s not just dangerous that McManus took Ecclesiastes 1 completely out of context (as scary as that is, especially with Ecclesiastes!). What’s more is that he said, “Solomon is wrong.” He told 180,000 people that a biblical author, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, actually got it wrong. Solomon said there’s nothing new. He’s wrong. I don’t believe him. Let me tell you how the world actually is. If McManus is free to do that (and convince people to do likewise), who is to say that he cannot twist any other passage?

What was Solomon’s point in saying that everything is meaningless and there is nothing new in Ecclesiastes 1? Did he literally mean there is no purpose in live and that literally nothing new ever happens? Moreover, has any respected biblical scholar or pastor ever assumed that’s what he meant?  No and no.

Ecclesiastes is a book of repentance. Solomon wrote it after a long life wasted on sex, drugs, and rock and roll, B.C. style. He was the richest, wisest, sexiest, strongest, and most famous man in the known world. But he turned from the Lord and so nothing was fulfilling to him. His fall is recorded in 1 Kings 11:1-8. Solomon “did evil in the sight of the LORD” (v. 6) and did not remain faithful to Yahweh. He had “hewed out cisterns…that can hold no water” (see Jer. 2:13).  He looked for ultimate satisfaction, just as McManus said every human does, in things other than God himself. Women, money, and fame were never meant to deliver ultimate satisfaction.

Ecclesiastes chronicles Solomon’s journey back to God before his death. The book ends with this: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14). That gives us a small peek into how the rest of the book should be interpreted and applied.

When Solomon says, therefore, that “All is vanity,” and that “there is nothing new under the sun,” he does not mean that God does not do miracles or that he cannot “bring into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). Solomon also does not mean that human beings are not creative agents who partner with God in his redemptive work by creating beauty in this world through relationships, culture, and art. Would a man whose father was the most accomplished musician and poet in the history of the world say that humans don’t create new things?

What then does Solomon mean? He means that living a life apart from God’s commands (see 12:13) is a big waste of time! Living far from God only brings emptiness to life that leaves a person attempting to fill their void in life with truly boring things. Things like drink, food, sex, money, power, pornography, video games, sports, gambling, children’s soccer games, internet, cell phones, books, family, diet and exercise, body image, cars, status, power, and a thousand others. A life lived for anything other than God and his glory brings misery and ultimate meaninglessness. That life produces what seems to be purposeless existence. “I lived for women and fame and wisdom and money and everything else you could try,” Solomon says. “It was all vain.”

What is not vain? When does creativity and renewal and beauty and majesty appear? It appears when we “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). Any Jewish person hearing this text would think of Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Jesus said this was the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37). Jesus even said that this commandment, and “the second greatest” commandment, sum up “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40). Ultimately, we fear and obey Jesus Christ, who is the exact imprint of God’s nature, the image of the invisible God, and God himself (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15; John 1:1), and we love other people because they are made in the image of God. We fear and obey Jesus, not to simply avoid meaninglessness and escape hell, but because he has saved us from our sin, reconciled us to God, given us rest, and rescued us from the wrath to come. This the the gospel: We are accepted by God through Christ, therefore we obey.

Solomon tells us that a life lived apart from fearing God and obeying him will be meaningless, uncreative, and boring.  Solomon experienced exactly what C.S. Lewis wrote thousands of years later, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Solomon was far to easily pleased. Apart from God’s grace, so are you and me.

McManus was right to say that we are born in the image of God and we are to create beauty in every sphere of life and do it for the glory of God. He had that quite right. At the end of his talk, I was waiting for him to give the real “twist” and say, “Actually, Solomon isn’t wrong. In God’s story, there is true beauty and creativity. When you write your own story, filled with your own pleasures, there is nothing new that will come of that. The final outcome of that will always be misery.” But he did not.

McManus is wrong because Solomon is not wrong. If Solomon is wrong about life, then the Bible itself is wrong. If that is the case, then our faith is null and void and all the beauty we see and create is actually an illusion, a product of random chance, not of God’s sovereign and purposeful design. Therefore, I will go so far to say that no one has been “righter” than Solomon, who experienced firsthand the emptiness and deadness of life outside of God’s loving reign. Thankfully, he repented, which most people do not do.

The Imago Dei has indeed been marred by sin. We are a segmented fraction of our true potential. God is re-creating what is marred, and he will finish his good work (see Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:2; Rev. 21:5).

All who are being made new–by grace through faith–start now in partnering with God to help, in a small way, to make everything else new, including this world.  That will never happen if you are lost in a slum satisfied with mud sandwich. There’s no beauty, no renewal, no art, no creativity there. There’s only meaningless. And that’s where Solomon was. Until he repented.

Let us go and do likewise.

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Reviews Theology

The Reason for God (Chapter 2)

These are direct quotes from the book. If it is my paraphrase, it will marked by an asterisk (*) after the page number.

Chapter 2: How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?

Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be [a God]. Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order. (23-24)

If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. Indeed, you can’t have it both ways. (25)

From C.S. Lewis:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of “just” and “unjust”?…What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies…Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. (26)

Therefore, though Christianity does not provide the reason for each experience of pain, it provides deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair. (28)

Jesus, the God-man, underwent more evil and suffering than we could ever imagine, and he bore the agony of death on the cross. Therefore, we truly know God is Immanuel (God with us) even in our worst sufferings. (31*)

For the one who suffers, the Christian faith provides as a resource not just its teaching on the Cross but also the fact of the resurrection. The Bible teaches that the future is not an immaterial “paradise” but a new heaven and a new earth. In Revelation 21, we do not see human beings being taken out of this world into heaven, but rather heaven coming down and cleansing, renewing, and perfecting this material world….Embracing the Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the Cross brings profound consolation in the face of suffering. The doctrine of the resurrection can instill us with  a powerful hope. It promises that we will get the life we most longed for, but it will be an infinitely more glorious world than if there had never been the need for bravery, endurance, sacrifice, or salvation. (32, 33)

From C.S. Lewis:

They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. (34)

Categories
Theology

Atheism Doesn’t Do Much for Beauty, Art, and Love

If there is no God, and everything in this world is the product of (as Bertrand Russell famously put it) “an accidental collocation of atoms,” then there is no actual purpose for which we were made–we are accidents. If we are the product of accidental natural forces, then what we call “beauty” is nothing but a neurological hardwired response to particular data.  You only find certain scenery to be beautiful because you had ancestors who knew you would find food there and they dsurvived because of that neurological feature and now we have it too. In the same way, though music feels significant, that significance is an illusion. Love too must be seen in this light. If we are the result of blind natural forces, then what we call “love” is simply a biochemical response, inherited from ancestors who survived because this trait helped them survive.

– Tim Keller in The Reason for God, p. 138