Is God Doing This?

An Edgy Question

crucifix.jpgI want to ask the question that is in the back of the minds of a lot of religious adherents right now, and perhaps even in the mind of a few skeptics. Are the terrible things that are happening in the world right now a direct activity of God?

Australia was just ravaged by fires, which destroyed over 32,000 square miles and over 1000 homes, and killed a couple dozen people and millions of animals. Immediately on its heels, locusts plague Africa and the Middle East – I mean like biblical quantities of locusts. Look it up. The story has been buried behind the coronavirus, which has now claimed 9,000 lives with a frightening mortality rate and brought the earth to a grinding halt.

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To top it all off, there was an 5.7 earthquake in Salt Lake City, Utah on March 18th, which normally might not raise eyebrows, but this one knocked the trumpet out of the hand of the gold statue of Angel Moroni standing atop the spire of the pompous Mormon Temple in the heart of their homeland. Even without all the rest of today’s chaos, that one would certainly make the orthodox zealots call out to the heavens, “Nice one, Lord!”

So the question is a bit surprisingly a rational one – is God mad at us?

Surprising at least for those raised on a Western, naturalistic view of the world, a “scientific worldview” we call it, although by that we mean committed to presuppositions which empirical science cannot substantiate. That is – we assume there’s nothing supernatural, so science can only give natural explanations.

The problem, Science, is that most of us, most of humanity, believes in God. Not only that, many gods, angels, demons, an afterlife, miracles, ghosts, and all the rest of it. Most – a majority – of all humanity present and past. Scientists even now speculate that some part of evolutionary history wired us to be religious, even if there were no God out there to be religious about. But whether there is a God is a subject of another post. Here I want to ask, for those who do believe in God, is God actually, you know, doing this?

Some religious people, those with especially guilty consciences, assume that when something bad happens to them, it’s because of something they did. Karma is essentially the same idea. But the disasters befalling the world are too broad for even the worst narcissist to assume they’re causing it all.

So is it because of us, all of us? And do we have the power to change world events through our behavior, through repentance?

It Has Happened Before

Clearly, readers of the Bible can see, this jibes with what the Bible says God has done in the past.

God says to King Solomon in 2nd Chronicles 7:

13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Repeatedly God forewarns of doom for disobedience and reward for faithfulness. When Israel is taken into slavery in Babylon, they say it was because King Solomon wasn’t faithful. When Jesus’ disciples come across a man born blind, they ask Jesus, “Is it because he sinned or his parents sinned that he was born this way?” (John 9:2). In the book of Revelation, God even warns rejection of churches that are not faithful, because God disciplines the people he loves (Revelation 3:14-20).

Two Options

However, Jesus’ answer to his disciples about the man born blind is that his blindness is not a result of anyone’s sin. His blindness is an opportunity for God’s power to be shown through him. Likewise, in the book of Job, a man named Job loses everything – his family, his wealth, and his health. His friends gather around and tell him he must have sinned. God shows up at the end of the narrative and vindicates Job – in fact, he hadn’t done anything wrong.

So Answer #1: Bad things are not always tied to God’s punishment. There’s a biblical basis for saying this. Furthermore, those who believe in Jesus believe that he died on the cross for our sins, so we are now completely forgiven. There is no anger left for us, and God does not destroy his children as punishment. Jesus aims to shape us in to healthy, loving, faithful people; he did not come to condemn us (John 3:17).

But, Answer #2: The terrors of this world are in every way a tool in the hands of God to lead the world to repentance. However, rather than causing suffering willfully, I think the Bible suggests that they come about in another way. Romans 1 says that God’s worst punishment for us is to let us have our own way (Romans 1:21-24). He “hands us over to our lusts,” it says. Allowing us to live in a broken world without his intervention is its own punishment. We live in a horribly broken world, and as we reject God and push God away, we can hardly complain that he allowed bad things to happen. He’s literally done exactly what we asked for. The consequence, sadly, is a world that doesn’t look like heaven. The hard part for those who follow Jesus is that we are all in this together, and the brokenness of the world drags us all down.

Our Hope

There are three places in which to put our hope:

  1. If you choose to invite Jesus into your life, he will immediately begin a remodel that will turn something broken into something beautiful. You can do that through a simple prayer – Jesus, I invite you in. Please take my life, forgive me, and lead me.
  2. When we follow Jesus and are filled with the Holy Spirit, we get to witness miracles. Jesus empowers his followers in the world to do exactly the same kind of things that he did, and that brings people out of brokenness and into healthy life. Against the backdrop of a world of storm clouds, a light shines through in the lives of the faithful.
  3. There will come a day when this present darkness will be chased away by light, and we will enter a world where there is no more mourning or crying or pain, and every tear will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4). Until then, we work to build the kingdom of God on earth; on that day we will rest.

Don’t be afraid. Jesus is still on the throne. When you believe in him and follow after him, he will save you. He’s not out to punish you and he doesn’t hold grudges. His business is forgiveness and redemption. Whatever origin story we believe in about the catastrophes of the world and the coronavirus, let them sharpen our minds and point us towards the one in whom we find true hope: Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Three, Two, One

A snow-capped couple used to sit next to me in a café, clucking away with each other and passing friends. The first time I noticed them, I was trying to read Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation,” but couldn’t pay attention. I was privately amused at the way they loved each other, giggling as they finished each other’s sentences and offering to get up one for another, because at their age, it was too much of a commitment for them both to stand up.

I was conscious of my eavesdropping, but not of the effect they were having on me. They became part of the aesthetic of the café – the warm, sun-filled widows, the robust, walnut-toned coffee, and the happy old couple as familiar as the furniture. They were always there.

Until one day I saw her alone. When I stopped to ask, I withered to hear of his passing. She was thereafter different than she had been before, as was the café.

cloverThat couple for me is a better metaphor for the Trinitarian God than most of the go-to illustrations. St. Patrick notably used the three leaf clover to explain the Trinity to the pagan Irish, but his metaphor was flawed, because if you pull a leaf off of it, you still have a deformed clover, but a clover nonetheless. A widow is something fundamentally different than a spouse. One does not merely lose a spouse, one loses spousehood. When we love and are beloved, to lose love changes our identity.

Imagine the Trinity not as a mechanical philosophical concept requiring technical definitions of “substance” and “nature,” but rather a being who is so infused with and exuding love that the Father, Son, and Spirit are giddy at finishing each other’s sentences, that within the nature of the one God is a love so overwhelming that it must be reciprocated. Trinity is love immune the frailties of human love. It’s love made perfect, love like the first time a baby laughs, love like a wedding, love like a hero dying to save someone else. Imagine a love so urgent it can’t resist exposing itself to the risk of betrayal and brutality. It will pay the cost if only to love one more. Imagine a kind of love that promises a day when inseparable lovers are reunited, because that’s how a good story is supposed to end.

A friend of mine who is a missionary in a Muslim country tells me that she sometimes tells Muslims that there is “love if,” “love because,” and “love despite” – you can love someone if they will do something for you, because they have done something for you, or despite anything that they do for you. She has been told more than once by the people to whom she ministers that “love despite” isn’t real.

Imagine love despite. That’s a better description of Trinity that most of our metaphors.

Cathedrals and Haunted Houses

sailI’ve spent a fair amount of time decrying the decline of the Church in America, particularly so much as it is a consequence of a lazy Christianity that just assumed lost neighbors would find their way to church without any effort from the converted. But if you asked me if I was afraid if the Church in the world was going to pass away, I would have to admit I’m not afraid of that at all. My reason for that confidence is not a strident declaration about the gates of hell never prevailing. It’s far more amusing than that.

It’s because we live in a haunted house.

By house, I mean the planet Earth, and by haunted, I mean haunted. The free-wheeling secularist cannot suppress the cathartic tears at sunset and at the symphony. She can’t muster up a plausible grounding for all of the passionate ethical positions for which she tirades and votes and argues. She will never sufficiently suppress nor rewrite a history that is filled with church-going grandmothers who find her life a shame. And to be honest, one out of every ten people I talk to has actually seen a ghost. The world is haunted, or to use Charles Taylor’s more pleasant term, enchanted. The hard-nosed laboratory researcher who claims to have dissected away the enchantment doesn’t come off as a genius. He comes off as one in denial, like a captain who keeps insisting the leak isn’t that bad.

I’m happy to say there will always be a Church, because the world will always be haunted. The intrusiveness of its ghosts can be dodged by denial no more than a bee sting can be avoided by closing your eyes. They will keep poking us. My worries for the Church in America have far less to do with anything about metaphysical reality and far more to do with the fact that my son and my daughter will likely marry and raise kids in this generation, and they will be surrounded by blind captains sailing sinking ships.

Don’t Become A Pastor Until….

Don’t become a pastor until….

…you’ve invited someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus to believe in Jesus.  That’s what pastors are for.  If you don’t do it in your daily life now, you’re not going to be better at it when some seminary or denomination says you’re ready to.

…you pray and worship when no one is listening.

…you can pray and worship without telling everyone you did.

…your knowledge of the Bible is as thorough as your questions about it.  The questions shouldn’t come from what you don’t know; they should come from what you do know.

…you’ve given up the dream of getting rich.  We print “In God We Trust” on the back of his leading competitor.

…you’ve given up the dream of being famous.  There should be a pretty distinct difference between a sermon and a selfie.

…you’ve given up the dream of being attractive.  If the dream comes true, you’re likely to embarrass the ministry.  If it doesn’t come true, but you keep hoping, you’re going to look ridiculous.preacher

…you’ve realized your wedding vows are more important than your ordination vows.

…you could competently do ministry without a formal theological education.  And once you don’t need it – go get it.

…you’ve learned how and when to say “I could be wrong” and “I’m sorry.”

…you can name the places that you’re broken with no more shame than if you were describing what you like about a painting.  Brokenness is something we need to accept about ourselves so that we can deal honestly with the problems it creates, rather than trying to hide it from everyone else until the problems become public.

…you have a stronger passion for releasing other people’s gifts than releasing your own.

…God’s call to ministry is louder than your desire to do ministry and other people’s affirmation of your ministry.

That said, I don’t know that I would have become a pastor 17 years ago if I was following my own list.

To the Power of One

I found an interesting piece of trivia about the church at which I pastor, Glenkirk Church. Apparently, back in 1965, the church was meeting in a little chapel at another location, and the day came when the congregation had grown too large for the little chapel. The pastor at that time named the need to build a bigger sanctuary on that lot. Apparently the congregation was divided on this. I wasn’t there, so I can only guess how the conversations went.

“It’s too expensive! Why would we spend so much money on ourselves?”

“Why do we need to grow anymore? The church is fine the way it is!”

I know these kinds of questions came up, because as it was told to me by one of the old-timers who remembers, “It passed by one vote.”

One vote!

Just one person enough to move that congregation forward. I don’t know who that person was (or technically, who that 51% was), but I owe a debt of thanks. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. The church wouldn’t have grown. It wouldn’t have gone through a later move to an even larger campus on which it could keep growing. Children wouldn’t have received Christian education. People wouldn’t have been sent into full time missions. Countless people would not have become Christians at Glenkirk. Hundreds of thousands of dollars would not have been spent on missions with the poor.

To that one person who voted “yes” – thank you so much!

Because of you, there are three children of Glenkirk who are now in full time ministry in Muslim countries. There is one who is a youth pastor on an island in the Atlantic. There is one family who became Christians at Glenkirk and are now rebuilding an orphanage in Haiti that fell down in the 2010 earthquake. One is a chaplain at Fuller Seminary. Without you, my two children, along with many others, wouldn’t have been baptized at Glenkirk. And now each week, we gather as a family, young and old, to sing to a good God, as we have since that 1965 vote.

Thank you so much! Without you, I wouldn’t pass each week through the shadow of this cross and remember the One who said “yes” to God’s call for the sake of we who would come after him. Whoever you are – well done!

 

The Glenkirk Cross
The Glenkirk Cross (Photo courtesy of S. Vance)

Son of God Movie Review

Son of GodYesterday I was invited to Saddleback Church to preview the forthcoming movie Son of God, produced by the same people who created The Bible series for the History Channel last year, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who were both present for the screening.  I’d strongly recommend you put this on your list of movies to see when it releases on February 28th.

In terms of production value, it’s the best one of its genre.  The Jesus Film pales in comparison, looking almost like a homemade movie compared to Son of God.  The 1977 epic Jesus of Nazareth (over 6 hours long) was powerful for its time, but awfully hard to sit through.  The Passion of the Christ, which, coincidentally, released exactly 10 years ago on Feb. 25, 2004, did not tell the story of the life of Jesus, but really honed in on the pathos of his final week.  There really isn’t a modern day video retelling of the life of Jesus as good as Son of God.  More flamboyant retellings, like The Last Temptation and Jesus of Montreal, really fall outside the mainstream and look more like a sectarian reinterpretation of the story.

The movie doesn’t stray far from the biblical narrative, though it fleshes out some of the narrative behind the Roman occupation, and it emphasizes the way Jesus was an offense both to Romans and Pharisees.  Many of the lines are paraphrases of the words of Jesus and the biblical characters, but the movie isn’t indulgent in its adaptation.  It leaves a lot out, but after two and a half hours, it would have been hard to meaningfully include more and still accommodate the modern attention span.

For that reason, you need to see it.  Take your kids.  Take your unbelieving friends.  Take your small group and let it guide a discussion of which parts of the life of Jesus you tend to pay the most and least attention to.

The only criticism I have of the movie are just in the nature of the genre.  Many of the characters are white people with British accents and perfect teeth.  Of course, I don’t think American English would be any more authentic, and the only way around these cliches would be to do as The Passion and have the whole thing in Aramaic.  Some of the dialogue is oddly lilting, and the soundtrack is a bit melodramatic.  The costuming is a silly blend of immaculately clean robes in a rainbow of colors.  Still, the actor who plays Jesus, Diogo Morgado, is a nice variation on his predecessors.  Rather than pale and somber, he often appears amused.  You can’t help liking him from the beginning.  And to be honest, the cliches are at about the level of presentation that most Americans expect and even want from a story set in the ancient world.  We have the same caricatures when it comes to stories about ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt.

So take the movie for what it’s meant to be.  It’s not simply entertainment, and it’s not intended to offer a new slant on the biblical narrative.  It’s fundamentally an evangelical tool for retelling the gospel again in a modern language.  And anytime Christ and culture meet, it’s a good opportunity for Christians to enter into conversation with a world that has heard different representations of Christianity and still wants to see the real thing.

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Please check out my book!  – – – – – – ->

 

Unintelligent by Design

DarwinOne of the criticisms I’m regularly seeing in discussions of evolution is that those who claim that life shows signs of intelligent design are relying on a “god of the gaps” argument.  The charge is that where they cannot explain how something happened, they’re just answering “God,” without any further intellectual curiosity or explanatory possibilities.  In fact, I’ve heard several skeptics call it “Intelligent Design of the gaps.”

But it occurs to me that if something shows signs of being designed by an intelligent mind, and a skeptic says that such an explanation doesn’t count, what he means is that intelligence isn’t a thing.  Intelligence doesn’t have explanatory power.  You can’t point to something and say that it’s obviously the work of an intelligent mind.  If that’s true, the skeptic of intelligent design must literally be saying that intelligence doesn’t, in and of itself, exist.  There must be something behind the appearance of intelligence which isn’t itself intelligence.  The skeptic literally won’t stop looking until he’s found something unintelligent.

It’s a little bit difficult to give credence to an idea being forwarded by someone who from the outset dismisses things that look intelligent.

 

 

My sense for how our design points us towards a designer is in my book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know.

Invisible Things

The gravestone of Immanuel Kant reads, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Today I visited the Getty Villa, a museum in Pacific Palisades.  On display was the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2500 year old clay cylinder Cylindercovered in cuneiform writing.  An edict of King Cyrus, it prescribes freedom of worship and the release of slaves from the conquered Babylon.  This was the king who set the Jews free from slavery to go and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4).  The cylinder is a statement from the ancient world that we have a deep intuition that life and liberty are inherently valuable.

Later, my family and I stopped by the Santa Monica beach and watched the sunset.  I turned to my son and said, “Which is older, the Cyrus Cylinder or the ocean?” He said, “The ocean.”  Then he paused hesitantly and added, “Is that right?” And for a six year old, it is right.  But for a Sunsettheologian, the answer is, “It was a tie.” The beauty of moral values deeply impressed on the human heart and the beauty of a well-painted sunset sprang from one and the same mind before the world began.  I am constantly aware of a compelling morality that makes me conscientious and an awe-inspiring beauty that leaves me breathless.  Both make me look  from the shore, across the waters, at something that seems too far away to see, yet something that I can’t stop looking for.