The Astonishing Goodness of God

The Astonishing Goodness of God

I was struck by this phrase written by John Calvin as I’m very slowly making my way through his commentary on Isaiah. Satan is a master of deceit; he is the father of lies because lies are his native language. It doesn’t surprise us, then, that lying is how he got the freight train of misery that is life in a fallen world out of the station. The very first lie he told on earth to a human being (Gen. 3) caused the disaster we call the fall, and came in the form of a rhetorical question: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Even though Eve answered the question because it was so obviously untrue, it really wasn’t meant to be answered. It was an assault on God’s character, and most especially his goodness. By asking it just this way, Satan was implying God was in fact not good, that he wants to keep good things from us. He could have just as easily said, God is a big old meanie, and he doesn’t want you to be happy.

Eve replied with the truth, that it was only one tree in the middle of the garden of which God commanded they should not eat, or they would die. Then Satan brought out the shotgun of lies and let her have it with both barrels:

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

He could have easily said, God is horrible and he hates you. He just doesn’t want you to have what he has. He’s keeping this incredible thing, this “knowing good and evil” from you, and that’s just not fair!

Down through the ages since that day, a very lot of people believe Satan. It’s only in the very next chapter when everything starts going to hell, and Cain kills his brother Abel. When God rejected Cain’s offering we’re told, “Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” He was probably thinking, God is a big meanie and it’s just not fair! Thus we see the beginning of the ever present temptation of sinners to believe it is God who is the liar, and that he is not good.

How many people reject Christianity because life has handed them a raw deal, and it’s just not fair? A lot. That’s why since the time of Voltaire it’s been called “the problem of evil” because supposedly it’s a problem for Christianity, and by extension, God. Evil is a problem, all right, but it’s a problem for every person whatever their faith or worldview. Throwing God under the bus doesn’t make evil any more palatable or understandable. I would argue it makes it far worse. At least if God’s there you can blame someone. Chance and matter doesn’t offer much solace that way. Evil is then just a brute fact and exists for no reason at all. Other religions have to deal with it too, but not very well. Outside of the Abrahamic religions, not one even explains why evil exists or where it comes from; it just is. And none have any kind of satisfying answer other than, just deal with it. Christianity, by contrast, has a plausible if not completely satisfying answer. At least satisfying enough to be on a continual growth track for 2,000 years because a lot of people think it is plausible enough.

Believing God is Good is Necessary for a Flourishing Life
The longer I’ve been on this journey with Jesus, now north of 45 years, the more I realize my number one sin, the worst of the worst: lack of trust in Almighty God. It requires daily repentance, and is why pretty much every morning I repent for worry, anxiety, doubt, and fear. All such attitudes reflect a lack of trust in the basic goodness and power of God. Living by faith, which means trust in God’s word found in the Bible, and not sight, is incredibly hard. We’re always tempted by Satan’s lie, and it’s amazing to me how easy it is for me to do, thus the repentance. My daily aspiration and lifelong goal is found in Isaiah 26:

You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.

Perfect peace is the standard; an equanimity that cannot be shaken by mere circumstances. As I said, it’s incredibly hard, if not impossible. Verse 4 puts this in perfect biblical context:

4 Trust in the Lord forever,
for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.

We can trust him! And not just for now, for every minute of every day of every week and month and year, but forever! A rock is something in biblical terms that is solid, something we can count on, that doesn’t move with every passing wind or storm. In the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus compares building a house on a rock with building one on sand. When the storms of life come, guess which one stands? And how do we build on rock? We put God’s words into practice. Obedience to God is the “secret” to a flourishing life, whatever that might end up looking like. But it really doesn’t matter because perfect peace is available regardless of the circumstances, as hard as that is to believe when circumstances get really hard.

You will notice this is the case as you contemplate the rest of Isaiah 26. This is a wonderful picture of a rock life, a life that cannot be moved by whims and fancies, or by the pressures and vicissitudes of life. Here is an example:

The path of the righteous is level;
you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth.
Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws,
we wait for you;
your name and renown
are the desire of our hearts.

To be righteous is to live rightly. It’s the kind of life that is not bumpy, not a flight with so much turbulence the captain says over the speakers to stay in your seats and make sure your seatbelts are tightly fastened. Of course all lives in a fallen world like all flights have some turbulence, but a life lived in obedience to God means we get to our destination without worrying about going down in flames.

I learned the word flourish when I was exposed to classical education in 2010, which is used a lot in that context. I found this wonderful definition:

Flourish is a verb meaning to grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment. It refers to a thriving state or condition, such as a plant that is flourishing due to ample sunlight and water.

The only quibble I have with this is related to “a particularly favorable environment.” Because Christianity is true, and God is God, the Almighty Creator and ruler of all things that exist, we don’t need a “favorable environment” to flourish. It’s built into the covenantal cake of His promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 that all the peoples of the earth would be blessed through him, the first of numerous promises to Abraham and the Patriarchs to bless the nations. So because we live in a fallen world, God often enables us to flourish in spite of the environment, not because of it. Our trusting Him in obedience is what allows circumstances to not determine us, but to transform circumstances for our good and His glory.

Obedience Left or Right
As those who understand and embrace the gospel, we know we can’t earn God’s favor by our obedience. That kind of righteousness is given to us because of Christ, and we are accepted only because of him. Once we know we’re accepted and no longer condemned, we can realistically walk rightly, be righteous. We have to believe, me and God, we’re good; no guilt allowed. The beauty of the gospel from an Evangelical perspective is that not only are we forgiven of our sin because Christ took the punishment we deserve, but he also lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father, and in faith Jesus’ righteousness is granted to us.

That in theological terms is known as double imputation, an extremely important concept to understand. When we are saved our sin is imputed to Jesus, and His righteousness is imputed to us. Once you believe that, and fully buy into it, you can begin to “walk rightly” without falling off either side of the balance beam. As we all know walking with God in obedience to His law is a challenge, to say the least. It’s made all the more challenging because as sinners we live in constant temptation to Satanic delusion. On one side of that balance beam, we’ll call that the left side, is the delusion of self-righteousness that leads to legalism, and on the other side, the right, is guilt and despair because no matter how hard we try we’re just not very good at this obedience thing, if we’re honest with ourselves.

In my life, I was always falling off the right side of the beam, wallowing in guilt and shame. Satan really likes those on that side because he can act like his name which means accuser. He’s great at finger pointing and making you feel like you’re a miserable worthless wretch. Almost everybody who’s had any experience with Christianity knows the great hymn Amazing Grace by John Newton. The very famous first verse goes like this:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

Until I decided to reference that verse, I had never looked up the definition of wretch until now. It means a miserable person, one who is profoundly unhappy or in great misfortune, or a base, despicable, or vile person. That is who we are as sinners before we were saved, not after. We can now hold our heads high as children of the King, walk without shame and guilt because Jesus paid it all, and all to him I owe, in the words of the chorus of that wonderful hymn.

Falling off the right side of the beam has the benefit of building into us a right humility, that we are indeed unworthy sinners saved by God’s unmerited favor, and our only boast in life is Christ. At the end of I Corinthians Paul writes these words that have been a life raft for me:

 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, sanctification and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

I’ve never been able to relate to the self-righteous side of the beam, but I am sure I’ve been guilty of it throughout my Christian life. If we’re ever tempted to think we’re better or superior to anyone else, that’s a sure sign we’re tilting left. Repent!

Internalizing all of this sets the stage for obedience, and the blessing by God associated with it.

Obedience and Flourishing
Because Satan is very good at his diabolical job, we Christians have a hard time believing God wants to bless us. The title of a post I wrote not too long ago indicates this, “Believe It or Not, God Wants to Bless Us.” Or, that He wants us to flourish. Life is hard, and having the habit of living by sight, we tend to think flourishing is a fluke, almost mere luck of the draw. But it is not. God promises blessing for obedience. I made some of the case for this in my post, but that deserves a book-length study. Flourishing can often include material circumstances, but God’s blessing can reach us in any circumstances, and thus true flourishing is always possible.

The morning of the day in which I write these words, I read Galatians 5 and Paul’s description of the “acts of the flesh” and the “fruit of the spirit.” The juxtaposition of two lives driven from either hell or Heaven gives a perfect description of what a flourishing life looks like or not, either heaven or hell on earth. What Paul says is inheriting “the kingdom of God” in that passage is the Jewish concept of shalom. It is that sense of peace coming from the Prince of Peace, reconciliation to our Creator God, that is the fulfillment of the live lived, however imperfectly, by the fruit of the Spirit.

Isaiah saying, “we wait for you,” is a fascinating phrase. None of this is going to be easy, nor should it be. Going against the grain, swimming upstream, is always hard, as it should be. Knowing this, we no longer whine and moan about how hard it is. Rather, we embrace the challenge because He who is in us doing the work enables us to live out righteousness. Our responsibility is to live in obedience as best we can. The result is that our affections, who we are and what we want will become focused on God’s glory, and will all be oriented toward pleasing God. Our inner being will be so transformed by God’s Holy Spirit that what Isaiah says in verse 8 will be true of us, present tense: His “name and renown are the desire of our hearts.” How that is done is how that sentence begins, “walking in the way of your laws.” It is obedience that allows us to wait for him, to have shalom despite not because of the circumstances. Only then will we be able to marvel with Calvin and the saints throughout the ages at God’s astonishing goodness.


Epistemology and Being Poor in Spirit

Epistemology and Being Poor in Spirit

One of my favorite verses in Scripture might seem like a strange verse to have as a favorite, I Corinthians 8:2:

If anyone thinks he knows something he does not yet know as he ought to know.

It took a long time for me to appreciate and truly value my ignorance. The tendency of our younger selves is to think we know way more than we actually do. My younger self, probably in my twenties, came across the cliché, “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” It slowly dawned on me after two or three decades how true that cliché really is. God has blessed me with an insatiable curiosity to learn, and by this point into my seventh decade of life, I know a lot, especially compared to normal people. As I’ve grown in my knowledge over the decades, the cliché has become increasingly profound in its implications for my life, as I will try to explain.

First the word epistemology. It means the study (ology) of knowing (from Greek episteme, “knowledge”). We might think our knowing is straight forward and obvious. It is not, at all, as you quickly learn in the history of philosophy dealing with epistemology. For Christians and orthodox Jews, we’re taught in Scripture that knowing is possible and real, not in the least problematic. In fact in Scripture the word know and its variants is used between 1163 (NIV) and 1362 (ESV) times. That’s a lot of knowing! So Paul’s approach to knowledge is not calling for any kind of skepticism, that we can’t know anything. Quite the contrary. Before I get to the context; I want to share my inspiration for this post.


In this video Jordan Peterson and a handful of other scholars discuss the book of Exodus. These are two hour plus discussions that took place over a week early last year. Near the end and at approximately two hours and fourteen minutes, he says the following in the context of the passage about Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3):

 From the Sermon on the Mount, being poor in spirit means being brought low enough to be humble enough to be ready to receive. It’s a reference to pride, and a call to a particular kind of humility. He decided you could be friends with what you didn’t know. If you were the former, you try to prove your point all the time. Once you realize the depths of your ignorance, and what you don’t know is inexhaustible, and my troubles are inexhaustible, I better have an inexhaustible source to call on, and I can certainly call on the inexhaustibility of my own ignorance. It reverses everything because all of a sudden what you don’t know is your greatest hope because you can open up the landscape of revelation to what you don’t know.

I love that phrase, “the inexhaustibility of my own ignorance.” It’s so Jordan Peterson, and so true! The reason is that all knowledge, every single thing that can be known is of, from, and to God, as Paul says, “For from him and through him and for him are all things.” That means it’s a bottomless ocean in which we get to swim literally forever. And as Peterson implies, all knowledge is revelation, something given to us by God, and when we know this, in our seeking knowledge and learning we’ll be like the proverbial kid in candy store. It will be fun and thrilling and exciting, and so very gratifying. And unlike candy, we can never get enough.

Getting back to Paul. When we “think we know something” we shut ourselves off from “the landscape of revelation” (i.e., all of reality), as if somehow we own or possess knowledge like it’s ours, almost as if we made it up! Which gets us to where the rubber meets the road—love. Most Christians when they think of this chapter don’t think of verse 2, but think of the phrase, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” This is an excellent example of why taking Scripture verses, or part of verses, out of context is a good way to distort it’s meaning. It has turned too many Christians into anti-intellectuals as if knowledge in itself is bad. In chapter 8 Paul is discussing the problem of food sacrificed to idols, a big issue in the thoroughly pagan port city of Corinth. Here is how Paul introduces the context of his remarks:

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

There is no question, we can know the theological reality of the unreality of idols. They, the gods to whom the animals are sacrificed, do not exist. Our knowing that, however, doesn’t mean we are superior to those who believe they are real. That knowledge doesn’t have to “puff us up”. And our being known by God is infinitely more important than anything we can know.

Everything turns on what we do with our knowledge. We only possess it because it objectively exists outside of us. As I said, we don’t own it, it’s not ours. And since we didn’t create our brains or nervous systems or body, or anything else, how can possessing it make us think we’re any more special than anyone else? Everything we have, including our knowledge, has been given to us and is to be used in the service of others. As Jesus told us, if we really want to find our lives, and to have life that is really life, then we’ll lose our life for his sake. And that means like him, who did not come to be served but to serve, we also exist to serve others.

Who Doesn’t Want to be Right? And the Curse of Absolute Certainty
I heard this phrase not too long ago from a friend about an acquaintance of his who asked him this question. It was of course a rhetorical question, the answer as obvious as the question is silly. No, I want to be wrong. Yes, of course I want to be right, but I was deeply ambivalent about the question itself; it just didn’t sit right with me. Which brings me to a conviction about knowledge I’ve developed over the years and a certain kind of very knowledgeable person. I wouldn’t call them know-it-alls because they aren’t arrogant or unpleasant people. They don’t “look down their noses” at others. In fact quite the opposite. They want to help others and are generous with their knowledge. What was it about such people that rubbed me the wrong way? They embodied that answer to the question: they believe they are absolutely right! And they are absolutely certain about it! That, I fear, is a dangerous place to be.

The problem of absolute certainty, what I call a curse, goes back a long way in the philosophical discussion over epistemology. It’s a curse because it’s a lie, a result of sin, that finite creatures can have knowledge of an absolute sort.  A certain pious French philosopher and mathematician is responsible for this virus making its way into the bloodstream of Western culture. I refer to him a lot in my writing because this is such a critical topic in our war against secularism. His name is René Descartes (1596-1650). There was a growing skepticism in the 17th century, and he was determined to do something about it. The problem was that his answer was to insist that knowledge of an absolute sort was possible for human beings based on their reason, that man’s rational capabilities could achieve absolute certainty. He started his journey to this conclusion by doubting everything that could be doubted, and discovered the only thing he could not doubt was his existence. How did he arrive at this conclusion? His own thinking. So he made famous the phrase in Latin, Cogito Ergo Sum, or I think therefore I am, and became the father of modern philosophy. In the history of Christian Western civilization this was a disaster of biblical proportions.

You may think I’m being hyperbolic, if not melodramatic, and I’m overstating the negative implications of a statement that is self-evidently true. You might reply, of course I can think so therefore I must exist, but can you really know that? Be absolutely certain of that? When you trace intellectual history from Descartes to the present day, you quickly learn it is not at all self-evidently true. In a hundred years it led to the skepticism of David Hume (1711-1776) who concluded reason alone leads us to a dead end where knowledge isn’t possible at all. He was not happy about this, in fact quite depressed, but he had to be honest. Very few people in the history of philosophy were that honest, but eventually there was another who turned out to be the greatest prophet of the horrors of the 20th century, Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Walter Kauffmann in his biography of Nietzsche, he says things in his writings that abound in prophecies of doom:

If the doctrines . . . of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal . . . are hurled into the people for another generation, if mankind realizes the unique worth of the human being has evaporated, and that no up and down remains, and if the tremendous event that we have killed God reaches the ears of man—then night will close in, an age of barbarism begins, and there will be wars such as have never happened on earth.

Next to this paragraph in the book I wrote, “The 20th Century!!!”

It is important to understand that it is not just skepticism that caused the barbarism of the 20th century, but the reason for it—the death of God. Nietzsche lamented this, but as a convinced atheist he believed God wasn’t an option for man because, well, God didn’t exist. So he believed human beings needed to create another moral foundation for civilization. Good luck with that! The moral foundation of Christianity, that “slave religion” as he called it, was gone, and the vacuum was going to be filled by something. It was the horrific paganism that Judaism and Christianity saved the world from, this time in the form of secularism. Enlightened man could no longer believe in the gods, but he could believe in himself! How’s that workin’ out for him?

The Only Source of Knowledge is God
What happened with Descartes was the idea that our knowing could start with ourselves, and then move out from there. No it can’t. The reason is that we are not God, which is shocking to learn for many sinners. What do you mean I’m not God? Of course I am. I get to call the shots in my life. I get to determine what is right and wrong for me. I determine my own meaning. The result of such thinking is that in America in 2022 a record number of people killed themselves, around 50,000. How many more tried? Add to this the dysfunction of broken marriages, dangerous and dilapidated cities, depression, and one could go on.

The solution is to start with God, and to accept we don’t know squat no matter how much we know. I remember Chuck Swindoll saying at a service when I went to his church in southern California say if you think you’re indispensable, put your hand in a bucket of water and pull it out. How quickly the water fills the space is how indispensable you are. The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s Question number 1 asks the most important question of our existence: “What is the chief end of man?” What is the purpose or telos of our existence? The answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” The reason there is so much misery in the world is because secular man thinks his chief end is to glorify himself and enjoy himself till he goes into the ground and rots. Well, that’s inspiring! The problem as we see all around us, there is no joy in that.

The beauty of Christianity is that God really does want us to be joyful, to enjoy life, to take pleasure in whatever we put our hands or minds to, whatever we create, whatever we experience. I’ve never liked the word happiness because I don’t know what it means. Joy, by contrast, communicates satisfaction, fulfillment, like seeing your newborn child for the first time. That is joy! Seeing indescribable beauty in nature, or hearing it in music, or marveling at your tastebuds as you experience the sweetness of an apple. Even our fleeting accomplishments can bring us joy if they are pursued in Christ, and we know they really don’t matter at the end of the day. Only He matters! That is the road to using all we have to God’s glory, including our knowledge, in love and service to others because we do it all for Him, to Him, and through Him. That is the only source of true fulfillment, now and forever.

The Theme Song of Our Lives by Jethro Tull: Nothing is Easy!

The Theme Song of Our Lives by Jethro Tull: Nothing is Easy!

To my family the title of this post is nothing new. I’ve quoted the title of the song so many times by this point all I get is eye rolls. I used to call it the Disney eye roll when my kids were younger, but I would think Woke-Disney no longer has characters do eye rolls; that’s so 90s. It’s amazing to me that we as Christians allow the hardness of life to mess with our faith, and by “faith” I mean the Greek word for it, pistis-πίστις, or trust. God through Isaiah (26:3) says, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast because he trusts in you.” How often do you have “perfect peace”? Yeah, me neither. It’s also amazing to me how often we allow circumstances, or more accurately our perception of them, to determine whether we have “perfect peace” or not. Of course, this should surprise none of us because we are all of Adam’s seed, fallen creatures through and through. And it’s hard! Ian Anderson says so. Chances are he didn’t know the reason why is found in Genesis 3, when Eve believed the serpent that if she just ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she could “be like God knowing good and evil.” Uh, no you won’t.

The message of the song, Ian Anderson being the good stiff-upper-lip Brit, is in the title of another popular song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” And why should we not worry according to Anderson? Just “smile in a while” and you’ll get happy his way. The reason this can only work to a limited degree and not ultimately is related to one of my favorite words and concepts: telos, a Greek word from which we get our word teleology, which is the study of purposiveness or of objects regarding their aims, purposes, or intentions. I’m going to get a bit philosophical, so bear with me. I trust the payoff will be worth it.

To Aristotle there were four causes for why things come to be.

1. First is the formal cause, or the idea of the thing in the mind before it comes to fruition. Someone can’t build a chair until they have the idea of the chair in their mind.
2. Second is the material cause, or the thing out of which the chair will be made, the wood.
3. Then there is the efficient cause, or the person making the chair.
4. Finally is the formal cause, or the telos, the purpose for which the chair is made, to sit on.

Today we only think of the efficient cause as the reason something comes to exist, but for Aristotle it was a far richer concept. In Aristotle’s concept of cause, we find the answer to dealing with life being hard, and it isn’t just making a decision to not worry, smile, and be happy. It’s hard to ignore getting hit in the face with a brick—deciding it doesn’t really hurt isn’t going to help. Sometimes when it gets really hard life can feel like a pile of bricks falling on your head, or it can be just run of the mill hard like those pesky mosquitos that won’t leave you alone. We find the ultimate answer in the first question and answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the formal cause of human existence:

What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

And not only the formal cause, but the three others as well. We existed in the mind of God before the world was created; He is the formal cause of our existence. He made earth so out of that He might create man; as David says, we are fearfully and wonderfully made; the material cause is the earth on which we live. The efficient cause is God making us through the vicissitudes of life, the hardness of it, the person He wants us to become. The formal cause, the telos of our existence is given in the pithy answer by the Westminster divines: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The question is, do we really believe this, do we fully buy into it. Do we accept what Paul says, that in God “we live and move and have our being.” Do we really believe there are no accidents, that when it comes to our lives chance doesn’t exist? That God is truly in control of all things?

The ultimate cause is of course Jesus Christ. In him it doesn’t matter how hard the hard gets, we’re promised the ultimate telos (Rom. 8:28):

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

And notice: we can know this, not wonder or speculate, but have certainty that every single thing that happens in our live works for our good and God’s glory. Every. Single. Thing. Not most things, or ninety-five percent of things, but all things. And what is this purpose Paul speaks of? He continues:

29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

God is the all-powerful, all knowing, all knowledgeable, all creative, all wise, all loving, all good efficient cause transforming us into the image of His Son. Talk about living a life of meaning, purpose, and hope! Talk about waking up every day excited to see what God has planned for us for the day. And as Christians we are the ultimate realists. Paul implies that all things are not good, but God works them all together for our good, even the hard stuff, especially the hard stuff. We have the encrusted barnacles of sin that are attached to our fallen natures, and it hurts to have God scrape them off. And sometimes we sing with Anderson, “Nothing is easy!” But in expecting and accepting that the hardness is necessary for the telos of our existence makes the hard things so much easier.

The other option in our secular culture is to believe we’re cosmic accidents, products of chance with no inherent telos other than what we can conjure up in our own imagination and hope to nothing that it works. Darwin gave us the gift of meaninglessness, and as we witness all around us, it is the gift that keeps on giving. We live in the most prosperous and powerful society in the history of the world, but last year almost 50,000 people killed themselves. How many more tried? How many others just live lives of quiet desperation and loneliness going from experience to experience hoping to find “happiness” and fulfillment, thinking the God shaped vacuum at the center of their being can somehow be filled by something other than God. It can’t.

Meaning is ultimately impossible to conjure up living in between poles of meaninglessness. In the secular view of reality, we come from nothing and we are headed to nothing; oblivion is our destiny. When life gets hard it has no other purpose or meaning than it’s just hard, and nobody likes that! No wonder so many people are so miserable. For Christians, though, Paul prefaces the above verses with this blessed truth that gives all things meaning for us:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

If we really, truly believe this, and trust in God, we can sometimes have a semblance of peace and even if it’s not perfect, it glorifies God and is good for us. But nobody said it would be easy!


Habakkuk 3: Will We Trust the Lord When Everything Looks Like We Shouldn’t?

Habakkuk 3: Will We Trust the Lord When Everything Looks Like We Shouldn’t?

If we’re honest, we don’t tend to live by faith (i.e., trust) in God, but by circumstances. If our circumstances are hunky dory, to our liking, we’re happy, if not we moan and complain. I like to think we naturally stop doing this in the process of growing in maturity, of growing up, of overcoming this penchant to act like children, but growing up isn’t easy. It is, however, necessary. For Christians this process is called sanctification, or being made holy by God. As I was going through my own sanctification process in life at some point I realized how hard it was. By nature I found I’m a moaner and whiner, and I tended to see myself as a victim easily seduced by self-pity. I came up with a phrase not too long ago some four decades into this process: the pain of sanctification.

Being molded and shaped by Almighty God into the image of his Son is not fun, nor for the faint of heart, but the fruit is sweet. If we really want God to have his way with us, it will get ugly. Our feelings will be hurt, and as Tim Keller always said, He will crush us. It is often an emotional struggle. The reason is that, as Jesus said (John 16:8), when the Holy Spirit comes, “he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The Greek for convict, elegchó- ἐλέγχω is a tough one: reprove, rebuke, discipline, expose, show to be guilty. That word expose is especially scary. Who wants to be exposed? Not me! In fact when I was younger in the Lord I was afraid of asking God to have his way with me, to expose my sin. Now I plead with him to do it because of one very important word, in fact I’ve learned the most important word in the Christian faith: trust. Yes, it’s right up there with love, but trust has to come first because loving God, ourselves, and our neighbors is the fruit of trust.

As I finished the book of Habakkuk and read these final verses that word trust came to mind, and how difficult it can be to exercise it if we live by circumstances:

17 Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.

In the ancient world when almost everyone lived on farms and grew their own food nothing could be worse than this. It’s not just some empty store shelves like we experienced in the last few years that for us is a slight inconvenience, but imagine walking into every store in your city and they are all empty! Might we just panic? When everything that sustains life is gone what do we do? Freak out! Yet here is Habakkuk saying it doesn’t matter because he will choose a different response which will not be determined by the circumstances: trust.

I’ve found as I’ve grown older in the faith and in life that my greatest sin is not one of my most obvious sins, but my lack of trust in God. And because of that I’ve found that one of my favorite verses in the Bible is the most convicting, Isaiah 26:3:

You will keep him in perfect peace
   him whose mind is steadfast,
   because he trusts in you.

 If I don’t have perfect peace, I don’t trust in God. It’s as binary as you can get. I can say that sometimes in life I think I might have such peace, but I’ve found over the years I’m not really good at the whole perfection thing. So I’ve come to my default position in my daily prayers: I repent of this lack of trust every day. It’s reflected in things like fear, worry, anxiety, doubt, impatience, anger, and being easily annoyed. Oh, how easily annoyed I can be! After four plus decades as a Christians and God’s sanctifying work in my life, I think I’m a little better in putting my tendency to annoyance in abeyance, but its never easy. I have to constantly be aware that I just threw perfection out the window.

Where do all these attitudes and emotions not honoring to God come from? Living by circumstances and not by faith. The Greek word translated as faith or belief in the New Testament is pistis- πίστις: “Properly, persuasion (be persuaded, come to trust).” I really like the way Strong’s Concordance puts that because God never, ever requires “blind” faith, or faith without reason. This is very important to understand for a couple reasons. 

  1. The first is atheists pushing the lie that Christians (i.e., “religious people”) need faith because there is no evidence for what they believe. Or at best the evidence is so weak they have to take a “leap” of faith. In the words of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so. Thus people who are “not religious” supposedly don’t need “faith.” This is of course garbage because there is in fact an ocean’s worth of evidence pointing to Christianity’s veracity and that it’s worthy of our trust.
  2. The other reason is more important. The kind of faith that seeks the blessing of perfect peace in Him is, to coin a phrase, persuasive faith. In other words, God persuades us throughout our lives in relationship with Him (meaning we daily seek Him in his word, prayer, and in fellowship with His people, see 7:7) that we can trust Him, that He is trust-worthy, worthy of trust. He will never leave us out to dry even when “the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food. 

I will end this with a brief story. My sister-in-law was over for a visit recently, and we were talking God and things, and having recently read Habakkuk these verses were on my mind. So I pulled out my Bible at our dining room table and read the passage. Or should I say I tried to read the passage. When I got to, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord,” I could not get the words out, the tears wouldn’t let me. I’m not exactly sure why passages like this do that to me sometimes. Is it because I can approximate such trust at times, or that I’m so bad at it? I think it’s the latter because no matter how bad I continue to be at it, God in Christ loves me anyway, and continues to love and sanctify me so that I can approximate it a little more every day, and experience its blessings. Who doesn’t want peace of mind and heart rather than anxiety, fear, worry, and doubt? It’s a rhetorical question. 

When we realize just how unworthy we are, yet God loves us anyway because of Christ, tears are the appropriate response, but the emotions are not something we can manufacture because we think it’s the right thing to do. Relationships don’t work that way. They are dynamic, alive, unpredictable, coming when we least expect them, and hard to control. God in us, in Christ, in the person of the Holy Spirit is real, and the truth of who He is and what He’s done for us is stunning to contemplate. The more you do, the more real it becomes, and you won’t be able to help the emotions either.


“He walked away from his evangelical roots to escape feeling suffocated”

“He walked away from his evangelical roots to escape feeling suffocated”

That is the title of an NPR interview of Jon Ward in what I was sure would be a typical “deconversion” story, as they call it nowadays, especially given it’s leftwing mainstream media NPR. In case you haven’t noticed, corporate media despises, yea, loathes conservative Christianity of any stripe. So here, I thought, was yet another story of a Christian who abandoned his faith. I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t, but there are some important takeaways from his story we can learn from, positive and negative.

The first comes from the title of the book he wrote and thus the interview, Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation. This paints with a brushstroke entirely too broad. He experienced one slice of this so-called movement, and to imply it represents the whole is not accurate. I’m sure he would admit as much, but in the interview he’s not clear about that, or if he was, I missed it. The title of the book, though, is unfortunate and adds to the secular culture’s desire to denigrate and discredit Christianity. I listen to a lot of testimonies, people who’ve embraced Christianity for many reasons, all of which they obviously find helpful. Did the “movement” fail them? I’ve been a Christian over 44 years, and the only thing that’s failed in all that time is me! The God of Christianity revealed in creation, Scripture, and Christ has most definitely never failed even though we, his children, often do. As the famous hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love.”

Having said this, what he experienced was real and I can relate to his aversion to it. It sounded like a narrow kind of Pentecostal Christianity that didn’t do well with questions or doubt. I know those kind of Christians and congregations exist, but to imply or insinuate that’s a feature of Evangelical Christianity and not a bug is inaccurate. I’m confident most conservative Christians and congregations are not at all like this because that’s been my experience over all these years, and I’m sure most Christians would attest to the same. I’m not saying, however, this isn’t a problem, only that it’s a narrower one, and most importantly not exclusively a Christian problem. It is a human nature problem because people are sinners. Dogmatic narrowness and an unwillingness to entertain questions is in fact a common human malady. We find it in people of every religious stripe, and even those who think they are not at all religious (of course they are). Can anyone say . . . .  woke? Who are the most dogmatically narrow people on earth in the 21st century? Wokesters! And if you dare question them you will be silenced! Talk about a movement that failed a generation.

Speaking specifically of Christians inflicted with this myopia, though, I’ve seen it in my fellow Reformed and Calvinist Christians, but also in Arminians, Pentecostals and Charismatics, Roman Catholics and Orthodox, Bible believing non-denominational types, and every permutation in between. The problem, and this is something Ward highlights in the interview and I’d guess in the book, is the need for people to feel or think they are right. I agree with him. This is something I learned through many years and many mistakes as God was slapping me around, or as Tim Keller used to say all the time, crushing me. Thankfully, he’s really good at putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. This is not to say we should not want to be right. Who really wants to be wrong? I would guess nobody. But the question, and Ward highlights this, is can we admit we might be wrong. Dogmatism, the prototypical know-it-all, is not a terribly attractive trait because that person could never admit he just might be wrong. Or if he, or she, did, it would only be grudgingly.

Speaking of Christians, I’m afraid too many of us put our faith in our rightness rather than in Christ. I know for many years I did, but as I grew up realized just how little I know. It’s a cliché, but the more we know the more we realize we don’t know, or should. I’ve also come to realize how little we know when we declare the meaning of certain passages of Scripture, specifically things we simply can’t know even though many people pontificate confidently on them. But details of what those might be aren’t important, but what is, is our attitude when we come to the revelation of God in Scripture. Need I say our knowing should be in humility? In that we could maybe, possibly, perchance be wrong? That’s what Ward kept saying, maybe I’m wrong. In his experience he said he didn’t encounter that much.

Some people, a la Descartes, believe absolute certainty is not only attainable for finite human beings, but a worthy goal. But think about it for one second and you’ll realize by definition the finite can never be absolute. Our knowledge is always limited, which is why as I grew older it turns out one of my favorite verses in the Bible is about just how little we really know, I Corinthians 8:2: “If anyone thinks he knows anything, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” Paul in context is not calling for skepticism, that we can’t know, but for epistemological humility. We can and should have strong convictions though we must hold them firmly but lightly. Unfortunately that appears to be a problem for many people.

Human nature is a funny, perplexing, and utterly predictable thing, and the latter trait goes back to the garden and what we call the fall. It’s fascinating to realize that man’s fall from a state of fellowship with his Creator comes down to epistemology, a la Satan’s temptation, “you will be like God knowing Good and evil.” So it’s not surprising that our knowing, or the limited nature thereof, is such a significant part of our fallen condition, creating conflict, doubt, arrogance, pride, as well as blessing. It all depends on the attitude of the knower, doesn’t it. I’ve come to realize that as much as I love knowing and growing in knowledge, it’s far more important that I am known, as Paul follows up the above verse with, “But if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.” And in Galatians 4:9 he writes, “now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God. . .” Because I don’t trust myself, I often pray a couple verses of a Psalm of David (139):

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

As we are reminded by Jeremiah (17:9), “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” I heard Jordan Peterson, who has studied evil maybe more than any living human being, say something amazing about this deceitful heart of ours. Speaking of certain psychopaths, he said as they go down the labyrinth of depravity they are especially good at “the self-deception of their self-description.” As my father used say, people believe their own BS. He added, “You get to that lie by a thousand different micro-lies.” Might I remind all of us that we are all susceptible to “the self-deception of our own self-description,” and believing our own BS? Not to mention “micro-lies”? Which is why I pray the Psalm 139 verses so fervently and often because I don’t trust my deceitful heart, but I can trust our Savior God who in His almighty power in Christ by the Holy Spirit promises to “lead me in the way everlasting.”

Ecclesiastes 8:17 – No One Really Comprehends and God’s Revelation

Ecclesiastes 8:17 – No One Really Comprehends and God’s Revelation

In my recent read through the book of Ecclesiastes, I came to appreciate the seemingly contradictory perspectives of the author, who most accept as Solomon given how he identifies himself in the first verse: “The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” There were no kings in Israel’s long history who had the wealth and peace during their reigns to have the time to contemplate how meaningless life is “under the sun.” It takes a man of wealth and leisure with plenty of time on his hands to get to a point where he would conclude:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?

Here’s a cynic Woody Allen could appreciate. Yet the Teacher combines a healthy dose cynicism with a humility that realizes how little we as finite human beings can really know “under the sun.” Doing a Bible word search, we find the Teacher in our English Bibles using the phrase in the 12 chapters of the Book 27 times. I think we can safely say life on earth, not one oriented toward a heavenly city, is the dominant theme. Yet we also find him using the word God, Elohim in the Hebrew, 37 times. It is interesting, though, that he never uses the Israel’s covenant name for God, Yahweh, but the generic reference to God, El. Given his international celebrity, it’s likely his intended audience went beyond the people of Israel.

Speaking of word searches, he also uses the word meaningless some 30 times. The ESV and KJV translate that Hebrew word as vanity, defined in a variety of ways as empty, valueless, hollowness, worthlessness, futile. The Hebrew word means vapor or breath, and is also translated in various ways as such as empty, delusion, fleeting, fraud, or futile. We get the point, over and over and over again. Yet in the midst of all this futility and frustration he ends with what ultimately matters:

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

What prompted me to write about Ecclesiastes this time through was the Teacher’s statement in chapter 8 that after he had seen all God had done:

No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.

This hasn’t stopped human beings from trying to do just that for all of recorded history. The speculative history of philosophy, and the many varieties of religion over the ages speak to the futility of this endeavor. Man is an ultimate meaning seeking creature, even if most of the time he gets it wrong. The problem is that because of sin and man’s rebellion against God, we don’t seek Him. Jesus told us as much when he said to Nicodemus that we can’t even see the kingdom of God unless we are born again. No one chooses to be born or has any say in the matter, and Jesus doesn’t use his metaphors carelessly.

Which brings us to the Christian concept of revelation, that God has broken into the box of reality in which we find ourselves to reveal what it’s ultimately all about, or else we would be forever benighted. That word means being in a state of moral or intellectual darkness, unenlightened. If not for God breaking into the box of human existence to tell us what it all means, we are stuck with speculation and endless guessing leading nowhere but to more speculation and guessing, bumping into walls of existence concluding maybe there’s nothing outside the box after all. Human beings throughout history without revelation have concluded if there is something outside of the box, it is either not knowable, or if it is some kind of God not definable or personal, more of a force than a being we can related to on a personal level. I love the box metaphor which I learned a long time ago from the great Dutch Art Historian Hans Rookmaaker. The box of which I speak is closed and hermetically sealed because of sin, there is no way out, we are stuck.

If you want to really appreciate the value of God’s revelation to his creatures, become familiar with the history of philosophy and religion. In my Christian journey I’ve gotten to the point in my appreciation where I thank God almost every morning when I pray that he has revealed himself in three ways: creation, Scripture, and Christ. Creation drives us to Scripture which reveals God’s plans and actions in history to redeem his creation in the person and work of Christ. And as C.S. Lewis so perfectly put it:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Yet as the author of Ecclesiastes knows, comprehending, fully understanding, what goes on “under the sun” is not so simple, and in fact ultimately impossible. Yet we know enough per the Teacher just from creation (“under the sun”) that God is there and should be feared and obeyed. We also learn from Paul in Romans 1 that all human beings know enough to be “without excuse.” Then God breaks into the human heart by the power of the Holy Spirit, opening our eyes to the true ultimate meaning of existence: a redeemed relationship with our Creator through the person and work of Christ. Only a work by God outside of creation, what we often call super-natural, is the only way the box doesn’t remain our metaphysical prison.

The beauty of Christianity (the facets of stunning beauty of the diamond of salvation are limitless, literally) is that while we can know, have true knowledge because of God’s three-fold revelation, we as Paul says, “see through a glass darkly.” That is the King James Version of I Corinthians 13:12. Other translations use the word mirror and only seeing in it a dim reflection. In the first century there were no mirrors as we have them today. The Greek phrase Paul uses is esoptrou en ainigmati (ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι). The first word is glass or mirror, and in the ancient world were made of polished metal so it was difficult to get an accurate reflection. The second word means riddle or enigma. In the words of the Teacher, we really can’t comprehend what we’re seeing.

Yet what we can comprehend because true knowledge is revealed to us, we know in absolute humility and use in the love and service of others. We often hold our knowing far too firmly. Some even have a hard time admitting they could possibly be wrong . . . . about anything! As I’ve been a while along this journey with Jesus I know more then ever how little I really know, and I am far better able to know what I don’t know than what I do. In fact, Paul says it is better to be known by God than to know him, and only the latter leads to the former, even as we love because he first loved us.