Monday, October 31, 2011

God, evil, and suffering (The Reason for God part 15)

(I'm reading through Tim Keller's book "The Reason for God" and taking my small group through a DVD study based on the book. Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging about the book, the study, and the discussions occurring in my group.).

How does a Christ follower reconcile his or her belief in a good and powerful God with the reality of suffering and evil?  Honestly, there is no easy answer.  This is, in my opinion, the achilles heel of Christianity.  This is the toughest issue to resolve because, at the end of the day, it is ultimately a irreducible problem.  It can never be removed by argument.  And really...who among us is going to "feel better" about horrific tragedy if we have a crisp and clear answer to this issue?  None of our philosophizing about this issue will get God "off the hook."  Yet ironically, philospher Peter Kreeft comments that, "the Christian God came to earth to deliberately put himself ON the hook of human suffering."

Keller points out that, while 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."   Keller makes the following observations and claims:
  • Jesus did not face his death with the fearlessness that one would expect of a "Braveheart"-type hero.  He was deeply disturbed and shook up by his impending death (Mark 14:33-34), tried to avoid his death (“If it be your will…take this cup from me”—Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42), and when he was on the Cross, cried out that God had forsaken him (Matthew 27:46).
  • Why this reaction?  He was more overwhelmed by his death because it involved something he had never known:  As God incarnate, Jesus had never been separated from God the father until now.
  • "We cannot fathom...what it would be like to lose not just spousal love or parental love that has lasted several years, but the infinite love of the Father that Jesus had from all eternity. Jesus’s sufferings would have been eternally unbearable. Christian theology has always recognized that Jesus bore, as the substitute in our place, the endless exclusion from God that the human race has merited.
  • "The death of Jesus was qualitatively different from any other death. The physical pain was nothing compared to the spiritual experience of cosmic abandonment.  Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment.
  • "If we again ask the question: “Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?” and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.
What does the idea of a suffering God have on your understanding of the problem of reconciling belief in God with the reality of evil and suffering? 


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Strange evidence for God (The Reason for God part 14)

(I'm reading through Tim Keller's book "The Reason for God" and taking my small group through a DVD study based on the book. Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging about the book, the study, and the discussions occurring in my group.).

Keller makes an astounding claim in his chapter dealing with the tension of God's existence in a world full of evil and suffering.

While readily admitting that this is an enormous problem for believers, he notes that it is potentially an even greater problem for unbelievers. He notes that C.S. Lewis initially rejected the idea of God because he couldn't reconcile God's existence with the cruelty of life. But as Lewis pondered it, he concluded that the problem of evil was even more difficult to reconcile with his atheism. In his mind, suffering actually “provided a better argument for God's existence than one against it.”

Lewis stated that:

"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."

Many of our modern objections against the existence of God have to do with our sense of fair play and justice. We believe that people ought not to suffer or inflict evil on one another. But evolution is based upon the principle of natural selection and it depends upon the death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak. On what basis can we judge the natural world to be wrong and unfair? We can only judge it by admitting that there is some sort of extra-natural or supernatural standard by which to make the judgment. Otherwise, we are just offering up our own subjective opinion.

“The atheist does not have a good basis for being outraged at injustice,” says Keller, “which, as Lewis points out, was the reason for objecting to God in the first place.”

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga put it this way:

Could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness [if there were no God and we just evolved]? I don’t see how. There can be such a thing only if there is a way that rational creatures are supposed to live, obliged to live…A [secular] way of looking at the world has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort…and thus no way to say there is such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness. Accordingly, if you think there really is such a thing as horrifying wickedness (…and not just an illusion of some sort), then you have a powerful…argument for the reality of God.”

The problem of tragedy and suffering is a problem for everyone. At first glance, it does seem as if taking God out of the equation would make it easier to grapple with, but it doesn’t. It is at least as big a problem for unbelievers as it is for believers. 

Since the problem of evil is a problem for all of do you reconcile it?  If you are a theist of some sort how do you reconcile evil and suffering with belief in the existence of a good and powerful God?  If you are a skeptic of some sort, how do you reconcile your belief that there is such a thing as an objective standard of justice and fairness in a world that is simply the product of chemical reactions occuring over time?

We'll unpack a few of Keller's thoughts on how a Christ-follower might approach it in my next post.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Review: "Kisses from Katie"

Kisses from Katie

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Atlanta and had the privilege of hearing from Katie Davis, a remarkable young woman with a story full of so much sacrifice that I found it almost impossible to believe.

This remarkable young woman from Brentwood, Tennessee had the kind of life that teenage girls envy: student body president, homecoming queen, a boyfriend, a sports car, and plans to head to college. She turned her back on all of it to launch a sponsorship program for needy children in Uganda. Today, at age 22, she is the mother of 14 girls (yes, you read that right) and leads a child sponsorship ministry that cares for over 400 children, providing them with an education, food, and medical care.

Her story blows me away. I don’t have a category for someone like her. Yes, she's young, but wow, her sacrifice and humble trust in God inspires me. For those of us living in the USA who claim to follow Christ, it is easy to learn a lot about Jesus without really doing what he said to do. In her book, Kisses from Katie she writes, "As I learned more and more of what Jesus said, I liked the lifestyle I saw around me less and less...Slowly but surely I began to realize the truth: I had loved and admired and worshipped Jesus without doing what he said.”

For her personally, this realization led to her serving the poor in Uganda. She writes, “I fell in love with a beautiful country of gracious, joyful people and immense poverty and squalor that begged me to do more. It was happening in so many ways, and I couldn’t deny it. I wanted to actually do what Jesus said to do.”

“So I quit my life.”

Not all of us who follow Christ will be led down a path that leads to a third world country, but her response to Jesus’ command to take care of the poor and sick sure makes me want to reexamine how I live my life and makes me want to live with more intentionality w

You can learn more about her ministry here, follow her blog here, and learn more of her story by watching the video below.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Saint Bernards, "No see 'ems", and suffering (The Reason for God part 13)

(I'm reading through Tim Keller's book "The Reason for God" and taking my small group through a DVD study based on the book. Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging about the book, the study, and the discussions occurring in my group.).

In Keller's chapter entitled "How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?", he cites philosopher J.L. Mackie's book entitled, "The Miracle of Theism." Mackie asserts the following:

"If a good and powerful God exists, he would not allow pointless evil. But because there is much unjustifiable, pointless evil in the world, the traditional good and powerful God could not exist. Some other god or no god may exist but not the traditional God."

Yet other philosophers have discovered a flaw, a hidden premise in this reasoning. That premise being that, "If evil appears pointless to me then it must be pointless." This reveals a tremendous amount of faith in one's cognitive faculties. A faith that asserts that, "If I cannot see or comprehend a point to suffering and evil, then there can't be a reason for it."

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga unpacks this hidden premise with his "no see 'ems" illustration. He states that if you were looking in a pup tent for a St. Bernard and you didn’t see one, it is reasonable to assume that there is no St. Bernard in your tent. But if you were looking for a "no see um" in your tent (a tiny sand gnat with a huge painful bite) and you didn't see one, it is not reasonable to assume that they are not there. Because, after all, no one can see 'em.

Keller then notes that "many assume that if there were good reasons for the existence of evil, they would be accessible to our minds, more like a St. Bernard than like "no see 'ems", but why should that be the case?"

Pastoral experience sheds more light on this as well. Over the years, in both my own life and the lives of those around me, tragedy and pain at times bring personal and spiritual growth. If, over time we can see good reasons for suffering in at least some of pain and tragedy of life, then isn't it possible that, from God's point of view, there are good reasons for all of it?

Keller concludes the following, "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."

Keller goes on to claim that, while evil and suffering isn't evidence against God, it could actually be evidence for the existence of God.

More on that unusual claim in my next post.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Problem of Evil (The Reason for God part 12)

(I'm reading through Tim Keller's book "The Reason for God" and taking my small group through a DVD study based on the book. Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging about the book, the study, and the discussions occurring in my group.).

The day started out like any other. I rose early from my bed and after taking care of a few things; I headed out the door for a quick early morning trip to the grocery store. As I headed back home and drove out of the store parking lot, I noticed that the traffic was unusually light for rush hour in Miami. I turned on the radio and caught the middle of a broadcast about something unusual. I couldn’t figure out what was happening but the grave tone of the journalist’s voice told me it was serious. Upon returning home and walking in the front door, my roommate, who was normally at work by now, was watching the television, staring in disbelief. I quickly discovered why. Images of the twin towers burning and crumbling to the ground poured from the TV set. I sat in stunned silence, horrified at what was taking place.

The French writer Simone Weil said that only two things can pierce the human soul: beauty and affliction. On September 11th, 2001, the spear of affliction cut deeply into the soul of every American with terrifying force. Like a blast of cold air or a slap in the face, we woke up afresh to the reality that we live in a world full of evil and suffering.

Every person, when confronted with the tragedy of life asks, “Why?” “How can this happen? How can God allow this?” Regardless of one’s belief or lack of belief in a supreme being, God is almost always questioned when we face the problem of evil.

For Christians, the problem of evil is enormously difficult. This, I think, is our most difficult issue to reconcile with belief in God.  Our belief in the truthfulness of the bible creates a difficult dilemma. Both the Bible and our own experience tell us that the world is filled with the presence of evil. But the Bible also tells us three important characteristics about God:

1. God is all knowing.
2. God is all-powerful.
3. God is good.

These three characteristics of God, combined with the reality of evil, create our dilemma. If God is good and loving, then it is reasonable to think that he wants to deliver the creatures he loves from evil and suffering. If God is all knowing, then it is reasonable to believe that he knows how to deliver us from evil and suffering. And if God is all-powerful, it is reasonable to believe that he is able to free us from evil and suffering. Yet each day, we wake up in a world full of acts of evil and awful suffering. If God is really loves us, if he’s all knowing and all-powerful, then why doesn’t he do something?

I'll start unpacking my thoughts and Keller's in my next few posts, but for now, how do you respond to the reality of evil and suffering in our world?  Is this a "defeater" for you regarding the possibility of the existence of God?  If you are a believer, how do you reconcile the tensions I list above? 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Love and liberty (The Reason for God part 11)

(I'm reading through Tim Keller's book "The Reason for God" and taking my small group through a DVD study based on the book. Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging about the book, the study, and the discussions occurring in my group.).

In my small group this week, we talked about the fact that some people reject Christianity because they view it as a confining straightjacket. They see it as an oppresive system that stifles human flourishing.

Keller makes the following observation,"What is the environment that liberates us if we confine ourselves to it, like water liberates the fish?  Love. Love is the most liberating freedom-loss of all.

One of the principles of love - either love for a friend or romantic love - is that you have to lose independence to attain greater intimacy.   If you want the 'freedoms' of love - the fulfillment, security, sense of worth that it brings - you must limit your freedom in many ways."

His observation brought to mind a sappy country western song I heard years ago sung by Paul Overstreet called "Ball and Chain."

Love don't feel like a ball and chain to me.
When I am with you my heart beats wild and free.
If you are my jailer darlin', throw away the key!
'Cause love don't feel like a ball and chain to me.

It makes a point that anyone who's been in love can resonate with.  I sacrifice for my wife because I love her.  When we were dating, I looked for ways to please her.  My behavior changed dramatically and from the outside, it looked restrictive but from the inside, it didn't feel that way at all. 

Over a lifetime though, a love relationship will only be healthy if both people surrender their independence and sacrifice for the other. It would be exploitive if only one party did the sacrificing and giving.

Keller notes that, "In the most radical way, God has adjusted to us - in his incarnation and atonement.  In Jesus Christ he became a limited human being, vulnerable to suffering and death.  On the cross, he submitted to our condition - as sinners - and died in our place to forgive us.  In the most profound way, God has said to us, in Christ, 'I will adjust to you.  I will change for you.  I'll serve you though it means a sacrifice for me."

"Once you realize how Jesus changed for you and gave himself for you, you aren't afriad of giving up your freedom and therefore finding your freedom in him."


Monday, October 3, 2011

Freedom and Constraint (The Reason for God part 10)

(I'm reading through Tim Keller's book "The Reason for God" and taking my small group through a DVD study based on the book. Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging about the book, the study, and the discussions occurring in my group.).

Is Christianity an oppresive religion?  Is it a bunch of confining rules that stifle human freedom and flourishing?  That was our topic of discussion for this week.

One of things we noted as we talked was that freedom is a bit more complicated that it first appears.  For example, if I want to lose weight, I have to restrict myself from certain foods.  Yet this restriction leads to a life of health.  If I want to learn how to play a musical instrument, I have to restrict myself to practice, practice, practice.  But this practice leads to an expansion of freedom of musical expression that would not be possible without restricting myself to a training regimen.

Granted, restriction alone doesn't lead to freedom.  Discipline has to be congruent with one's nature and capacities. My wife is naturally gifted in artistic expression.  Several years ago she confined herself to the island of Manhattan and for two years, she attended The Neighborhood Playhouse, where she submitted herself to a training regimen that brought to fruition the gifts and abilities that she possessed.  If I had gone through the same process, the results would have been terrible!  The restrictions my wife placed upon herself were congruent with her nature and thus brought her great freedom of artistic expression.

In light of this reality that freedom often comes through the right kinds of constraints, Keller posits that, "If we only grow intelectually, vocationally, and physically through judiciuos constraints-why would it not also be true for spiritual and moral growth?  Instead of insisting on freedom to create spiritual reality, shoudn't we be seeking to discover it and disciplining ourselves to live according to it?"